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Amartya Sen’s Imagined India
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Amartya Sen’s Imagined India

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Braj Ranjan Mani

Intellectual compromise of the best gives rise to the worst. Amartya Sen’s sanitised, caste-blind perspective on social unfairness, Hinduism and Indian culture, despite the show of reason, eclecticism and inclusive sensibility, is a gross distortion of historical reality, and a classic example of the limitation—and danger—of elitist liberalism.

Amartya Sen is India’s leading public thinker, an intellectual star at home and abroad. A guru of welfare economics, a Sanskritist and a scholar of Indian philosophy and culture, he is distinguished for his outstanding work on inequality, democracy and justice. His sensitivity to injustices of class, gender and ethnicity has made him write with passion and precision about the pains of social asymmetry and disadvantage. It is astonishing, though, that such a conscientious scholar who has built his career on researching social unfairness and exclusion has hardly ever engaged with caste and its consequences. Caste, for whatever reasons, fails to qualify as a worthy subject of his scholarly engagement. Of course, sometimes he names caste in the categories of inequalities but just in passing and in a manner which raises questions about his approach to the axis of hierarchy and oppression in India. Whenever he mentions caste, he shows a strange inclination to minimise its negative impact or significance by invoking the all-powerful and crushing asymmetry of class. It is surprising since Sen is no impassioned believer in class radicalism, Marxism or socialism; he is, in fact, contrary to popular perception, a career academic and (at least now) a neoliberal intellectual, though of an ultra-refined kind. (Sen is himself responsible for such a public misconception about his Marxist credentials. He, in fact, cultivated the self-image of some sort of a Marxist and a radical intellectual in the days when socialism not only held popular appeal but was also in academic vogue in India and abroad. This becomes clear when we learn that Sen’s favourite philosophers, as he himself affirms now, have all along been the iconic liberals John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith, not Karl Marx who comes poor third in his list of thinkers who have influenced him the most.)

Caste-blindness as caste-free

Sen’s attitude to the caste question is not just obfuscatory but dismissive. He plays up class in an unusually banal way that either elides or undermines the significance of caste as an institutionalised inequality. In an independent essay, “Class in India,” in one of his signature and accumulative works, The Argumentative Indian—something he has never done in the case of caste in any of his essays collected here or any other work—he keeps repeating the generally accepted view that “no other source of inequality is independent of class.” This, however, enables him to assert again and again that caste is not that important in itself and how “caste-related conflicts tend to involve a great deal more than just caste:”

…[E]ven though being lower caste is undoubtedly a separate cause of disparity; its impact is all the greater when the lower-caste families also happen to be very poor. The blighting of the lives of Dalits or people from other disadvantaged castes, or of members of the Scheduled Tribes, is particularly severe when the caste or tribal adversities are further magnified by abject penury. Even the violence associated with caste-related conflicts tends to involve a great deal more than just caste. …[T]he victims of brutality may typically be low-caste Dalits, yet the predicament of the potential victims cannot be adequately grasped if we do not take note of the poverty and landlessness of Dalits. * [Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (Penguin, 2005), pp. 207-8.]

What is the point of proving a self-evident truth that poverty added to caste is a much greater menace than just caste? Or, that the combination of class and caste constructs a more vicious and violent hierarchy? The position he is championing, though it seems simple and innocuous, is neither. Sen surely knows this, which explains his eagerness to overstretch the point. Sadly for him, it reveals more than conceals his less than noble intention on this subject.

