Of distorted priorities and need for justice

Print edition : April 15, 2016
This book is a compelling read for those seeking a deep understanding of the dominant issues in India today.

AMARTYA SEN has dedicated The Country of First Boys to schoolteachers and health workers. The choice is significant as he has consistently argued that India has not taken good care of education and health, the two sectors essential for the holistic development of any nation. Alas, his sensible argument has been, so far, like so much water on a duck’s back as far as government policy and action are concerned.

The 13 essays, all but two of which were published in Sen’s daughter Antara Dev Sen’s The Little Magazine, cover a wide range of themes from India’s calendars to justice and development. What is striking is that these essays, written over a period of 15 years, make for excellent reading. Each essay deals with its chosen theme in a fairly comprehensive manner and helps the reader find answers to questions under discussion today.

Let us start with the essay on Indian calendars written in 2000. There can be a difference of opinion as to when the second millennium in the Gregorian calendar ended. Was it December 31, 1999, or December 31, 2000? Although Sen does not clearly pronounce himself, he implies that he supports the December 31, 2000, school. Emperor Akbar’s new religion Din Ilahi is well known but his new synthetic calendar Tarikh Illahi for the country as a whole is less well known. India has an astonishing variety of calendrical systems, with their respective histories stretching over several thousand years. For example, the Gregorian 2000 corresponds to year 6001 in the Kaliyuga calendar, year 2544 in the Buddha Nirvana calendar,year 2057 in the Vikram Samvat calendar, year 1922 in the Saka calendar, year 1921 of the Vedanga Jyotish calendar, year 1407 in the Bengali San calendar, and year 1176 in the Kollam calendar.

This list is not complete. Obviously, the Kaliyuga calendar is the oldest, and some Indians could legitimately celebrate a “double millennium”, arguing, not without a touch of chauvinistic pride, that while the “upstart Europeans” were celebrating the end of their second millennium, they, the Indians, were celebrating the end of their sixth millennium.

Sen makes two interesting points about the Kaliyuga. First, its zero point was in 3102 B.C., that is 5,101 years, not 6,001 years, ago. Second, the claim that the zero point was fixed by some actual astronomical observation is untenable. Sen cites arguments to support the view that Aryabhata established the Kaliyuga in 499 A.D.

The ancient Indian calendrical heritage is not exclusively Hindu but shared by the Buddhist and Jain traditions. Sen concludes that the belief that pre-Islamic India was a Hindu country is historically flawed. This is the point he wanted to make by bringing in calendars. The reader is intrigued, impressed and convinced by the argument starting from the beginning of the Kaliyuga to the refutation of Hindutva’s exaggerated claims about the past.

The essay “The Smallness Thrust Upon Us” is based on an address at College de France in Paris in May 2001. Talking about diversity of identities, Sen points out that the same person can be of Malaysian origin, with Indian ancestry, a French citizen, a Christian, a socialist, a woman, a poet, a vegetarian, a diabetic, an anthropologist, a university professor, an opponent of abortion, a birdwatcher, an astrologist, and also deeply committed to the view that creatures from outer space regularly visit the earth in colourful vehicles singing cheerful songs. Each identity can be important depending on the circumstances, and none of the identities can be the privileged one for all time.

Reasoning can help us determine the relative importance of the different identities according to circumstances. Can community and culture prevent a person from thinking “differently”? Sen does not think so. Cultural separatists are right to point out that one cannot reason from nowhere. Sen contends that choice does not require jumping out of nowhere into somewhere but does involve considering the possibility of moving from somewhere to somewhere else.

He makes an interesting distinction between international justice and global justice. If India does not get a fair deal in the agreement on climate change, that is a matter of international injustice. But, imagine a French feminist who wants to work in Sudan promoting the feminist cause. Her approach cuts across national boundaries, and for her, the search for equity is more important than her citizenship. Here, we have an instance of a search for global justice.

Sen makes a few points about identities. First, we belong to different groups and have to resist smallness being thrust on us by privileging one group over the others. Secondly, communitarian identities may or may not be important for us, and it is for us to decide what importance to attach to them. Third, the world is not just a collection of nations but also of persons. Fourth, international justice cannot exhaust the claims of global justice. This essay should be read by those in power who have got unnecessarily worked up over some alleged, not yet proved, sloganeering at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

In contrast, some slogans to which some people might object, not necessarily with good reason, were indeed raised at Jadavpur University where Sen once taught. Perhaps, there would have been no sloganeering in Jadavpur if the JNU Vice-Chancellor and the Delhi Police had understood Sen’s theory of identities.


The essay called “Hunger: Old Torments and New Blunders” is painfully pertinent, especially in the context of the current talk about India being the bright spot in an otherwise gloomy world economy. Sen lists the progress India has made in combating hunger since 1947. First, since 1947, India has not experienced any famine, the last one being in 1943. Second, the stagnation characterising pre-Independence India has been replaced by a massive expansion in production possibilities through innovative departures. As M.S. Swaminathan put it, our agricultural production can increase if only we can increase consumption.

Sen points out that we have to get rid of the “astonishing smugness about India’s food record and the widespread ignorance that supports it”. It is true that there have been no big famines, but severe hunger has persisted in particular regions. In fact, India is worse off than sub-Saharan Africa from the point of view of general undernourishment. “The case for relating policy to a close scrutiny of its actual effects is certainly very strong, but the need to protest—to rage, to holler—is not any weaker.”

