Why India, Pakistan treat their Nobel laureates shamefully

There is a common thread of undervaluing our achievers; and looking at ideas, values and contributions from the jaundiced lens of partisan politics.

In the early 1990s, as students of development economics we were told that Amartya Sen, an Indian, had contributed path-breaking insights into welfare economics. We learnt how he had shown the world that relative poverty mattered and that famines were not caused by a scarcity of food. Sen has added a new set of theories to philosophy and economics. By placing human concerns as central, his work on famines, poverty, gender inequality and political liberalism has altered the way development is viewed across the globe. In my practice of international development for the next two decades, Sen’s continuing contributions deeply informed my work.

Much of this South Asian pride melts away as I follow news and views in Indian media especially the unregulated space in social media. Sen is a villain. And his villainy is related to his unsparing comments about Narendara Modi prior to the 2014 Indian elections. Sen created a little disruption in post-Congress-fatigued India that was hankering for change. He referred to the organised violence against a minority community in 2002 and considered Modi’s record in office, as chief minister of Gujarat terrible.

Sen as an independent thinker was, and remains, well within his rights to opine. What is wrong with a global scholar and public intellectual arguing for minority rights in a secular democracy? But this did not go down well with some Indian commentators and sections of the media for whom Modi emerged as the final promise of a shining India that will bask in corporate glory and high economic growth rates.

Sen had been appointed as the Chancellor of Nalanda University by the Congress government. But this was seen as an act of partisanship completely ignoring that Sen is a Nobel laureate and an educationist with decades of solid experience. However, the battle lines had been drawn. In early 2015, the BJP government withheld notification of his re-appointment. Sen stepped out and went public saying that there had been pressure by the right wing government to control the academia and a clear Hindutva pattern was discernible in appointments at major educational institutions of the country.

Within hours, reports of Sen handling Nalanda in a non-transparent manner emerged. Allegations of nepotism and irregularities were made. His alleged lack of interest as the chancellor of the university was highlighted. According to critics, and there are plenty of them, he was absent when the university was re-opened after 800 years. The larger debate also came into play where leftists were once again blamed for keeping India poor, hungry and illiterate. In recent days Sen defended himself against attacks launched by several commentators in a logical fashion; and in a television interview complained about the abuse on social media. This is disturbing to say the least.

Why is partisan politics a driver of merit in our region? Sen is not the only Nobel laureate under fire in South Asia. Earlier, Muhammad Yunus founder of the Grameen movement, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize was also hounded in Bangladesh. The firebrand Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina accused Yunus of sucking the blood of the poor. Her party cadres, encouraged by her stance, criticised the micro-credit movement that pulled millions of poor Bangladeshis out of poverty. The Central Bank in Dhaka ousted Yunus as the managing director of Grameen Bank.

For a variety of reasons attributed to Yunus political ambition and links with the opposition, a Nobel laureate became a victim of a complicated political tussle within his country. The allegations of malfeasance and irregularities though different in scope are not too different from what is being said about Sen in India.

Pakistan has produced two Nobel laureates; and both are contested figures. The most recent one, Malala Yousafzai has been accused as an agent of the Western powers, most notably axis of evil that is the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Indian Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) and Israeli Mossad. Anti-Muslim forces, according to conspiracy theorists, have bestowed the Nobel Prize on her as part of the global “Zionist agenda” which remains as open-ended as anything else. Some even portrayed her as an “enemy of Pakistan”; and television debates attacked her book for not adding the honorific titles to Prophet Muhammad.

Pakistan’s first Nobel laureate, Abdus Salam, who was awarded the prize in 1979 for his contributions in the field of physics, was also not owned officially owing to his faith. As a devout Ahmadi (a minority Muslim that was excommunicated by Pakistan’s Parliament in 1974), his achievement was viewed with suspicion. Salam lived abroad and Malala also lives in exile. She remains a target of the militants.

I am not drawing any equivalence here. Sen and Yunus will not be harmed in their countries. Salam is dead but would have been unsafe and Malala certainly has to wait for the Army to complete its long battle against militancy in the country. But there is a common thread of undervaluing our achievers; and looking at ideas, values and contributions from the jaundiced lens of partisan politics. More importantly, viewing “foreign” acclaim as some sort of a negative association. The degree of this malaise varies but it is there in the region.

In Pakistan, Adam Smith’s idea of an “invisible hand” has acquired a new meaning. Much of the country’s mess is attributed to the enemy forces operating in the region and beyond. In India too, Pakistan has been painted as the key reason for terrorism. While Mumbai and other attacks were reprehensible with footprints of Pakistani militants, so were Samjhauta, Godhra, Malegaon, Ajmer and Modasa – largely results of homegrown “saffron” terror.

There is something deeper at work in our postcolonial countries. Is it about identity? Or is it about growing up pains after centuries of foreign rule? Certainly, our trajectory remains in a bit of a flux. All one can say is whether the futures are green or saffron or any particular colour, this is worrying for the subcontinent known for its diversity, accommodation and pluralism.

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