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No one understands Amartya Sen?

  • Published at 05:54 pm February 22nd, 2017
  • Last updated at 06:46 pm February 23rd, 2017
No one understands Amartya Sen?

Dilip Ghosh, the president of BJP’s West Bengal branch recently lashed out against Professor Amartya Sen, one of Bengal’s two living Nobel laureates.

Ghosh had said: “No one in Bengal understands him [Amartya Sen]. He himself doesn’t understand what he is. He is in extreme pain because he was removed as the chancellor of Nalanda University. Such people are spineless, characterless, and they can be purchased or sold.”

This sort of a statement has naturally resulted in condemnation all over West Bengal. When Amartya Sen was asked for his response on the matter, he said: “I have nothing to say. Whatever he has felt is right, he has said. He definitely has the right to say so, in that regard, there is no reason for me to object. We should discuss all issues. If he feels this is also a matter for discussions, then he should do it.”

Even after the widespread condemnation, Dilip Ghosh has reiterated, “I stand by whatever I have said.”

This cheap attack from Ghosh was followed by a similar diatribe by BJP’s West Bengal branch’s leader Chandra Kumar Bose and said that Amartya Sen “called for it.” I will not use this article to argue how great or not-so-great Amartya Sen is, but try to analyse what this attack means.

Why now? Amartya Sen has been in the cross-hairs of the Narendra Modi government for some time now. He was removed by the union government from the position of chancellor of Nalanda University, a project that he was instrumental in conceiving, roping in various international stake-holders. That is now headed by a BJP insider appointee.

It is widely understood that the international project that fired the idea of Nalanda University is doomed after the Amartya Sen-led team was shown the door.

It did not help that Amartya Sen remains one among millions of people who cannot forget the association between the Gujarat riots of 2002 and Narendra Modi, and as a thinker, has made clear what he makes of the ascendancy of this man.

Sen is an economist and a public intellectual and has also expressed his views on demonetisation, views that would not please the union government. If any thinker or intellectual -- or any person for that matter -- expressed views that are contrary to that of the union government or are critical of policies of the Union government, is it now official policy that attack dogs will be let loose in a co-ordinated fashion as to silence such views?

From what sick culture of politics does this originate? This is certainly not the political culture of Bengal where various strains of politics existed along with scathing mutual critic that also guarantees a celebrated role for public intellectuals opinionating in such matters in crucial times.

Dilip Ghosh may belong to Bengal but his political training, his political ideology, and conduct are completely alien to the ethos of Bengal. That he thinks that pleasing his Delhi masters by being Delhi’s Bengali hit-man who dares to criticise a Bengali icon surely is more important to him than being loyal to the ethos and culture of Bengal, shows what is fundamentally wrong with BJP in West Bengal. The Bengaliness of BJP in Bengal is incidental. BJP-ness is fundamental.

And this seriously limits its appeal in Bengal, where it is widely conceived to be a party controlled by outsiders, a Hindi-belt party. Among the top five parties of West Bengal, BJP has the highest number of non-Bengali, Hindi-speaking senior organisational functionaries. Due to its basic ideology, it is a reality that BJP in West Bengal can neither change nor flaunt very strongly.

Thus, being cut out of the mainstream of the Bengali political narrative, except on issues of communal divisiveness, Dilip Ghosh has decided to troll his way in.

Amartya Sen has never said anything pertaining to Dilip Ghosh. It is clear who wants to score some points out of reflected glory. The adage that all publicity is good publicity still holds for the BJP, which at any rate, is still a marginal political player in most parts of West Bengal,  whose vote percentage at the 2016 assembly elections was a meagre 10.7%.

It is clear who wants to score some points out of reflected glory. The adage that all publicity is good publicity still holds for the BJP, which at any rate, is still a marginal political player in most parts of West Bengal

So, if people are attending to BJP’s message in West Bengal, its chief has taken the controversy generation route to publicity. This is not completely ineffective as a strategy.

This is how it goes. On various issues, a broad political consensus exists in any domain, including West Bengal. In that domain, a new political interloper to carve out an independent space has to either voice that consensus most forcefully and project itself as the best representative of that, or has to practice iconoclastic posturing and make sure press cameras are on while it does that.

BJP’s West Bengal branch has taken the latter route. While it makes these statements that are considered quite far out in West Bengal’s political landscape, it seeks to polarise people along the axis it is introducing.

Since the party starts from a low base, it does not have much to lose. Established parties with larger support bases cannot afford such irresponsibility and brinksmanship. Neither are they that much removed from the civil political compact that exists in West Bengal. The new player is trying to push the envelope and by generating controversy around the issue, wants to become a pole in the public narrative and eventually a decider. That is where all of this stems from.

This is not really about Amartya Sen. He is an excuse for the most recent foray in this narrative domination game. By introducing a far-out axis, it hopes to polarise with every such intervention and thus add new converts to it, given the favourable media focus it received due to it being in power in New Delhi.

The media focus BJP gets in West Bengal is quite disproportionate to either its vote percentage in West Bengal (10.6%), or the number of its MLAs in the West Bengal assembly (six out of 294).

Dilip Ghosh has said that he does not understand Amartya Sen’s work. That is not a crime. The solution to that is to try harder to understand or to move on. To vilify an author or a thinker because one is admittedly not being able to understand his/her work makes it seem that Dilip Ghosh’s limited intellectual ability is some how Amartya Sen’s responsibility and crime.

It is not only a ridiculous position, it is also a position that is against discussion, dialogue learning, and self-improvement. Such a position is against the ethos of Bengal which stresses exactly those things.

Dilip Ghosh has not been able to understand Amartya Sen whose most celebrated work is on the causes of Bengal famine. One can critique Amartya Sen’s formulation about the causes of the great Bengal famine of 1943, but what is incontestable are some facts which Dilip Ghosh might like to know.

Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, ideological father of the BJP, had actually demanded caste-based cooks in famine relief stations to prevent caste pollution at a time when millions were actually dying out of hunger.

Some major financial backers of the Hindu Mahasabha where those business houses of Kolkata whose criminal activities of rice, cotton, and commodity hoarding is among the set of causes that resulted in the death of millions of Bengalis.

The prosperity of these business houses were built over the dead bodies of starving Bengalis. If Bengali lives matter to Dilip Ghosh, I recommend that he read Dr Janam Mukherjee’s book “Hungry Bengal.” Its content  will educate him in the list of those who did nothing for Bengal and betrayed it in her direst hour, many of Ghosh’s present heroes will figure way, way before we come to Amartya Sen.

Garga Chatterjee is a political and cultural commentator. He can be followed on twitter @gargac.