Posts Tagged ‘Sen’

History Matters

July 12, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

The member-secretary of the Indian Council of Historical Research resigned from his post last month without completing his term. Amongst his major concerns was the ‘changing of textbooks’: “The simplification and dumbing down of history in order to support many of the unfortunate stereotypes that circulate in society is something to be worried about.”

This controversy raises its head in India from time to time but at least meets vociferous opposition from many professional historians. In Pakistan, the manipulation of textbooks has long been completed and accepted without much protest perhaps because by now the country is bereft of historians. K.K. Aziz wrote The Murder of History: A Critique of History Textbooks Used in Pakistan in 1993 and nothing much has changed since. Later examinations such as The Subtle Subversion: The State of Curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan released in 2003 confirm the perpetuation of major distortions and biases.

Attempts to manipulate history by the state to serve parochial interests is taken for granted at least in South Asia. It is up to civil society to contest such manipulations and civil society has been more vigilant in some countries than in others. While there is always a contestation in India, whether or not it is fully successful, one gets the sense that in Pakistan the distortions have now become owned by many academics, opinion-makers, and the public alike.

The more surprising dimension of this phenomenon is the conscious or unconscious elisions and oversights by individuals otherwise known for their awareness of history. Recently I received an email from an Indian reader with regard to an observation by the respected Pakistani columnist Huma Yusuf. In a recent column (Treasures of Islam) she had reported on a visit to the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. As part of her observations, she wrote: “The museum holds one of the oldest surviving copies of Ibn Sina’s Qanun, which aggregated medical knowledge from the Muslim, Greco-Roman and Chinese worlds.”

The Indian reader sent the following email:

I read an article by Huma Yusuf in Dawn on a museum in Toronto that showcases achievements from the Muslim world. Ms. Yusuf mentioned Ibn Sina’s famous ‘The Canon of Medicine’ saying that it was brought together from Muslim, Greco-Roman and Chinese sources.

But it is well established that the writings of Sushruta and Charaka were among the primary references for Ibn Sina and he credits Indian sources for many of the medications and drugs he lists.

Why do you think Ms. Yusuf failed to mention the Indian sources?

I am unable to answer the question because I don’t know Huma Yusuf personally though I have heard from many that she is not a prejudiced person. My guess is that she is like most people these days who know of these texts second-hand not having read the originals or any commentary on the originals. So, she might just be unaware of the primary references and reported what she read in the entry at the museum. That would be the generous explanation for the omission. If she has deliberately ignored the Indian references, it would be inexcusable.

I found even more surprising a claim by Professor Amartya Sen in a recent commentary on the travails of Nalanda University at the hands of the Modi government (India: The Stormy Revival of an International University). While the historical demise of Nalanda was not germane to Professors Sen’s argument, he described it in very categorical terms:

After more than seven hundred years of successful teaching, Nalanda was destroyed in the 1190s by invading armies from West Asia, which also demolished the other universities in Bihar. The first attack, it is widely believed, was led by the ruthless Turkic conqueror Bakhtiyar Khilji, whose armies devastated many cities and settlements in North India. All the teachers and monks in Nalanda were killed and much of the campus was razed to the ground. Special care was taken to demolish the beautiful statues of Buddha and other Buddhist figures that were spread across the campus. The library—a nine-story building containing thousands of manuscripts—is reputed to have burned for three days.

Much academic work on Nalanda attributes its decay to a combination of factors: the decline of Buddhism, the resurgence of devotional Hinduism much like its present incarnation, disagreements between different Buddhist sects, and Muslim incursions. There are records that Nalanda was destroyed earlier at least twice – by the Huns under Mihirikula (455-467 CE) and by the Gaudas (606-648 CE). Both time it was rebuilt. By the time of Khilji’s attack Buddhism was in steep decline and no patronage was available for restoration. It is also recorded that the Saivite ruler Shashanka (590-626 CE) destroyed many Buddhist images nearby as well as cutting down the sacred Bodhi tree.

