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Captain Spark

The author streams two conversations from the past with Nobel laureate Amartya Sen

Subhoranjan Dasgupta Published 12.05.24, 07:54 AM
Amartya Sen.

Amartya Sen. File picture

It all began when he was an adolescent, a school-goer, a student of Patha Bhavana at Santiniketan. Perhaps, many do not know that he and his two classmates, the Bengali poet Alokeranjan Dasgupta and Madhusudan Kundu, brought out a Bengali magazine titled Sphulingo or Spark in those days. In his memoir Home in the World, Amartya Sen clarifies the objective: “The title Spark had a Leninist ancestry. Lenin’s journal was also called Iskra which carried the same meaning.”

Dasgupta recalled those inspiring days: “He was never overt or explicit. But his conduct and attitude revealed his unspoken concern, even commitment. With his bicycle, he used to ride deep into the contiguous Adivasi villages, spend hours there and return equipped, experienced.”


That engagement during adolescence deepened when he was a student of economics in Calcutta’s Presidency College. Still later, his close association in England, in Cambridge in particular, with Leftist icons like Piero Sraffa, Maurice Dobb and Joan Robinson cemented his well-nurtured Weltanschauung. Ultimately, this long and persisting cultivation flowered into masterpieces like On Ethics and Economics (1987), Inequality Reexamined (1992), Development as Freedom (1999) and many other writings.

The last-named text, as Gopal Krishna Gandhi appropriately pointed out, changed the digits of development economics by focusing on the worth of “real freedoms” and not on misleading metrics like GDP or per capita income. Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General once said of him: “The world’s poor and dispossessed could have no more articulate or insightful a champion.”

And that is why my first question to him was on the intrinsic relationship between ethics and economics. It was the winter of 1986 and we were in Santiniketan.

He replied, “Certainly, some of our recent economic writings show a concern with very near objectives, not going deep into the foundations of economic thinking. We need to recall that the subject of modern economics began in a very ambitious way with Adam Smith seeing economics as a part of a moral and practical philosophy. That seems to be the right perspective... Indeed, many of the economic problems dealing with human welfare today, which, after all, is the basic motivation for all economics, clearly have philosophical dimensions that cannot be avoided.”

This impassioned concern prompted him during that phase to construct a triad constituting the related concepts of endowment, entitlement and capabilities.

When I asked him to elaborate on this philosophical-economic triangle grooved to the articulation of human welfare, he said: “First of all, the idea of ‘capabilities’ seems to me to be more central and important than ‘entitlement’ or ‘endowment’. Essentially, I have tried to argue that the advantage of a person can be judged in a better way by looking at what positive freedoms a person actually enjoys. Capabilities are a way of characterising this freedom… What I am trying to put forward is intrinsically relevant to ethical evaluation.”

The advance or leap from ethical evaluation to the formulation of the centrepiece of his theoretical worldview, Social Choice, was inevitable. His deliberation on this crucial premise fetched him the Nobel Prize in 1998; even then his cogitation on “Social” or “Ethical” Choice was as transparent as Euclid’s geometry. He said, “First, this subject enjoys a 200-year-old tradition going back to the writings of Bentham, Borda and Condorcet. Second, in recent years, it has been immensely developed by Kenneth Arrow, who gave it a systematic, mathematical format and posed some crucial problems which led to ‘impossible results’. Third, I tried to deal with some of these ‘impossibilities’ and I proposed some solutions. Fourth, I found out that the format of Social Choice crossed the narrow limits posed by utilitarianism and voting theories. Fifth, I must say it played a major part in my understanding of the world.”

His acute awareness of the “narrow limits” posed by utilitarianism; his abiding admiration for the pathbreaking Marxian theorist and activist, Mussolini’s bete-noire, Antonio Gramsci; his intimacy with the avowedly, illustrious Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm; his sharp critique of the iconic anti-Marxist Karl Popper on the subjects of “determinism, prediction and free will” (to use his words) prompted the next question. Which economist did he consider as the most resplendent, redemptive visionary who articulated the historic passage from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom?

His reply was: “I affirm that Marx has discussed the issue more illuminatingly than any other economist. He was, of course, much more than an economist...”

The second interaction happened in Calcutta, at a time when Murli Manohar Joshi was HRD minister. Sen spoke about how India was never a Hindu Rashtra, that India’s two great emperors — Ashoka and Akbar — were both non-Hindus. He had everything at his fingertips — when the Christian missionaries first landed in India, when the Arab merchants arrived, how they functioned along the western coast. All through he maintained with utmost diffidence that he was not a historian and that he only nurtured an abiding passion in the subject, which he defined eloquently as “capacious heterodoxy”.

He was outraged when he heard that the HRD minister had branded Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, Sumit Sarkar and K.N. Pannikar as “terrorists”. He said: “If this report is correct, we must react with horror. First, there is what in philosophy is called a ‘category mistake’ in thinking that comparison with terrorists can be a cogent way of assessing historians. Second, the academics in question are leading historians… It is difficult to think how anyone could have made a remark of that kind, least of all the minister in charge of education.”

During the course of this conversation, Amartya Sen emphasised the redemptive role of one exemplary secular humanist, whom he regarded, probably, as his model — Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Emperor Shah Jahan. Describing his remarkable contribution as a practitioner of cultural confluence he said, “The introduction of European scholars to Hindu scriptures, in particular the Upanishads, was to a great extent based on the Persian translation of the Upanishads done by Dara Shikoh. He was not a great Sanskrit scholar himself but he did work hard with the help of Hindu pundits to learn Sanskrit and he translated parts of the Upanishads into Persian. It is this translation that William Jones (pioneering Indologist) first read which attracted him to India and to the study of the Hindu religion. Hindutvavadis simply do not recall this exemplary contribution.”

My last interaction with him two years ago was a brief, fervent correspondence. I had just read his last book, his inimitable autobiography Home in the World. It is enriched by the most illuminating analysis of the economics of Kenneth Arrow, the linguistic philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the creative humanism of Tagore. When I wrote to suggest the title could have also been Explication, he replied: “Explication would indeed be good to include!”

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