As India Celebrates Banerjee’s Nobel Win, It’s Time To Ponder Over Some Issues

Dr. Abhijit Banerjee is one of the three individuals to have won the 2019 Nobel in Economic Sciences for their work on developmental economics. More specifically, his work is about breaking down the larger problem of poverty into smaller, more specific, more manageable questions, within smaller contexts and using clinical trial methods to help achieve better outcomes.

While there was much controversy around the world, surrounding methodology, Banerjee’s identity, affiliation and association were the most discussed aspects in the Indian social space. Since he is of Indian origin, it was to be expected that Indians would be talking about him and his Nobel. Given the age of heightened identity awareness that we live in, and given the Bengali bhodrolok‘s customary parochialism, it was only inevitable that many Bengalis would claim him (and would also get suspiciously close to claiming his prize), even though he is also half Marathi – and although he was raised in Kolkata, he is currently fully American. If anything, he is a shining example of the success of cosmopolitanism. The fact that his name mostly bears the imprint of his Bengali heritage is merely a result of patronymic aggression sanctioned by our culture.

Then we had the politicians. Rahul Gandhi was quick to link Banerjee to his proposed UBI scheme, NYAY, and took a dig at the current government for its economic policy failures. Yogendra Yadav humbly let us know that Banerjee had been his batchmate at JNU. The Indian government found it difficult to praise Banerjee wholeheartedly because he has been a persistent critic of Modinomics. Meghalaya’s governor, who enthusiastically tweeted his ‘pride’ as an “Indian and Kolkatan”, had to end up disowning him after some Hindutva trolls pointed out to him that Banerjee wasn’t exactly a politically disinterested academic.

As is often the case with much of Indian chatter, banal stuff has overshadowed issues that matter in all this garrulity. Among them is the question of diversity and representation. Banerjee is one of the many men who have won the Nobel in economics since it was instituted in 1968. Dr. Esther Duflo, one of the co-recipients of the economics Nobel, is only the second woman to ever have won the prize. She is also the youngest person ever to do so. To a section of the Indian media, however, she ought to be better remembered as Banerjee’s wife who also happened to win the prize.

Why Haven’t More Women Won Nobel Prizes?

As much as we talk about the dearth of Indian Nobel winners, we hardly ever seem to notice that no woman of Indian origin has ever won the Nobel prize. The only woman to have won a Nobel from India was an Albanian named Anjezë Bojaxhiu, better known as Mother Teresa, 40 years ago, for peace. And that too, in my opinion, was the result of a 1969 BBC propaganda video directed by a devout convert (see convert’s zeal) to Christianity.

There is a heavy skew in favour of white men when it comes to the Nobels. Only 53 women have ever won the Nobel, as opposed to 866 men (a ratio of 1:16), most of whom are white. Only 19 women have ever won the Nobel for the sciences, none of them a woman of colour. Does this mean that women are less capable of excellence in STEM fields than men? Maybe, but the alleged superiority of men in STEM often finds potent allies in institutional sexism, sexual harassment and violence in academia, in addition to the artificial socioeconomic handicaps that patriarchal societies impose on women’s education. 

Girls are typically conditioned by a patriarchal society to the notion that they are less likely to do well in STEM subjects than boys. In India, for example, girls are 33% less likely (Table 3.19, p 18) than boys to elect science subjects for their higher secondary education. Even when women manage to overcome all these barriers, their contributions in STEM fields are minimised, ignored or even stolen. Women who by all means deserved to have won the Nobel have simply been passed over for lesser, or at most equal, men. 

The cases of Rosalind Franklin, Lise Meitner, (nominated 48 times for either chemistry or physics without ever winning a Nobel), and Jocelyn Bell Burnell are well-known examples of this kind of axiological violence. As for literature, only 12 women have ever won the literature Nobel. Just one woman of colour, Toni Morrison, has ever won the prize for literature. 