In the essay “Speaking of Freedom…”, Sen tells us that when he was in school three members of his family were in prison. They had not been convicted of anything but were being held just as a “precaution” under what the Raj called “preventive detention”. The reader might wonder why independent India retains the insidious legacy of the Raj. Although free speech and democratic values have a long history in England, the universality of these values is still quite new. The French and American Revolutions made people realise the need for democracy as a general system, but the impact was confined to the two sides of the north Atlantic. Throughout the 19th century, there was much debate as to whether a particular country was fit for democracy. The change came in the 20th century with the realisation that the question itself was wrong. The reader will note that in India there are some people who do not believe that democracy is good for India and want to impose on the country their partisan or sectarian value system of domination. The 19th century question gets raised from time to time in the 21st century.

A free press

How does the value of democracy and of free speech relate to the challenges of development? First, development cannot be equated to gross domestic product growth. Second, free speech is an important part of human freedom. The most obvious manifestation of free speech is freedom of the press. Sen values press freedom for four distinct reasons: Intrinsic value of speech and communication, inescapably linked to press freedom; informational functions of a free press in disseminating knowledge and facilitating critical scrutiny; protective roles of press freedom in giving voice to the neglected and the disadvantaged, and thus helping the cause of greater human security; and constructive contributions of free public discussion in generating ideas, in the formation of values, and in the emergence of shared public standards that are central to social justice.

Sen maintains that the Chinese famine of 1958-61 might have been prevented if there had been an independent media to let the government know of the impact of the disastrous, famine-creating policies of the ill-advised Great Leap Forward. The author does not deal with the attempts on the part of government to seduce the press by means of advertisements and the eagerness of a good part of the press to be so seduced. But his conclusion is noteworthy and has a resonance for our times: “Indeed, the freedom of the press defines both a right and a duty, and we have good reason to stand up for both.”

School education

In his essay on the importance of school education, Sen argues the case for attaching an overriding importance to school education and laments the neglect thereof in independent India. The child in India runs the risk of being underfed, undernourished, unschooled and overlooked. The proportion of undernourished children in Africa is 20 to 40 per cent, whereas in India it is 40 to 60 per cent. Yet, India has in stock foodgrains much in excess of the mandated requirement of 18 million tonnes. For example, the stock in some years has been in the range of 50 to 70 million tonnes. With such stock levels, every family below the poverty line could have been given one tonne of grains. Who cares?

The food procurement system with high prices paid to farmers and high retail prices pushing down demand is absurd. A thorough overhaul of the system is required urgently. Once again the reader is tempted to ask, who cares?

India has many more children out of school than any other country. The retort that India is a large country does not hold as China is larger and has a much smaller number of children out of school. Bangladesh, until recently lagging behind, has overtaken India in percentage terms. We need more schools and should run better the ones in place.

Some people talk about the reluctance of parents to send daughters to school. A team called PROBE, involving Jean Dreze, Anita Rampal and other dedicated investigators, published a report in 1999 demolishing the myth of parental reluctance. It is indeed a pity that the government at the Centre or in the States has taken refuge behind the mythical parental reluctance when asked about their lamentable performance.

Sen tells the reader that the school midday meal is not an Indian invention. Europe has been doing it for centuries. In the context of pleas by State governments of lack of funds, the author makes out a solid case for midday meals. He raises the question: What is the point of going to school? He gives six good reasons ranging from the disadvantages of illiteracy and innumeracy to women’s empowerment to support the conclusion that schooling is important.

The essay “The Country of First Boys” was published in 2005. Sen narrates the story of a Union Minister of Education who later became Prime Minister. He could remember his high marks in school and college and he proudly told Sen of his high scores. If the first boy syndrome takes over an educational system, that country will be in for serious trouble. Unfortunately, this has happened in India. “The priorities can get oddly distorted when the focus is so narrow, and the concentration of public policy is so strongly on looking after those blessed with opportunity and success.”

It has been argued that if the economy is moving forward at a good pace, why should anyone bother about those who lag behind? Sen answers that it is primarily a question of justice. Another argument that economists might appreciate better can be advanced. India lags behind China in making a range of simple products precisely because Chinese labour is literate and that of India is not. India lags behind not only China but also South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and other dynamic economies.

Even the poorest and most deprived families in India understand the value of education, as brought out in studies conducted by the Pratichi Trust, which was funded by the money Sen got along with his Nobel Prize. The idea that we should leave it to market forces to provide education is flawed. He quotes Adam Smith, who was clear in his mind that the state had to provide for the education of the public.

Case of Japan

The author quotes the case of Japan, which in 1872 established the Fundamental Code of Education to ensure that there would be “no community with an illiterate family, nor a family with an illiterate person”. Thus began Japan’s remarkable history of rapid economic development.

It is not possible to do full justice to this book’s range and intensity in a review. But, Sen’s treatment of the famous debate between Krishna and Arjuna needs to be mentioned. The author concludes that Arjuna’s human-life-centred perspective cannot be easily dismissed. That the post-combat and post-carnage land bears witness to “funeral pyres burning in massive unison and women weeping about the death of their loved ones” does lend weight to Arjuna’s argument. But, our author hastily adds: “This does not indicate that I do not see the arguments on the other side.” The reader might wonder whether we have here an Indian argumentative and indecisive in equal measure.

This reviewer unhesitatingly recommends that this book be read by the lawyers who attacked JNU Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar, the Delhi Police, and those who gave the police directions in the context of the ongoing, eminently avoidable, turmoil surrounding the university. Reading the bail order the Delhi High Court gave in the sedition case against Kanhaiya Kumar, where the judge speaks of cancer and the need for surgery, one definitely felt that Sen’s book should be read widely.

For democracy to succeed in India, it needs an electorate, bureaucracy, legislature, political class and judiciary, all with a clear understanding of its values as enshrined in the Constitution. Democracy requires debate, and debate is not possible if dissent is suppressed. Hence, democracy without dissent is no democracy, as Sen would have put it.

K.P. Fabian is author of Diplomacy: Indian Style , published in 2012.

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