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Aug 08, 2009 at 11:21pm IST

Public reasoning can fight terror:Amartya Sen

Nobel Laureate, economist and philosopher, Professor Amartya Sen has just published a new book The Idea Of Justice. In the book he argues that central to the pursuit of justice is public reasonable discussion. Professor Amartya Sen spoke to CNN-IBN's senior editor Sagarika Ghose in an exclusive interview.

Sagarika Ghose: Professor Amartya Sen, we are living in times of terrorism and the ideologies that spawn terrorism. India is a victim of that. How does your theory of justice, the theory of public reasonableness deliver justice to a terrorist?

Amartya Sen: Well, it is not so much about delivering justice to a particular person. That's a legal matter. That language would be legal language. But how do you ensure that we enhance justice rather than reduce it in context of dealing with terrorism.

You know, obviously in so far as terrorism gives some reasonable grounds for restrictions on free speech that would be very serious conflict one has to look at. In so far as according to some, it gives reason to torture and other ways for extraction of information, those are some other kinds of issues.

The position that I have argued for is that there is no case for torture in any circumstances, even in those of terrorism. That is partly because it is a very bad way of pursuing information; secondly you also do not get much information that way. It is ineffective.

Studies of torture across the world over the centuries have shown that people under torture would give any answer that they thought would be pleasing to the interrogator. So you do not get very much information. I know that there have been things like of water-boarding and other issues that have come up in public discussions.

There I take a position similar to that of US President Obama rather than that of the previous administration. The previous administration, especially Cheney said that certain things have to be done because they are necessary.

I think it is counter productive, unjust and ultimately stupid. But, the other issue is the big issue. Obviously, in some ways we would like to see to what extent public reasoning can actually prevent cases of terrorism. That's a long run engagement.


I was privileged to chair a Commonwealth commission set up by the Commonwealth Secretary General reporting to the prime ministers and to the Queen. The prime ministers did accept it that in a meeting in Kampala and their argument was that public reasoning is the ultimate weapon we have in reducing terrorism and the appeal of terrorism.

Sagarika Ghose: So is it the idea of a dialogue with the ideologues?

Amartya Sen: Not the ideologues. The ideologues are few in number but they rely on a huge infrastructure of a number of other people. The chap who goes and shoots is one guy but the chap who gives shelter to the one person and says okay, I won't mention to anyone, but you go past here, I can understand your calls etc. For every X number of terrorists there is a probably a 100 X number of people who provide some kind of quiet acceptance of it.

Sagarika Ghose: But in India, like in the Mumbai terror attack case which is very much in the public domain at the moment, there is the argument that fast track courts, summary sentencing is what you need to deal with terrorism and this is how justice must be delivered in terrorism.

Amartya Sen: I was trying to distinguish. I first began with general public, now we are dealing with sympathiser. Then I will have to deal with summary justice potential candidates.

Sagarika Ghose: Are you opposing that?

Amartya Sen: You have to deal with the sympathiser or those who become sympathisers. The most peaceful of people become sympathisers. They tolerate violence in a way which is really difficult to understand. But you can understand it by sense of grievance, colonialism, past injustice in the context of something like castes.

Sagarika Ghose: Trying to understand what creates terrorism?


Amartya Sen: No, by trying to reverse terrorism.

Sagarika Ghose: Trying to reduce it by public reasoning?

Amartya Sen: Take the landlord case for example, which is a different case. If there is a huge amount of ill-treatment which is meted out to the underdogs of society by the landlords and suddenly that game is over. That is not adequate. You need to state that there was a huge mistake, that it is not acceptable. This is the same path that Mandela and Tutu insisted that the white people do.

Sagarika Ghose: In a situation where a terrorist attack takes place as it happened in Mumbai in November 2008, there the public debate and public discussion has been to say, “Hang him, forget the judicial system. Forget the judicial process.” So aren't you afraid of talking about public reasoning and public discussion in this kind of context, it would become a lynch mob situation?

Amartya Sen: Well, the lynch mob situation exists whether or not you discuss the merits of public reasoning. In fact, if public reasoning is the word you are underlining, that is a strong argument against the lynch mob psychology.

You have to detach yourself to come down to an example. I do not have to come down to an example because we live in terrorism today. But thinking of the past when it was quieter then, think of the lynch mobs in the American south. Now, to say that all these people are agitating and trying to hang the black people because they do not like them because of whatever reason, therefore stop discussions; that would be a wrong lesson.

The right lesson would be to fight it. Ultimately, that is what Martin Luther King won on, that's what Mandela won on and Gandhiji won on. I am not commenting here on Gandhiji's non-violence.

Sagarika Ghose: The idea of public discussion is a very fascinating idea which is why I am continually trying to get you to pursue it. But then, could it also become a trial by media though?


Amartya Sen: I think you are being unfair to public reasoning. Take racist violence. That's based on some kind of silly reasoning that blacks are in some way inferior to the whites. The way to deal with this is not to say, “Okay, we will not discuss that issue. We will discuss that issue. You tend to believe that blacks are inferior to the whites. Why do you believe that? What evidence do you have of it?”

What you want is much more public discussion of the kind of reasoning that leads to the lynch mob psychology. If you want to eradicate a problem, there is nothing as easy as when you have caught some one and shoot the guy.

