Sunday, April 23, 2006

Tunku Varadarajan: on Amartya Sen, Racial Profiling

With his weekly column in The Wall Street Journal, Tunku Varadarajan is among the most successful Indian journalists working in the U.S. (the only one I can think of who is more influential is Somini Sengupta at the New York Times).

Varadarajan's column is on "Taste," but he has on occasion talked politics, and not surprisingly (this is the WSJ) he leans conservative. Last summer he wrote a column arguing in favor of racial profiling to catch terrorists (here). I didn't find it compelling: racial profiling doesn't make sense to me as a law enforcement strategy. It is, as many many people have pointed out, unconstitutional. It is also ineffective, because terrorists are likely to make an effort to not look like terrorists if they try something on airplanes again. And there are many people sympathetic to the aims of various terrorist groups who do not have Muslims names or Arab, Persian, or South Asian ethnicity. I'm not talking about when brown-skinned men (i.e., people who look like me) are given a little extra scrutiny in the security line at airports. It isn't really a violation of my rights if the screener stops the belt to really stare down my copy of Vikram Seth's Two Lives for a full 30 seconds through the X-Ray. Nor does it put me out especially if the secondary screener gets a little overzealous with the wand.

What crosses the line are intentional administrative policies: unjustified blacklists, or pulling people off planes merely because they look suspicious or they're reading books about Islam. Or detaining 15 year old girls for six weeks because they frequent "Jihad" chatrooms (this happened). Or putting asylum-seekers in immigration detention (aka "jail") for upwards of three years before giving them a fair hearing (this happens relatively often). And so on.

By all accounts what happened to Amartya Sen a few years ago at a London airport fits the description of "extra scrutiny" rather than profiling. Sen records the incident in his new book Identity and Violence; here is Varadarajan's condensed version of the event from this week's column:
Mr. Sen, now a professor at Harvard, was awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize in economics for his contributions to the field of welfare economics. He has a CV so seriously good that everyone, surely, knows of his being (in his previous post) the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, the apex of the British academic pyramid. Everyone, that is, except a British immigration official at Heathrow Airport a few years ago who, on looking at Mr. Sen's Indian passport and then at his home address on the immigration form--"Master's Lodge, Trinity College, Cambridge"--asked whether Mr. Sen was a close friend of the Master. This question made Mr. Sen enter into a private contemplation, rather self-indulgent in the circumstances, of whether "I could claim to be a friend of myself." As the seconds ticked away without answer, the immigration officer asked whether there was an "irregularity" with Mr. Sen's immigration status. And can you blame the man? Yet Mr. Sen--in his amused-but-chippy recall of the episode--says that the encounter was "a reminder, if one were needed, that identity can be a complicated matter." Well of course it can, professor. But in the 700-odd years of its existence, Cambridge had never before had a nonwhite head of college. Cannot immigration officers be just as empirical as economists?
Surely Varadarajan must be aware how precarious his argument is here. He is actually suggesting that it's appropriate for Amartya Sen to be asked about "irregularities" in his immigration status simply because the official can't envision him as a Cambridge Don.

Again, this isn't exactly racial profiling in the formal sense. Sen wasn't denied re-entry, or carted off to some room in handcuffs for 48 hours (like, for instance, the world-famous filmmaker Jafar Panahi). And judging from the passage from Varadarajan's column above, he wasn't particularly upset about the incident. But Varadarajan's tone does bother me: "And can you blame the man?" "Cannot immigration officials be as empirical as economists?" Yes, I can blame the man. With those rhetorical questions, it's as if Varadarajan is nodding to his white readership's prejudices, and legitimating them at his own expense: "I could see how you might think that -- we all look the same, isn't it?" It's a rather sad posture.


Rajan P. Parrikar said...

I thought this was an apposite and delicious roast of Amartya by Tunku. My problem is that although he imples it, Tunku doesn't go far enough and actually call Amartya dishonest, which he is. Amartya touts Akbar as the poster boy of Indian secularism but miraculously fails to notice the long catalogue of muslim atrocities. According to Amartya's topsy-turvy worldview, the primary reason for India's secular tradition are the muslims. Any positive contribution of the Hindus has to be balanced in equal measure by an Islamic dose, and when it is not possible Amartya resorts to the homeopath's alchemy by diluting the Hindu potency to 1 part in a trillion. Amartya standards of generalisation are, to put it mildly, amusing - when he wishes to draw a particular pre-selected conclusion only a case of two suffices for him, damn the blindingly obvious counterexamples. Finally, let's not forget Amartya's bed-wetting with his cohort Romila Thapar, that expert whitewasher of muslim atrocities in India.

12:25 PM  
Amardeep said...

