ACROSS DISCIPLINES - A long view of two Indian social scientists

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By Politics and Play / Ramachandra Guha
  • Published 17.09.05

Some years ago, in an assessment of Andr? B?teille?s scholarly career, I concluded that ?it can safely be said that only one other Indian, Amartya Sen, has written so consistently and so consistently well on questions of importance to his discipline and his society?. That was an academic judgment, based on the quality and depth of the work of these two scholars, this in contrast to ?the publication lists of the most highly regarded of this country?s social scientists [which] are embarrassingly thin?. But the more I think of it, the more the juxtaposition makes sense, and not just in terms of formal scholarship. It is also personal biography and cultural history that compel a joint consideration of the lives and work of Amartya Sen and Andr? B?teille.

Consider, first, the facts that they were of the same age, from the same province, and citizens of the same country. Sen was born in 1933; B?teille a year later. Both grew up in Bengal, speaking Bengali; both stayed on in the western side of the province after Partition and independence. They were old enough to have had some experience of the national movement, and also of the horrors of the last decade of the raj ? of the Bengal famine and Hindu-Muslim violence in particular. And they came of age in the Fifties, thus to partake of the enthusiasm and idealism of that first decade in the history of this nation.

Sen became a professional economist; B?teille, a professional sociologist. Neither was bound by the conventions and limitations of his chosen discipline. Sen?s economics was shaped by his interest in philosophy, and to a lesser extent in history and sociology. B?teille too was a genuine interdisciplinarian: a sociologist in continuous conversation with his colleagues in anthropology, economics and law. This departure from narrow specialism might, in each case, have had something to do with the fact that they were Bengali; reared in an intellectual climate that privileged multi-facetedness, and over which towered the shadow of that myriad-minded man, Rabindranath Tagore.

Sen and B?teille were wide-ranging in their intellectual interests, and also in the genres they wrote in. Their international reputation is based in good measure on theoretical papers published in learned journals. But both wrote extensively on questions of public policy. And both also wrote in the public prints, seeking out Indians other than their own students and colleagues. Whether addressing the scholar or the layman, both also wrote with a lucidity of style still unusual in Indians who take to English, and altogether exceptional in a jargon-ridden academy.

Both Sen and B?teille were thoroughbred professionals. In fact, they were more. Their profession became their calling. Yet both saw that the questions they dealt with in their research were of compelling interest and importance to their society. And so they came also to write for a wider audience than that constituted by their peers.

Neither Sen nor B?teille were ever ideologists. Neither identified with a particular political party. Yet, there was a profound moral centre to their work. Both were known for their academic contributions to the study of social inequality; both also known for their strong commitment to liberalism and constitutional democracy. These preferences and choices were not accidental. Rather, they were intimately linked to the circumstances of their upbringing. A sensitive, intelligent, young scholar living through the Bengal of the Forties would tend, in later life, to promote the values of cultural pluralism and social justice. It helped that there were greater men who had trodden that path ? in particular, Rabindranath Tagore, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. As much as purely scholarly influences, the example of this trinity lay behind the work of Sen and B?teille. They were never party men, but they were always patriots, upholding the idea of India forged by the likes of Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru.

There was, then, much that brought Amartya Sen and Andr? B?teille together. Yet it would be incorrect to altogether ignore the things that drew them apart. Their careers were somewhat similar and comparable, yet also different and, in the end, individual. Although in a cultural sense a Bengali, B?teille?s father was French. Sen was more authentically bhadralok: in fact, his lineage was as impeccable as it could possibly be. B?teille was brought up middle-class; he studied at St Xavier?s College and Calcutta University. Sen was born into the intellectual aristocracy. He studied at Presidency College and the University of Cambridge. B?teille spent four decades teaching at a single place: the sociology department of the Delhi School of Economics. Sen?s first job was at Jadavpur University; he also taught for eight years at the DSE. But most of his professional life was spent overseas, as a professor at Oxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics and Harvard.

This last fact was not irrelevant to a difference in intellectual orientation that was slight, but by no means insignificant. Both Sen and B?teille were conspicuously broad-minded, simultaneously Indian and of the world. However, while B?teille stayed in India and never lost sight of the wider world, Sen lived overseas yet never lost touch with his native land. In their work on India, read closely, were revealed subtle differences of emphasis. In B?teille?s writing were many references to specific debates and controversies ? to a particular law changed or enacted, a particular intervention by a scholar or politician. Sen?s allusions were usually broader, to various competing ideas of India. This was probably related to the fact that, while his commitment to his country could never be gainsaid, Sen lived mostly apart from the heat and the action.

Even if Sen had lived in India, or B?teille in Cambridge, there would yet have been divergences in their intellectual approach and scholarly production. For one, while economics is more prone to abstraction and generalization, sociology is more empirical. True, Sen was an economist with a keen interest in the ?field-view?, while B?teille was perhaps the only Indian sociologist with a serious interest in theory. And both, as I have noted, were never disciplinary chauvinists. Still, the fact remains that they practised different disciplines, with different traditions, research agendas, and methods of presentation, all these reflected in the books and essays published under their names.

But there were also (and again, admittedly subtle) differences that go beyond the disciplines. Sen?s worldview was deeply shaped by the example of Tagore, and to a lesser extent, of Gandhi. B?teille admired Tagore, and respected Gandhi, but in many ways he was influenced most by the third, now much unfairly demonized member of this trinity, Jawaharlal Nehru. Again, while both Sen and B?teille were liberals who had many encounters with socialism in general and Marxism in particular, Sen?s came principally through personal contact (with leftist friends in Calcutta and Cambridge), whereas B?teille?s had more to do with intellectual engagement, as manifest in his many essays on the relationship between Marxism and sociology.

One must acknowledge what brought B?teille and Sen together, yet one must also be grateful for what set them apart. That one was an sociologist, the other an economist; that one lived chiefly in India, the other mostly in the West; that one was a liberal and the other a fellow travelling liberal; that one admired Nehru more but the other Tagore ? these (and other) differences ultimately gave rise to two different yet equally impressive bodies of work. We can read B?teille , and we can read Sen ? and learn from them both.

If I have so far spoken of B?teille and Sen in the past tense, it is because their careers are now five decades old, old enough for a younger scholar to take the ?long view?. But of course they are happily very productive still. As I write, Andr? B?teille serves as chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, while Amartya Sen has returned to teach at Harvard on completion of his term as Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. Neither is yet done with contributing to his chosen discipline; nor, indeed, with illuminating the life and troubles of his nation. Sen has recently given us The Argumentative Indian; and soon to be published is Ideology and Social Science, B?teille?s equally compelling collection of essays on Indian themes and debates.

So join me, friends, in raising a toast to these two men, the finest, and I think also the most honourable, intellectuals of our land in our time.