The Country of First Boys: Amartya Sen Again on Identity and Violence Ten Years Later
Mattia Baglieri 15 September 2016

In An Uncertain Glory (1), written back in 2013 with another development economist, the Belgian-born Jean Drèze, professor at the Delhi School of Economics, Sen returned to reflect on contemporary Indian economic conditions, a topic on which he had already published three studies that appeared at the turn of the 1990s and 2000s: India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity (1995), Indian Development: Selected Regional Perspectives (1997), and India: Development and Participation (2002). These different works are all devoted to examining the economic and social achievements of India and the many steps that still need to be taken by the country towards its political development (e.g. women’s political participation, educational challenges, the political extremism of the Hindutva party, and inter-class violence).

The Indian subcontinent has experienced high-speed economic growth (between 6 and 7% last year) yet is still characterised, in Sen’s view, by a Shakespearean “uncertain glory”. In the Country of First Boys, the subcontinent is depicted as still unable to offer the same opportunities for men and women (“boys always come first” from the early age, while females are often relegated to a subordinate role, Sen underlines), but here Sen’s reasoning expands to encompass the entire international arena and its hottest topics.

The title itself reflects these multiple interpretations: on the one hand, we can think of it, as has already been mentioned, as “the country where male-children always come first”, referring to India as a state which offers different opportunities depending on one’s identity (caste, gender, socio-economics). But Sen also refers to India as “the country of first class boys”. In this sense, being at the top of the class becomes, in Sen’s analysis, a real “first boy syndrome” that Indians (for example, male politicians) consider a tendency to always excel, to always want to get to the highest ratings, to compete, but also provide a good example for others of a complex of ‘actions and reactions’, which usually only a restricted elite from the affluent circles may enjoy. This leaves lower classes perpetually aloof (for example, those who find themselves in a condition of ‘disparity’). Indian economic success, in short, is likely to be accessible only for the ‘front runners’, namely those who for are at the top floors of the country’s hierarchy from birth (2).

But, in Sen’s theorising, this interpretation of ‘first boy syndrome’ also provokes many other questions, such as the following: how can we reject a vision built on one-dimensional individual identity? What other elements instead could produce individual identities oriented towards leading ‘a life of value’? How to balance women’s roles with men’s roles in society despite a history of patriarchal norms? Why has Samuel Huntington’s theory of the ‘clash of civilizations’ proved to be wrong, especially in recent years? Why have multicultural India seemed so far from being able to counteract international terrorism despite the still present stiffening of the caste system as well as its endemic poverty? What lessons should we learn from Tagore as ‘Indian’s father’ in comparison with a Gandhian “ascetic” morality and political legacy?

These are among the questions Sen tries to answer in this recent work, which collects many of his public interventions over the last fifteen years (especially from The Little Magazine), since his first article appeared back in 2000 during the advent of George W. Bush’s presidency, which left so many nodes unsolved for the international community, starting with the still very precarious situation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Those were precisely the years when neocon philosophers influenced the foreign policy strategy of US vis a vis the elaboration of «clash of civilizations» theory (3), against which Sen immediately conducted a genuine battle of “cultural resistance” (4). This mainly comprised pointing out the lack of historical legitimacy for essentialist and hypostatising attempts to reduce (through the so-called process of reductio ad unum) human identitiees. Sen emphasises how even in those cultures considered for centuries “Other” than the West, many historical examples show indeed an attempt to establish a lexicon based on “individual freedom”, which could have prepared democratic institutional models to take roots. Here, Sen is very attached to King Ashoka’s era of tolerance in Hellenistic India c. the third century BC, as well as to the religious syncretism of Akbar (1542-1605) and the Seventeen Articles’ Constitution of Japan (604 AD)). In particular, Sen argues against identity uniqueness not only at the level of international politics but also at the level of internal politics. In this sense, India represents an essential case-study as its ‘Fathers of the Nation’ (especially Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru) always refused to speak exclusively in the name of their religion of belonging or their caste of birth, while they contributed to setting up a multi-faith and secular republic. Sen fervently lashes out against the experiments of Hindutva (the Indian Hindu party) founded on a supposed supremacy of Hindus in Indian society and demanding a pervasive control of the freedom of expression and of the freedom of teaching, as well as of media and universities (including the University of Nalanda in Bihar of which Professor Sen himself has long been Chancellor) (see p. 243). In Sen’s view, the extremism of emotional politics as well as the attempts to discern the identity quintessence of a people can lead to violence between individuals and peoples; a violence born out of exactly the «politics of fear» advocated by this kind of ethnicist party.

Country of First Boys also contains a powerful account of the effects of globalization as a process to be “straightened” in the sense of a real balance between affluent and developing countries, by making it capable of enlarging traditional trade routes that are often forgotten during the development of too many world areas (see p. 118). In the essay Sharing the World, for instance, Sen recalls how G8 countries are responsible for over 75% of the export of weapons across the globe, thereby encouraging a multiplicity of low-intensity conflicts too often missed by international news (5). With this essay Sen demands responsibility on the part of economics, which has the duty to rediscover its raison d’être, precisely in the indissoluble union between “market”, on the one hand, and “ethics”, on the other: a union aimed at ‘promoting freedom as a universal value’ (6).

