Economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen was awarded the 2020 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade on October 18. The ceremony took place in Frankfurt, Germany without any invited guests due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Sen participated in the gathering through a live video transmission from the United States.

In his acceptance speech, Sen emphasised the importance of freedom of expression and debate as prerequisites for freedom, peace and progress, noting that these values are facing increasing threat today. He asserted that books play an important role in fostering a democratic culture of discussion and argument: “Reading books – and talking about them – can entertain, amuse, excite and engage us in every kind of involvement. Books also help us to argue with each other. And nothing, I believe, is as important as the opportunity to argue about matters on which we can possibly disagree.”

Excerpts from the speech:

Books and freedom

The Peace Prize is closely connected with reading and writing, which makes it particularly attractive to me. My life would have been much poorer if my passion – from my earliest days – for reading whatever I could find, as well as my temptation to write down the thoughts that came to my mind had been supplanted by some other activity, no matter how pleasing. I am very happy that my hosts have found a little corner for me in the world of books.

Reading books – and talking about them – can entertain, amuse, excite and engage us in every kind of involvement. Books also help us to argue with each other. And nothing, I believe, is as important as the opportunity to argue about matters on which we can possibly disagree. Unfortunately, as Immanuel Kant noted, the opportunity to argue is often curtailed by society – sometimes very severely. As the great philosopher put it:

But I hear on all sides the cry: Don’t argue! The officer says: Don’t argue, get on the parade! The tax-official: Don’t argue, pay! The clergyman: Don’t argue, believe! All this means restrictions of freedom everywhere.

Kant discussed why it is so important to argue. We can make sense of our lives by examining what makes them worthwhile. When freedom of speech is curtailed and people are penalised for speaking their mind, we can experience serious harm in the lives we can lead.

Unfortunately, significant restriction of the freedom to argue is not a thing of the past, and there are more and more countries where authoritarian developments are making the freedom to disagree harder – often much harder – than it used to be. There is a reason for alarm in the repressive tendencies in many countries in the world today, including in Asia, in Europe, in Latin America, in Africa and within the United States of America.

Suppression of dissent in India

I can include my own country, India, in that unfortunate basket. India has had in the past, after it secured independence from British colonial rule, a fine history of being a secular democracy with much personal liberty. People have shown their commitment to freedom and their determination to remove authoritarian governance through firm and decisive public action, for example in the general elections in 1977 in which the despotic regulations of a government-imposed “Emergency” were firmly rejected by the people.

However, recently things have changed a great deal, and there have been many cases of severe suppression of dissent. There have also been governmental attempts to stifle anti-government protests, which – strangely enough – have often been seen by the government as “sedition”, providing grounds for arrest. This diagnosis has been used to lock up opposition leaders. Aside from the despotism implicit in this approach, there is also a profound confusion of thought here, since disagreement with the government need not be a rebellion for violently overthrowing the state, or subverting the nation (on which the diagnosis of sedition must depend).

India is not the only country where such confusion can be found – in fact abuse of this kind is increasingly common in the world. However, as a proud Indian citizen, I have a sad duty to discuss how autocratic the governance of my own country has become.

When I was in school in British-ruled colonial India, many of my relations, who were non-violently agitating for India’s independence (inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and other champions of freedom), were in British jails under what was described as “preventive detention”, allegedly to stop them from doing anything violent, even though they had not done any such thing.

After India’s Independence, preventive detention as a form of incarceration was halted, but then it was reintroduced, initially by the Congress government, in a relatively mild form. That was bad enough, but under the Hindutva-oriented BJP-government, now in office, preventive detention has acquired a much bigger role, allowing easy arrests and imprisonment of opposition politicians without trial.

Indeed, from last year, under the provision of a freshly devised Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA, for short), the state can unilaterally declare someone to be a “terrorist”, which allows them to send this alleged terrorist to prison, without trial. A number of human rights activists have been designated as terrorists and are in jail already under this governmental arrangement, and many others have been warned that the UAPA would be applied to them unless they obey the authorities and stop being anti-government.

