The Guardian Saturday Interview: Amartya Sen. 18 February 2006

There is something about dining at an Oxbridge high table which makes conversation seem a little inadequate. Perhaps it is the surroundings. We are seated at the top of a magnificent dining hall in Trinity College, Cambridge, from which academics preside over hundreds of undergraduates as they eat their lunch. But Amartya Sen suggests that we should be sociable. Besides, he has some old colleagues to catch up with.
Sen has graciously invited me to dine at his alma mater – he used to be the master at Trinity, and remains a fellow, but left two years ago to take up a professorship at Harvard – before our interview. He can afford to relax at high table, because for him there are no academic heights left to scale. At 72, Sen features regularly and highly on polls of the world’s most famous public intellectuals. Within his chosen discipline of economics, he is chiefly known for his work on economics of equality, poverty and famine. In 1998, he collected the Nobel Prize for Economics for his work on social choice theory, an abstract, rather unworldly version of political economy which tries to make sense of how to aggregate our individual preferences into a workable social whole.
Although he disagrees with some of the more audacious assumptions of social choice theory – for most social theorists, the individual utility-maximiser who makes an appearance in social choice theory looks a little dessicated and mechanical – its starting-point of what it is to be a person capable of making choices has helped motivate Sen’s core intellectual concern with reason and individual freedom.
After lunch, over coffee in the Fellows’ Room, he tells me about his latest project. For some years now, Sen’s concerns have outgrown those of economics to dwell on questions of democracy and culture. In the light of the recent furores over Islam and multiculturalism, Sen has written a new book, Identity and Violence, to be published in this country in July, which will take a trenchantly critical look at the British interpretation of multiculturalism. Sen sees it as his mission is to rescue what he sees as valuable in the idea of multiculturalism from the prevailing British idea of “plural monoculturalism”, which he takes to be damaging and divisive.
What grates on Sen is the idea that individuals should be ushered like sheep into pens according to their religious faith, a mode of classification that too often trumps all others and ignores the fact that people are always complex, multi-faceted individuals who choose their identities from a wide range of economic, cultural and ideological alternatives. “Being defined by one group identity over all others,” he says, “overlooking whether you’re working class or capitalist, left or right, what your language group is and your literary tastes are, all that interferes with people’s freedom to make their own choices.”
What begins by giving people room to express themselves, he argues, may force people into an identity chosen by the authorities. “That is what is happening now, here,” he says, a little indignantly. “I think there is a real tyranny there. It doesn’t look like tyranny – it looks like giving freedom and tolerance – but it ends up being a denial of individual freedom. The individual belongs to many different groups and it is up to him or her to decide which of those groups he or she would like to give priority.”
Sen is also critical of the growing consultative power given to the religious organisations of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus. It does, he believes, magnify the power and authority of religious leaders at the expense of a healthy democratic debate. “Suddenly the Jewish, Hindu and Muslim organisations are in charge of all Jews, Hindus and Muslims. Whether you are an extremist mullah or a moderate mullah, whether you’re Blair’s friend or Blair’s enemy, you might relish the idea of being able to speak for all people with a Muslim back ground – no matter how religious they are – but this may be in direct competition with the role of Muslims in British civil society.”
When it comes to a deeply political problem such as terrorism, for the authorities to advise “action within the community” is, he believes, a great mistake. Sen was in London on the day of the July 7 bombings, and heard the ensuing appeals on the part of the authorities for “the Muslim community” to get its act together. “That was an attempt to bring even more religion into politics, which is not needed,” he says. “To classify Bangladeshis, for example, only as Muslims and overlook their Bangladeshi identity is seriously misleading. To drown all that into a vision of ‘you are just a Muslim – please be moderate and likeable and replace all those extremist imams with moderate and likeable ones’, that is simply wrong-headed.”
Sen has good reason to fear religious sectarianism. Seared into his political consciousness is the memory of how India suddenly fragmented into a soup of religious identities in the period before partition, when people began increasingly to define themselves as Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. “This is the way,” he says, “that the British tried to interpret community divisions in India between Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians. To Indian nationalists, it looked a further example of divide and rule, emphasising the divisions. The way that the British are handling it today makes one wonder whether the cultural confusion that the British had then has now been brought back home.”
The government’s policy of promoting faith schools is a mistake, Sen believes. “To put people in a faith school is to pre-classify people into categories at a time when they can’t even think for themselves. They are told that they have a very clear identity, which swamps all other identities. They are Muslims or Sikhs or Hindus and that is all you are going to get. Now of course, later on, they might be able to overcome that narrowness, but it is much harder to overcome if it has been drilled into you that that is what you are.” It is not that he is hostile to religion, he says; it is simply a question of context. Gandhi was very much a religious man and a religious Hindu, he reminds me, but when it came to politics he was thoroughly secular.
But what about Sen himself? If ever there was a uniquely fluid identity, it is him. Nowadays, he divides his time between Cambridge, Harvard, India and Italy. He remains an Indian citizen, even though he has lived half his life in Britain. He votes in British elections as a Commonwealth citizen and, he tells me, takes his participation in those elections just as seriously as he takes his participation in Indian elections.
In an anecdote in the new book, Sen tells of backing Pakistan against India in a series of one-day cricket matches in 2004 – they were losing, and he wanted to keep the game interesting. “But then they kept winning,” he says, with his mischievous schoolboy giggle, “which I thought was a little extreme.” So you’d happily fail Norman Tebbit’s famous cricket test for determining British nationality? “I’m not sure how much into cricket Lord Tebbit is,” he says, with a mixture of irritation and amusement. “If you were into cricket, then you would realise that who you are cheering for will depend on your location, your regional loyalty, and also on the nature of the game, where you are in the series and who is playing, how well, and whose playing you would like to see . . . In my case,” he adds,” primarily on television.”
Before I leave, Sen wants to show me around Trinity’s beautiful Wren library. He greets the librarian as an old friend, and excitedly shows me the first edition of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, with Newton’s finicky little handwriting. He points to the table where he used to work when he arrived at Trinity 53 years ago. Surely Britain, I suggest, is his spiritual home as much as anywhere? “Yes . . . so the British identity issue is not a difficult one,” he laughs.
Do you see yourself as a cosmopolitan? Sen doesn’t like the word, and prefers to think of himself as having a global and multi-layered identity. “From the point of view of nationality I have an Indian identity. But everyone has lots of identities, depending on the context. I like teaching in Harvard and I have an identity as an American academic. But I also have a strong identity as an economist, as left-of centre, as an egalitarian.”
From the library, Sen takes me in his car to the other end of Trinity College where we’re due to meet the photographer. Standing waiting, he looks thin and immaculately dressed, both stately and graceful. But it is a crisp and cold afternoon, and Sen’s patience with being a photographer’s model soon wears thin. “A background in the Indo-Ganetic plains doesn’t prepare you for this,” he complains. The climate might not be ideal, but Sen left the Indian plains a long time ago, and he seems to be doing rather well.