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?

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  1. I think you have misunderstood Nandy’s comments. I have not seen the video of the episode, so I cannot give arguments to support him. But I heard him on TV stating that he was actually supporting the OBCs, and Dalits. I can vaguely see how, from the quotes you have put up, but I think we need more information before we condemn anyone.

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  January 27, 2013

      I can accept that he could have “misspoken”, as they say, on the stage during a discussion, but not when he issues a statement clarifying his position. His complete statement is linked above (and discussed in my previous post). Go read it. There is no room for misunderstanding.

      [edit] And in his clarification, he does claim to support the dalits and OBCs, too — by saying that their corruption “equalises” the more sophisticated corruption of the privileged people. That is a condescending and, I would say, offensive way to show your support. Plus it is objectively total nonsense.

  2. vishuguttal

     /  January 28, 2013

    Rahul, I agree with you that Ashish Nandy’s comments “are so absurdly stupid” but I disagree (in the absence of further evidence to show his stupidity on more matters) that one such instance “ought to be sufficient to condemn him to irrelevance.”

    I don’t know much about Ashish Nandy or his ideologies but whenever I have read his articles I find them novel and insightful. I suspect many in his intellectual community who are now condemning agree on his abilities and insights, or otherwise there should not be so much attention to what he said last week.

    You may have already seen this, but I would like to draw your attention to two articles, one in The Hindu and the other in Indian express. Of course, it is possible that people who wrote are very close to Ashish, and this could be seen both positively (because they can hopefully make more nuanced arguments about him) and negatively (because of conflict of interest).

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  January 28, 2013

      Vishu – thanks for the links. I had seen the Express one but not the Hindu one. To take the former first — if he says it was a joke, i was a rather sad one.

      The Hindu article by Harsh Sethi gives the clearest exposition I have seen of what went on on-stage (I haven’t seen the video either and was responding, in this post and the previous one, mainly to his clarifying statement). Unfortunately, it still leaves me unimpressed.

      Nandy is right that the privileged have their own way of promoting their interests. I’m not sure he is right that this is enough to give each other’s children fellowships in prestigious places: at least in science, I don’t think that works. If it is how things are done in social science, that’s a comment on the discipline, then. Nevertheless, there is a huge amount of indirect benefit that one gets by being born in an elite family. My parents ensured I went to a good school, had enough interesting books to read, was exposed to new ideas, and so on; we are trying to ensure the same for our son. Every parent tries, but some are in a better position to do so, and that I think is a more relevant factor than the mutual back-scratching that Nandy talks about. In other words, Nandy’s daughter had huge advantages already and did not need Nandy’s personal request to Sorabji to recommend her for a fellowship (if that is true).

      So far, no real disagreement. The disagreement is (1) in his implication that this is the only form of corruption that the upper castes are guilty of. Does anyone remember Feroze Gandhi exposing T T Krishnamachari’s role in the Mundhra scandal, way back in 1957? The upper castes dominated Indian politics until the 1980s, and continue to dominate the upper levels of the civil services, and anyone who thinks the past was less corrupt has rose-tinted glasses. (2) His claim that corruption in the lower castes serves as an equalising force. But I have said enough on those claims.

      He could have said that when the upper castes take money for favours, people forget about it, and when the lower castes get caught doing the same thing, it becomes a scandal. Many would have agreed. But that’s not what he said and not, I think, what he believes. He denies the former and justifies the latter.

  3. Rahul,
    You are reacting like a “scientist”: with “facts”. Of course Nandy was not talking about his daughter or about Richard. He was merely making a point! He was saying that even if people with connections are not caught in corrupt practices, they are merrily indulging in corrupt practices which are accepted as “recognising talent”. His comments on West Bengal was tongue in cheek. Is Bengal clean? So what did he mean?
    This was a literary event, Rahul, We should hear the FULL discourse, including what others before him said. Rahul, he was speaking in support of Dalits and other disadvantaged groups! This is a farce, descending into tragedy.
    Rahul, you need to apologise to Ashish Nandy! You are way out of your depth here, I am sorry to say.
    Gautam Barua

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  January 29, 2013

      Gautam, why exactly do you think that I need to apologise to Ashis Nandy? If he wants to say outrageous things, it is his problem. He has not yet claimed that he was joking, but maybe he will. His comment on West Bengal was outrageous, his claim that a corruption-free India would be despotic is outrageous, his claim that corruption serves to level the playing field is especially outrageous. If all of these things are jokes, what was he doing on the panel? Was he invited only because Jaspal Bhatti is no more?

