Does a Nobel Prize Transform Society?

Abhijit Bandyopadhyay has just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics.
Although he is an American citizen, he is primarily an Indian and was born in
India. He was a student of Presidency College in Kolkata, just like Amartya Sen
was. Since Abhijit Bandyopadhyay is Bengali we feel he is one of us, it makes
us feel pride as Bengalis. Not too many Bengalis have won Nobel prizes so far,
only four till date. We don’t have much else to be proud of.
Both Amartya Sen and Abhijit Bandyopadhyay have been critical of the present
Indian government. Just the other day Abhijit Bandyopadhyay had declared that
the Indian economy was in a terrible state. The rate of economic growth was
becoming sluggish at an alarming rate, something that the government too was
aware of. That the nation should follow the economic model established during
the Narsimha Rao-Manmohan Singh era is something that even an economist
like Parakala Prabhakar, the husband of the present finance minister Nirmala
Sitharaman, has written about in an essay. Amidst all this the BJP, at least to
some extent, is in a deep fix. Congress leaders have been continuously
clamouring that the government must listen to Abhijit Bandyopadhyay’s advice.
If a Nobel winner appears to be clearly opposed to the policies of a government
then obviously it’s quite discomfiting for the latter to show much enthusiasm
about the former winning an award. Abhijit was a student of the famed
Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. He must have also been an adherent of
leftist thought. In the 80s he had apparently been part of a gherao of the VC
protesting the expulsion of a leftist student leader and spent ten days in Tihar
jail as a result. That was during the Congress era. The same Abhijit is now a
Nobel laureate and the anti-left capitalist government can neither embrace him
nor ignore him.
Even the Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus had to face a lot of opposition from
his own country’s government. Not that I believe all Nobel winners deserve
their prizes. Often many unworthy people too have been awarded the prize. I
fail to understand how a commercial bank that charges rates of interest becomes
eligible for a Nobel Peace prize. I also fail to comprehend what sacrifices, what
actions, committed over what length of time, justifies the Peace prizes won by
Henry Kissinger, Barack Obama and Malala Yousafzai.

In the subcontinent we have another instance of a Nobel laureate undergoing
harrowing treatment due to his religious beliefs. Nobel winning Pakistani
theoretical physicist Abdus Salam’s epitaph was defaced and the word ‘Muslim’
was removed from it by unknown people. Even the present government of
Pakistan does not consider Ahmadiyas as Muslims, the community Salam
belonged to. He won the Nobel prize in 1979. The year after he received an
invitation to attend a congratulatory dinner hosted by the Quaid-i-Azam
University in Islamabad. Soon, however, a huge public protest was launched
against him. After Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had capitulated to the demands of Sunni
fundamentalists and declared the Ahmadiyas as non-Muslims in 1974, hatred
for the latter community among the Sunnis was also rapidly on the rise.
Opposed by a protest led by the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami party,
Abdus Salam could not enter Quaid-i-Azam University even after reaching
Islamabad. Thirty-seven years later the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif
christened the physics department of Quaid-i-Azam University as ‘Abdus Salam
Centre for Physics’. However, Imran Khan is virulently anti-Ahmadiya. Abdus
Salam was born in the Punjab province of Pakistan but he could never live out
his days in his country. In 1974 the persecution of the Ahmadiyas by the Sunnis
reached such an extreme that Salam had to leave Pakistan to save himself. Even
books in Pakistani schools don’t mention Abdus Salam as a Pakistani Nobel
Abhijit Bandyopadhyay is an American citizen. Amartya Sen is British. Had
they been in India, I don’t know if they would have been able to do the kind of
research that enables one to win the Nobel. Even European researchers today
are migrating to the US because places in Europe can hardly afford to spend as
much as America does on research.
The Nobel prize has been awarded since 1901. Simply by demographic the
largest number of prizes have been won by Jews, while Muslims have won the
least number. Of course, the best thing to do is to categorise Nobel prizes
according to countries and not faith. Nonetheless, Muslims must be made aware
how backward they remain in the realms of science and knowledge. Nearly all
Muslim countries believe that their preoccupation with religion is of utmost
importance, they remain busy with building mosques and madrassas and
adhering to religious laws over and above modern jurisprudence. A healthy
literary environment, the need for advancements in the medical sciences, or the
work of physicists and the need for research facilities – none of these are

concerns. Rather most Muslims are preoccupied with using corruption to amass
as much wealth as possible. They believe that constructing one mosque or
undertaking one pilgrimage to Mecca is enough to absolve them of their sins,
thus paving the way to Paradise and leaving them with no responsibility to help
make the world a better place.
Who should the Bengali Muslim be proud of? If a Bengali wins a Nobel prize or
if a Muslim wins one? Among Bengali Muslims some consider their Bengali
identity as above everything else while others consider the Muslim identity as
paramount. If only we could consider the human identity as the most important
one then the work one is doing would justifiably become far more important
than one’s nationality, citizenship marker or faith. Identity in labour and not in
race or creed. Abhijit Bandyopadhyay is undoubtedly a talented economist. He
is a proponent of building a society premised on equality and doing away with
social inequalities. He is also a proponent of sterner taxes on the rich in order to
establish a welfare state. These are not new thoughts. After World War II many
European countries transformed into welfare states. Disgruntled and agitated
about having to pay too much tax, many rich and influential people are
threatening to emigrate from their own countries, relocating to countries with
low tax rates. This is one of the foremost side effects of globalisation. Profitable
business institutions have to be cajoled into doing business in a particular
country via the incentive of tax cuts. Perhaps Abhijit Bandyopadhyay has the
solution to these problems.
Human beings desire wealth and prosperity and there is no end to such desires.
The welfare state is premised upon taking from the ones who have more and
redistributing it among those who don’t. This was the reason behind the fall of
the Soviet Union – people had become dissatisfied that while they were working
hard and deserved the money, that money was being given to those who were
not working as hard as they. The same concern has been raised about the other
European welfare states as well. The US has always been capitalist, there the
drive has always been to benefit the affluent. So the rich are taxed as little as
possible. Across the world the popularity of right-wing capitalists is on the rise,
just as it is in India. And yet it is in India that two Nobel winning economists
have worked for the poor and not the rich, they have advocated the
establishment of an equal society. While there are many who do not believe in
social equality, it is still one of the most significant discoveries of human
civilisation – to live together in harmony and alleviate the burdens those who

are downtrodden. Is there anything more beautiful in the world than this
egalitarian principle? Nothing but benevolence, humanity, support and empathy
can trounce envy, greed and selfishness. Despite fine differences in opinions
among the members of the Nobel committee, in certain cases they are still
invested in celebrating this humanity.
In our subcontinent it is a choice few who hold the lion’s share of wealth and
privilege while most others struggle to make ends meet. It is the politicians who
determine the economy that the poor must endure. Millions of people want for
food, clothes and shelter. The poor will continue to suffer even if hundreds of
economists are there across the subcontinent, even if they keep winning one
Nobel after another. They will continue to suffer until politicians turn their
politics away from the rich and influential and focus on the poor and
disenfranchised sectors instead.