Home >Opinion >Between Bhagwat and Bhagwati

Jagdish Bhagwati is a scholar second only to the more versatile Amartya Sen. Having lived in the US since 1968, he believes he has a deep, nuanced understanding of the dynamics of Indian society that others living in India, and who have dirtied their hands with the everyday challenges of running the country, don’t understand. His article, The false alarm over Christians in India, Mint, 30 March, rebuts Julio Ribeiro’s article As a Christian, suddenly I am a stranger in my own Country (The Indian Express, 16 March) and invites us, as the blurb of the article states, to “forcefully expose" wrong arguments.

We respond to Bhagwati’s article at both the levels that he has deployed: (i) using approaches in the social sciences to examine his claim and (ii) probing his arguments with counterpoints.

We begin with a textual analysis. Bhagwati states that Ribeiro complains that “he is on a ‘hit list’ today from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) because he is a Christian". “Hit list" is written in inverted commas. This implies (a) that there is a list, and (b) those on the list are to be hit. This is plainly a misreading. Nowhere in Ribeiro’s article does he use the words “hit list". Ribeiro says “I feel threatened, not wanted, reduced to a stranger in my own country" and “systematic targeting of a peaceful community". Ribeiro’s language is about community insecurity. It is the collective that he is talking about. Why did Bhagwati exaggerate?

Secondly, in his article Bhagwati spends three paragraphs on his family, two are about attacks on Christians, three are mixed, i.e., both anecdotal and issue relevant, and two have no bearing on the proposition. Of the 1,000 words or so, about 460 deal with himself. All his mentioning that he got the Xavier Ratna award, or that he had a side conversation with Christopher Hitchens in a TV studio, or that Abid Husain was his closest friend of 40 years does is to make for nice biographical detail.

Next we examine his argument as social scientists. In the last one year, the following has happened: (a) six or more churches have been attacked or vandalized, (b) a nun has been raped, (c) the Union government has declared Christmas day as Good Governance day and the ministry of human resource development has asked students to sit for an essay competition on the subject, (d) the Chief Justice of India has called a meeting of state chief justices on Good Friday, a gazetted holiday which on the calendar is no less significant a day than Diwali or Bakr Id, (e) Mother Teresa has been charged with being in the business of conversion by no less a person than the head of the RSS, (f) the Sangh Parivar is on a concerted and systematic campaign of ghar wapsi across the country from Kerala to West Bengal to Uttar Pradesh, etc., and (g) the government took a long time to condemn the attacks.

These seven aspects can be seen either as random events or as an indication of an emerging order in what otherwise seems to be a disordered environment. Bhagwati prefers to see them as random events and only a “fevered imagination" would see them as attacks against Christians. This is an empirical issue requiring a testable hypothesis. Imagine seven elite universities were vandalized in the US. Imagine further that there was a systematic campaign against private elite education and also that a learned professor was assaulted. And finally imagine that all professors of Indian origin, who have taken up US citizenship, are asked to return to India, a kind of ghar wapsi. Would Bhagwati be concerned? Is there not a pattern to this activity? If Bhagwati sees no pattern in the first then he must see no pattern in the second.

Now, another level of argument. Firstly, he quotes Christopher Hitchens rather than the Nobel Committee to characterize Mother Teresa’s work, implying that he considers Hitchens more authoritative than the Nobel Committee. Would he echo Hitchens’s other work charging Henry Kissinger with war crimes? Secondly, Wikipedia lists Bhagwati as on the Academic Advisory Board of Human Rights Watch (Asia). How should one read the sections on India where HRW says “Some inflammatory remarks by BJP politicians have added to a sense of insecurity among religious minorities"? Could those be the remarks by Mohan Bhagwat, who said about ghar wapsi: “We will bring back our brothers... They did not go on their own. They were robbed, tempted into leaving… I will retrieve my belongings, so why is this such a big issue." Thirdly, his logic is hard to fathom. To argue, as he does, that: (i) Christians believe in conversion, (ii) Mother Teresa is a Christian, and (iii) therefore Mother Teresa converts, is an inductive fallacy.

His desire to bat for the prime minister is puzzling. When he says of Ribeiro’s claims that “they are so ridiculous and libelous to the prime minister, and even the BJP generally, that they must be exposed forcefully as such", we are reminded of another eminent Indian who as Chief Justice of India welcomed another prime minister when she returned to power after she had been defeated after the Emergency. He wrote in a letter to her: “May I offer you my heartiest congratulations on your resounding victory in the elections… I am sure that with your iron will and firm determination…you will be able to steer the ship of the nation safely to its cherished goal." We see no pattern here. There is no connection between the two random comments.

Peter Ronald D’Souza and Errol D’Souza are, respectively, professor at the Centre for Developing Societies and professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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