If Sen recognises without doubt the essential contribution of Western philosophical and political thought in establishing the liberal-democratic model, he cannot but criticize the nation state’s need to ‘assimilate’ difference and its tendency to annul ethnic and cultural diverse identities. In this sense, the democratic model does not require a special preparation (and at the same time it should not ‘be exported’), but it must rather ‘be internalized’, and thereby, produce ‘a people who do not have to be judged to be fit for democracy, [but] rather [have] to become fit through democracy’ (p. 80).

As Sen points out in his essay Sunlight and Other Fears: The Importance of School Education, effective school education must be significantly (and in a proactive way) extended to all nations, promoting a balance between the learning of democratic values (such as diversity and civic education) and vocational training. This is why India should avoid reading its whole history through the lens of Hinduism, not only as a cultural trait but as a militant political driver.

Education, in Sen’s view, should not be confined to “basic education” but has to be extended far beyond childhood, fighting school dropouts as well as teachers’ absenteeism, by encouraging experiential learning and an effective inclusion of girls, for long time considered as ‘second grade individuals’ and often ‘not deserving’ the attention and the expenditure of public institutions. Primary school should also combat child malnutrition especially in poorer families, which are unable to keep their children healthy. He argues that health stands as a true ‘right’ for each individual as enshrined by the Indian Supreme Court since the beginning of 2000 (7).

The Indian educational system should, in particular, recognise a profound debt to Rabindranath Tagore and his work as the poet laureate and as a father of the nation. Tagore founded in Northern India the educational institutes of Visva Bharati (a campus located in Shantiniketan where Amartya Sen himself was born and educated), a progressive school system which attracted many educators such as the Italian Maria Montessori, the british Leonard Elmhirst and even Columbia University’s scholar John Dewey. Tagore embodies perhaps the perfect symbol of the different guidelines that should inspire school systems worldwide. He was, according to Sen, an intellectual capable of a philosophical dialogue with figures like Albert Einstein. He was able to explicate how Gandhi’s religious fervour was “excessive” (when, for example, Gandhi called the terrible earthquake of Bihar in 1931, which caused thousand of deaths, as a ‘terrible divine punishment’ (8)) Tagore also advocated for unity qua diversity, as for him the world was nothing but ‘one nest’ (and, appropriately, he is considered a founding father for two very different nations — India, with its Hindu majority, and Bangladesh, with its Muslim majority).

For Tagore, however, learning should not be measured by performance or by the amount of knowledge one possess. He also condemned memory training, which in his view “is nothing but a parrot-style training”, instead arguing for physical education and letting boys and girls study together (9). But democracy as an institutional model, above all, would take advantage of the reconstruction of ‘the Tagore’s side’, which Sen describes as democracy as a political system that should definitely avoid ‘cultural nationalism’ or ‘chauvinism’, in order to embrace in the full sense diversity of views and opposing cultural exceptionalism. In the portrait of Tagore that Sen draws (i.e. “Tagore as one of the national independence heroes”), based on his ability to balance cosmopolitanism with attachment to one’s nation, Tagore represents the first Indian intellectual of the twentieth century to highlight the confluence of Hinduism, Islam and European elements in contemporary Indian culture. He was, at the same time, an Indian partisan who came to the point of refusing his knighthood to Britain in 1919 when the British general Reginald Dryer’s troops killed more than three hundred people who had peacefully gathered in Amritsar in order to protest against the injustices perpetrated by the British rule.

Sen’s famous assumption that social reforms should prevail on economic growth imperatives serves as the backdrop for Country of First Boys; an efficient liberal system, in fact, is not only the thing that promotes political pluralism and the government by discussion as theorised by Walter Bagehot and John Stuart Mill, but rather an equilibrium between “form” and “substance” is required, particularly with regard to values of responsibility and commitment towards public policies.


(1) See Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, An Uncertain Glory, Princeton University Press, Princeton 2013.

(2) See Amartya Sen, The Country of First Boys, ibidem, op. cit, pp. 130-131 (this essay provides the title for the entire books).

(3) See Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Simon and Schuster, New York 1996.

(4) See Amartya Sen, La democrazia degli altri. Perché la libertà non è un’invenzione dell’Occidente, Mondadori, Milano 2004.

(5) See Amartya Sen, Sharing the World: Interdependence and Global Justice, in Amartya Sen, The Country of First Boys, op. cit, pp. 115-126.

(6) See Amartya Sen, On Ethics and Economics, Basil Blackwell, Oxford 1987; see. also Amartya Sen and Emma Rotschild, Adam Smith’s Economics, in Knud Haakonsen, The Cambridge Companion to Adam Smith, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2006.

(7) See Amartya Sen, Sunlight and Other Fears: The Importance of School Education, in Amartya Sen, The Country of First Boys, op. cit, pp. 95-114.

(8) See Makarand R. Paranjape, ‘Natural Supernaturalism?’ The Tagore – Gandhi Debate on the Bihar Earthquake, in «Journal of Hindu Studies», 4/2, July 2011.

(9) See Amartya Sen, What Difference Can Tagore Make?, in Amartya Sen, The Country of First Boys, op. cit, pp. 199-216. See also Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1999 e Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice, Penguin, London 2009.