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.

Leave a comment


  1. pramod

     /  January 27, 2013

    Perhaps what Nandy is trying to say is that lower castes can compensate for their lack of upper-caste-privilege by “buying” the benefits of this privilege through the means of corruption. The obvious question is whether upper castes can also “enhance” their privilege through corruption thereby nullifying this “equalizing factor”. I don’t know the answer to this.

    On a side note, I’d argue that corruption in India isn’t just limited to government officials. There is large-scale dishonesty in every facet of society ranging from bus conductors who won’t give you tickets to shopkeepers who add stones to rice to autorickshaw drivers who use every opportunity to overcharge passengers to school/college teachers who prioritize “tuition classes” over their real jobs. I think the main problem here is that each micro-instance of corruption is “rational” in the same way that betrayal is rational in the prisoner’s dilemma and this probably explains why corruption is so prevalent in India (and many other parts of the world) today.

  2. Abhishek

     /  January 27, 2013

    The Ashis Nandy episode has exposed how dark prejudice lurks in the minds of the liberal elite that always jumps to call everyone else divisive. Yet, the moment a limousine liberal like Nandy is around some whiskey and some friends, his true self comes out. Liberal intellectuals dont really care about the downtrodden, they just know its a nice story to tell their friends in the West and a way to pretend they are better than everyone else.

    It is time someone held up a mirror to the liberal elite. Where are the Dalit/SC/ST/OBC faces in the liberal elite? In fact, Leftist WB was the most Brahmanical administration in the whole country.

    When attacked, Nandy went on to call his critics semi-literate and illiterate. Clearly, the stars of the liberal echo chamber are not used to criticism. If they would step out of their limousines and walk with the lowly, prejudiced masses, they would see that OBCs and tribals actually sit at top ranks of the so-called Brahmin-Bania coalition they love to hate, not in the ranks of the liberal elite.

  3. What is so surprising about Nandy’s original comment? Don’t Dalits, OBCs and STs account for a majority of the population? Is it that unbelievable that the largest fraction of the population also accounts for the most corruption? Am I missing something obvious here?

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  January 28, 2013

      Navaneethan — first, that’s not what Nandy said (or was reported to have said). Second, you are indeed missing something obvious. While backward castes are perhaps a majority of the population (though it depends on whom you include), they are a small minority of those in power. Otherwise there would be no need for reservations!

  4. Hi Rahul,

    Sorry if I came off as combative. I’m not saying that there’s some equivalence between my comment and Nandy’s. I’m just saying that it wouldn’t surprise me if Dalits, STs & OBCs accounted for a majority of corruption, not because of some flaws of character that are specific to them, I imagine there are just as many opportunists in those communities as anywhere else.

    That being said, Nandy sounds like he’s making an off-the-cuff remark with no real evidence to back it up, which is silly of him. But at the same time, I’m not sure why you think it’s such a ‘patently ridiculous thing to say’. This sounds like a ‘how dare he say such a thing!’ reaction.

    I’d be interested to see if these communities are any worse or better… perhaps we need some per capita data on how corrupt leaders from each community are.

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  January 29, 2013

      Indeed, I’m not claiming the dalits, adivasis and OBCs are holier or more virtuous than the rest. I’m claiming that their contribution to the cesspool of India’s corruption is small, even now. As for Nandy’s comment, I don’t object to the off-the-cuff stuff but the carefully thought out statement and further justifications that he is making. He can dare to say what he wants and I certainly don’t support arresting him for it. But to be taken seriously, when he says a corruption-free India would be a despotic regime and corruption serves as an equallising force, he needs to justify it. With data and examples, as you say. It’s not just the “leaders” I’m talking about either — it’s the bureaucracy, the police, and other officials at every level that are corrupt, and it’s the poor that are most affected by it.

  5. Rahul,
    It ain’t so. The non-political rich game the system through bribes, and get their work done in alliance with the political class and the bureaucracy. The middle class doesn’t pay a bribe for a telephone connection maybe, but must pay a bribe for other things these days – construction permits, property registration and so on. The poor have no way but to bribe until pushed to the wall, when they simply give up and actually manage to change the system. The middle class and the poor, at least in urban India, aren’t two watertight classes. They must often work together, even when some from the poor catapult into the wealth – that too happens. It’s the sold citizen middle class that then stands with the poor. and that’s the alliance that changes the system. I’ve seen this in Chennai for over 35 years. That’s how it works.

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  January 29, 2013

      That’s more or less what I said except you say the middle class need to bribe for property stuff. Let me rephrase it then — the middle class often outsource their bribery. They don’t bribe but the builder, property agent, etc, do. However, I don’t see very much evidence of your last line, except for some left-leaning activists. For most of the middle class, the poor don’t exist except as domestic help.


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