It's not just the question of the enemy, that's why the whole issue of terrorism has been so gladly understood. We are not able to make a distinction between the guy who shoots and the whole community who lies behind him and supports him.

Sagarika Ghose: And that is where you need public discussion.

Amartya Sen: Exactly. Because it is on them that the terrorist depends. You could say he will not give you anymore trouble because you have shot the guy. People like suicide bombers will not be so deterred if you were to shoot them.

Sagarika Ghose: So what does this mean for Indian conditions? Look at minority rights. Muslims say that we are not getting housing because we are Muslims. Hindus say that this is just a chimera, there's nothing like that, there is no prejudice. So how is the public discussion going to take place in such polarised climate?

Amartya Sen: The first thing to do when there is a difference like that is to take a look at which view is right, because they are contradictory views. Is it the case? Is the guy is being discriminated against because he is a Muslim or is it not the case?

There is something to be found out. If the media takes a view that just pulling a curtain over that is the best way of handling the issue, then I think that this is a mistake. It's the media's role to expose it, if it is as claimed or not, one side or the other?

I do not think that there is any argument I feel for not pursuing the public discussion. All the excitement that had been created around race, caste, class and ownership, had some basis in some belief.

Some of them are correct. Some of them are incorrect. I think it is extremely important to know which it is. At any moment when you are dealing with people who are being miscreants, there is a huge number of people involved in giving support. Take the case of Gujarat. The number of people who actually killed may be small, but there were number of people giving support, whether or not they were there in the government is not an issue I am going to address. But there were a whole lot of people whose hands were not in blood but they were standing behind them.


Sagarika Ghose: So the idea is to bring them into the public debate?

Amartya Sen: Challenge them, not bring them into the debate. The word I use is public reasoning. I am not assuming that the public is reasonable.

Sagarika Ghose: But who will reason on behalf of the public?

Amartya Sen: We have to reason. You may have a strong belief that there is an active God who is all the time present and that you can leave it in higher hands. But the truth is that there is no higher authority than us. So if you have to make a change, we have to make it ourselves.

Sagarika Ghose: Let's talk of public reasoning and of those who take the law in their own hands, say those protesting against state terrorism, the naxals or the Maoists, those who believe that we have to overthrow the law in order to achieve justice. How do you bring them to debate?

Amartya Sen: Again, you have to make a difference. The very dedicated naxalite and the very dedicated terrorists, you might not be able to have any impact on them through discussion. Dedicated terrorists survive on the basis of very large number of people who are compliant in some sense.

The person is going around waving a gun in his pocket; it may be a risk to your security. But I have not met any naxalite in my life and therefore to say that they will not listen to any amount of reasoning is not right either.


If you take a broad kind of them, they have been through terrible torture in the past. The question to ask what Gandhiji and Mandela had asked. Is if this is the right way of dealing with it, the most effective way? After you have decapitated a couple of landlords would it would that provide the extra income, extra jobs that these people would need, and the dignity and the lack of humiliation?

That is what politics is all about. By using reasonableness you are making it a very saintly affair. Politics is a very gutsy affair. Public reasoning is a gutsy affair too. In the Gujarat thing, the main issue is that secularism is a dialogue that can help deal with communalism in a way.

Sagarika Ghose: Secularism is a continuous dialogue.

Amartya Sen: If some chap is going on killing members of another community, you do not just arrest him. Of course you arrest him but just that is not adequate to deal with the issue of communalism, naxalism or terrorism.

Sagarika Ghose: So the way of law and order is not the only way to deal with these groups.

Amartya Sen: The heavy hand of law and order is needed if some chap is about to shoot another guy. I can see that I can give him a punch and put him out, I will do it.

Sagarika Ghose: So you are not saying talk to the enemy, do not lock him up.

Amartya Sen: No, I am not saying that.

Sagarika Ghose: But that's the kind of message I am getting from your book.

Amartya Sen: Are you sure you are not reading a different book?


Sagarika Ghose: Yes, I am. I know you were in Kolkata and you gave a lecture there. You spoke very forcefully about Singur, Nadigram and what happened there. There, do you think the Left Front has failed to deliver justice?

Amartya Sen: I am not going to pass a judgment on the Left Front. There are also the Maoists. In Singur, the Maoists had very good relations with Trinamool which is not at all a Left wing revolutionary party. So you are dealing with a very complex situation. Whether the Left Front carried out the tactics or the strategy of dealing with it in an extremely efficient way or not, I do not know. My view on that subject after having been here for the last 72 hours back in India will be somewhat less interesting that what I have written in the book. Someone in Kolkata was asking me what I have said about Singur in the book. I told him I have written nothing.

The issues are quite clear though that the people who are moved by indignation of the class structure take a course of action which involves a lot of shooting and decapitating. Others do not. That does not mean that the CPM tactics against the Maoists was right. Or that the Trinamool's ability to have a tactical alliance with the Maoists was right, I am not commenting on that. If you do a nice programme on that, I'd watch it.

Sagarika Ghose: You have made a case for good television discussion shows, public reasoning, decapitating. Let's bring all of them on board, which I think is a powerful idea. If I may say so, that is also a continuation from your earlier book The Argumentative Indian. Thanks very much for joining us.