When someone is described as being “anti-national”, this is, of course, a big philosophical denunciation, but in today’s India it may mean nothing more than the person has made some critical remarks about the government in office. There is a confusion here between “anti-government” and “anti-national”.

The courts have sometimes been able to stop some of these abusive practices, but given the slow movements of the courts, and the differences of opinion within India’s large Supreme Court, this has not always been an effective remedy. Human rights of individuals have been restricted in India in many different ways. Organisations – national and international – that fight hard in favour of individual rights have been put increasingly under pressure. One of the most prominent defenders of human rights in the world, Amnesty International, has been forced to leave India as a result of governmental intervention, including the closing of its bank account.

Persistent inequality

The pursuit of authoritarianism, in general, is sometimes combined with the persecution of a particular section of the nation. Specially unequal treatment often relates to established divisions of race, colour, caste, religion, or immigration status.

The low-caste former “untouchables” – now called Dalits – continue to get the benefits of affirmative action (in terms of employment and education) that were introduced at the time of India’s independence, but their lives remain very deprived. In terms of social relations, they are often very harshly treated, and cases of rape or murder of Dalits by upper-caste men, which have become common events, have frequently been ignored – or covered up – by the Government, despite public protests.

This type of inequity, while depressingly persistent in India under present rulers, is, again, not unique to India, but it is particularly intolerable in India given its long history of fighting against caste-based inequity, under the leadership of Gandhi, Ambedkar and other political leaders.

However, unique it is not. For example, while America has been a pioneering leader in advancing the understanding of individual rights in general, and human rights in particular, the firmness of the white-black division in America, originally connected with the institution of slavery, has helped to sustain the deprivation and degradation of black Americans.

A Black Lives Matter protest in London. Photo credit: Reuters

The interesting thing about the recent expansion of protest movements in America, such as Black Lives Matter, is not that they receive support (it could hardly be otherwise), but the fact that the issue of equity of African Americans has been so slow in getting effective recognition despite the vigour of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

Happily, the need for racial equity is, at last, receiving considerable attention in America now, but it is surprising how much resistance – and sometimes opposition – the movement can even now encounter, in implicit as well as explicit ways.

Religious divide

Returning to India, and considering another kind of inequality, the present authorities have been particularly severe on the rights of Muslims, even to the extent of restricting their citizenship rights, compared with non-Muslims. Despite centuries of peaceful co-existence between Hindus and Muslims, there have been striking attempts in recent years by politically extremist Hindu organisations to treat indigenous Muslims somewhat like foreigners who are often accused of doing harm to the nation. India was not like this until the power of extremist Hindu politics became as strong as it has recently become.

Mahatma Gandhi was a Hindu, and so was Rabindranath Tagore – I should add, so am I –, but as Indians, they did not treat the Hindu-Muslim distinction as a matter of any political moment. Tagore chose to introduce himself at Oxford, when giving his famous Hibbert Lectures, as someone who came from the confluence of three cultural streams, which – in addition to Western influence – combined Hinduism and Islam.

Indian culture is a combined, indeed a joint, product of people of different religious faiths, and this can be seen in different fields of culture – from music and literature to painting and architecture. Even the very first translation and propagation of Hindu philosophical texts – the Upanishads – for use outside India was done on the initiative of the Mughal prince, Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Queen Mumtaz, in whose memory the beautiful Taj Mahal was built in Agra by Dara’s father, Emperor Shah Jahan.

The Hindu sectarians have done their best to suppress important facts about the joint history of Hindus and Muslims, making India a lesser country. Led by the Government’s current ideological priorities, school textbooks in India are, to a great extent, being rewritten now to present a seriously revisionist history, reducing – or ignoring altogether – the contributions of Muslims.