Given the above, it would seem historically accurate to state that the causes of the decline and destruction of Nalanda were multiple and contested without in any way minimizing the contribution of the Turks.

Ironically, the reason this matters is because of Professor Sen’s impeccable record for objectivity in the description of historical and contemporary events which is evident even in the article on Nalanda. Just because of that many who do not have time for research would quote him as the final word on this event in history. Given Professor Sen’s record, I can only presume that because the decline of Nalanda was not central to his argument its mention was telescoped to the point that it lost its nuances.

Credible authorities like Professor Sen and writers like Huma Yusuf shape opinions that have a huge bearing on public discourse. As one who participates in South Asian discussion forums I am well aware of the innumerable comments that would cite such claims as evidence to support parochial objectives. For this reason alone, we need our public intellectuals to be extra careful in their observations even when these are not central to the main themes of their writings.

Back to Main Page

Can India Learn From Its Neighbours?

August 23, 2013

By Sakuntala Narasimhan

A report published earlier this month says the number of cases of dengue in Karnataka has tripled during June-July, with Bangalore accounting for a majority of victims. Even residents in upper middle class neighbourhoods are succumbing, thanks to a huge garbage pile up that made news even in newspapers in the US. In the first six months of 2013 alone, Karnataka saw 3243 cases of dengue (the official figure – the real numbers are thought to be higher).

Lahore, the second largest city in Pakistan, too had over 21,290 cases of dengue in 2011. Around 350 died. As in Bangalore, the Lahore authorities too tried fogging to kill larvae, but what really helped was the innovative use of smart phones, to trace locations and clusters of incidence, and focusing on those neighbourhoods. Result: last year there were no dengue deaths. It took just 1500 mobile phones in the hands of community volunteers to also monitor implementation of various other public works projects and reduce corruption.

The fact that smartphones were recording actual implementation work on the ground helped to rein in malpractices. Random calls made to these numbers by overseers help keep track of the quality of service to the public. Given that we had (at last count) nearly 800 million mobile phones in India (for a population of 1.2 billion) has anyone thought of taking a leaf out of the Lahore experiment, and tackling dengue as well as complaints of deteriorating infrastructure? Why not? The use of mobiles also bypasses the handicap of low literacy, as Lahore has discovered.

Though we have had small NGO initiatives using mobiles (to reach rural women in Andhra, for instance, or connecting tribals in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh to help them fight official apathy or harassment) we could perhaps learn a lot more by looking at our neighbouring countries. Why do we look always to the West, assuming that they know best, ignoring simpler and more workable solutions that we could borrow from our own neighbours?

Can activists on either side learn from each other, instead of reinventing the wheel and wasting resources, including costly aid from abroad, in the process? Whether it is micro finance schemes, or employment generation projects for illiterate women, or tackling domestic violence, the matrices are the same – and so solutions could also be replicated.

How does Sri Lanka do better in terms of health indicators and literacy, and how did Bangladesh address the issue of reducing irrational formulations of drugs despite pressure from multinationals? If we can think of a BRIC bank on the lines of the Asian Development bank, why not other initiatives for learning and benefiting from the experiences of our neighbours even if they are, like us “developing” countries with scarce resources? Is the problem one of lingering colonial mindsets that sees us turning to the rich West, even for issues that are specific to our own parameters?

I am reminded of the comment that an American feminist researcher made at a recent conference on wife battering and dowry in India. “Why doesn’t the woman just leave him?” she said naively, forgetting that we do not have public shelters for battered women as in the US, or social security that will help the woman survive and feed her children. Where does an Indian woman go? An Asian academic would never make such a comment. Foreigners, being alien to our socio-cultural environment, can only come up with academic-bookish solutions. A Pakistani or Bangladeshi activist, on the other hand, might understand the ramifications of gender – or poverty – issues better.

