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‘Attention distracted from real problem’

Calcutta, Feb. 3: Amartya Sen was in conversation with Sharmila Tagore on What Stops India and What Moves India, at the Kolkata Literary Meet held at the Book Fair, on Sunday afternoon. The following are the Nobel laureate’s responses to two audience questions after the session.

Question: In the opening pages of The Argumentative Indian, you have talked about the culture of heterodoxy and it being an integral part of the Indian ethos, the existence of a pluralist perspective. In the light of recent events, Rushdie, Kamal Haasan and all that, do you think that this ethos is being threatened? If yes, what do you see as the primary cause and what is the way forward? Why has there been growing intolerance about the existence of the other opinion?

Amartya Sen: Let me say three things. The first thing is that I know enough about newspaper coverage to know that if I answer your question extensively, anything else I have said today would not be reported.

Secondly, anything that makes the Indian constructive argumentative tradition more limited, that people have the right to be offended, so you cannot say this becomes a limitation because it restricts the argumentative Indian.

And thirdly, a lot of people who are enormously disadvantaged have enormous reason to complain about other things, not just Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes… even in West Bengal, if you look at the Muslim groups in terms of the even-handedness of growth, the Muslim groups have not been as privileged as they should have been.

To convert that into a completely different issue and to take offence about something else is distracting attention from the real disadvantage that is there.

Next question: Is Indian democracy moving towards China, given all the intolerance we are seeing against the freedom of speech and expression?

Amartya Sen: I think the comparison with China in this case is not very healthy, really. Because these are two very different kinds of systems. We have a system where freedom of speech is protected in a way that if there is a violation, there is a way to protest against it. In China it’s a different case. It’s not as if there isn’t any criticism within China. I have an association with Peking University and I know that there is an enormous amount of constructive criticism that happens. But it isn’t the kind of right that India has had since 1947. So I think whatever the nature of intolerance in India there might be, comparing with China is a mistake because India will come out looking better. But that does not make it adequately good.