I'm not deleting your comment yet, though I may, because it is offensive and disrespectful, and also because it contributes nothing of value to a discussion of secularism in India.

Amartya Sen is a Nobel Prize winnnig economist, one of the best and brightest Indian minds alive today. So you should talk about him with some respect (if you have any self-respect). I agree with his perspective on Akbar, and his celebration of India's tradition of tolerance, which is real. Your comments about "Hindu potency" and "bed-wetting" are crankish and offensive.

Anyway, most of Varadarajan's critique of Sen isn't focused on you "Muslim atrocities," but on Sen's softness on concrete political measures in the present. That part I might agree with: the left needs to reexamine its position on the Uniform Civil Code.

His one comment on the Mughals is also historically off base. The tradition of Indo-Islamice tolerance was pretty strong up through Aurangzeb, who was an exception rather than the rule.

12:55 PM  
abhishek said...

"And can you blame the man, he was after all just pandering to his conservative clientele."

Wow, this Varadarajan is a piece of work, justifying racism and calling it, of all things, empiricism. Obviously Mr. Varadarajan needs to consult a dictionary. Perhaps he won't have be so empirical if he was at the receiving end of a body cavity search or something.

Tho in a lighter vein, i can see how being a philosopher in the modern world can get you into trouble.

12:57 PM  
Shreeharsh said...

I don't buy it. I can't blame the man either. Agreed that it's a shame that the immigration officer couldn't envision a brown-skinned man as a Cambridge Don. And the fact that Sen took a while to answer his question made the officer ask him about any "irregularities". But I can't call this racism; if anything, empiricism might fit it better (although it sounds grotesque, I know).

But here's what I would be interested in knowing: if we do blame the immigration officer, what do we blame him for? Jumping to conclusions based on the ethnicity of another man? And what can be actually done about these sort of incidents?

Getting back to your article though, perhaps what got under Varadarajan's skin is Sen's ever-so-slightly over-earnest tone. No?

2:04 PM  
Rajan P. Parrikar said...

Dear Dr. Singh,

Allow me to share with you some home truths.

1) Every comment need not add "value to a discussion" or be a thesis of some sort - it is perfectly fine to make an observation or an opinion about people, places and things on a blog without doing into a disquisition. In my infrequent interactions with you, I have observed that when people disagree with your worldview you bring up their "tone." This is a form of intolerance in itself which you (and many "progessives") like to wave at others on the slightest pretext. I shall concede that on your blog you have the prerogative to set your standards and boundaries, but please understand that your standard is not the universal touchstone. Since my "bed-wetting" remark has caused you offense, I withdraw it with immediate effect. In lieu of that, I submit that Amartya has gone to bed with Romila, as the actress said to the bishop.

2) In remarking on Amartya's screed, his Nobel Prize (strictly, the Economics Prize is not a Nobel but we'll let that slide) and other qualifications are irrelevant. All that matters is the quality and substance of his argument. This is more so when he steps outside the circle of his area of expertise which is Welfare Economics. People's reputations don't affect me. To paraphrase a well-known Nobel Prize-winning physicist, now deceased, "I look at where he starts and where he ends up."

3) I don't have an atom of respect for Amartya. Do you want me to fake respect for him when I feel none? Why?

4) What about the pre-Mughal period, the widespread, wanton murder and destruction of Hindu life and property by the muslim marauders? Is that "tolerance"? Note that some Hindus will find your comment offensive (I don't), if they apply your own metrics of "offense" because in their view it tantamounts to making light of the Hindu holocaust.

Warm regards,


2:26 PM  
Amardeep said...

In fact I don't blame the immigration officer overly much, since the event didn't lead to major inconvenience or public humiliation.

But empiricism isn't about making a judgment on probability, it's about evidence, right? In this case that means he looks at the passport, asks him a couple of questions, and then lets the man go.

My problem is really with Varadarajan's tone -- his desire to turn this into yet another instance of the weepy liberal NRI moaning about profiling and racism. But Sen's is not a tone of complaint (he's more amused than offended), and in this case the immigration officer was clearly in the wrong even if no lasting harm was done. Varadarajan can't seem to see that.

2:27 PM  
Rajan P. Parrikar said...

Dr. Singh,

To add to my previous rejoinder - if "tone" in discourse means so much to you, how it is that in the header itself you start out mocking Tunku Varadarajan ("screw loose"), for no other reason than the fact that he presents a different interpretation of Sen? You know what they say, what is sauce for the...

I will make an even more strong assertion - Amartya and his ilk are not only dishonest, they are cowards. Running down Hindus, denying/whitewashing crimes committed in the past against the Hindus, invites no adverse consequences. Their jobs are not threatened (au contraire, tenure is assured) nor is the well-being of their bones. On the other hand they know the reaction making light of crimes against the Jews will bring. And who would want to run afoul of muslim radicals and risk a missing head?