Even Peter Handke, an apologist for the 1995 Bosnian genocide, which inspires white nationalist terrorists even today, is deemed more worthy of the literature prize than any woman of colour, and there has been no dearth of such women who have contributed to “literary aesthetics”, writing in different languages, over the last hundred years or so. The literature Nobel was already tainted by sexual harassment and assault allegations against the spouse of a member of the Academy that surfaced during the MeToo wave last year, which led to temporary cancellation of the award. While that award has belatedly been given to a woman, Olga Tokarczuk (Flights by her is a really engaging read), which raises hopes that more women, especially women of colour like Maryse Condé, who write in languages other than English, will win at least the literature Nobel in the future, the 2019 award to Peter Handke shows that despite “reforms”, the Academy’s moral compass needs fixing. And of course, we are yet to have the first-ever winners from marginalised communities like the LGBTQI, the HIV-positive and the differently-abled.

To look further into the racial and geographical dimensions of the topic, let us keep in mind that while Banerjee might have benefited from Indian genes, the genesis of his Nobel-winning work lies in America. No Indian who has won a Nobel in the sciences has done any significant portion of their work in India, barring Dr. C.V. Raman. Despite the image of Africa as a quintessentially black continent, only 10 of the 24 Nobel Laureates from Africa have been black, and none of these has won a Nobel for the sciences. In fact, no black person has ever won a Nobel in the sciences. All this is not simply because no quality work is ever produced in developing countries, or because the nudge-and-wink message that people of colour are not inherently as smart as white people has any truth to it. It has more to do with structural and attitudinal factors. As a recent editorial in Nature revealed:

“As a small test case, Nature approached three of the world’s largest international scientific networks that include academies of science in developing countries. They are the International Science Council, the World Academy of Sciences and the InterAcademy Partnership. Each was asked if they had been approached by the Nobel awarding bodies to recommend nominees for science Nobels. All three said no.”

A 2017 paper by Harris, Macinko, Jimenez and Mullachery demonstrated that gatekeepers who are responsible for deciding which articles get published in high impact medical journals implicitly associate “Good Research with Rich Countries, compared to Poor Countries”. They concluded that such definitive biases might “disfavor research from poor countries in research evaluation, evidence-based medicine and diffusion of innovations”. Another article written in 2017, by a former editor of the British Medical Journal, describes how implicit bias skews publications in favour of researchers from English-speaking high-income countries. A 2006 review of published research manuscripts concluded that:

“The impact of country development on manuscript selection bias is considerable and may be increasing over time. It seems that one reason may be more stringent implementation of the guidelines for improving the reporting quality of trials on developing world researchers. Another reason may be the presumptions of the researchers from developing world about the editorial bias against their nationality.”

How Does All This Affect Nobel Choices?

 “Qualified nominators” for potential chemistry Laureates, for example, are drawn heavily from the community of gatekeepers referred to earlier, leading to the dice being loaded in favour of individuals – who also happen to mostly be white men – who work in advanced economies. This brings to us to another issue, (which precedes the first one), with the Nobels, the methods of nomination and selection. These are corrupted by legacies of colonialism and assumptions rooted in white supremacy. It is not surprising that Peter Handke has been awarded the prize despite having been a staunch supporter of a genocidal dictator like Slobodan Milošević. 

Racism and apologia for colonial violence have not stopped self-avowed Nobel amoralism, (“literary aesthetics” etc.), in selecting the likes of Rudyard Kipling, (the author of “White Man’s Burden“), Winston Churchill (a genocidal maniac and a card-carrying white supremacist), William Shockley, (a eugenicist), and James Watson for the prize in various categories. One has to wonder, then, what exactly is the message that the Nobels want to send out? Some people’s works and lives matter more than those of others? Or some vagueness to make us wonder if the Nobels are relevant at all?

Indeed. Why be caught up with the Nobels? Jonas Salk didn’t patent the sun, nor the polio vaccine, (because neither was considered patentable back then), but we have eradicated polio because of him, and that doesn’t change even if he didn’t win a Nobel. While propaganda has turned, (at least some), Nobel winners into institutions, Jean-Paul Sartre, who was awarded the literature Nobel in 1964 against his will, refused it saying “the writer must… refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution.” He explained his position thus:

“The writer who accepts an honor of this kind involves as well as himself the association or institution which has honored him. My sympathies for the Venezuelan revolutionists commit only myself, while if Jean-Paul Sartre the Nobel laureate champions the Venezuelan resistance, he also commits the entire Nobel Prize as an institution.”

