Criticise, marginalise, but don’t martyr Ashis Nandy!

[edit] 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?

A clarification that makes it muddier, redux

Yes, I have used the title before. This time it’s the well-known sociologist Ashis Nandy. And it’s not misconduct, just an extraordinarily stupid statement.

Nandy was quoted as saying (at the Jaipur Literary Festival) that people from backward castes are responsible for most of the corruption in the country. It is such a patently ridiculous thing to say that, sure enough, a clarification came almost immediately.

But someone should tell these eminences: when you open your mouth after one foot is already in it, don’t insert the other too.

Nandy writes:

I endorsed the statement of Tarun Tejpal, Editor of Tehelka, that corruption in India is an equalising force. I do believe that a zero corruption society in India will be a despotic society.

I also said that if people like me or Richard Sorabjee want to be corrupt, I shall possibly send his son to Harvard giving him a fellowship and he can send my daughter to Oxford. No one will think it to be corruption. Indeed, it will look like supporting talent.

Point taken. This sort of mutual back-scratching certainly exists. [Edit: But it is absolutely not true, as Nandy implies, that the privileged people only indulge in this sort of “clever” corruption. Any number of upper-caste bureaucrats not only take bribes in the usual way, but have been caught at it, too.] But Nandy continues:

But when Dalits, tribals and the OBCs are corrupt, it looks very corrupt indeed.

However, this second corruption equalizes. It gives them access top their entitlements. And so, as long as this equation persists, I have hope for the Republic.

Is Nandy seriously equating the mutual backscratching of himself and a London don to an auto driver being forced to pay hafta to the police, or a petty trader having to bribe the police and government officials, or a poor person being forced to pay a bribe to get a ration card? And how on earth do those things “equallise” the corruption of the rich? (Incidentally, does anyone else feel that Nandy should have left his daughter and Richard Sorabji out of this?)

Yes, many of the police and the lower-level bureaucracy do come from lower castes and deprived sections of the society. And many of them manage to enrich themselves thanks to their positions. But most of the country, including most of the backward castes, are not government employees! Nandy is surely aware that over 90% of the money spend on government subsidies goes into the pockets of middlemen and very little goes to the intended recipients. How is this an “equallising” force?

In my experience, actually, there is very little corruption faced by the middle class. There is huge money to be made from the rich (who are willing to pay, and thereby escape consequences for violating the law), and from the poor (who often don’t know their rights and usually lack the means to pursue the matter, and therefore end up being a constant revenue stream). There is therefore perhaps no incentive any more to demand bribes from the middle class for routine matters, like telephone connections and driving licences, that used to be impossible to get without bribes a generation ago.

Nandy goes on:

I hope this will be the end of the matter.

Fat chance.

There are reports of police complaints being filed against Nandy, which are to be condemned. Stupidity, insensitivity, even bigotry are not crimes. But if he wants to be taken seriously ever again, he needs to explain why, in his opinion, the debilitating corruption in the country that disproportionately hurts the poor in any way “equallises” the privileges enjoyed by the elite. His “clarification” isn’t one.

If he doesn’t explain what he means a bit better than this, he will have proved only one point here: he does not deserve his privileged position in India’s intelligentsia.

Science blogging, anonymity, and “being yourself”

A well-known, young, anonymous Indian scientist-blogger has just dropped her anonymity. Which set me thinking.

Most Indian science bloggers whom I know/follow blog under their real names, and are not shy of addressing controversial or provocative issues relating to science administration and society. Examples are T A Abinandanan, Sunil Mukhi, Arunn Narasimhan, Dheeraj Sanghi, Giridhar Madras, the late Rahul Basu (whose blog is being continued by Neelima Gupte, his wife, and Sumathi Rao, both of whom are well-known physicists), and many, many others. In fact, now that Kaneenika has “come out”, I can’t really think of an anonymous Indian scientist blogger.

In contrast, science bloggers in the west (and particularly the US) fall into two categories. The non-anonymous ones, like John Baez (one of the oldest bloggers, who I think has been doing this since before the word “blog” was invented), Sean Carroll, Timothy Gowers, Jonathan Eisen, and — again — many, many others, tend to focus on scientific research, at most digressing to topics like open access. They rarely take on more controversial topics like gender inequality, workplace harassment, and so on, let alone larger societal or political issues. (Baez, and Jacques Distler, even deleted critical but surely uncontroversial posts that they wrote on the infamous Mohamed El Naschie, the Egyptian scientist who edited an Elsevier journal where he published dozens of his own papers, each with copious citations to himself!) And then there are science bloggers like Female Science Professor and GMP who write provocative stuff about how science is actually run at their workplace, but zealously maintain their anonymity.

While there’s nothing wrong with anonymity in general, I definitely take Kaneenika’s decision to use her real name as a vote of confidence in her new workplace (IISER Pune) — a confidence that, from what I know of the place, is entirely justified.

All this reminds me of another discussion on Abi’s blog some time ago, on the question of what young scientists seeking jobs in India should reveal of their “two-body problem” — should they say that their spouse is also seeking a job in the same city, or not? Several well-known Indian scientists responded, and nearly all advised openness and suggested that Indian institutions will be accommodating to such concerns. Later, Abi pointed out that a discussion on the same topic, in the US context, led to exactly the opposite advice dominating (typical: “Bring up the second body the minute you have an offer, and not a second sooner.” And again, it’s worth noting that nearly all commenters here were anonymous, while most commenters on Abi’s blog used their real names (or easily-identifiable ones).

