What Amartya Sen said in Dhaka last Friday is perhaps as important as what he left unsaid. Whilst reflecting on Bangladesh's socio-economic progress he did not even remotely touch on politics. Usually anybody talking economy expresses dismay over the state of politics in the country adding this hinders investment, productivity and sustained growth.
Amartya carefully skirted around it focusing on what he understood best as a welfare economist and sharing his findings with us.
He came to receive Bangla Academy fellowship in the company of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, a co-recipient of the award. In the Bangla Academy function, the Nobel Laureate marveled at the inherent capacity of the Bengali language to be enriched by absorbing words, inflections and mode of expressions from other languages.
Amartya also addressed a programme themed on "40th Anniversary of Bangladesh's Independence: The Vision and the Journey," organised by The Daily Star, Prothom Alo and CPD on the same day at the National Museum.
A baritone with sparkling words, he took the Dhaka audiences into the deeper recesses of history and analysis of economic theories and trends.
He was interestingly anecdotal whilst speaking on secularism. But in sharing his glimpses of Bangladesh's current socio-economic directions and the prospects these hold out for the country's future he comes through as a serious, authentic analyst that he basically is. Little wonder, the Nobel Laureate endeared himself immensely to Bangladeshis with his simple but profound words.
The distinguished guest shared his sense of history with us by alluding to a secularist streak in Nawab Sirajuddowla. Robert Clive in a duplicitous move wrote a letter to Sirajuddowla recommending four Hindus and two Muslims, of whom three had already been bribed by him, for consultations with Siraj, pretending to avert a battle. That it was a trap laid by Clive -- he had made all preparations for a war in the meanwhile -- escaped Siraj just as the unequal ratio between Hindus and Muslims in Clive's list of delegation didn't bother him.
Amartya Sen sees Mughal emperor Akbar the Great as the architect of secularism in India. Apart from his one-religion experiment of synthesising religions, Sen thought that Akbar's placing Maan Singh in charge of the huge imperial Mughal army was a paramount example of reposing trust in a person of a different religious persuasion. Akbar's famous Nabaratna Sabha, from which he would draw advice on diverse issues ranging from the administrative to the cultural was a composite think-tank. The legendary Ain-e-Akbar author Abul Fazal's accounts bear testimony to the non-communal culture practiced during Akbar era.
Further down history's lane, Amartya Sen remembered Sher-e-Bangla A.K. Fazlul Huq. Citing an anecdote about him Sen said, even though Fazlul Huq used to say he was first a Muslim then a Bengali, he generously showered praise on Tapan Roy through a letter on his securing the first position in Matriculation Examination under Calcutta University saying he had done Barisal (from which both hailed) proud.
Secularism in the West is different from what it is in South Asia. In the West it evolved as separation of State from the Church, even though religion of the majority retained a special place in it. In our parts, secularism means equidistance from all religions with equal respect for all faiths. Tolerance and non-discrimination are key to secularism.
Fazlul Huq stands out as a pioneer of land reform for his historic amendment to land tenancy act and creation of Rin Salish Board. He freed the peasantry of the burden of debts by one broad stroke. Apparently taking a cue, Amartya thinks radical land reform should be embraced as key agenda in the whole of South Asia because it is politically important.
Of particular significance is Amartya's pointer to the respect Bangladesh commands today in the world as a success story of brightening socio-economic indicators as compared with her South Asian colleagues. The education and empowerment of women, especially their participation in the garment sector, microcredit based self-employment projects and remittance earnings have impacted enormously the lives of millions in Bangladesh. The children have been the greatest beneficiary of the mother's income.
Amartya suggests that with a robust sense of self-respect, Bangladesh, "a big country," should take leadership role in activities centering around adaptation to and mitigation of global warming. Bangladesh has a strong case on the unassailable moral ground of being the country most vulnerable to climate change with successes under its belt despite daunting odds but now infinitely more threatened by global warming. A large portion of its population risks being thrown up and sideways as its coastline shrinks because of global warming and sea surges.
The fact that even Europe, India and China have a "vested interest" in relation to global warming, Bangladesh, at the vanguard of least developed countries (LDC), has a natural claim to leadership in climatic negotiations.
This rhymes in with what reputed climatologist Saleemul Huq in his yesterday's editorial article in this paper underlines as "a paradigm shift in the definition of climate finance from 'charity' to 'polluter pays'." His recommendations for capacity building to negotiate effectively on behalf of the LDCs merit urgent consideration of the government.
The writer is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.