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Censoring Sen

Censoring Sen

One of the happiest periods of my life was when I worked as Director of Pratichi (India) Trust. It was set up by Prof Amartya Sen with the Nobel Prize money he received. The government at that time was led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee which gave the Trust a matching grant.

The royalties on his books became another source of funds for the Trust. One of the conditions he made for raising funds was that his name should not be used for the purpose. People were ready to contribute if they were assured of a chance to get acquainted with him.

I still remember the day I went to the West Bengal Secretariat to get the land allotted to the Trust registered in its name. I came across a gentleman at the Secretariat who volunteered to help me when I told him that I represented Prof Sen. He took me, first, to an IAS officer who was in charge of the department.

He called some of his colleagues and told them to help me. They all worked hard to get the land records and calculate the amount I had to pay as registration fee. It was done a little after lunch time. Suddenly I realized that I did not have enough money to pay the fees.

Fortunately, I had some money in my bank account. ATMs were not as common as they are now. By the time I brought money, the time for depositing it had lapsed. But the kindred soul that the cashier was, he completed the paper work and entered the amount in the register as having  been received.

The moment I gave him the money, he gave me the receipt. In short, my work was done the same day. As I mentioned, there was one person who helped me at every stage. All that he did to help me was to mention the name of Prof Sen to the person dealing with my case. Anyone who heard the name helped me. As I said goodbye to him, he said he had one request to make. For a second I wondered whether he was about to ask for a bribe.

In fact, his request surprised me. “Sir, my son is a great fan of Prof Sen. He would be thrilled to have his autograph. Can you please get me his autograph when he visits the city next?” I made a promise which, alas, I could not fulfill. We never met afterwards. He might even have retired from service. 

I realised the value of Prof Sen’s autograph when I travelled with him to Santiniketan. Throughout the journey he was busy signing on anything and everything that the passengers approached him with. It could be the railway ticket or it could be that day’s newspaper. He obliged everyone with his signature.

By the time we reached his house at Santiniketan, built by his father KM Sen, a Sanskrit scholar and contemporary of Rabindranath Tagore, he would have been tired but a television crew was there to interview him. He obliged them as well. 

Prof Sen’s house is named Pratichi which in Bengali means “west-end”. When it was built by his father, it was the last house on the western side of the new township. It is a cute bungalow which has on the walls pictures of Prof Sen showing him in various stages of life — from a tiny tot to a handsome bridegroom.

Readers may wonder why I refer to him as Prof, not Dr. It is because I once asked him how he would like to be addressed. He said, “Prof Sen, rather than Dr Sen”. He explained it further, “I got the title Professor after completing a certain period of teaching. It is easier to become a Doctor, than a professor”.

I realized the importance of the title when in a Facebook post I made some unwarranted comments about Rajya Sabha deputy chairman PJ Kurian’s “professorship”. He holds a grudge against me which, I hope, would be resolved, sooner than later, thanks to the intervention of our common friend, Dr George Mathew of the Institute of Social Sciences. 

Prof Sen is a wonderful boss. I have attended several functions where the language used was Bengali, a word of which I did not understand. The moment he noticed me he would come to me to ask how I was fighting boredom.

The moment he did that my status would be improved. Everybody would show greater deference to me after that. Alternatively, he would mention my name while addressing the audience so that I got some importance. In short, he was a thoughtful person. He was amused to know that my pet name was Sen with the affectionate term “mon”, which means “son”, attached to it.

Sen is a caste name, used by the Kayasthas of Bengal. He is above all caste and religious considerations. Not many people know that he had set up two Trusts with his Nobel money. The other one is known as Pratichi (Bangladesh) Trust. Why Bangladesh? He would ask a counter-question, “why not Bangladesh?” After all, he was born in what is now Bangladesh.

Prof Sen’s appeal is not confined to West Bengal or the Bengali-speaking population. For instance, the latest issue of the  Mathrubhumi Weekly, easily the most prestigious journal of its kind published in Malayalam, has a provocative headline on its cover page. 

It asks, “Why does Amartya Sen carry too many sweaters when he visits India?”

When I downloaded the issue on my iPad, it was this provocative headline that forced me to go straight to the article in question. It was not an article but an interview in which K Sahadevan spoke to noted environmentalist, speaker, litigant and former IAS officer, EAS Sharma.

In fact, the interview was headlined “Amarya Sen’s sweaters and India’s energy crisis”. Until then I thought that it was only his books, not his dress, which were discussed in the public fora. Let me translate the relevant portions into English:

“I want to share an anecdote related to Prof Amarty Sen. Once while Prof Sen was traveling to India from the US, an American asked him why he was carrying so many sweaters when it was summer in India. The answer he gave was this: “In India, if you want to deliver a lecture, you need these many winter clothes. The reason is that all the buildings and meeting halls in India are air-conditioned.”

I realized how true Prof Sen was when I visited Two Horizon Centre, an ultramodern multi-storied office building at Gurgaon early this week. I saw many employees arriving there with jackets on their shoulders. Why? Because it was very cool inside. Nobody thinks about the energy wasted when buildings are kept closed and thick curtains are drawn to keep sunlight outside. Artificial lighting and air-conditioning consume precious energy which can be used for other productive purposes.