It is a well-known brahmanical ploy to undercut the significance of caste in the historical hierarchisation of Indian society, obscure the humiliation of caste for the lowered castes as well as to conceal the massive reproduction of caste inequalities in contemporary India. * [For a clear understanding of these points, see my Debrahmanising History (Manohar, 2005, 2011). Humiliation: Claims and Context, edited by Gopal Guru (Oxford University Press, 2009) gives a good theoretical articulation of caste-based dishonour and disgrace through the practice of untouchability but leaves out a significant area of what can be termed partial or semi-untouchability (applicable in the case of lowered castes other than the dalits). For strong empirical evidence of reproduction of caste inequalities in India today, see Sukhdeo Thorat and Katherine Newman, eds., Blocked by Caste: Economic Discrimination in Modern India (OUP, 2010) and Ashwini Deshpande, The Grammar of Caste: Economic Discrimination in Contemporary India (OUP, 2011).] For such and similar reasons, class becomes the only reality, or at least far more important than caste, for the caste elites of all stripes. To bring up the economic (class) against the social (caste) does not make much sense since caste is not independent of class and vice versa, but such a deceptive trajectory comes very handy to the dominant castes, including the elite academics and Marxist mimics, to subsume key questions related to caste, and oppose the provision of positive discrimination for the historically oppressed castes in education and government services. “Make class, not caste, the only basis for all state policy or affirmative action” has for long been the standard logic of upper caste reactionaries. Obviously, anything that obscures or erases the reality of caste is very pleasing and favourable to the oppressor castes.

One does not have to be an Ambedkar to grasp that caste-blindness of caste elites is oriented to maintain the status quo, and in fact, meant to discredit and destroy the emancipatory aspirations and struggles of the suppressed castes. When caste is not even an issue or a problem, where is the need to fight it? What is left unsaid is “let things be as they are” and instead the umbrella of class is unfurled to cover the discriminations of caste. By this logic, economic inequality is the all-important issue—and, yes, now gender too is a kosher category to be taken into account—but any recognition of or engagement with caste is either “narrow identity politics” or “divisive and anti-national.” This explains the imposition of political and moral ban on any public discussion of caste—a sinister but successful ploy that the powerful forces have resorted to since the days of Gandhi-Nehru against the liberation struggle of the caste-oppressed. (It is notable that the Constituent Assembly, despite the significant presence of Ambedkar, never discussed caste, only the issue of untouchability. Since then, the Indian Parliament has adopted the same tactic; it takes up issues related to caste, but has never debated caste per se. This is also clear by the paranoid stand of the Indian State against any proposal of international or United Nations debate on caste on the logic that “caste is not race” and “caste is an internal matter of India.”) All this reveals the continued brahmanical stranglehold of the State and body politic, despite some democratic challenges from below in recent years. There are several rightist, leftist, centrist versions of “harmony of the past and present” and “unity in diversity” through which caste is normalised and essentialised. The trajectory is too well known from the days of Phule-Ambedkar to the present to need elaboration.

In obscuring the role of caste in the scheme of domination, Sen is playing the same game of not rocking the brahmanic boat. Not just subliminally, but in a very conscious fashion. This becomes apparent when we detect in many of his writings a concerted attempt to suppress any presence or recognition of corruption of caste hierarchy. No sooner the subject crops up than he starts citing most obscure, dubious—and at best exceptional—examples of anti-caste tendencies even in the brahmanic orthodoxy and its ancient literature, as a ploy to run interference. He conceals the pervasive sanction of caste hierarchy in the religious and secular Sanskrit texts, but takes great pains to illustrate “the prominent presence” of the anti-inequality arguments in the brahmanic literature:

For example, when in the Mahabharata, Bhrigu tells Bharadvaja that caste divisions relate to differences in physical attributes of different human beings, reflected in skin colour, Bharadvaja responds not only by pointing to the considerable variations in skin colour within every caste, but also by the more profound question: ‘We all seem to be affected by desire, anger, fear, sorrow, worry, hunger, and labour; how do we have caste differences then?’ * [The Argumentative Indian, pp. 10-11.]

Just after this gem, he culls another example of castelessness from a most dubious source, Bhavishya Purana, which he calls an “ancient document” (but which was actually written or massively redacted during the colonial period as it contains many references to the reign of Queen Victoria): “Since members of all the four castes are children of God, they all belong to the same caste. All human beings have the same father, and children of the same father cannot have different castes.” * [The Argumentative Indian, p. 11.]

It is surprising that Sen does not cite anti-hierarchical views from the anti-caste movements and their spearheads but only from Bhrigu, Bharadvaja and Bhavishya Purana, that is from within the orthodox brahmanic tradition. He finds these quotes worth repeating several times in the same book (on page 37, for example) and elsewhere (as we will see shortly). Knowing that he could rarely find anti-ascriptive views from the brahmanic corpus, he makes the maximum use of the exceptions—the exceptional as the normal! And the name of the game is the normalisation of caste, and its essentialism in one way or another.

