Should Sen Be Stripped?

Is there any rationale behind Chandan Mitra’s demand that Amartya Sen be stripped of his Bharat Ratna?

WrittenBy:Dr. Ashoka Prasad
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Dr Chandan Mitra, Editor-in-Chief, Pioneer yesterday demanded that Dr Amartya Sen should be stripped of his Bharat Ratna when the next NDA government takes office. The reason stated for his ire is Sen’s disclosure in a television interview that he was not comfortable with the prospect of Narendra Modi being entrusted with the chief executive position of the country for a myriad reasons, one of them being his inability to instil a sense of security among the minority population. Additionally, Mitra stated that Sen was a non-voter in India.


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I watched Sen’s interview with Sagarika Ghose very carefully. It is true that he made his unease about Modi quite explicit. He also attempted to set the record straight about his stated differences with the other economics giant, Dr Jagdish Bhagwati. He did admit that the Bhagwati model of development which involves emphasis on economic and business development which can percolate down to the masses does not seem to have worked in any country. And that he could have identified and expressed his preference for the promulgation of education and healthcare model which could result in better alleviation of poverty.

I must confess that my economics acumen is non-existent but that is what I understood from the interview as an ordinary viewer. I shall, therefore, refrain from commenting on the economic merit of their respective positions. I note with a degree of ennui that Bhagwati seems to have taken strong exception to Sen’s remarks – if his article in Mint is anything to go by.

Full disclosure – Bhagwati was a senior colleague at Columbia University several years ago. I interacted with him sporadically on ceremonial occasions and have the highest regard for his credentials. Sen was a senior professor when I was at Harvard and I have interacted with him on several occasions.

The issues raised by Mitra’s demand, as I perceive them, are as follows:

–          Whether expression of certain views by an individual in his/her individual capacity invites a censure of this nature?

–          Whether being a non-voter in India (although being an Indian citizen) should preclude an individual from expressing his/her preferences?

–          Should the Bharat Ratna be subjected to political considerations?

The answer to the first is fairly clear. Our Constitution confers upon us the freedom of expression and even though the positions of others may not be to our liking, we have to be able to accept them with equanimity. Sen, cannot be faulted on this count.

In so far as his being a non-voter goes, I would regard that as a non-issue. He happens to be an Indian citizen and even if he is not a voter, he is entitled to a viewpoint which can be equally robustly contested. It would also be apposite to remind ourselves that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela has time and again expressed his support for the biggest abomination to visit this country in its independent history – the Emergency. Nelson Mandela is a Bharat Ratna recipient, a non-Indian citizen. To the best of my knowledge there has been no clamour for revocation of Bharat Ratna to Mandela.

Which brings me to the next issue in question. Should the Bharat Ratna be subject to political considerations?

I have always been uneasy about the concept of state-sponsored awards for excellence. The United States of America has always shunned the idea – and in my view, rightly so. The record of state-sponsored honours in different countries, Britain included, is appalling. Extraneous considerations always enter the equation which may not have a bearing on the merit which should be the sole determinant.

Unfortunately, that seems to have happened with the state-sponsored honours in India as well. Initially, the Bharat Ratna was relatively insulated from political considerations. When the Bharat Ratna was instituted the idea was that it would be awarded to those, according to Dr Rajendra Prasad, “who through their dedication and service to the country and humanity at large have made a stellar contribution which would automatically evoke veneration even in those who do not share their positions”.

That laudable goal unfortunately has fallen by the wayside. Among the laureates are names which are egregiously political and divisive. And it is anyone’s guess as to who would possibly be the next recipient. For an award to carry lustre it has to be freed from political and monetary constraints. One of the reasons why Nobels evoke admiration is that barring a few exceptions (some admittedly glaring ones) they have retained this precept for over 100 years.

That does not seem to have happened here. But it would be nothing short of chaos and mayhem if we subscribed to the philosophy that a mere change of government – which is inevitable in a democracy – should entitle the incumbent to tamper with the honours conferred by its predecessor. Chandan Mitra is a very erudite and an immensely likeable person – but he is wrong on this count.

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