A rousing reception

Print edition : January 02, 1999

AMARTYA SEN's visit to Bangladesh between December 16 and 19 was seen as a special one, coinciding as it did with the country's celebrations commemorating the historic surrender of 93,000 Pakistani troops in Dhaka in 1971 at the end of the nine-month-long war of liberation against Pakistan. Sen, who received the Nobel Prize for Economics on December 10, arrived in Bangladesh to a rousing reception.

For Amartya Sen, who spent part of his childhood in what is now Bangladesh, it was a memorable homecoming. The 65-year-old Sen went down memory lane as he spent four days in Dhaka and elsewhere in the country. He gave lectures, visited his old school and his father's ancestral home, and attended a civic reception in Dhaka's historic Baldah Garden. (Although Amartya Sen's parents lived in Dhaka, he was born in his maternal uncle's home in Santiniketan.)

Sen was granted honorary citizenship of Bangladesh. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina handed over the certificate of honorary citizenship and a Bangladesh passport to Amartya Sen at a ceremony in Ganobhabhan, the Prime Minister's official residence.

At St. Gregory's High School in Old Dhaka, where he began his schooling in 1941, Amartya Sen was introduced as "one of us... our pride... our inspiration". Addressing students, teachers and admirers who had thronged the school, Sen said: "It is a story of long ago, but my memories are still fresh. I am proud that I began my schooling here." The Old Gregorians' Association made him a life member.

From there Sen drove to Baldah Garden the venue of the civic reception. Thousands of people had gathered there to have a glimpse of the great Bengali. It was a memorable occasion because Baldah Garden is close to his ancestral home on Larmini Street. Besides, this was also the place where Rabindranath Tagore was given a similar reception after he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Baldah Garden, one of the richest botanical gardens in the subcontinent is a place Amartya Sen has visited as a child.

At 14 Larmini Street, where Sen spent part of his childhood, he was accorded a warm welcome by the present owners of the house, Amanullah and his wife Tazneen, whose father was Amartya Sen's friend in school. (The house was owned by Amartya Sen's grandfather Saradah Prashad Sen, who was a district judge. His father Ashutosh Sen sold the house in 1951.)

President Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed hosted a reception for the Nobel laureate at Bangabhaban, the President's official residence. Justice Shahabuddin called Sen "another great Bengali after Rabindranath Tagore". "We are delighted about his success," he said. "We are proud of his success since he is a son of this country."

IN a speech he made at the National Museum in Dhaka on December 18, Sen urged developing countries to ensure "freedom of choice" for their people by balancing the five opportunities - social opportunity, market opportunity, political opportunity, procedural opportunity and protective freedom - for sustainable development. He said that people's creativity depended on their freedom. The lecture, on 'Social choice', was jointly organised by the Bangladesh Economic Association, the Centre for Policy Dialogue, the Grameen Bank and the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies.

Amartya Sen said that market economy was unlikely to stand in the way of national progress as long as countries adopted a non-dogmatic view about it. "Pro-market dogmatism, however, should not be replaced by anti-market dogmatism," he said, rejecting dogmatism and command practices of intervention as "real mental depravity". "I was no less sceptical about state intervention in those days than I am now," he said. "My beliefs have remained more or less the same."

Sen delivered the key-note speech at an international seminar on 'Global Health Equity Initiative' at Rajendrapur, 45 km from Dhaka. He said that equity in health care could be achieved by linking it to equity in other sectors - social, economic and education.

Amartya Sen also met mediapersons. Replying to questions whether his winning the Nobel Prize would signify the rejection of pro-market economic policies, he said he did not reject market-oriented policies outright as an irrational choice.

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