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How the Majlis at Cambridge became an integral part of Sen’s life

  • Published at 07:14 pm September 15th, 2021
Amartya Sen

In ‘Home in the World: A Memoir’, Amartya Sen does not only share his life’s journey as an economist but also challenges many western ideas about British rule in South Asia. In the following excerpt, the Nobel Laureate reminisces his time with the Majlis at Cambridge University

Indians and Pakistanis mingled with each other a great deal in those days in Cambridge, and while there was no India Society or Pakistan Society, there was a flourishing Majlis (the term means an assembly in Persian) which welcomed all South Asians.

It included, among my close circle, Rehman Sobhan from East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) and Mahbub ul Haq and Arif Iftekhar (perhaps the best debater I have ever heard) from West Pakistan.

From my second year the Majlis became a central part of my life and I followed Rehman Sobhan as President, having been its Treasurer (guarding its non-existent treasures) during Rehman's presidential term. Rehman is probably the closest lifelong friend I have ever had, and the Majlis had a role in bringing us constantly together in the mid-I950s.

We held some joint meetings with the Oxford Majlis, and on occasion Rehman and I went over there to debate the Cold War with them. Oxford was well represented by Kamal Hossain, who was studying law and later would be very active in the formation of Bangladesh. He became the first Foreign Minister of independent Bangladesh in 1971. 

Kamal told us that he had been warned that two very fiery left-wing speakers were coming from the Cambridge Majlis and was duly prepared for us. He confessed with some disappointment later that Rehman and I proved to be not so scorching after all.

***

The Cambridge Majlis was quite vigorous in recruiting new students as they arrived each October. Rehman had a persuasive pitch ready to be unleashed for this purpose on any South Asian freshman. In October 1955, when the impressive Salma Ikramullah arrived at Girton College from Pakistan, Rehman showed exceptional interest in wanting to recruit her.

He urged me to accompany him when he gathered the courage to visit Salma to persuade her to join the Majlis. She smiled as Rehman brought out his well-rehearsed arguments as to why a newly arrived South Asian at Cambridge must join the Majlis immediately, or face a culturally and politically impoverished life. Salma listened with amusement as Rehman laboured, clearly unpersuaded by his hard sell. There was bemused scepticism in her eyes, but she decided to join us anyway.

I was not aware then, of course, how momentous a meeting that would prove to be in Rehman's own life, and for the lives of a great many others in the subcontinent and the world. Salma later married Rehman, and went on to join him in enterprises far larger, and far more important, than our little Majlis. She became a pioneering human rights activist and made a big difference to progressive causes in Bangladesh, passionately determined to fight social inequality in general and gender inequality in particular.

As an inspiring and immensely admired teacher in Dhaka University's Law Department, Salma had fresh and far-reaching ideas on the importance of human rights, including the rights of women, and much to say on the practical ways and means of fighting against and overcoming social injustice.

She also brought about a remarkable enrichment of the gender perspective and feminist understanding of social inequalities in Bangladesh and elsewhere. Among other important institutions, she founded the Ain O Salish Kendra, dedicated to working for the rights of those who receive little legal support from standard sources, to fight gender-related disadvantages.

Behind this work there was a deep intellectual analysis of the roots of deprivation. While legislation is often needed in defence of those who have very few recognised rights, even existing legal provisions may in effect not be useful for seriously deprived people because of other handicaps, such as illiteracy and penury. These disadvantages can prevent the downtrodden from invoking and utilising the protective force of the law—if you cannot read what the law says, you are inescapably handicapped in using it.

Along with her friends and colleagues (Sultana Kamal, Hameeda Hossain and others) who were—and are—hugely dedicated to these causes, Salma laid the foundations for a comprehensive approach to resisting human rights violations and defending the claims of the most disadvantaged members of society.

Salma died suddenly in December 2003, but the Ain O Salish Kendra, with its intellectual reach and practical commitment, remains a lasting legacy of her vision and initiative.

(Editor's Note: Kamal Hossain was actually the first law minister and second foreign minister of independent Bangladesh)

[Reprinted with permission from Home in the World: A Memoir, published by Allen Lane in July this year]


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