Professor Anjum Altaf, an academic in Pakistan, in his recent blogs “What plagues development in South Asia” and “Wanted, a real people’s party” (at points out how Amartya Sen’s description of India as “pockets of California existing amidst a sea of sub-Saharan Africa” applies equally to our neighbour across the border to the west (and also to cities like Bangalore) – incremental incomes and better facilities go to the affluent, rather than to the deprived sections, even if GDP rises.

In terms of social indicators, if Pakistan and India are at the bottom of the table for South Asia (with even Bangladesh and Sri Lanka doing better, despite handicaps in terms of social unrest and/or insufficient resources), it is not merely because of lack of democracy in Pakistan. India is a democracy but is equally stunted due to poor performance in distributive justice and poverty eradication. Could both countries learn from each other’s experiences? We share not just borders, but also many identical problems.

At an international conference in Islamabad, a research study presented by a Pakistani academic about gender issues in the northern regions of Pakistan came up with comments that could have applied equally, word for word, to rural women in the northern regions of India too. The socio-cultural handicaps are, after all, similar. True, we have had problems with Pakistan, even recently along the line of control, as also six decades of political hostility. But why should that stop us from emulating success stories or copying strategies that have worked on the other side of the political fence?

People-to-people, the sentiments are extremely friendly, as I found during my three visits. On the day we became independent, in August 1947, I was a tiny tot in Delhi, but can remember being dressed, doll-like, in a white mini-sari with a tricolour border, and eating sweets that my father bought from the Bengali Market. My favourite was Karachi halwa, with its jewel-tinted red and green and golden yellow slabs, so I asked, nostalgically, for Karachi halwa when I went shopping recently in Karachi. The shopkeeper gave me a broad smile and said, “Apa (sister) my shop specialises in Delhi halwa, it is our speciality, why don’t I give you some of that?” And he wouldn’t take money for it either – his grandfather grew up near where we had lived in Delhi.

It’s time we separated politics from socio-economic concerns, and got on with what needs to be done for tackling our problems, whether it is dengue or illiteracy or gender discrimination. Solutions, wherever they are from, carry no caste, religious or political tags.

Sakuntala Narasimhan is a Bangalore-based writer, musician and consumer activist. This article appeared first in India Together on August 20, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

Back to Main Page

On the Real Poverty in South Asia

November 14, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Reflecting on the official pronouncements of poverty in South Asia reminds me of the Marx Brothers saying: ‘Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes.’

There are two kinds of poverty: monetary poverty and intellectual poverty. Together, I will argue, they make for a lethal combination.

The monetary and physical poverty in South Asia is undeniable; the controversies relate only to the few percentage points it might be above or below what is clearly an unacceptably high base level. The intellectual poverty is a more subtle phenomenon that, in my view, comes in the way of appropriately addressing the physical poverty.

Let me illustrate the existence of intellectual poverty in South Asia via an analogy that might help set up the discussion. People rush into places that have something rich to offer; if they can, people rush out of places that are impoverished. What do outsiders come to savor and learn in South Asia? Among other things, its aesthetics (music and dance), its spiritualism (yoga and sufism), and its cuisine. No one comes to South Asia to learn the theory or the methodology of any of the social sciences.

Why is that the case? It is because South Asian aesthetics, spiritualism and cuisine are unbroken indigenous traditions that remain alive today. In the social sciences, all that is left are great names, unfamiliar to most, from a history that is dead; the traditions that existed were swept aside or under by the interregnum of colonization.

The theories and methodologies of social science that are alive today were developed and are refined outside South Asia. Smart South Asians, and there are many, either leave South Asia to learn them abroad or learn them second-hand in India.

Consider just one example: the Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, is justly famous for his theory of justice and although he speaks of niti and nyaya, he places himself squarely in the line of thinkers that stretches from Adam Smith via Bentham, Marx and John Stuart Mill to Sen. His theory challenges an alternative formulation that derives from Hobbes via Locke, Rousseau and Kant to John Rawls. Surely there are indigenous South Asian theories of justice but they are not part of a tradition that is alive in academia.

