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The Opposition to Political Tyranny Is Inspired By Ideas and Books

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20.10.2020

This is the acceptance speech written by Nobel laureate and economist Amartya Sen after being awarded the 2020 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade by the German Publishers and Booksellers Association. It was originally published on the Association’s website and has been lightly edited for style.

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I cannot describe adequately how honoured I feel by the gesture of the German Book Trade in giving me this wonderful award. I am also most grateful for the encouragement from President Steinmeier – I am very inspired by his remarks. I much appreciate being welcomed by the Lord Mayor, and feel greatly emboldened by the kind thoughts of Karin Schmidt-Friderichs, the president of this Association and the chairperson of the Jury.

The Peace Prize is closely connected with reading and writing, which makes it particularly attractive to me. My life would have been much poorer if my passion – from my earliest days – for reading whatever I could find, as well as my temptation to write down the thoughts that came to my mind had been supplanted by some other activity, no matter how pleasing. I am very happy that my hosts have found a little corner for me in the world of books.

Reading books – and talking about them – can entertain, amuse, excite and engage us in every kind of involvement. Books also help us to argue with each other. And nothing, I believe, is as important as the opportunity to argue about matters on which we can possibly disagree. Unfortunately, as Immanuel Kant noted, the opportunity to argue is often curtailed by society – sometimes very severely. As the great philosopher put it: “But I hear on all sides the cry: Don’t argue! The officer says: Don’t argue, get on the parade! The tax-official: Don’t argue, pay! The clergyman: Don’t argue, believe! All this means restrictions of freedom everywhere.” Kant discussed why it is so important to argue. We can make sense of our lives by examining what makes them worthwhile. When freedom of speech is curtailed and people are penalised for speaking their mind, we can experience serious harm in the lives we can lead.

Unfortunately, significant restriction of the freedom to argue is not a thing of the past, and there are more and more countries where authoritarian developments are making the freedom to disagree harder – often much harder – than it used to be. There is reason for alarm in the repressive tendencies in many countries in the world today, including in Asia, in Europe, in Latin America, in Africa, and within the United States of America. I can include my own country, India, in that unfortunate basket. India has had in the past, after it secured independence from British colonial rule, a fine history of being a secular democracy with much personal liberty. People have shown their commitment to freedom and their determination to remove authoritarian governance through firm and decisive public action, for example in the general elections in 1977 in which the despotic regulations of a government-imposed Emergency were firmly rejected by the people.

Amartya Sen. Source: Cambridge University

However, recently things have changed a great deal, and there have been many cases of severe suppression of dissent. There have also been governmental attempts to stifle anti-government protests, which – strangely enough – have often been seen by the government as “sedition”, providing grounds for arrest. This diagnosis has been used to lock up opposition leaders. Aside from the despotism implicit in this approach, there is also a profound confusion of thought here, since disagreement with the government need not be a rebellion for violently overthrowing the state, or subverting the nation (on which the diagnosis of sedition must depend). India is not the only country where such confusion can be found – in fact abuse of this kind is increasingly common in the world. However, as a proud Indian citizen I have a sad duty to discuss how autocratic the........

© The Wire


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