Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Argumentative Indian -- Amartya Sen

I picked this book up from Crossword in between my shopping sprees on Dhole Patil Road in Pune. Not even once did I imagine that it would enlighten me so much just a few days later.
This book, written by Amartya Sen is a beautiful work of extensive research written in form of essays. It talks mostly about the history of public voice in India and covers massive time-spans.
Some books come into your life at the right time and I think this was one of them.
I was reading about Rajput-Mughal marriages in between my travels in Rajasthan. Unfortunately all of India and the rest of the World was witnessing brutal violence going on in Mumbai at the same time.
This book systematically talks about various plagues that have been infecting India post independence. One of them is sectarian politics, which was started in India by certain political parties with abject irresponsibility.
India has seen and even conceived so many religions that by now she should ideally reach her religious "Moksha".
Amartya Sen talks about this journey by calmly presenting well-referenced facts about India's religious journey. If I see my mother-land from the wingspan of a beautiful peacock that flies across three millenniums, what is going on now not only disappoints but also fills me with sad frustration.
It also raises some interesting questions. For example, whenever there is a communal riot in India there is a tendency to label it using religion because that is what it is crudely based on. However, in all these riots, even the ones that occurred in 1944 before independence the majority of dead people came from lower income groups. People who live in slums and have no security against someone barging into their hut and raping their wives. We never see a Shahrukh Khan being killed in a riot and I think considering the extent of idol worship going on in Bollywood, I don't think they even think of Shahrukh and Salman "Khans" as Muslims. All the religious labels are carried around by poor people who have to go out everyday in order to keep their children well-fed. Even today as we watched live terror on our television sets, the first victims of random shooting were people who were returning home from work in the local trains.
When the whole of Mumbai goes to work the next day after a terror attack, there is also an element of helplessness in their courage. If they could afford to stay home, I think some of them would.
Another interesting observation made by Amartya Sen is the position of women in India. He gives statistical figures about the female:male ratios all over India, even including states like Rajasthan,Delhi and Maharashtra known for sex-selective abortions. It is not surprising that India fares badly in this respect as well as some areas like women's health. Almost half of the female population in India is anaemic and most of the cardiovascular disorders that occur later in life are a result of the fetus being undernourished during pregnancy. Apart from this, India also leads the camp when it comes to domestic violence, wife-beating,dowry deaths and deprivation of property rights for women.
Despite all these statistical facts, India has witnessed many powerful women leaders. India, Pakistan,Bangladesh and Shrilanka have all had female heads of state while countries that have had a much longer history of self-government like the USA are still to get their first female presidents.
Sen also talks about undernourishment in Indian children. It is shocking to know that India beats even the sub-Sahara countries in Africa in the number of undernourished children. There is still severe hunger in the lower classes in India although the State granaries are full of excess food grain. A lot of government money is spent every year just to maintain these excess stocks but none is distributed over the country where it is really needed. This is apparently because of the pro-farmer policy of the government. They refuse to sell food grains at a lower price because the farmers who produce it should get a better price! Sen calls it a case of "friendly-fire".
Sen invested some of his Nobel Prize money in reviewing the condition of primary education in some parts of India. The results are appalling. Lack of education still haunts us and various loop-holes have been found around the concessions made available for the poor which are then used by the wealthy and corrupt. He also talks about the various "unions", like the teacher's union for example, that initially worked against injustice but now as the primary teachers get paid well they have moved away from the poor students coming to them making them somewhat unsympathetic.
This book makes you realize that there are certain things that are just not valued enough in India anymore.
One of them is life. Since there are so many of us here, a few getting shot in a random terror attack is no big deal to the politicians.
Another is poverty. My Australian friends who came along with me to see Rajasthan would pull out money for every beggar on the street. Some of them had tears in their eyes when four year old kids ran towards us for money outside a temple. However, a few days later they realized that if they give money to every beggar on the street, they would probably have to go begging themselves after a while! You come to a point where you run out of sympathy and start thinking about yourself. Most of the Indians have gone beyond this line of sympathy and hence sometimes appear selfish.
This book however gives a strong message of the value of Democracy. All the progress that India has seen post independence is because India is a democracy. People still have a voice. Although sometimes they have to scream for attention. Governments have been ruled in and ruled out completely on people's will. The army has stayed within her barracks unlike Pakistan and the press is free. Although these days I think that the television media in India is fast turning trashy, pandering to the lower tastes of human mind. Newspapers in India are one of the best in the world.
Every generation reflects the effects of the atmosphere they grew up in. Today's "Jihadis" grew up in war-ridden Afghanistan in the 80s that could have filled them with irrational anger and extremism. However, the babies of the Jihad-ridden world would (hopefully) grow up into compassionate agnostics or better still, people who know that Religion was made for Humanity and not the other way round.
We are at the edge of another revolution and it is just unfortunate that some of us have to lay our lives to start it.
My sincere respects to all those who have given their lives in this terrible war.
And I am grateful to Amartya Sen for this book. Happier even to see that it reflects the fairness of work that a humane-scientist can bring about!


Eeshwari Bollapragada said...

A commendable post and quite apt considering the Mumbai city hijacks!! This is all the fallout of foot in the mouth politics and diligence where not needed!!
Keep writing and I am gonna check out this book !!

Saee said...

Thanks. =)
See you soon. :)

Pipa said...

Nice. I will go dust up my copy of the book and read it again.

Thanks for your kind comments on my blog.

Charudatta Galande said...

Very good post. Shivam had recommended the book to me a long time ago, but I never found the time to find myself a copy. Think I'll get one pretty soon.

I like Amartya Sen's concept of measuring development by the 'number of freedoms' a society can afford its individuals. Delving deep into it, I realised it is a far better measure of progress than any other we've known.

Raj said...

Cool. nice review.
I have added the book to my reading list. :)

Kaustubh said...

Very good review indeed. Thanks!

Saee said...

@ Pipa,Charu,Raj and Kaustubh
Thanks for your comments.

Pipa said...

Saee -- the preface to Aids Sutra is written by Amartya Sen. So you can imagine how clearly he has spelt out the problem.

Society's refusal to acknowledge that the problem exists and come to terms with it is unbelievable.

Saee said...

@ Pipa
There are a lot of problems that India (or the Indian governments) are covering up with the "growth rate" and the industrial and intellectual revolution. We should embrace the real India and not just the pseudo "image" that the politicians and a few elite groups want us to see.
Thanks for the comments.
Your blog is really informative. :)

Pipa said...

Thanks Saee.

My other blog which is not so informative could make for interesting reading.

I use it to park interesting articles I have read in the past.

Check this out if you have the time:

Have a safe trip home.