Note: I am not advocating that Hindus adopt violent means to redress their grievances.

4:39 PM  
Jason said...

Does listening to classical music calm down your high blood pressure, Rajan P Parrikar? I hope so.

5:18 PM  
Amrit said...

Hello Mr. Rajan.

I've been visiting your classical music website frequently, in fact I've been practicing with your website's help, but I think your vitriolic outburst here is inconsequential. I think every community has its pluses and minuses, so does the Muslim community. I do agree that overlooking excesses just exacerbates the situation, but you must know how Hindustani classical music prospered under various Muslim musicians and kings.

The topic of this discussion is whether racial profiling can help single out terrorists or not. Although terrorism does stem more from a particular community, I don't think racial profiling can help because terrorists can always operate under various identities. Instead of cosmetic measures these countries should sort out their foreign policies. They should also change their exclusivist attitudes against different countries and religions.


6:09 PM  
Amardeep said...

how it is that in the header itself you start out mocking Tunku Varadarajan ("screw loose"),

Yeah, yeah, I knew that was coming. It isn't very respectful on my part, I'll admit.

But there's a difference between a slangy phrase like "screw loose" and making sleazy sexual insinuations as you have done.

I'll let Amrit's response stand for me on your other points.

7:19 PM  
vk said...

I read this statement of his as a cheap shot at economists in general (the highlighted part). It did not strike me as him condoning such behaviour on the part of immigration officials (And, his cheap shots at economists in this regard has some justice). I have not been reading his articles at length to know the details of his stance regarding muslims and Islam, but his criticism of the indian leftists regarding the civil code struck me as apposite.

7:25 PM  
Akash said...

I think, the synthetic religion Din-Ilahi, founded by Akbar, irrespective of which religion he was born into, is an exemplary practice of secularism and religious tolerance; more so because it had been conceptualized at a time, as far back as in sixteenth century, when religious bigotry and supremacism reigned rampant. In my opinion, that was indeed a radical idea that most of the rulers would not dare, given the structure of the society that prevailed at that time. I don’t think, in any of his essays, Sen ever tried to glorify or even support Muslim atrocities that India had been afflicted with. By the same token, he also protested the deeply rooted malaises in a Hindu Society such as casteism, religious chauvinism and the likes. Sen also reminds us of a thread of Islamic philosophical musing known as Sufi thoughts which deals exclusively with spirituality rather than has any connection with religious prejudices, much like the spiritual movement by the name Krishna Bhakti spearheaded and popularized by Sree Chaitanya in 16th century. Sen also respectfully remembers the contribution of Hindu mathematicians who, arguably, made the most significant contributions in that field by discovering shunya or zero. He is also of high opinion about Kautilya who wrote the economic treatise Arthashastra from which, even the economists of modern times have many things to learn. In a similar vein, he does not fail to admire the scholarly accounts of a devoutly Muslim traveler Alberuni whose travelogue discussing Hindu culture, science, society in contemporary India is supremely informative and widely respected. All these cases were brought up by Sen in the face of some militant propagandas by Hindu nationalist leaders who tried to portray Muslims as enemies and therefore, demanded some of their actions and rhetoric -- such as building a Temple to Rama or killing Muslims are just the spontaneous reaction to or their nemesis for the cruelty that their distant forefathers displayed hundreds of years ago -- should be accepted as justified.

I’m tired of dealing with such obscurantist communal ideas spread by a cohort of people, whose sole intention is to create all sorts of militant divisiveness in the society. The reason may be that the unsuspecting reader is very much vulnerable against such rhetoric and may potentially fall prey to such inflammatory words. That is why I felt the urge to write this long post; something which I usually do not do for a comment that is larded with invectives and personal abuses. Ironically, such elements in a comment only weakens the commentator’s arguments.

8:53 PM  
Amardeep said...

Thank you, Akash. That's very helpful.

9:02 PM  
vk said...

It is true that obscurantist communal ideas and stories of persecution in previous centuries create all sorts of militant divisiveness and persecution and are of no constructive use whatsoever. However, it also appears to be the case that many of the secular intelligentsia think in communal term. Muslims are the other in India to many. Issues which concern them are not discussed in the same fashion as issues about other communities in India are discussed. This fundamentally separate way of thinking about them is responsible for support of things like the separate personal law for muslims. We do not discuss the issues of caste and inequalities in Indian muslim society in the same way we discuss similar issues in Hindu society. There is a considerably greater reticence about criticizing revisionist and fundamentalist forces in muslim society.

