Sunday, March 13, 2011

Selected Amartya Sen

I had resolved to put together selected works of Prof. Amartya Sen a few months ago. I stumbled upon some lectures that I had heard previously. In 2008, I wrote a review for one of his popular books The Argumentative Indian, in which he takes the reader through an entertaining yet refreshingly academic journey through India's history of public dialogue.That was the first time I read anything written by the Nobel laureate. However, since then, I have downloaded many of his more serious essays and articles on various developmental issues. His research in the theories of social choice is considered amongst the pioneering works in the field. However, he is better known for his work on famines and poverty.

I have a limited understanding of economics. Sometimes, I have to look up other references to clearly understand Sen's arguments but I think the struggle is worth it. The links I have included in this post are some of his famous academic talks. So there is bound to be a lag between listening to what he says and understanding it to the best of your ability, especially if you do  not have a background in economics. Nonetheless, I would urge everyone to make the time to listen.

This lecture  titled Identity and violence : the violence of illusion, takes a closer look at the reasons behind communal and religious violence, not just in the Indian context but all over the world. He articulates not just on how divisive politics works but also on how and why it is received so well in some situations. His book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, which I go back to every now and then is a thesis on the many faces of human identity. In his narrative, Sen elaborates from time to time on the many identities that a single human being could have without any internal clash with one another and how, the clashes occur only when a single identity is isolated and glorified and pitched against a rival. He criticizes the popular 'clash of the civilization' theory and the attempts by politicians all over the world to try and put the world's peoples into isolated boxes. 
His thoughts on accepting the plurality of our own identities while scrutinizing each one one of them in an independent and critical manner is what the world really needs when it comes out of the Age of Religion. He is an atheist.However, instead of rejecting the existence of God, he takes us back to a 14th century Hindu text that accepts atheism as one of the schools of religious practice within Hinduism. 

This New York Review of Books article is titled More than 100 million women are missing. Sen comments on the female:male ratios all over the world, with a special analysis of South Asia. The ratio varies significantly even between the states within India. Northern states of Punjab and Haryana have the worst  ratios while Kerala (which ranks high both in status of women in general and literacy) has the highest. He frequently refers to this issue in his other talks as well and his analysis makes you reflect on how much of an enigma the Indian social fabric really is. This issue is close to my heart because it makes me aware that being an only girl child in a country such as India isn't the norm. When I read/listen to what Sen has to say about the development of women in India, I am also reminded of the many faces of feminism all over the world. In India, feminism exists with a passive resilience. We would never have a majority of Indian feminists reciting My Short Skirt. But millions of women are being empowered to have a little more control over their own lives and their own decisions day by day. 

Lastly, this 1999 Kenan lecture titled Human rights and consequences is something I highly recommend. He begins his lecture by saying that people advocating the establishment of clear and uniform human rights around the world are looked upon as softies or impractical intellectuals. However, just looking at it through an Indian perspective, I doubt whether we as a diverse society unified under a common identity of being Indian, have even given the concept of human rights enough consideration. Sen not only defines the scope of human rights but also reflects on the process of granting a right. He speaks about the disparity in the perception towards human rights between cultures, classes and sexes. He conducts the lecture by constantly bringing us to the critic's perspective on human rights. That makes it more convincing than if it were just a lesson.

In one of the chapters in his book on Violence, Sen talks about Robindranath Tagore's short story - Gora. It is about the life of a devout Bengali Bramhin who believes in the superiority of his 'Hindu', 'Brahmin' identity to the extent of making it his mission. Years later, his mother tells him that he was adopted after his Irish parents died in the mutiny of 1857. His whole world comes crumbling down and he is faced with the ironic challenge of applying all the rules of his Hindu superiority to his new identity. In the end, he accepts that no matter what his real identity is, he will always feel at home in India. 

Although we often stumble upon our own identities, it is not a mere discovery. Having discovered an identity does not mean acquiring it. Wearing it with confidence, conscience, flexibility and respect (both for our own and others') is a matter of careful choice. It is time that we all wake up to this choice. 



intendo said...

wow Saee! brilliant stuff. Thanks for sharing this :)

Saee said...

No worries. :)