A rare thinker

Published : Jan 22, 2000 00:00 IST


PERSONS qualified in the intellectual discipline in which Amartya Sen won rich fame have reviewed Development as Freedom competently. This writer does not presume to make that effort; but, to record, as a student of public affairs, an appreciation of one of the all-too-few intellectuals whose scholarship and concerns are not limited to the subject of his specialisation and whose empathy crosses national boundaries. A proud Indian, he rejects disdainfully the forms of nationalism which, sadly, are in vogue today.

It is forty years since C. P. Snow introduced the expression "the two cultures" in his Rede Lecture at Cambridge, "Two Cultures and the Scientific Resolution". The divide among intellectuals bereft of a common language and unable to speak to each other, has been a subject of keen debate since. Snow was diagnosing the divide between the scientists and the humanists. There is, however, hardly any intellectual discipline or, for that matter, profession, whose members are able to discuss intelligently matte rs of common concern with others except from their own insular viewpoints. What Edward Burke said of lawyers ages ago is true of other professions as well: "The law sharpens the mind - by narrowing it."

Amartya Sen is a rare exception as any reader of his essays in The New York Review of Books will testify. This reflects the learning and the insights which make him so exceptional. He is steeped in history, literature, and uses tools from politica l science and philosophy with accomplishment and elegance.

As we have moved from one millennium to another, in the clime of today, Amartya Sen's recall of an edict by Akbar is strikingly apt: "As the year 1000 in the Muslim Hejira calendar was reached in 1591-1592, there was some excitement about it in Delhi and Agra (not unlike what is happening right now as the year 2000 in the Christian calendar approaches). Akbar issued various enactments at this juncture of history and these focussed, inter alia, on religious tolerance, including the following: 'No man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone (is) to be allowed to go over to a religion he pleased. If a Hindu, when a child or otherwise, had been made a Muslim against his will, he is to be allowed, if he pleased, to go back to the religion of his fathers'... It may not be irrelevant to note in this context, especially in the light of the hardsell of 'Western liberalism', that while Akbar was making these pron ouncements, the Inquisitions were in full bloom in Europe."

The author cites the edict to refute the charge that Islamic civilisation is "fundamentally intolerant and hostile to individual freedom" and remarks that "the presence of diversity and variety within a tradition applies very much to Islam as well (emphasis as in original)." The great Jewish scholar Maimonides, in the 12th century, "had to run away from an intolerant Europe (where he was born) and from its persecution of Jews, to the security of a tolerant and urbane Cairo and the patronage of Su ltan Saladin."

This is more than a refutation for Western notions. It is also a corrective for advocates of the authoritarian view of "Asian values". "The valuing of freedom is not confined to one culture only, and the Western traditions are not the only ones that pre pare us for a freedom-based approach to social understanding."

The book presents "a particular approach to development, seen as a process of expanding substantive freedom that people have." That approach is informed by amazing erudition and a vision that transcends barriers. n

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