Hinduism as “openness, tolerance and constructivism”

We find the same citations (of Bhrigu, Bharadvaja and Bhavishya Purana) with much fanfare in his “Foreword” to Hinduism authored by his grandfather Kshiti Mohan Sen. * [Sen’s Forward to K M Sen’s Hinduism (Penguin, 1961, 2005), p. xv.] A close and critical reading of this Foreword (pp. vii-xxiii) reveals an astonishing side of Sen’s sensibility and mindset, as it makes clear that the odd quotes cited above as well as his entire cultural reading of Hinduism, caste system, Indian culture and identity (represented in his Argumentative Indian and other works) are actually not the product of his own objective intellectual engagement but almost wholly and uncritically derived from a fanciful but quintessentially brahmanic scholarship of his orthodox grandfather, K M Sen. It is also notable, contrary to the grandson’s claims, that K M Sen’s views are not that original, but a reflection and representation of a school of modern “progressive” brahmanism (which saw the key elements of what we call today inclusiveness, democracy and secularism in the old brahmanic tradition) which began with Rammohun Roy’s expedient interpretation of the tradition against the more orthodox school which remained loyal to the rather more real (orthodox and hierarchical) nature of caste and brahmanism. * [For this point, see Chapter 4 of my Debrahmanising History.]

Amartya Sen, as he emerges from the pages of The Argumentative Indian (especially the introductory chapter, pp. 3-33) and his other essays referring to Hinduism, culture and caste, seems to be a proud and faithful inherent of this neo-brahmanic progressivism. He proclaims that pluralism has a pedigree in the oldest texts of Hinduism, and even traces the lineage of modern Indian democracy to the ancient tradition of “public reasoning and argumentative heterodoxy.” He does all this marvellously well by deftly deflecting the attention away from the construction and institutionalisation of the world’s most ruthless and enduring system of hierarchy in the form of caste and brahmanism that survives to this day and makes a mockery of Indian democracy (which forced Ambedkar to point out that “democracy in India is only top dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic”). Like the earlier “radical” caste elites who saw the reason, inclusiveness and enlightenment in the Vedic-Upanishadic tradition, Sen is averse to recognise the violence of caste and brahmanism, and their role in establishing the tyranny of the few over the many. His narrative is totally innocent of the “brahman precept and kshatriya arm” that cultivated mass conformity and compliance in favour of caste hierarchy. Through citing a few stray instances of scepticism, rationalism, liberalism in the domain of the privileged, Sen tries to cover up the entire story of brahmanic promotion and institutionalisation of mass illiteracy, superstition and irrationality in India. He reformulates—and embellishes—his grandfather’s cleverly sanitised but selective and distorted reading of caste, brahmanism and Hinduism, in which we find not a trace of Shambuka, Eklavya, Karna (that is, the murderous politics of caste), let alone the acknowledgement of the world’s biggest intellectual-moral fraud committed by the authors of Dharmashastras and Itihasa-Purana. * [For illustration of this point, see Chapter I (especially the section “Forgeries to recast Indian culture in the brahmanic mould) of my Debrahmanising History.]

Making brilliant use of his talent, intellect and eclectic scholarship, what Amartya Sen essentially does, again like other elitist intellectuals in the service of cultural nationalism, is to erect a sophisticated defence of caste, brahmanism and their consequences under the guise of presenting a more balanced, nuanced and “open-ended” reading of Indian culture and society. But beneath the surface of attractive phraseology, Sen’s perspective, too, is centred around the normalisation of caste and exaltation of Hinduism. He is in fervent agreement with the obfuscating brahmanic formulations of his grandfather that

(1) there were considerable variations in the actual practice of the caste system, even in pre-modern—indeed ancient—periods, (2) ‘when an orthodox Hindu suggests that the caste system, as we know it, is an integral part of Hinduism, he is ignoring a substantial part of India’s religious literature.’ * [Foreword to Hinduism, p. xvi.)

