NEW DELHI :
Soon after the war with China and then with Pakistan in the 1960s, eminent economist Amartya Sen had spent a few weeks in Lahore and Karachi before returning to India. “It was difficult to sense then that there had been a war between the two countries," he said, comparing the atmosphere then with the current environment after the terrorist attack in Pulwama, India’s strike on terror camps across the border, and Pakistan’s shooting down of an Indian Air Force (IAF) aircraft.
“There is no hardened foundation of difficulty between the two countries as there is in the Israeli-Palestinian situation," he said, referring to the shared ancestry and the politics leading to Partition. “It is important to recognize this difference. Something is being planted in our minds, which is not a historic division," he said at the first Neelabh Mishra Public Dialogue in Delhi Wednesday.
Nobel Laureate Sen’s discussion was a blend of history, remembered jokes and stories from his youth to illustrate the importance of being open to a multiplicity of ideas.
Identity, too, has many shades, and is not just related to nationality, he said. “The nation is not our only identity. So, I think there are good reasons for being anti-national. Depending on what the context is, you could take the liberty of being against your national identity in favour of these other identities you also hold."
That isn’t a view that’s easily accepted at a time when nationalistic ideals hold sway, and Sen often referred to the fact that his statements could have him facing charges of sedition, which in his view implies violently destroying a state and not just disagreeing with the government. “It’s amazing how entire institutions are able to do sedition in India," he said, referring to the controversy involving the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Populism seems to be sweeping the world, but Sen made a distinction between the kind of populism in Europe and the US, and the fervour in India. “We have integrated populism with our divisions of caste. We are not concerned about whether we are carrying the entire population with us. For instance, cows are eaten by many communities, but now new laws exclude them in the name of respecting popular ideas. The Indian combination of animosity that goes with division in terms of caste and tribe has given populism a further shade that European populism does not have."