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Amartya Sen and famine: Why Bengalis are ‘uncomfortable’ with the economist

By Bhaskar Sur* 

Amartya Sen was the second Bengali to win the Nobel after Rabindranath Tagore and enjoy almost Olympian fame. In his time Keynes certainly was more influential but not more famous. A polymath, Sen made signal contribution to social choice theory and gender equality, but what made him famous was his attempt to understand hunger.
In the late century millions died in famine, mostly man-made, in USSR, India, China, Somalia and many other countries. One such terrible famine was the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, which claimed around two million lives. As a sensitive child, Sen saw the horror of the famine when emaciated people trudged long way in search of food only to die on the pavements in utter neglect an indifference.
Bablu (his pet name) was immensely distressed and tried his best to help them as much as he could. This memory would haunt him like furies and he would have his sense of catharsis when he came to write “Poverty and Famines” (1981), followed by many more articles elaborating the theme. In his view, famines occur not because of the non-availability of food but lack of entitlement.
The most vulnerable section of population -- maybe not more than 5- 6% -- are affected by famines as they don't have money to buy food. It is they who suffer and die while others go about their work as usual. This did not endear him to Bengalis – meaning, of course, educated, predominantly upper caste Bengalis, who suffer from an incurable ideological malaise and the resulting arrogance. For them Sen is more a source of irritation than pride.
Bengali intellectuals until very recently were driven by two passions -- a blind, irrational hatred for the British, and later, Americans going under the pretentious rubric of 'anti- imperialism' and Marxism as a sort of theory of everything. For them the Bengal Famine was an imperialist crime of immense magnitude -- a genocide.
A few years back Madhusree Mukerjee wrote a sensational book "Churchill's Secret War" in which she laboured to present Churchill the villain of the piece conspiring to wreck vengeance on the hated and hapless Indians by denying them food. Sanjay Subrahmanyam, the foremost historian, dismissed it with fun and irony, but Bengali intellectuals lapped it up in the same way as someone suffering from middle age blues takes to viagra.
It seems if it was at all a conspiracy, the target was not the 'real' upper caste Bengalis who were demanding the immediate end of the British rule, come what may, but the inarticulate poor shudras and Muslims -- daily wage earners who lived from hand to mouth. Sen writes: "The famine had shown the most heartless discrimination. While the middle and upper classes remained unaffected, it had worst affected who were bitterly poor even in good times."
Things were complicated by the war-time situation when the Japanese were hammering at the door and bombing Calcutta. India before the war used to import 15% of its rice requirements from Burma which the Japanese had overrun. There was panic and those who could afford were hoarding grains to withstand future scarcity: "The middle and upper castes started purchasing more rice than they needed."
Natural calamity also contributed to the tragedy: "On October 16, 1942, the coast of Orissa and Bengal was hit by a cyclone, resulting in the flooding of extensive areas of land under rice cultivation and the destruction of the autumn ravi crop." Then there was hoarding and profiteering on large scale which the government could not effectively control.
Sen thinks the absence of a democratic government was perhaps the most important causative factor. In this he was patently wrong. There was a democratically-elected government in the province as well as a federal government in Delhi. The constitution of 1935 gave a very large quantum of autonomy to the provinces -- more than they enjoy now.
In 1937 free elections were held in 12 provinces. In Bengal. because of the Congress betrayal, the Krishak Praja Party (KPP) was forced to form an alliance with the Muslim League. As it always happens, KPP, a secular party with large base among Muslim peasantry, was swallowed up by the League. It is often forgotten that India in 1943 was by all intents and purposes a democracy with all the institutions -- a free press, an independent judiciary and numerous civil society organizations working smoothly.
So the government failure was actually the failure of the venal League government -- a fact which the liberal and left historians try to hide and explain away. It cannot be said the Hindu upper castes were much perturbed at this spectacle of suffering and death. The business class made the best of the situation to make quick profits. There is hardly any famine literature in Bengali.
Amartya Sen, with his universalism, wide intellectual interest and refinement is a misfit in Bengal. This explains why the state is on its way becoming another Hindutva laboratory 
The British tried corrective measures. "One of the first decisions to requisition all available stock in the city and distribute the food grains ration shops and approved markets. This in turn led to a procurement drive on a more extensive scale. The British army too tried to combat the spreading famine by providing food and organized nearly 110 millions free meals." The main problem of importing food was the non-availability of berths owing to the war effort and the ever-present danger of aerial bombing.
In his work Sen makes reference to the famines of Stalin's USSR and Mao's China which made Marxists generally hostile to him and dismissive about his work. As we know in the Holodomor or Ukrainian Famine, nearly three million perished in a land known to be the 'Bread Basket of Europe’. They paid the price of Stalin's drive for fast industrialization. 
Of China, he observes, "China had a catastrophic famine between 1958 and 1961 when as many as 30 million people starved to death. This despite the fact China was economically stronger than India and Beijing had developed a system of food distribution, public health care and education at a much faster pace than India."
Then why did such catastrophic famines occur? The leaders "were partly deluded and partly theoretically arrogant and overconfident of their policy But in the case of Ukraine and the Soviet famine there was also a kind of dislike for one group, the kulaks, so there were somewhat a basic lack of sympathy for the rural areas. But on top of that, the lack of democracy… and the lack of information added to the story."
What is intriguing, unlike the Bengal Famine, both these famines took place in peace time as a disastrous consequence of ambitious economic projects of the dictators -- Stalin and Mao. The leftist intellectuals who are so vocal about Churchill's secret war remain silent on the staggering deaths under communist regimes.
Amartya Sen loves Bengal and with his Nobel money he founded the Pratichi Trust to carry on research in education for girls in West Bengal and Bangladesh much as Tagore had founded a cooperative bank to help the indebted peasants. Though Ananda, the most reputed publishing house, has brought out readable translations of some of his wrings, Sen remains unknown to Bengali readers.
There is no readable biography, nor any critical introduction to this multifaceted thinker is available in Bengali. No magazine has cared to bring out any special number on him. The Bengali readers are also not familiar with the ideas of such remarkable Bengali thinkers and writes as Andre Beteille, Ranjit Guha, Gayatri Spivak or Amitav Ghosh.
However, there is no dearth of interest in murderous terrorists who ruined Bengal, dictators or religious cult figures. With the passing of the Empire, the Bengali mind and imagination suffered a steady atrophy. It became provincial and vulgar. Amartya Sen, with his universalism, wide intellectual interest and refinement is certainty a misfit here. This will also explain why Bengal is on its way becoming another Hindutva laboratory.
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Source: Author’s Facebook timeline

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