At this point, Sen underlines the great vision of his grandfather in “rejecting the philosophy of ‘homo hierarchicus’ [human hierarchy] as a quintessentially Hindu view of life…to be no more than an abstract reconstruction…” (p. xvi). What his epistemic entrepreneurship—addressed mainly to the foreign readers and caste elites within and outside India—is up to, thus, becomes crystal clear: first, he tries as far as possible to hide the prevalence and hideousness of caste system, and then, along with his grandfather(s), strongly refutes any suggestion of symbiosis between caste and Hinduism. And, of course, he remains blissfully blind to the agency that produced and nurtured Hinduism; the term brahmanism simply does not exist in his otherwise wonderful vocabulary.

K M Sen was also a key associate of Rabindranath Tagore at his Shantiniketan, the grandson tells us, and repeatedly reminds us how Tagore’s cultural worldview was deeply influenced by his grandfather’s eclectic, nuanced and critical understanding of the Indian tradition, Hinduism and caste system. He especially notes, for instance, how majestic was Tagore in appreciating his grandfather’s “unusual combination of consummate scholarship and undogmatic open-mindedness” (p. xvi)—and in his understanding “an accurate vision that India badly needed” (p. xviii). And the besotted grandson that he is, he rediscovers, with the fantastic guidance of K M Sen, unparalleled liberality, flexibility, open-mindedness, and cutting-edge criticality in the great Hindu tradition. He proclaims that his grandfather’s “focus on liberality of thought and constructive receptivity yields a much more capacious understanding of the diversity and intellectual reach of Hinduism than the narrowness that is increasingly cultivated by the priorities of sectarian politics or by the fanning of religious orthodoxy” (p. xiv).

The Sens are totally oblivious that it was Rammohun Roy who used the term “Hinduism” for the first time in 1816-17 for a faith (“practiced by our ancestors … well known at the present day to many learned Brahmins”) that was traditionally called Varnashrama Dharma, Sanatana Dhrama or simply Brahmanism. * [For the information and discussion of the first appearance of the term Hinduism (before it became fashionable among the British colonisers and scholars) in two of Roy’s English language texts of 1816 and 1817, see Dermot Killingley, Rammohun Roy in Hindu and Christian Tradition: The Teape Lectures 1990 (Grevatt & Grevatt, 1993), pp. 62-3.] Though the word Hindu (from the river Sindhu) had been in use in the pre-modern India, more as a cultural and geographical maker than as a religious category, Hinduism, as we know it today, is a modern construction of the brahman literati, aided and abetted by the Colonial rule and Oriental scholarship. Among other scholars, Romila Thapar have taken note of this phenomenon in a well-known essay:

The term Hinduism as we understand it today to describe a particular religion is modern, as also is the concept which it presupposes, both resulting from a series of choices made from a range of belief, ritual and practice which were collated into the creation of this religion. …The study of what is regarded as Hindu philosophy and religious texts has been so emphasised as almost to ignore those who are the practitioners of these tenets, beliefs, rituals and ideas. The latter became an interest of nineteenth century ethnography but this was not generally juxtaposed with textual data. Furthermore, the view has generally been from above, since the texts were first composed in Sanskrit and their interpreters were brahmanas. But precisely because Hinduism is not a linear religion, it becomes necessary to look at the situation further down the social scale where the majority of its practitioners are located. The religious practices of the latter may differ from those at the upper levels to a degree considerably greater than that of a uniform, centralised, monolithic religion. * [Romila Thapar, “Syndicated Hinduism,” in Gunther-Dietz Sontheimer and Hermann Kulke, eds, Hinduism Reconsidered (Manohar, 1989, 2001), pp. 54-55.] )

