also see update below.
Ashis Nandy’s comments — and subsequent statement — at the Jaipur Literary Festival on the alleged tendency for corruption among the backward castes, which I addressed in my previous post, are so absurdly stupid that they ought to be sufficient to condemn him to irrelevance. Sadly, for some people, that’s not enough. As noted in the first link above, several politicians and other groups have called for his arrest. The Jaipur police have reportedly asked for a video of his remarks.
What Nandy said is not criminal and it is a pity that some people want to make him a martyr to free speech: it is more than he deserves. And it is a pity that this happens repeatedly at the JLF. Last year, after Salman Rushdie was advised on dubious grounds not to come, some authors hid behind the JLF’s coat-tails to read from his work, and promptly left town. I am not aware of their having repeated the performance elsewhere. (I wrote about that, and my take on Rushdie’s Verses, here.)
Rushdie’s book should never have been banned, and a religion that has existed for well over a millennium does not need this sort of protection. The continuing poor treatment of Rushdie by this country is a disgrace.
Now, I can see that Nandy is not necessarily in the same category. Dalits, adivasis and other backward castes continue to be looked down upon by the privileged, who, whatever they may say in public, speak of them in shockingly contemptuous terms in private. No doubt Nandy does so too. His error was to say it at India’s most prominent literary festival. His statement, that these people are irredeemably corrupt, plays into every stereotype that the elite carry about the backward castes (some of which were officially classified as congenitally criminal not so long ago). And he then proceeds to assuage the liberal-elite conscience by his justification that their alleged corruption somehow “equallises” the misdeeds of the elite. He even (more or less) accuses his daughter of having benefited from nepotistic favours engineered by him. And, most striking of all, he seems genuinely surprised that anyone should object to these remarks.
The reality, of course, is that corruption has been primarily the preserve of the upper-caste elite that have dominated India’s bureaucracy since independence; even today, when lower-caste politicians have risen to dominance and lower castes are making inroads into the civil services, their corruption pales compared to what is practised by the traditional elite and the industrial classes; and people like Ashis Nandy are sad reminders of the decadence and irrelevance of our “intelligentsia”.
So I can understand the anger of many people at these atrocious remarks. But, please, when he is in a hole, let him keep digging. He deserves scorn, but he does not deserve punitive action, and he certainly does not deserve martyrdom.
[Update, 29/1/2013] I started writing the above intending to simply say, “don’t arrest Ashis Nandy or hound him for this, just ignore him”. But annoyance at his claims got the better of me. Take for example his extended justification to CNN-IBN, here.
Nandy says (like many of his defenders below) that he said what he did as part of a “most aggressively pro-Dalit, pro-OBC, pro-Adivasi plea.” Sorry, that’s not a justification. If someone claimed that Indians are corrupt, but this corruption will serve to equalise the more subtle corruption in the developed world, I don’t think most Indians will feel flattered by that. Maybe Nandy’s intentions were good but we know what sort of road is paved with those.
Nandy reiterates that “elite corruption” is seen as “benevolence”, as if that is the only sort of corruption that exists. Yes, A Raja got a lot of headlines, and so did Mayawati. But so does Jayalalithaa, who is a Brahmin and continues to be under trial in a 16-year-old disproportionate assets case. Anyone who has dealt with Indian bureaucracy knows that corruption pervades it and has nothing to do with caste. Nobody that I know of sees it as “benevolence” either.
Nandy says, on rationalising the corruption of SCs/STs/OBCs: “This is dangerous. But I was not talking about individuals. I’m talking of collectivities which are at the margin of desperation.” But the people who benefit from SC/ST corruption are the corrupt individuals! How have the marginalised collectivities benefited from the money pocketed by A Raja or Mayavati? How has all this headline-grabbing corruption been in any way an “equalising” force for them? If Mayawati and her party, as alleged, defrauded the NREGA in Uttar Pradesh to the tune of Rs 10,000 crores — that was money meant to pay the rural unemployed for work — how is that an equalising force?
OK, this is beginning to become bad for my blood pressure, so I will stop now. Gautam Barua, below, wants me to apologise. Ha. I will certainly sign any petition to say that Nandy should be left alone by the police and the politicians. But what he said, and what some of his supporters say, disgusts me. Is this what our intellectual elite are about these days?