Despite the government’s power to call anyone a terrorist under UAPA, those accused are typically committed to non-violent protests, in the way that Gandhi had advocated. This applies particularly to newly emerging secular resistance, often led by student leaders. For example, Umar Khalid, a Muslim scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University and a major student leader, who is appreciated by Hindus, Muslims, everyone, has been arrested and imprisoned as an alleged “terrorist” through the use of UAPA, has eloquently expressed the political commitment to peaceful protest of the secular movement he leads:

We will not respond to violence with violence. We will not respond to hate with hate. If they spread hate, we will respond to it by spreading love. If they beat us with lathis [sticks], we will hold aloft the Tricolour [the Indian national flag]. If they fire bullets, then we will hold the Constitution and raise our hands.  

As commentators – at home and abroad – have pointed out, the political activities of Khalid and other student leaders have not given any room for the government to call them “terrorists”, no matter what license the Government has given itself to call anyone anything they like, for keeping leaders like Khalid in jail.

Umar Khalid at a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Delhi in December. Photo credit: PTI

Authoritarianism worldwide

As a school boy, I remember asking my uncle, who was imprisoned by the British Raj under preventive detention, how long would the injustice of arbitrary imprisonment continue in India, and he had then given me what he thought was a pessimistic answer: “Until the British rule ends”. It appears, alas, that the end of British rule may not be quite enough. I saw in the papers today that the Government has decided to try them for sedition immediately.

I have been mainly talking about a couple of countries – India and the USA – to illustrate the hold of autocracy and inequity in the modern world, but I could have talked about many more – at least twenty or thirty other countries. The exact process of the imposition of authoritarianism and the justifications presented can vary between one country and another, but the end results have a considerable similarity.

To start with an example from Asia, the use of despotic power in the Philippines by the ruling government has been championed as something essential for stopping the drug trade and other criminal activities. That power has often been widely used for killing people without trial.

In Hungary the government has grabbed authoritarian powers in the name of stopping immigration of refugees from outside Europe, and for the alleged need to control the media and to silence opposition parties, claimed to be necessary for orderly governance. In Poland, several individual rights have been abandoned to help in giving priority to the government’s policy of persecuting homosexuals, including the establishment of particular regions of the country that are to be kept as “LGBT-free zones”.

To add an example from Latin America, the intolerant present government of Brazil came to office by campaigning for the alleged necessity of higher wages of the military (whose help they needed) and through its promise to save the country from such conservative nightmares as same-sex marriage, homosexuality, affirmative action, abortion, drug liberalisation and secularism. The pursuit of autocracy is clearly a many-splendoured thing.

Authoritarianism imposes direct penalties on people, including the violation of liberty and political freedom. But going beyond them, social advancement depends greatly on human cooperation, and a splintering of society through the persecution of disfavoured groups can make collaboration for progress that much more difficult.

It is not my intention to argue that no social progress can ever be made in an authoritarian system. That can sometimes happen, but there tend to be serious obstacles to progress when arguments and critical discussions are prohibited, and the interests of some people are persistently ignored. As Coleridge had noted, it is possible to read Shakespeare “by flashes of lightning”, but there is a case for doing our reading in normal light.

The world does face today a pandemic of authoritarianism, as well as a pandemic of disease, which debilitates human life in distinct but interrelated ways. Given our global connections and the importance of our shared humanity, there are reasons for us to be seriously concerned not only about our own country, but also about others, taking an interest in problems all over the world.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr wrote in 1963, in a letter from Birmingham Jail (not long before he was assassinated): “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. It would be hard to find a more urgent social need today than global resistance to growing authoritarianism across the world.

The needed resistance can come in many different ways, but greater use of reading, talking and arguing would undoubtedly be a part of what Immanuel Kant saw as “freedom to make public use of reason on all matters”.

The opposition to political tyranny is inspired by ideas and books. For Martin Luther King, as for the young student leaders today, it has to be a non-violent process. It is also a journey towards durable peace.

Read the full speech here.