The consequence of all this is that the space vacated in the public discourse by avoiding these issues is occupied by people with axes to grind and prejudices to act out. In my mind this is a failure of the secular intelligentsia. It is this failure that the rightwing capitalizes on when they attack people like Mr Sen. When Mr Sen debates on things like Sufism and the syncretic muslim traditions in India, he is conceding the ground to his opponents. It should not really matter whether the traditions were syncretic or not, and neither should the actions of Mahmud of Ghazni or the writings of Alberuni be germane to the issue of equality and communalism in current Indian society. Even if Islamic traditions in India were not syncretic, they should not have a bearing on the nature of the Indian union or the implementation of laws and rules in Indian society.

9:33 PM  
Ruchira Paul said...

This comment is neither an endorsement of Amartya Sen nor a condemnation of his views of Indian history (The Argumentative Indian is still lying unread on my bookshelf.) It is a refutation of Mr. Parrikar's outburst where he conflates Sen's plight as a brown skinned man at the immigration counter with his scholarly musings about Indian history.

The left is quite critical of Israeli policies vis-a-vis Palestinian human rights without anyone losing tenure, as far as I know. That is not the same as denying the holocaust - the two are different matters altogether.

Does Mr. Parrikar claim that there was a similar Hindu holocaust in India and Thapar and Sen have denied that? Or is the problem that India has a shared past with its Muslim citizens that continues to manifest itself in its literature, language, music and architecture?

India is becoming an increasingly prosperous and powerful nation. Isn't that revenge enough for whatever the real or perceived historical wrongs were? What is to be gained by picking at the scab of communal hatred and suspicion? India proudly postures as a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, stable democracy - a pointed reminder to the world as to what Pakistan and other "Islamic theocracies" are not. It either lives up to that projected image or it will surely fall into the narrow minded and violent trap of perpetual anger at a minority community in its midst. Or does Mr. Parrikar recommend a *final solution* to India's Muslim *problem?*

9:40 PM  
Rajan P. Parrikar said...

Let's see - "high blood pressure," "vitriol," "outburst," "final solution" - gee, which bizarro, fuzzball cocoon have you old maids been living in? So now criticism of your tin god Amartya marks me out as communal, is that it? Ha ha ha. Some of the most intolerant bigots and smear merchants around belong to the self-righteous "secular progressive" herd who brooks no dissent, stomachs no divergence from their own party line.

Ruchira Paul: It is a refutation of Mr. Parrikar's outburst where he conflates Sen's plight as a brown skinned man at the immigration counter with his scholarly musings about Indian history.

I answer: I haven't said a word on Amartya's plight at the immigration counter. The conflation that you see, Ruchira, is solely a product of your muddleheaded imagination. Cue for Prof. Singh to wave his "Manual of Tonality in Discourse" at me:-)

Akash: I’m tired of dealing with such obscurantist communal ideas spread by a cohort of people, whose sole intention is to create all sorts of militant divisiveness in the society.

I answer: I, too, am tired dealing with Leftists, "progressives" and secular nazis who whitewash Indian history. For almost 60 years now, these popinjays have had a hold on the marketplace of ideas, zealously controlled channels of publication, censored & smeared people who didn't buy into their fabricated narrative of Indian history. Now that the playing field has been suddenly and dramatically leveled with the advent of the Internet, and their past shenanigans vigorously challenged, we see the closing of ranks and all this squealing about "Hindu nationalists," "Hindutvavadis" etc. Study of history must be guided by a desire to lay out as best as we can, as honestly as we can, events of the past and their interpretation. In this scheme of things, there is no place whatsoever for inventing, contorting and curve-fitting chimera to hew to Amartya's or Romila's or Arundhati's Marxist politics (or for that matter the politics of the Hindu Right), or for sugarcoating uncomfortable truths. Let the chips fall where they may. The motive of a historical investigation ought not to be hatred of any community or group, or a desire for revenge for wrongs committed in the past. All this is so elementary that I am surprised I have to spell it out to a seemingly educated audience here. But like I said, the secular progressive brigade is full of it. Satyameva Jayate!

Warm regards,


3:39 AM  
Jason said...

Rajan P. Parrikar

I really am worried about your blood pressure - you are a very angry man. It is amazing how such cultured appreciation and sensitivity for music can co-exist with such vulgarity and self pitying 'grievance', manufacturing out of those with a difference of opinion from you a conspiracy of 'Nazis' against not only yourself, but the entirety of Hindus no less - amazing - such pomposity and hubristic egotism! But such are the ways and mysteries of man, venom and hatreds swilling in the midst of middle aged infirmity. Hindu grievance my big toe - mark that down as Rajan P Parrikar grievance and paranoia and cry baby posturing.

5:22 AM  

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