Sen does not see Hinduism in such “narrow and sceptical” light but as a millennia-old, conflict-free, all-encompassing, perfectly rational religion. His eloquence on “liberality of thought, constructive receptivity… the diversity and intellectual reach of Hinduism” goes hand in hand with eliding, erasing, and making invisible the oppressions of caste and frauds of brahmanism—facts that an intellectual like Sen cannot be unaware of. Ironically, through such an uncritical glorification of a problematic and oppressive past, he wants to take on the coarse and communal elements of Hindutva—and he is admirably eloquent about it in the “Forward” to Hinduism and the Argumentative Indian. But, like all the champions of the Hindu Left and Gandhism and their lovely talk of Hindu-Muslim unity, the tragedy and hypocrisy of Amartya Sen is that his caste-blindness and competitive exaltation of Hinduism and Indian culture puts him in close and dangerous kinship to the very sectarian and violent forces he is ranged against. His fundamentally flawed reading of Hinduism, especially his inability to understand “communalism” as the unresolved and festering question of caste in Indian society, makes him a proponent of a vacuous brahmanic secularism which only feed and nourish the Hindutva forces. * [To grasp communalism as a deflation of the violence and graded inequality within Hindu society, and how has the deployment of aggression against an internal Other, the dalit-subaltern, come to be transformed into violence against an external Other, the Muslim or Christian, see Dilip M Menon, The Blindness of Insight: Essays on Caste in Modern India (Navayana, 2006).] The discourse of secularism and communalism in such a framework (in which people like Sen take a high moral ground against the sectarian forces) creates two polar opposites, comprised of two streams of neo-brahmanism, that between them together rather successfully capture the entire spectrum of public discourse, subsuming all issues related to mass exploitation and historically accumulated discriminations that effectively reduce India to a very limited democracy in which only the façade of secularism can be maintained.

In fact, K M and Amartya Sen’s reading of Hinduism, save their distinctive articulation of tolerance and plurality, is as obscurantist and misleading as the wild fantasies of the right-wing Hindu nationalists. The blurb of their book makes this abundantly clear: “A product of many cultures and traditions, Hinduism has generated and assimilated the religious movements of India over 5,000 years.” When Hinduism becomes 5, 000 years old, and the alpha and omega of Indian culture, it reinforces the obscurantist views that equate brahmanism with Hinduism and Hinduism with Indian-ness. It is to be noted that the supposed tolerance, plurality and unparalleled beauty of Hinduism is also the mainstay of the brahmanic chauvinist discourse for a long time. (Also note that it was S Radhakrishnan who asked Penguin to request K M Sen, as the latter’s grandson informs us, to do that popular book on Hinduism. Radhakrishnan, as we know, was another high priest of Indian religion and philosophy who had a penchant for Hinduising everyone and everything, the kind of pandit who could prove, by hook or by crook, that Buddha was “born, grew up, and died a Hindu.” * [See S Radhakrishnan, “Foreword” to P V Bapat, ed., 2, 500 Years of Buddhism (Publications Division, Government of India, 1956, 1997), p. ix.])

The Sens, in other words, fully share and celebrate the fraudulent claims of brahmanic chauvinists who make their caste-centred religion co-terminus with India’s national religion and culture. Amartya Sen berates “the combative exponents of religious politics” for “more aggressive and less tolerant interpretations of Hinduism,” and takes recourse to the elitist fictions of “openness, tolerance and constructivism” of Hinduism and the “old tradition of cogent interreligious discussions.” There may be some truth in his claims but to present such half-truths as the reality of India is a dangerous and blatantly brahmanic proposition. This power-friendly expediency takes him to a point from where he glibly philosophises as if there were no problems in religious and social realms in the ancient and medieval India.

Such an ingenious defence of a virulently oppressive tradition—which includes concealing the crimes and corruption of brahmanism and mixing them up with the broadminded ideologies of Buddha, Ashoka, Kabir, and so on to show the liberality and openness of the past—is an even more dishonest and dangerous representation of the past and present than the very visible red tooth and claws of Hindutva which the oppressed castes and communities can—and will—see, fight and ultimately crush.

Exclusion of Phule-Ambedkarism as the idea of radical inclusiveness

It is not that an intellectual like Amartya Sen does not understand these things. He does, but it seems, he does not want to deal with the internalised falsehood of brahmanism which in its turn does not allow him to see the violence of caste and brahmanism, and simultaneously being able to block out the pain, the anguish and the worth of the struggles of the likes of Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar. Like other partisan pundits, he is in thrall to the Sanskritic intellectual tradition, fiercely proud of the fabled greatness of the past, and in passionate denial of any reference to India’s troubled and contested past. He is completely blind to the fact that India, like most other societies, has a deeply dual tradition. He uncritically glorifies Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru and their majestic contribution in the making of modern India, and keeps his eyes shut to the freedom struggles of Phule, Periyar and Ambedkar. What can be a more glaring example of intellectual corruption than totally excluding the oppressed and their movements and struggles from the discourse and view of modern India? Isn’t Sen’s kind of scholarship—that centres on the greatness of Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru and banishes the dehumanisation of caste and brahmanism to the invisible periphery—also an attempt at the very annihilation of authors of Annihilation of Caste (Ambedkar) and Slavery (Phule)?

