NEW YORK: In an interview with a foreign magazine, India’s nobel lureate Amartya Sen says it’s difficult to claim that majority supports India’s Modi government in the present circumstances.
Before jotting down the interview, the interviewer says Sen has celebrated the multiculturalism of Indian existence and the capacious nature of the Indian constitution; both work against the ills of what Sen calls “solitarism,” or the idea that human beings have one principal identity. Those values are on the wane, however, under the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Modi, especially after winning reëlection this year, appears intent on cementing Hindu rule.
The interviewer notes that Modi’s government “has suspended autonomous governance in the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir; the territory, which has faced decades of brutal occupation, is now under strict martial law, with reports of torture and extra-legal detention.”
Here are a few excerpts from the interview:
Interviewer: Does the turn that India has taken in the past five years make you think differently about the founding of the country, and its constitution, or is that too much hindsight?
Sen: I think it is too much hindsight. The Indian constitution was pretty well based on analysis of the Constituent Assembly, which had some of the finest discussion of what the constitution should be. What it overlooked, I think, as a committed secular democracy, is that if there is a political group or party or movement that came to get a huge amount of support, which happened in India with the Hindutva movement, they can manipulate the situation pretty sharply. And here I think the Indian Supreme Court is very slow and divided, and, despite the good it has done, hasn’t been able to be as much of a guardian of pluralism as it could be.
Today, everything is dominated by a hard-nosed, hard-Hindutva thinking. And the President, Prime Minister, the leadership are all Hindu. But if you compare that to a dozen years ago, 2007, let’s say, we had a Muslim President, a Sikh Prime Minister, a Christian leader of the ruling party. The majority of the parliamentarians were Hindu, but they were not trying to impose their way of thinking over everyone. And that’s what’s happened. And now we are suddenly in a position where you can chastise a Muslim for eating beef, which is also very nonclassical. If you go to the very old Sanskrit documents, like the Vedas, there is nothing prohibiting the eating of beef. So there is a decline not only from secularism and democracy in post-independence India but also in the understanding of the heritage even of Hindu India.
Interviewer: The importance of multiple identities is something that comes up time and again in your work, I’ve noticed—
Sen: Absolutely. It is very central. And, if you think about that, Bangladesh has been, in many ways, more successful than India now. It used to have a life expectancy lower than that of India. Now it is five years longer. Women’s literacy is higher than in India. And, in terms of the kind of narrowness of Hindu thinking, it is not reflected in a similar narrowness of Muslim thinking in Bangladesh. I think multiple identities have done a lot for Bangladesh. It was doing a lot for India, too, until there was a deliberate attempt to undermine it. That had been present earlier. In the nineteen-twenties, there was a strong pro-Hindu movement. Gandhi was shot by an R.S.S. [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Fascist Hindu movement] member, which is the dominant influence on the B.J.P. today. But they were not in office. We didn’t feel threatened because they seemed like a fringe. But that fringe gradually became more dominant until the latest election, and they had a massive victory, a victory partially based on political effectiveness.
Interviewer: India did elect someone as Prime Minister who presided over massive ethnic violence against minorities.
Sen: That is true, yeah. One of his big successes has been to get the court to squash the case against him and the Home Minister, Amit Shah, in the Gujarat killings of 2002. And so lots of Indians do not believe it. [In 2002, shortly after Modi became the chief minister of the state of Gujarat, more than a thousand people were murdered in anti-Muslim riots. Modi was barred from the United States after being accused of helping incite the violence and failing to intervene to stop it.]
I think if you wanted to say there was a victory of the Hindutva idea, then it has to be the case that everyone has a great chance of finding the truth. More public discussion, more newspaper freedom, more television freedom. And with no one threatened with being in prison. So I think I wouldn’t say that there has been a victory. There would have been a victory if there was a press without fear, censorship from government, and the tyranny of advertising control. If all this hadn’t happened, and he had won the election, I would have said yes.
Question: Yes, although unlike someone like Trump or Erdo an, who struggle to get much more than fifty per cent support, Modi is enormously popular. A large majority of the country approves of him.
Sen: It’s not clear that is the case. India is a country of more than a billion people. Two hundred million of them are Muslim. Two hundred million of them are Dalit, or what used to be called untouchables. A hundred million are what used to be called scheduled tribes, and they get the worst deal in India, even worse than the Dalits. Then there is quite a large proportion of the Hindu population that is skeptical. Many of them have been shot. Many of them have been put in prison. In these circumstances, to say that a majority supports him would be difficult. It’s a situation where there are many restrictions. The newspapers don’t get government ads, and they probably don’t get many private ads, either, if the government is against you. As a result, it is very hard to have independent TV or newspapers, because of difficulties created by the government.
The big thing that we know from John Stuart Mill is that democracy is government by discussion, and, if you make discussion fearful, you are not going to get a democracy, no matter how you count the votes. And that is massively true now. People are afraid now. I have never seen this before. When someone says something critical of the government on the phone with me, they say, “I’d better talk about it when I see you because I am sure that they are listening to this conversation.” That is not a way to run a democracy. And it is also not a way of understanding what the majority wants.
Quesion: But is there any tension between saying that there is popular resistance to him, and to Hindutva politics—
Sen: And there would be more if they weren’t afraid.
Question: But it seems that, if they are afraid, that calls into question where Indian democracy is. It seems like how we think about India as a democracy should be different than it was before. Or you don’t think so?
Sen: I do think so. But it is not all gone. First of all, there are courageous newspapers that don’t mind taking the risk of publishing things. There are one or two television stations, one or two radio stations, there are public meetings held. India is also a federal country. There are a number of states in which the BJP is not the only dominant force.