    • sacredfig

       /  January 29, 2013

      “This is a farce, descending into tragedy.”
      Quite right. Although invoking Marx is giving this particular blog piece too much credit. More like farce putrefying into garbage.

      I gave up after :”people like Ashis Nandy are sad reminders of the decadence and irrelevance of our “intelligentsia”.”

  4. Rahul,

    So you want to say TTK was corrupt. OK. What about Karunanidhi then, who’s been corrupt for as many years? It doesn’t count? I have met corrupt and incorruptible people in the unlikeliest places. In Tamil Nadu where I’ve lived for most of my life, UCs and non-UCs can be as corrupt – let’s not take names. Do you need to be reminded who justified D.Raja’s corruption on communal grounds? You too have a liberal-elite’s flair to brush away corruption among non-UC politicians and bureaucrats

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  January 29, 2013

      jbeck — first, I don’t do what-about-isms. Second, I never claimed OBCs or SC/STs are not corrupt. Come back after you acquire some basic reading comprehension.

  5. vishuguttal

     /  January 29, 2013

    Rahul, Thanks for your comments. As I wrote earlier, I am with you on your analysis of what Ashis Nandy said and how he has clarified are both ridiculous. But I dont think that should make him irrelevant for rest of his life unless, of course, he choses it by repeating such things.

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  January 29, 2013

      Vishu — well, I admit ignorance as to what Ashis Nandy’s actual accomplishments are (other than being a public intellectual). I called him a sociologist but that doesn’t seem to correctly describe him either. I have read some of his writings but was not impressed. After this row I looked through the stuff on his wikipedia page, but it all looks rather vacuous. Any pointers to his previous writings that remain relevant, or to his notable scholarly contributions?

      Still, I agree that what he said should not make any notable past achievements irrelevant.

  6. suresh

     /  February 11, 2013

    Interesting. I read Nandy as arguing that the increasing instances of corruption involving those from “lower castes” may actually be a “sign of hope” for India because it indicates that at least some of those historically disadvantaged are now able to become part of the elite. In other words, their presence — even in a negative way — points to a churning within Indian society. We can appreciate what is going on if we ask ourselves how many corruption scandals there were involving Dalits in the era when the TTK scandal was making news.

    I remember Syed Shahabuddin making a similar point a long time ago when he argued that increasing instances of violence (inter-religion, inter-caste) may actually be good pointers because it indicates that those at the bottom are no longer willing to take their lowly status for granted. Neither the corruption nor the violence are, of course, “good.” However, the issue for Nandy (Shahabuddin) is not the corruption (violence) per se (which is bad) but what the surface phenomena says about underlying trends within Indian society.

    I was not there in Jaipur so I’ll take your word that Nandy expressed himself badly. He may be a lousy researcher, as you say, but no one who has followed his long career can seriously believe that he is anti-Dalit or anti-lower caste.

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  February 12, 2013

      Suresh — what you say is valid but it’s not what Nandy said. To quote from his post-facto statement (which I assume he thought out carefully): “I do believe that a zero corruption society in India will be a despotic society.” This is not at all the same as saying that corruption among lower castes is a sign that they have progressed to positions of power. Also, “This second corruption equalizes. It gives them access top [sic] their entitlements.” So he’s not (just) saying that the second corruption suggests that they have progressed.

      I was not there in Jaipur either and this post, as I make clear, is about his later clarifications. (A later post is about what he said in Jaipur, which was transcribed and published in Outlook with a video.) “No one who has followed his long career can seriously believe that he is anti-Dalit or anti-lower caste.” Non-sequitur. I am sure he genuinely considers himself, and his recent utterances, pro-Dalit and pro-lower-caste.

  7. suresh

     /  February 12, 2013

    I do believe that a zero corruption society in India will be a despotic society.

    Rahul — Well, I read this in a somewhat different way from you. I read this as saying that a “zero corruption” society in today’s India will inevitably be a society dominated by the upper caste/class elite. Such a society may have little or no corruption not because there is no corruption but because many of the ways in which upper castes are corrupt have been internalized as “normal” and not perceived as “corrupt” practices at all. Hence, “officially”, there may be little or no corruption but the resulting society is not particularly desirable; in Nandy’s words, it may be despotic.

    One could argue, similarly, that a “non-violent” society in today’s India will be a society where the lower castes/class accept their lowly status and don’t mount challenges to the status quo. The society may well have no violence but it does not make it “desirable.” I think this is what Shahabuddin meant when he said that we can expect violence in our move to a more egalitarian society.

    We can go on and on but clearly both of us have made up our minds. I’ll say no more and leave it at that. Thanks for your engagement!


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