‘Argumentative Indian not dying … those who want to kill off arguments and impose their own diktat have a hard task’

Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen, Thomas W Lamont University professor at Harvard, was recently in the news after the Kolkata regional office of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) reportedly stalled the release of a documentary on him. Film-maker Suman Ghosh announced that he was verbally asked to mute some words – cow, Gujarat, Hindu India and Hindutva view of India – after a CBFC screening. Sen spoke to Rohit E David on the controversy, the politics of censorship and the larger debate around intolerance:


Is the argumentative Indian dying in the current political climate?

Not at all, the argumentative Indian is not dying. The willingness – indeed the eagerness – to argue has very long roots in Indian culture, cutting across social and religious lines, and our insistence on arguing cannot be easily ended. India has been particularly well served by a propensity to argue.

Even the Rigveda made room for doubts about “creation” and about God (in Mandala X), and some of the finest discussions on the role of arguments in leading an enlightened life and having a well-functioning society came from Indian theorists, from Charvaka, Buddha and Ashoka, to Shudraka, Kabir and Akbar. Those who would want to kill off arguments in India and impose their own diktat would have a hard task.

Is the recent controversy around the documentary on you simply about a cussed film certification board run amok or does it speak to a larger culture of intolerance?

It would be difficult to attribute the censor issue, which has come up suddenly in such an extreme form, only to the perversity of an eccentric censor board. There is an underlying support from the regime which appointed the board and packed it with people sharing the regime’s political priorities.

Do you feel with the present central government, freedom of speech is being restricted?

That is certainly the case, but that in itself is not such a departure, since previous governments too had imposed some restrictions on freedom of speech. What is truly remarkable is the extent to which the present regime has imposed massive restrictions, particularly defined along a very specific political line favoured by the Hindutva movement.

For example, arresting people on the alleged grounds of sedition for airing political views different from those of the regime (or even – to take an absurd use – for cheering the Pakistani cricket team) is a spectacular departure from the past.

Do you feel CBFC is fully controlled by the central government?

It is hard to control any board fully, and I should think that on top of the political bias heavily encouraged by the central regime, members of the board, particularly its chairman, have introduced additional elements of arbitrary restrictions into the judgments of the board. Those additional elements may make things worse or even absurd.

I have been touring the shops to see whether I can buy a beeper that drowns me out whenever I inadvertently say ‘cow’. The main problem is the regime’s priorities, and the use of institutions of the state for advancing the sectarian interests of ruling parties.

How do you react to CBFC asking for words like ‘cow’, ‘Hindutva’ and ‘Gujarat’ to be muted?

In wanting the beeping out of these words the censor board presumably aimed at preventing discussion on such phenomena as cow vigilantism, the Gujarat killings of 2002, and the real nature of Hindutva politics. This is a rather daft way of advancing Hindutva politics.

The main danger lies in the political line imposed by the regime that systematically restricts people’s freedoms. The censor board merely provided a ridiculous application of nasty authoritarianism coming from higher up.

Is the Modi government suppressing India’s tolerant tradition?

It is certainly doing a lot to suppress the practice of tolerance, despite occasional pronouncements to the contrary. Whether all this will end up surpassing our tolerant tradition, I don’t know. I hope not. As the critical reaction to cases of suppression, including recent cases of censorship extremism, has shown, we are not ready to lose our freedoms without a challenge.

India has had a long history of tolerance. Persecuted Jews came to India from the first century, harassed Christians from the fourth century, oppressed Parsees from the late seventh century, all the way to the Baha’is in the 19th century.

This is not a country where people should be afraid of leading their own lives. They should not have to fear being violently chased by murderous gangs because of suspicions about what they eat. We have to make sure that our traditional liberties and freedoms are not rubbished.  This is certainly a time to stand up and resist.