As an intellectual, Ashis Nandy is known for his idiosyncratic views. But the eminent psychologist and social theorist, who has always marched to the beat of his own ideological drum, is anything but the casteist his detractors now claim he is. Whether one agrees or not with what he said during a lively and heated discussion at the Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF), there can be no justification for the thoughtless character assassination and harassment he has been put through. Cases have been registered against him under the Scheduled Castes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in Rajasthan and elsewhere. And heavyweight politicians such as former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati and Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan have demanded that he be arrested immediately for ostensibly maligning Dalits and Other Backward Classes. Quite outlandlishly, the latter has demanded that Prof. Nandy be held under the National Security Act, a draconian preventive detention law that empowers the police to detain people considered security risks without charge-sheeting them for up to one year. Rather than treat the intolerant chorus of outrage with the contempt it deserves, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has spoken of Prof. Nandy’s “mental bankruptcy”; as if on cue, the police have swung into needless overdrive by directing that JLF organiser Sanjoy Roy remain in Jaipur until the probe in the case is over.
If it is depressing that those outraged by Prof. Nandy’s remarks have failed to read them in context, it is truly annoying that they haven’t even taken note of his explanation of what he really meant; his clarification that it was never his intent to hurt any community and that he was sorry if he had unintentionally done so has also failed to assuage his detractors. This should have been enough to set the controversy to rest. But in a country where there is a flourishing outrage industry — helped by a slew of laws that takes the feelings of easily offended individuals very seriously — there is a great deal of publicity and even political capital to be acquired in claiming that sentiments are hurt. The hallmark of an open society is an environment where competing views exist and where disagreements are addressed, or resolved, through the medium of reasoned debate. Such dialogue is impossible when angry groups try to silence differing views through vehement protests or by harassing others through a misuse of the law. It is one thing for Prof. Nandy’s remarks to be the subject of criticism, satire, disparagement or censure. It is quite another to perpetuate a culture of intolerance by using the police to settle a scholarly debate.