Prof Sen’s sweaters are, therefore, a metaphor for the wrong energy policies followed by the country. He is many things to many people. His views are well-known and he never minces his words. Yet, he never crosses the borders of dignity or uses disparaging words against anyone. He is dignity personified.

We had a Prime Minister who considered himself lucky to be Prof Sen’s student. West Bengal had a finance minister for a long time who openly claimed that he was his student. Once, during the course of a heated debate, Prof Sen said that he never taught the kind of economics that the minister was preaching and implementing.

He never used his connections with either Manmohan Singh or Asim Kumar Dasgupta to promote himself. Not that he did not do anything. Using the forum of the Kolkata Group, he argued forcefully for two things — mid-day meal and the rural employment guarantee scheme.

It was universally conceded that it was the rural job scheme that helped the UPA government to return to power. It is a measure of his foresight that the BJP which opposed the job scheme and tried to scuttle it was forced to allocate more funds for it than even the UPA government. 

Similarly, no state, either ruled by the BJP or the Congress, can now afford to dispense with the mid-day meal scheme.

Prof Sen never misses an opportunity to promote primary education. He cites Japanese, Chinese and Kerala models to argue that education is the key to the nation’s progress. Not for him is religious numbo gumbo! That he is not in the good books of the NDA regime was clear when he was removed unceremoniously from the post of Chancellor of Nalanda University.

It is the same government which ran India’s largest university — Indira Gandhi National Open University — for two and a half years without a vice-chancellor because the then VC, Prof Muhammed Aslam, would not sign on the dotted lines. Even so, I did not expect that Prof Sen would be subjected to censorship as has happened.

But, then, things which were unbelievable at one time are now happening. Who could have foreseen that eating beef would invite death in some parts of the country? Who could have believed that the government would be more bothered about the cow than the homo sapien?

Let me narrate in brief what happened. Suman Ghosh made a documentary titled “The Argumentative Indian” on Prof Sen. It is the title of a book which my friend Mihaela Gligor translated into Romanian with my opinion — whatever it is worth — printed on the back cover.

The documentary is structured as a conversation Prof Sen had with his former student Kaushik Basu, who was the Chief Economic Advisor to the UPA government. Basu earned notoriety when he argued for legitimizing bribery. He argued that for a certain class of bribes, which possibly for want of a better word he described as “harassment bribes,” bribe giving should be a legitimate activity. Such bribes should be directed only toward getting services to which you and I are legally entitled at the moment, such as an income tax refund.

De-criminalising bribe-giving would cause a sharp decline in the incidence of bribery, he argued. The reasoning he offered involved game theory, which tried to analyze how players would act in situations where the outcome also depended on the behaviour of others. He suggested that once the law was altered in this manner, the interests of the bribe giver and the bribe taker would be at odds—and that would help reduce corruption.

Prof Sen never uses four-letter words. However, his vocabulary includes four words — Hindu India, cow, Gujarat and Hindutva view of India. Alas, the Central Board of Film Certification has found the use of these words unacceptable in the documentary. It would give clearance to the documentary only if these words are excised.

Will a country of India’s size and civilization, which dates back to several millennia, collapse if the documentary is allowed without the cuts? What exactly did Prof Sen say? I have not seen the documentary which, I hope, would soon be available on the Internet. This is what  The Telegraph of Kolkata has reported:

Sen mentions Gujarat in a lecture he is delivering at Cornell University: “…Why democracy works so well is that the government is not free to have its own stupidities, and in case of Gujarat its own criminalities, without the opposition being howled down and booted out….”

‘Hindu India’ is mentioned when Basu asks Sen about his book of essays, the original  The Argumentative Indian. Sen responds, the book is “really based on my understanding of the country… (and) the country was now being interpreted sometimes as Hindu India and sometimes as other restricted visions of the country…”

‘Hindutva view of India’ comes up when Sen is talking about the backlash he has faced for his views: “Now a lot of people would disagree with my view of India…. 

“Whenever I try to take this rather grand view of India, which is not the banal Hindutva view of India, whenever I make a statement, I know the next morning I will get 800 attacks on social media of four different kinds…. I can see there is an organised attack (by a particular political group)…. Now the main thing is not to be deterred by it.”

The reason why the Censor Board wants to excise these words is not far to seek. It is more loyal than the king. It thinks that this is the way it can please this government.

My friend and writer KP Ramanunni has received a threat that he would be attacked like the Kerala professor whose hand was cut off if he did not change his religion immediately. His comparative study of Hinduism and Islam did not appeal to the fundamentalists. 

As if to balance the threat, Deepa Nishant, a college lecturer and writer from Thrisoor, has been threatened with acid attack for defending painter MF Husain’s works of art. I am sorry to note that the Censor Board has behaved like those who threatened Ramanunni and Deepa Nishant. What a tragedy!

The writer, a senior journalist, can be reached at

(Published on 24th July 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 30)