Sen often discusses the difference between niti (principle) and nyaya (justice), and bemoans the fact that India, despite a long and brilliant tradition of niti has lacked nyaya. * [See his specious elaboration of niti and nyaya, see The Idea of Justice (London: Penguin, 2009), pp. 20-22, 212-13.] He, thus, never talks—in fact remains in total denial—of the viciousness of the niti, the “lawless laws” of Dharmashastras, the brahmanic social codes, that sanctioned—even made “sacred”—the most inhuman and racist discriminations against dalits, shudras (lowered castes) and women. * [There are hundreds of works—mostly of dalit-subaltern and feminist orientation—available on this subject. Those who are new to the area can begin with Phule’s Slavery (Critical Quest, 2007) and Ambedkar’s The Philosophy of Hinduism (Critical Quest, 2006), and my own Debrahmansing History.] Sen would talk about the “argumentative Indian” without revealing the fact that in pre-modern India, toiling castes and women had been systematically denied access to education under the brahmanic injunctions. “Do not give education to the common people and women” is a common refrain in the sacred brahmanic texts. * [For elaboration and illustration of this point, see Chapter 1 of my Debrahmanising History.] He does not see that education under the dominant brahmanic tradition, or guru-shishya parampara, did everything to stifle debate and dialogue and instead promoted a closed pedagogy and a conservative epistemology. (It was this lack of intellectual-moral integrity in the brahmanic knowledge-construction that made Ambedkar point out that in its centuries-old history the intellectual class in India had failed to produce a single Voltaire, that is, a single dissenting voice against brahmanism.) And, of course, Sen does not see that if there has been a tradition of critical discourse in India, it is largely thanks to the anti-brahmanic philosophies of the likes of Buddha, Kabir, Phule and Ambedkar.

The erudite professor knows so much about Indian history and culture, but this scholarship does not seem to extend to the existence and struggles of Phule, Iyothee Thass, Pandita Ramabai, Narayana Guru, and Periyar. These social revolutionaries do not figure at all in his list of “argumentative Indians,” and for that matter in any of his writings. And while Ambedkar figures in two of his important books—The Argumentative Indian and The Idea of Justice—it is only accidently, as the chairperson of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution in India, with no reference at all to the huge historical work of emancipation he started in people groups that had been oppressed for centuries. In fact, Sen keeps a very safe distance from the authentic Ambedkar, the anti-caste system-builder whose dalit-subaltern vision of Indian society and culture clash with the brahmanic visions of Gandhi and Nehru and Sen’s own. His writings, save the ritualistic, strategic name-dropping of Buddha, Kabir and Ambedkar, reveal no knowledge or acknowledgement of India’s long-standing tradition of resistances against caste and brahmanism.

Like other practitioners of academic brahmanism, Sen too does not see in the dalit-subaltern dream of “annihilation of caste” a vision towards which a new India can move. Nor does he see the point that his heroes, Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru—and for that matter the modern India itself—cannot be understood without understanding Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar, the other side of India and the national movement. When he is done with praising the modern masters such as Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru, emperors like Akbar takes Sen’s fancy because he allegedly paved the “path of reason” or “the rule of the intellect” by befriending some pundits of other faiths and making them talk with the courtly kazis about a composite religion and culture which Sen fancifully tries to sell to the world as a remarkable harbinger of secular democracy. * [Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice, pp. 36-39; see also The Argumentative Indian.] He does not see that Akbar’s tolerance or magnanimity was not simply philanthropic but born of political necessity of securing the consent of all kinds of elites to stabilise his rule, a ploy that every wise ruler employs for his sheer survival. The British colonisers, for instance, did it even better than the Mughals by employing and accommodating a large number of indigenous elites in the colonial power structure. In fact, the British accepted the brahman literati and feudal elements as the “natural leaders” of Indian society and made them an integral part of the colonial racket to exploit India and its common people. In other words, to see Akbar as a harbinger of democracy and secularism, as Sen does like many Hindu and Muslim elites, is a mischievous construction that hides the fact that his court was sealed off from public view and he had a harem with 5, 000 women.