Finally, I quote from a mail I received from a foreign participant at a workshop we recently organised: he enjoyed interacting with us because, with American scientists in particular, “a lot of effort is invested in how one is projecting one’s image”; but “you [Indian participants] didn’t seem worried about what kind of image you’re projecting, rather just went about being yourselves and you seemed to have taken delight in social interactions.” I found that comment interesting and perhaps true.

There are negatives about doing science in India, and there is no doubt that the US is far ahead of the rest of the world in scientific achievement. But let us keep the positives about Indian science in mind, and try to build on them. If scientists — and young scientists, in particular — feel freer in India to “be themselves”, I see that as a very positive thing indeed.


I don’t think I mentioned it on this blog earlier, but my institute turned 50 last month, and a three-day conference started today to commemorate that fact. Today was filled with interesting reminiscences (that are still going on); I particularly enjoyed the presentation by Krishnaswamy Alladi, son of the institute’s founder Alladi Ramakrishnan, on the Theoretical Physics Seminar started by his father in Chennai in the 1950s that attracted eminent scientists from around the world and eventually led to the founding of this institute.

I joined here in 2004, when it was already over 40 years old and well-established on the Indian scene. It has been through its ups and downs in all those years, some of which were alluded to by former director E C George Sudarshan in his speech, but — as Krishnaswamy Alladi said — today was a day to remember the good things. And to think ahead.

There are several interesting scientific talks lined up tomorrow and the day after: feel free to attend if you are in town.


The year has ended on a depressing note with the brutal gang-rape and its aftermath in Delhi. The politicians, from Manmohan Singh to Sushma Swaraj to Abhijit Mukherjee, have proved that they don’t “get it”, and the Delhi government has proved that it regards the people as its enemy and is willing to lock down large areas of central Delhi to keep the people away.

So, happy new year, everybody, and I’ll focus on more positive things here.

Over three years ago I wrote about Fiat cars and their quality of service. At that time I owned a Fiat Uno, an essentially abandoned model made by Fiat in a disastrous joint venture with Premier Automobiles. I got it cheap (very cheap) and it served me for six years despite total lack of support from Fiat, but in 2010 I traded it in… for another Fiat, a Punto.

This may seem bizarre to most of the public, but there were several reasons. First, the looks. No car in that price range in the Indian market compares, in my opinion. Second, the boot space. A few other hatchbacks offer comparable space, and some (the Honda Jazz) have much more, but this was the best price/space ratio I could find. Third, Fiat actually gave me a decent buyback price on the Uno. Fourth, online reviews.

One site I read for such things is Team-BHP — the people who post here (I’m not one) are mostly knowledgable and enthusiastic, and the Punto gets very high marks on ride quality, sturdiness and reliability. Recently Team-BHP had a poll on the hatchback with the best quality of ride on bad roads, and the Punto beat the competition by a huge margin, with over 55% of the total number of votes. (A distant second was the Tata Indica Vista, followed by the Maruti Swift.) It is borne out by my experience too. We have had to go over some dreadful roads on a regular basis since I got the car, and it has weathered them.

So how about the service? It is a pleasant surprise. Yes, the service centre (Concorde Motors, Injambakkam in Chennai) is a bit crowded and noisy, but they have been attentive and prompt. The three free services are now over. Soon after I bought the car, Fiat announced a free AC upgrade (the previous one didn’t cope with Indian summers) and I went in for that. There were a couple of other niggling problems — a noise when turning which turned out to be a dent in the chassis (because of the bad roads I mentioned above), and recently, what seemed to be a bizarre problem: the car would sometimes fail to start (wouldn’t even crank) when hot, but would start fine when it cooled down. They checked it thoroughly over two days and declared it to be the battery. And, though the car was now out of warranty, they charged nothing (since I didn’t ask them to replace the battery). I wanted a second opinion since, in my previous experience, a dying battery leads to cold-start problems, not warm-start. But it was the battery (I went to the battery shop we usually deal with) and it’s fine now.

So one negative point of the Punto is the quality of the OEM battery (Exide) — but that may have changed. Another is the relatively large turning radius. But on the whole it’s a great car and highly recommended, and the service, I found, was good too. Unfortunately many people seem to have a different opinion, and Fiat’s sales via Tata showrooms have been disappointing, so they are in the process of setting up their own dealer and service network. Let’s see how that goes.

My other new vehicle is now about 20 days old. It’s a B-Twin Hoptown, a folding bike that is surprisingly fast and easy to ride. Folded up, it fits easily in the hatch of the Punto (though it’s a bit too tall with the parcel tray in place). It’s the size of a large suitcase, weighs 14kg and comes with a bag. The idea is that one can fold it up and carry it in a train or bus, but I haven’t tried that yet. It takes me about 25 minutes to do the 7km commute to work, roughly the same as the car takes in morning traffic. As with the Punto, I did much online research before deciding on it. But since they have no showrooms in Chennai (they have dealers who will order it for you, however), I ordered it online and it arrived in a cardboard box. It is fun to ride, and I expect it will pay for itself in saved petrol in well under a year.