• Modi’s attack on Amartya Sen: How Desperate is the BJP?

    We may be forgiven for thinking a Nobel Laureate would merit a more thoughtful response.

    Sruti M D

    March 8, 2017

    Whether it is demonetisation or the violence unleashed by the ABVP in Ramjas College, the BJP-led government has responded aggressively to all criticism, often with a sharp “Aap ne kya kiya”? We may be forgiven for thinking a Nobel Laureate would merit a more thoughtful response. But the right-wing treats all critics alike; even veteran economist Amartya Sen has been targeted for criticising the Modi government.

    Last month, the West Bengal BJP chief Dilip Ghosh said of Professor Sen “What has the fellow Bengali who has won the Nobel Prize given to the nation?” He also said that intellectuals such as Amartya Sen could be “bought and sold”. But now the attack comes directly from the Prime Minister. With only two phases of elections left in UP, PM Modi has chosen an election rally to make the statement, “Hard work is more powerful than Harvard”. Obviously his words are aimed at Amartya Sen, a Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University.

    Over the last two years, Professor Sen has been a vocal critic of the present government’s policies. Soon after the note ban was announced in November 2016, Sen described the development as “despotic” and predicted that it would have adverse consequences on the economy. He said that demonetising Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 currency notes was “a disaster on economy of trust”.”

    The BJP-led NDA government came to power in 2014 on the rhetoric of development and called for the trust of the people to execute its plans. But by 2016, it was clear that an attempt to mount a similar campaign around the development agenda had failed miserably in the Bihar assembly. This time, in 2017, it has dropped its well-worn development rhetoric in the UP elections. The BJP is now focusing entirely on communal polarisation — the politics of hate. Referring to the economic policies of the BJP government, PM Modi said at an election rally in Maharajganj: “On the one hand are those [critics of note ban] who talk of what people at Harvard say, and on the other is a poor man’s son, who through his hard work, is trying to improve the economy.” Modi’s attack on Sen’s contribution to economics, Modi’s take on the people’s understanding of government policy: both reveal the BJP’s desperation for votes.

    Professor Sen has asked why every poor man and woman should suffer the traumatic phase of demonetisation, a process allegedly meant to curb black money. Of course, black money has not been wiped out; nor has the condition of the people improved. What has happened however, is that the government has made deep cuts in its funding for social science research, condoned every act of violence committed in the name of nationalism, and curtailed reason, scientific enquiry and freedom of expression in universities. From economics to science to literature, it appears that the government is afraid of critical thinking and questioning minds.

    At the launch of his recent book Social Choice and Social Welfare, Amartya Sen spoke of the shrinking space in universities under the BJP-led government. He criticised the Narendra Modi government for diminishing the autonomy of universities: “The government has executive power. But it has an obligation not to see itself as whole of the state”. He added that “the fact that the money on universities is spent by the government does not mean that the government will take crucial decisions in running of the universities.” We must also not forget that Professor Sen stepped down from the post of Founding Chancellor of Nalanda University last year, citing the ruling party’s interference in crucial decision-making in the university.

    Given the recent UGC notification infringing on the process of student intake in public institutions of higher education, Professor Sen’s comment is timely. As in the case of JNU, where the notification has been adopted undemocratically, the students’ and teachers’ union is protesting the considerable cut in seats and the changes made to the admission process.

    Sen has also pointed out that the “fear being faced by the minority communities in India cannot be seen as a cultivation of fraternity”: “The BJP-led NDA government should not be under the illusion that it is speaking on behalf of the majority of Indians.”

    Earlier this month, the Registrar of Jai Narain Vyas University in Jodhpur filed a police complaint against JNU professor Nivedita Menon over her alleged remarks on Kashmir and the Indian Army during a speech on campus. Almost two weeks after the lecture by professor Menon, Rajshree Ranawat, assistant professor of English at JNVU and a key organiser of the event, was suspended by the administration. Again, Professor Sen’s comment on the conditions in public universities in India come to mind: “Penalties imposed on teachers for giving lectures critical of the priorities of the ruling government…will have far reaching impact on value of liberty in contemporary India”.

    This battle of words between the ruling government and a leading economist reflects the ideological struggle in the political sphere. On the one hand, all questioning of the economic policy of the state is met with aggressive slander; and on the other, the rhetoric of nationalism is used to justify violence within universities. Professor Sen reminds us that "India does not have world-class universities… the climate of fear (in Indian universities) is detrimental to Indian democracy." We might add that this climate of fear spreads across universities to all other critical spaces. Most crucially, it threatens to impose silence – a reaction to fear that we need to fight.

    Sruti M D is part of the editorial collective of Indian Writers' Forum

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