Though it is good that Sen does not see in the arrival of Islam into India as “a dagger thrust in the heart of Indian civilisation,” his tendency to see the coming together or tactical alliance of Hindu and Muslim elites as the foundation of a free and fair society is not just pathetic but also dangerous for social democracy. It is this blindness of seeing the movement toward social justice and democracy in the brahmans, monarchs and other merchants of dreams that makes Sen totally oblivious to the movements against caste and brahmanism led by Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar that, more than anything else, provided the groundwork of social democracy and secularism in modern India.

It is not accidental that in his latest pedantic book on justice, Sen completely neglects the cultural roots of injustices with the clever but well-worn argument that harking back to the past in search for justice would not do. * [The Idea of Justice (Penguin, 2009).] This of course does not prevent Sen from voyaging—he himself voyages to the past quite often and brings back the “argumentative Indian” and the majesty of the great Sanskritic tradition. He loves to invoke the greatness of the old and medieval monarchs in his discourse—to humour the caste elites and hoodwink the Western audience—but he does not want the struggling people to visit the oppressive past to understand their oppressive present. He makes noble noises about justice, but refuses to go into the fundamentals and structures of oppression because, as he says, we have to accept the reality that “we’re where we are today.” Instead of chasing after the chimera of perfect justice, he glibly suggests, we would better be better off concentrating on eliminating remediable injustices around us. But how can one remove the glaring injustices without dealing with structural hierarchy and institutionalised discriminations? How many people can be caste-free and democratic in a brahmanic social order? Or, is continued caste-blindness the way towards a casteless society as his writings and discourses suggest?

Professor Sen, however, rightly points out that human abilities “to understand, to sympathise, to argue” can save us from isolated lives with communication and collaboration. * (The Idea of Justice, p. 415.) The necessity of interaction, connection and cooperation cannot be overstressed. This, however, is easier said than done in a viciously unjust society like India where disparities and distances between the powerful and powerless are still strong—and even growing in the corporate democracy that India has become. People like Sen, whom the elites portray as god’s gift to the world’s poor and dispossessed and as a “an accessible and exceptional humanitarian,” never meet the struggling people—the sons and daughters of Eklavya, Birsa Munda, Phule, Tarabai Shinde, and Ambedkar. They meet only the fellow pundits, the people-in-power, corporate honchos, and lobby for donkey’s years to get the awards and rewards of the establishment. Can the oppressed trust power intellectuals like Sen to be their articulate and insightful champions or should they endeavour to understand the world on their own and self-represent themselves? It may be in the elites’ interest to overlook the roots of crisis, encourage the oppressed to trust the ruling class, and push occasional charity, welfarism or some nice-sounding abstract idea as a way forward for a decent and democratic society, but would this brahmanic-Gandhian approach enthuse the oppressed and supporters of social democracy?

The point to ponder

Intellectual compromise of the best gives rise to the worst. Amartya Sen’s sanitised, caste-blind perspective on social unfairness, Hinduism and Indian culture, despite the show of reason, eclecticism and inclusive sensibility, is a gross distortion of historical reality, and a classic example of the limitation—and danger—of elitist liberalism. Hiding the ugliness of caste and brahmanism, contrary to the fond suppositions of Boston brahmans like Sen, does not serve the cause of Indian democracy and secularism; it serves the entrenched interests and oppressive power. The era of caste and brahmanism may be formally over, but the subject needs to be open, debated and discussed. Not just because they are responsible for so many of continuing inequalities, divisions and brutalities, or to remind the dominant castes or groups of their guilt, but mainly to inoculate, unite and emancipate the oppressed because that past is not yet past.

[Braj Ranjan Mani is the author of Debrahmanising History (Manohar, 2005). His new book, Reconstructing Knowledge: Transforming the Self and Society, is due soon.]