Is that a problem? Yes, in my view, because thinking is different from producing. All the high-tech things are designed in the West and manufactured in the South but that works because most products are shipped back to be consumed in the West as well. But just as pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to invest in drugs that are needed by people without purchasing power in the South, so social scientists have little incentive producing theories that are rooted in the traditions of the South.

Theories emerge from the experience of the West; most of those we work with are products of the European Enlightenment and their subsequent modifications. These theories are then universalized and applied in other places. But a theory determines what data we look for in the application; it is not the raw data from the locale of the application that yields the theory.

Take Marxism and feudalism as examples. How much effort has been devoted to identifying kulaks, middle-peasants, and feudals in the South Asian countryside and with what results?

This brings us back to poverty. The prevalent approach to poverty alleviation – identifying the poor with a poverty line, targeting them through means-testing, and distributing welfare support through agents of the state, is relevant in places where the poor are a small proportion of the total population, where most transactions are negotiated through the market, where the agents of the state are not themselves poor, and where the institutions of the state are credible and robust.

This approach is ill-suited for places where the conditions are quite the opposite: the majority of the population is poor, there are many non-market transactions, state agents themselves are poor, and the institutions of the state are weak. Identifying the poor, means-testing them, and getting public support to them results in about Rs. 15 reaching the poor out of every Rs. 100 intended for them.

Asides from the vast corruption engendered by this approach, it creates social tensions by dividing the poor and the almost-poor, sets up perverse incentives for households and groups to be identified as poor, and is financially untenable. Seriously addressing poverty on this scale via welfare payments would surely bankrupt the economy.

Once again, an analogy might help. The treatment for an incipient cancer is not the same as that for one that has spread throughout the body. It has to be radically different. This is obvious to all. Why is not so in the case of poverty alleviation? The one answer I can think of is because we have been blinded by borrowed remedies, have not thought of them ourselves, and have marginalized those who do have indigenous wisdom to offer.

When Montek Singh Ahluwalia defends the Indian poverty lines of Rs. 26 and Rs. 32 per capita per day, he is technically correct. The universally employed poverty line is $1.50 per capita per day; converted at purchasing power parity it would yield the figures offered by the Indian Planning Commission. But these lines are good only to track, if one so desires, the number of individuals or the percentage of the population below them. They have no bearing on the appropriateness of a poverty alleviation strategy. For the latter, the percentage of the population that is poor, much like the spread of cancerous cells in a body, is of much more relevance.

If one thinks about it, even the simple counting could be problematic. If the number of individuals below these poverty lines are decreasing over time what is the assurance that they have been lifted out of poverty? Many might simply be dying early at this level of bare sustenance. Unless someone can provide data for income-specific life expectancies and rates of mortality, I would be justified in remaining skeptical of the official claims.

How have we arrived at the point where a man of Mr. Singh’s qualifications and credentials is seriously suggesting a survival proposition that any illiterate child would tell him cannot be true? Is it because the illiterate child is looking at India through his own eyes while Mr. Singh is looking at it through the eyes of others?

Therein might lie the real story of South Asian poverty.

Back to Main Page 

Justice, Power, and Truth

October 18, 2009

By Anjum Altaf

I checked the name index of Amartya Sen’s book (The Idea of Justice) for Foucault and found him missing. Let me explain why I found that surprising.

As mentioned earlier, Sen contrasts two approaches to social justice – the search for a perfectly just society versus the alternative of making existing society less unjust. These perspectives are given different labels – ‘arrangement-focused’ versus ‘realization focused’ or niti versus nyaya. The implication of the contrast is pithily summarized by an endorsement on the book’s back cover: “The Idea of Justice gives us a political philosophy that is dedicated to the reduction of injustice on Earth rather than to the creation of ideally just castles in the air.”

In terms of lineage, the arrangement-focused perspective is said to derive from the social contract formulation of Thomas Hobbes via Locke, Rousseau and Kant to John Rawls (A Theory of Justice) in our own times. The realization-focused perspective is traced from Adam Smith via Bentham, Marx and John Stuart Mill to Amartya Sen himself. (more…)

Sen’s Idea of Justice: A Puzzle?