“When the rich wage war, it’s the poor who die,” wrote Sartre once. Perhaps Sartre didn’t want to be coopted by the rich man’s club. If the Nobel was awarded to, nay imposed upon Sartre only for “literary aesthetics”, then that means that the political import of the existentialist philosophy was entirely lost on the members of the Academy. That’s somewhat absurd if you think about it. It’s possible that the Nobels face moments of existential crisis.

Abhijit Banerjee Writes That Rapes Are An Outcome Of “Inequality Of Access To Sex”

So let us get back to Abhijit Banerjee, and look at him not as a Nobel-winning economist, but as a person with opinions, separated from the institutions for the moment. Quite a bit has been written about how casual media sexism in India has claimed its latest victim in Esther Duflo (“wife also wins!”), but how much is known about Banerjee’s own views on gender and gender relations? Banerjee hasn’t written much specifically on the topic, but if one is to draw any conclusion from an article he wrote for Hindustan Times in the aftermath of a spate of rapes in West Bengal in late 2012, it’s going to be a rather disturbing one. He suggests that rapes are an outcome of “inequality of access to sex” in society. He wears his economist’s hat in bringing inequality into the picture, claiming that the epidemic of sexual violence shows that “there are more forms of inequality to worry about than just money.”

I quote at length a passage from the article:

“What are we doing as a society to reduce inequality of access to sex? I don’t mean publicly provided brothels — though those are not unknown in history — but just the right to a normal conjugal life. If you are poor in urban India or even middle class and 25, you have be very lucky to have a room of your own in the family home, let alone a separate apartment that you can call your own. I remember walking home from our mutual adda one evening some 30 years ago in Kolkata with an acquaintance who lived somewhere in the neighbourhood, feeling slightly puzzled when he stopped on the way to have one more cup of tea before he went home. It was late, past dinner time so I, naively, asked, “Tea this late?’. He hesitated for a moment and then explained — he goes home after everyone else has eaten because there is no place to sit or sleep till they have all had dinner and gone to bed and the dining area is vacated. He was substantially older than me, perhaps 25 and had some kind of job, but clearly there was no way he could afford to get married — where would they sit together, where would they sleep?

Every evening millions of young men like him all over India stand at the street corners or huddle in tea-stalls till it is time for them to occupy their sleeping spot in the one or two tiny rooms that their family occupies. They watch their coevals go by with their wives or girlfriends, holding hands or cuddling, fortunate because their parents were rich enough that they had a place to go to and be intimate with each other. Do they think of sex and how impossible it is for them to get married? Probably.

A lot of this inequality, at least in our urban areas, is a direct result of our policies. We pay lip service to low-income urban housing, but do nothing about it beyond insisting that tiny pockets of high income neighbourhoods get set aside for smaller and cheaper flats, which are usually just too lucrative to end up with the genuinely poor. At the same time we make sure that most houses can be no taller than a few storeys in a fruitless pursuit of some idealised garden city (is Defence Colony in Delhi a garden city or the world’s most expensive slum?). We don’t build enough roads, and our urban public transport, with some notable exceptions, makes sure that commuting is a nightmare.

All of this conspires to keep the land values in central cities absurdly high and our poor huddled in their hovels. No political party in India lobbies for high-rises because every one of them has a stake in keeping those land prices in the stratosphere — in my old neighbourhood in Kolkata, the municipal councillor (who is from Banerjee’s party), is reputed to get a share of anything that gets built.”

It’s quite the kind of intellectualisation that perhaps only an economist of Banerjee’s calibre can muster. His theorisation sounds eerily similar to New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat’s suggestion that “right-thinking people will simply come to agree that some such right (to sex) exists” and that the cure to the incel phenomenon lies in the state distributing sex robots among sexually deprived males to keep them
from running amok. 

