Free speech and dignified debate are an integral part of democratic functioning. Therefore we cannot but be concerned about the plummeting standards of intellectual debate as evidenced in Jagdish Bhagwati’s personal attacks on Amartya Sen in the Indian media. Not only are Mr. Bhagwati’s attacks offensive and abusive, they are also factually incorrect.

We are indeed surprised by the misinformation in Mr. Bhagwati’s recent articles on Mr. Sen. Mr. Bhagwati charges that Mr. Sen appointed himself Chancellor of Nalanda University. This is patently false, as Nalanda University is a cooperative initiative involving several Asian governments, and India’s then President Pratibha Patil, as Visitor to Nalanda University, was the responsible authority for the appointment of the Chancellor. Amartya Sen was requested by President Patil to undertake the role as Chancellor without remuneration which he did because of his commitment to the vision of Nalanda University, an invaluable intellectual heritage for India, indeed for the world.

Mr. Bhagwati’s claim that Mr. Sen “asked for and accepted a million dollars from BJP Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha for his new NGO, whereas I have not asked for a Rupee or received any financing from the BJP” is false. When Mr. Sen got the Nobel Prize and used his prize money to set up a Trust to conduct policy research on education and health in India (he set up a similar charitable Trust in Bangladesh), the Government of India volunteered a matching contribution to the Trust, in appreciation of Mr. Sen’s achievement and commitment. Mr. Sen neither requested nor received a million dollars. Accepting a celebratory gesture in support of a charitable Trust from your own government (Mr. Sen remains an Indian citizen) is not the same as getting a grant from a political party. His commitment to advancing children’s health and education in India has continued, and indeed his royalties from the book that Bhagwati attacks (An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions) are going wholly to the same charitable Trust.

Also, it is incorrect to say, as Mr. Bhagwati does, that “Mr Sen gratuitously attacked Chief Minister Narendra Modi.” Mr. Sen spoke about Mr. Modi in response only to pointed questions in a television interview. Surely in a democracy Mr. Sen has a right to his views and a right to reply truthfully in a media interview.

Again, Mr. Sen has never denounced the “provision by the private sector” of arrangements for the delivery of “food, education and health” to the deprived. He has never said — let alone “insisted” — that “the government alone must provide them,” as Mr. Bhagwati claims.

As concerned citizens of India, we write this letter because erroneous charges should be corrected for the public record. We also appeal for a commitment to truth, a respect for facts, and the use of temperate language in anyone seeking to engage responsibly in a public debate. Presenting untrue statements in support of false accusations vitiates the practice of democracy.

Signatories

Somnath Chatterjee, N. Ram, Sudhir Anand and A.K. Shiva Kumar

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