Ashis Nandy’s fall from grace

A rather impulsive statement made during a discussion session within the Jaipur literature festival last month has landed Nandy in all manner of trouble, FIR and a possibility of arrest under provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The celebrated academic, author, social science practitioner took the sage counsel of his family and friends and quickly and discreetly left the festival venue, without further aggravating his case by directly joining issues with his detractors, and came back to the familiar ecosystem in Delhi. There he appeared on several TV channels to elaborate on the meaning and rationale behind his apparently atrocious statement and to explain the context in which it was made. Subsequently he appealed, successfully, to the Supreme Court to negate the immediate legal fall out of the FIR and the court cases (enroute, hopefully, to quashing of the FIR and the cases filed), though earning in this process a mild rap on his knuckles from the court for his unwarranted generalization that is, to say the least, susceptible to misunderstanding.


Since then the media and the net have bristled with comments, commentaries, articles posted either as outright critiques or as providing nuanced justification for Nandy’s comments (basically further restating and elaborating his own explanations, drawing on his ‘supposed’ credential as somebody consistently supporting the struggle and the aspirations of the backward classes). A third category of writings took the ruckus as another illustration of the diminishing space for the freedom of speech in the practice of democracy in this country. However, almost everybody has agreed that the statement was a clumsily worded sweeping generalization lacking any empirical basis that can be subjected to serious scrutiny. And this coming from a seasoned academic is only slightly short of scandalous.


If one listens carefully to his short speech (in the video posted in Tehelka.com) prior to the bombshell statement there is not much new or arresting in what he said except his dislike or impatience with too much emphasis on rooting out corruption to the extent of instituting too harsh measures and regulations (Singapore he reckons as an example of a corruption-free country) which, to his taste, might border on being inhuman. He also informs that Madhu Koda is an unacknowledged dalit billionaire in the country and suggests this fact probably as an indication for his admiration for a dalit who learnt the same game of working the political and economic system to his advantage that those belonging to upper castes/classes have played all these years since independence and amassed wealth. He ended this part of his speech with a sarcastic reference to instances about upper class people/elites being able to use elaborate and devious detours and their connections so that their corrupt practices do not fall foul of law and also not look like corruption in the popular perception. But representatives of the subaltern classes trying to be aspirational in same way but not having such protective network of similarly interested and strategically positioned friends and associates in the administrative and political structures to ‘manage’ their acts of commission and omission look utterly corrupt.


By implication the dalits and the backward class people are not yet smart enough to camouflage their acts and get caught easily. This cynical suggestion, though Nandy obliquely hint at it, was the backdrop for his more blunt (and what he himself called ‘vulgar’) statement to come later. An interjection at this point of the discussion (before Nandy ended his submission) came from Tarun Tejpal, another participant in the discussion, who offered his view that it was possible to look at corruption as a kind of social ‘equaliser’, which enables members from dalits and the backward castes learning the tricks of looting and plunder of public money by subverting the governance and the administrative system through politically expedient means.


It was almost on a cue to what Tejpal said and being provoked to articulate a competitively more bizarre and subversive formulation, Nandy took the mike and made the now infamous statement about dalits, scheduled castes and tribes being the most corrupt in India today. As if this was not enough by way of an outlandish hypothesis, he added for good measure that in West Bengal, which according to him was the cleanest state in India has remained so because for the last hundred and odd years no backward caste people had come anywhere near the power center there! Thereafter there was an immediate protest by another participant (Ashutosh from another TV chanel) to what Nandy had just said, followed by audience interaction thus allowing no chance to Nandy to prevaricate and cushion his impudent statement in the finesse of academic doublespeak. Which of course he and his apologists did later through separate TV discussions.


None of these longwinded explanations will wash though. Only God and Nandy know what kind of a backhanded compliment or support such a set of statements would render to the cause of the backward caste people of India. Suppose we ignore, for the moment, the lack of factual support or empirical basis for making these questionable assertions. Also, say, we accept Nandy’s obtuse formulation that both elites and backward caste people indulge in corruption, but the latter, lacking the clever subterfuge indulged by the former often are caught with their pants down. Does that make corruption by public servants including peoples’ representatives (euphemism for the politicians), if they happen to belong to dalit, backward caste, SC and ST sections of the population, any more acceptable (with Madhu Koda as their champion role model) than those indulged by their superior caste brethren ?


More perniciously, may be we are looking at a convoluted support to a larger agenda of some dalit political parties and their intellectual proponents for subverting the goal of caste reservation that our constitution framers had in mind when they made allowances for positive discrimination in the constitution, for the purpose of cornering the state power and the associated privileges and prospects of further self aggrandizement in much the same manner established by the upper class elites, in a parody of class struggle. Interestingly, prominent dalit writers and standard bearers like Kancha Ilaiah and Chandra Bhan Prasad were rather mild in their rebuke handed to Ashis Nandy while less perceptive street level rabble leaders and their political masters reacted with the predictable stridency demanding his arrest.

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