It takes quite an imagination, (at least it is beyond my imagination), to construct an entire genre of social injustice that sees the fulfilment of male sexual desire as a ‘right’, and to then link it to broader socioeconomic issues. Helpfully, a brilliant response from feminist scholars Srimati Basu and Brinda Bose is appended to the article, where they blow holes in Banerjee’s arguments. 

As they have written, the major problem with Banerjee’s sexual injustice hypothesis is that it is entirely androcentric and phallocentric. Women, more specifically women’s bodies, in this worldview, are objects that ambitious men compete over, and therefore it can’t be helped if they see rape as an option, if an extreme one, when faced with ‘deprivation’. 

Women’s rights over their own minds and bodies are entirely missing from this narrative, which the cynic in me assumes is a deliberate omission. The introductory anecdote in Banerjee’s piece, where he recollects his adolescent, ‘innocent’ sexual jealousy at the sight of his latest crush sharing an ice-lolly with her boyfriend, is instructive in hindsight. No one seems to ever have informed the ‘innocent’ Banerjee that what he also saw was the girl choosing who she wanted to be with. If a man sees a woman as an object that he must have proprietary access to, as flesh without agency, then it must hurt his fragile ego to actually see a woman exercise her choice. 

Violence is meant to prevent or erase choice. Rape is an act of violence. It is also an act of expressing upon the victim one’s power. Caste-based violence includes dominant caste men forcing themselves on Dalit women. It is seen as necessary to keep the Dalits “in their place.” 

As Bose and Basu point out, marriage is hardly a solution to rape in India, since marital rape is not considered a crime. Marriage for many Indian women preemptively divorces them from economic, social and sexual choices. Also, in the majority of rape cases, the offender is known to the victim, where the former abuses the trust the latter places in him. What’s worse is that often the victim might not even realise that she is being victimised because she has no reference to judge her position from, given how the society she inhabits tends to blame the rape victim and given how women having no choice is deemed an inevitability. 
div style=”border: 1px solid #ffe401; padding: 10px; background: #ffe401; margin-bottom: 10px;”>Also Read: Refusal To Recognise Marital Rape Implies We Value Institution Of Marriage Over Lives Of Women

In most cases, the victims don’t even have the minimum education necessary to articulate and assert their right to bodily integrity because of a patriarchy-sized roadblock to their education. Census 2011 data (pdf) tells us that while the overall literacy rate in India is 74%, the female literacy rate stands at 65% against male literacy rate of 82%, a difference of 17%. When we consider the “adult” population, (15 and above for Census purposes), the picture is much grimmer. 

While the male literacy rate is 79% for this demographic, it is just 59% for females, a difference of 20% (Table 3.6). When we dig deeper and look at our villages, which is where the majority of our population resides, it worsens further – 74% vs 50%, a difference of almost 24% (Table 3.7). This means that in rural India, a man is 50% more likely to be literate than a woman. Of course, literacy isn’t where it ends. Overall education matters too. In rural areas, there are 245 men who have education up to secondary levels and higher per 1000, while the corresponding number for women is 152 (Table 3.10), which means that a rural man is 61% more likely than a rural woman to have at least secondary level education. 

Even in urban areas, a man is 22% more likely than a woman to have at least secondary level education. It becomes a little more interesting if one takes a look at Table 3.12, which enlists reasons cited by individuals for non-enrolment in schools. While 46 out of every 1000 males cite “engaged in domestic activities”, a whopping 218 females per 1000 cite the same reason. “School is far off” is cited by 16 males per 1000, while 27 per 1000 females cite the same reason, which makes it 70% more likely that a girl will not enrol due to transportation issues. 