October 17, 2009

By Anjum Altaf

I started reading Amartya Sen’s latest book The Idea of Justice in which he suggests we reduce injustice in the world we live in rather than attempt to create an ideally just world – he characterizes the contrasting perspectives as ‘realization-focused’ versus ‘arrangement-focused’ approaches to justice. For South Asians, the parallels are two different concepts of justice from early Indian jurisprudence – niti and nyaya. The former relates to ‘organizational propriety as well as behavioral correctness’ whereas the latter is concerned with ‘what emerges and how, and in particular the lives that people are actually able to lead.’

The distinctions, and Professor Sen’s preference, are quite clear and one can agree or disagree with his choice. Here I am concerned with the example that Sen uses to motivate his argument and to explain why I find it puzzling. I would like readers to reflect on the example and to comment on its appropriateness.

Sen uses an illustration called ‘Three Children and a Flute’ to make the point that it is not possible to find an unambiguous principle of justice that everyone can agree upon. The illustration asks the reader to decide which of three children – Anne, Bob and Carla – should get a flute about which they are quarreling. Anne claims the flute on the ground that only she knows how to play it; Bob on the ground that he is the only one among the three who is so poor that he has no toys of his own; Carla on the ground that she has been working diligently for many months to make the flute with her own labor. None of the individual claims are contested.

The argument Sen makes is that these are competing claims for justice and that there are no obvious reasons for preferring any one over the others:

The general point here is that it is not easy to brush aside as foundationless any one of the claims based respectively on the pursuit of human fulfillment, or removal of poverty, or entitlement to enjoy the products of one’s own labor. The different resolutions all have serious arguments in support of them, and we may not be able to identify, without some arbitrariness, any of the alternative arguments as being the one that must invariably prevail.

What puzzles me is the following: Why does Sen pose this problem in terms of an issue of justice? To me it comes across much more as a problem of distribution that is made complex by the fact that we need to allocate one discrete commodity among three contenders. It is this discreteness of the commodity that turns the problem into one of choice, which then calls for a principle to govern that choice.

It is not clear to me why we should have our hands tied by the discreteness of the flute. If we relax this artificially imposed constraint we could consider a number of other solutions to the problem. For example, the flute could be sold and the proceeds distributed amongst the three claimants. This would not resolve the problem completely – Sen would surely ask for the principle that would govern the distribution of the proceeds – but it would certainly make the solution more tractable.

But even the limitation of discreteness need not preclude alternative solutions. The three contenders could agree that in the absence of any prior claims or rights, a just solution could be a fair lottery. Or they could agree on a cooperative solution in which each would get to keep the flute for a period of time with the order of the rotation determined by a fair lottery.

My argument is that this is not an issue of justice since no manifest injustice has been done to any of the three individuals. It is a simpler problem of distribution and it seems possible to find a cooperative solution if we do away with the stumbling block of the discreteness of the flute either by converting it into a divisible commodity (money) or by dividing its use over time. Once we do that we might even be able to find a single principle of fairness, e.g., egalitarianism, to govern the allocation of the divisible commodity. (This need not be the most efficient allocation. The more ambitious might try for allocations that make each claimant equally happy or maximize total happiness but these would again open up the debate over the merits of rival claims.)

I even do not see how the nature of prior claims, a dimension Professor Sen has ignored in his illustration, adds to the complexity of the problem. If Carla has made the flute and owns it, the other two have no claim to it. If Carla made the flute as a gift for the father who has left it as an inheritance, either the father’s will or the rules of inheritance would govern the allocation. Such rules vary across societies but in general have legitimacy amongst members of a society or there are accepted rules to resolve disagreements.

My question is as follows: Did Professor Sen choose a good illustration to motivate his argument? Should he have specified the source of the quarrel amongst the claimants? Is some prior information necessary to understand the context of the problem and its relevance to justice?

See Ten Unacceptable Things for our ongoing exercise based on Professor Sen’s suggestion.

Back to Main Page