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Amartya Sen: A More Human Theory of Development

(Elya/Wikipedia)

(Elya/Wikipedia)

Circumstances are also changing. Say for India, Pakistan and Bangladesh today: people's ability to communicate with each other through e-mail or the Internet is a new development. Being able to communicate with each other has now become possible with the new electronic media and it is important in terms of economic, social, and political relations. Again in the 1940s' list, this would not have figured because the capability in question was not easy to imagine then.

So we have to treat the list of capabilities as something which is not final and fixed, but which is contextual and dependent on the nature of the exercise and also on the extent of our understanding, based on public discussion. The Human Development Index of the United Nations uses capabilities in a very minimal form but it has its value still, in its particular context. Martha Nussbaum too has made excellent use of a particular list of capabilities that made good sense for her evaluative exercise on gender equity and on human rights.

In Development as Freedom, you say, "It is the power of reason that allows us to consider our obligations and ideals as well as our interests and advantages. To deny this freedom of thought would amount to a severe constraint on the reach of our rationality." Having just emerged from a blood-drenched century with a widespread faith in human reason and evolutionary progress, how are you so optimistic about the possibilities enabled by rationality?

Well, the bloodstains that you see were not, in fact, the results of exercising reasoning—indeed just the contrary. Whatever the Nazis in Germany could be credited with, it could not be said that they were impeccable models of human reasoning, nor great practitioners of open public discussion. The idea that there are whole groups of people, like Jews and gypsies, who are best exterminated cannot but offend elementary human reasoning in a major way. The same thing can be said of nearly all the blood-drenched events and experiences that occurred in the last century. There is often a peculiarly mistaken diagnosis suggesting that somehow it is the celebration of reason in the Enlightenment, beginning in the mid-18th century, that is responsible for the Nazi concentration camps, the Japanese prisoner of war camps, and the Hutu violence against Tutsis in Rwanda. I really do not see why people take that view because these are quintessential examples of people being driven by passion rather than by reason. In fact, reason could have played a major part in moderating such turmoil. When a Hutu, for instance, is being told that he is just a Hutu and he ought to kill Tutsis on grounds that Tutsis are an enemy lot, a Hutu could reason that he is not only a Hutu but he is also a Rwandan, an African, a human being, and all these identities make some demands on his attention. It is reason which could stand up against the imposition of unreasoned identities on people (such as, "You are just a Hutu and nothing else").

As a child, I saw the Hindu-Muslim riots in the 1940s and I know how easy it is to make people forget their reasoning and the understanding of the basic plurality of their identities in favor of one fierce identity, whether fiercely Hindu, or fiercely Muslim. There again the appeal has to be to reason. Indeed, precisely because we have emerged from such a blood-drenched century, it is extraordinarily important to fight for reason—to celebrate it, to defend it, and to help expand its reach.

It has been suggested that part of the reason for the form that religious movements have taken in much of the Third World, and in India's case specifically, has to do with the way in which these movements, integral to the anti-colonial nationalist struggle, were repressed in the immediate aftermath of independence because they were seen to be inconsistent with the modern constitutional state. Are you familiar with this argument? Would you agree that this genealogy complicates the standard liberal secularist line?

I am familiar with the argument and I believe it to be false. I don't think anything like that happened. In those places where religion was given a bigger range in politics, for example in Pakistan, it is not the case that this had the effect of strengthening the secular bases of the society—quite the contrary.

Colonialism imprisons the mind. But the colonized mind often takes a deeply dialectical form. One of the forms that the colonized mind takes is rabid anti-Westernism: you judge the world in terms of having been dominated by the West for a hundred years or more, and this can become the overarching concern, drowning all other identities and priorities. Suddenly, for example, activist Arab-Muslims might become persuaded that they must see themselves as people who are trying to settle scores with the West—and all other affiliations and associations are unimportant. The whole tradition of Arab science, Arab mathematics, Arab literature, music, painting would then have lost their informing and identifying role. That is the result of a colonized mind because you forget everything else other than your relation with the former colonial masters. I would link the outburst of some of the violence we see today to a deeply misguided reaction to colonialism; it is certainly not unconnected with colonialism.

When the Muslim kingdoms ran the centres of civilization in the old world, from Spain and Morocco to India to Indonesia, there was no feverish need to define yourself in negative terms, as your being against something, seeing yourself as what my friend Akeel Bilgrami calls "the Other" ("We are not Western!"). This is because being Muslim or Arab at that time involved a very positive identity. They had a philosophy, they had an interest in science, they had interest in their own work, they had interest in other people's work. The Greek works, such as Aristotle and Plato, survived in the Arab world in a way they had not in Europe. Hindu mathematics became known in the Christian West mainly through Muslim Arab authors who translated them from Sanskrit, from which Latin translations were made. At the time when the Muslim kingdoms were in command over the world, there was no need for them to define themselves in negative terms as "the Other." We see a similar attempt to raise the banner of "Asian values" today—it was very strong in the 1990s—when East and Southeast Asia try to "Westernize" feverishly. These are particular reflections of the colonized mind.

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