This might have more to do with societal attitudes towards women’s education than mere concerns about their safety. “No tradition in the community” is another reason why enrolment is deemed unnecessary – 28 per 1000 males as against 67 per 1000 cite this, which is perhaps the clearest indication of the role attitudes play. If knowledge is power, then it’s not difficult to see from these numbers how disempowered Indian women, especially rural women, are compared to men in their milieu. Even when some women do overcome all ground-level barriers to seek skilled work, toxic patriarchy seeks to make women feel unwanted and unsafe in social and institutional spaces. Banerjee, in looking for socioeconomic causes behind rape, was barking up the wrong tree.

 ‘Does Anyone Have The Right To Sex?’

Whether or not there is a right to sex, from an ethical point of view, the right to choose is of higher priority when it comes to exercising the former ‘right’. And an individual’s choice, or consent, is paramount from the point of view of the individual herself. 

As philosopher Amia Srinivasan explains in an engaging article titled, ‘Does Anyone Have The Right To Sex?’, sexual interactions, like all other kinds of interactions in social spaces, are always governed by politics. In Banerjee’s article, as Bose and Basu pointed out, male heterosexual desire has been presented as a given, which is neither sensitive nor flexible. At the same time, female sexual desires and aspirations don’t figure at all in the arguments, suggesting either that they don’t matter, or that they don’t exist. Both options make the idea of sex as a public good sound plausible. By making sex essentially an inanimate object desirable to men (only), it denies agency and indeed sentience to women. 

You don’t expect an object to be able to give consent – you don’t really care whether those delicious falafel balls consent to be chomped down by you or not. What’s more, the bounds of desirability are predetermined in a heteropatriarchal psychosocial context. Only specific body types are seen as desirable, while others are not. This paradigm of sexual desirability combined with the idea that rape is driven by sexual desire ‘alone’ normalises a culture where powerful sex offenders can get away with stuff like “I couldn’t possibly rape her, look how ugly she is”.

This Is Where Incels Pick Up The Thread 

The word “incel” is a portmanteau of “involuntary celibate”. Incels are men who believe that the world is really a sexual caste system where a person’s physical attractiveness is the absolute determinant of their social status, which they believe is at least partly determined by the amount of sex a person is having. They believe they are ‘oppressed’ because they don’t get any and are at the bottom of this perceived sexual hierarchy. 

Some of the more deluded ones, go so far as to equate themselves with starving sub-Saharan children. The reality is that most of them come from middle-class Western backgrounds. Their idle rambling and impulsive theorisation over the ‘injustice’ they are subjected to is essentially a function of their actual privilege. Although they believe they don’t deserve sex, they also believe that sex is really a public good and that the state ought to address their sexual deprivation by enforcing compulsory monogamy through a system of coercive arranged marriage. Some extreme incels have taken to homicide to try and make a point. These are seen as heroes by some in the incel ‘community’. They are also rape denialists. Their belief is that conventionally attractive women are perennially in a state of high libido and that “rape” is really a grudge word used by such nymphomaniacs to indict unattractive men who they ‘mistakenly’ ended up having sex with. What is even more sinister is that they sexualise minor girls too. Since they explicitly dehumanise women and girls and don’t understand what consent means, being too full of themselves to be able to reflect, they pose a credible threat to all of them.

Will the “solutions” proposed by Banerjee and Douthat “fix” incels? Or are they likely to do better with a combination of deradicalisation, therapy and education? When Nobel-worthy intellectuals, like Banerjee, who stand up to defend toxic patriarchal structures, and their own male privileges, are also seen as bonafide liberals, because of their political opinions on other subjects, what message does that send to women who are struggling against those very structures in a bid to achieve equality? 

Can states, both high-income and low-income, fix the pervasive problem of
sexual harassment by improving infrastructure and standards of living? Should women give up on attempting to abolish patriarchy or should men be taught to share power and social space with their female counterparts? If more Nobels in the sciences and literature, (claps on the peace front, though) are awarded to women, and more women of colour, in the near future, maybe the world will get more definitive answers to these questions. Because that will validate different kinds of experiences, (I have not even talked about LGBTQI, HIV-positive and disabled people), in different kinds of professional, personal and political contexts. It may not be the best way to do it, but it’s better than nothing. After all, whether or not the Nobels have any credibility, most people will listen to a Nobel winner.


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