“Protests at Kolkata airport distracted from the real inequities faced by the community”

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen said here on Sunday that the Muslim groups who protested against author Salman Rushdie’s visit to the city were distracting attention from “the real disadvantages” that the community faced.

“A lot of people who are enormously disadvantaged have enormous reasons to complain about other things,” Professor Sen said in response to a question on the controversy at the Kolkata Literary Meet, one of the events in the 37 International Kolkata Book Fair.

Professor Sen said that communities such as the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the Muslims in West Bengal were not as privileged as the rest “in terms of the even-handedness of progress.”

“To subvert that issue into a completely different kind of issue and getting offended about something else — that is distracting attention from the real disadvantages that they face,” Professor Sen said.

The author of The Argumentative Indian said the militancy seen in recent developments restricted the conversation: “Anything that makes the Indian constructive argumentative tradition more militant — that people have the right [to deem an act as offensive] and therefore you cannot say those things — becomes a limitation because it restricts the conversation,” Professor Sen said.

Mr. Rushdie was scheduled to visit the city on January 30, but cancelled his visit at the last minute. Two days later, he alleged that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee “ordered the police to block my arrival.” Not aware of Mr. Rushdie’s change in plans, however, Muslim groups had gathered at the city airport to protest.

However, Professor Sen cautioned against comparisons being made between the recent developments in India and the limitations on free speech in countries like China. India, he pointed out, would always come out looking better in such a comparison.