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Updated: February 11, 2013 00:30 IST

Welcome to closet illiberalism

Vidya Subrahmaniam
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Caste might be cast in stone judging from the way the dominant discourse gets conducted in India

“Caste is the most overwhelming factor in Indian life. Those who deny it in principle also accept it in practice. Life moves within the frontiers of caste and cultured men speak in soft tones against the system of caste, while its rejection in action just does not occur to them...” Socialist thinker Ram Manohar Lohia said this in 1964 but the words might be as relevant today as they were five decades ago.

The Ashis Nandy controversy illustrates the paradox of India’s opinion makers preaching caste equality while instinctively, reflexively, articulating positions that bunch them up on one side of the caste divide, thus reinforcing the very order that they have rejected. K. Satyanarayana exposes this contradiction with devastating examples in his article in The Hindu (editorial page, “The question of casteism still remains,” February 5, 2013). Mr. Nandy’s defenders have made the untenable legal claim that he should be judged not by what he said at the Jaipur Literature Festival but by his past record and scholarship. But worse, gradually the defence, which was originally grounded in Mr. Nandy’s right to free expression, has deteriorated into a free-for-all against Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBC) — who are presumed to have become “sacred cows” protected by “draconian” laws. If to question Mr. Nandy is intolerance, what does one call this rant?

Mr. Nandy’s initial statement was a qualified one: he said the Indian Republic was saved because the corrupt of today were from the “Scheduled castes, OBCs and now the tribals.” But the nuances went for a toss with his stunning insistence that West Bengal was free from corruption because “in the last hundred years, nobody from the OBCs, SCs and STs has come to power there. It is an absolutely clean State.” Forget the backhanded compliment to the Left Front leadership which has been deemed to be clean for being upper caste. The inescapable inference from this is that upper caste means no corruption regardless of the period of reference — today or a 100 years ago.

Nandy’s statement as peg

Per se this is indefensible. Yet if for no other reason than to make the caste debate meaningful, we also need to look at Mr. Nandy’s subsequent clarification — more so because contained in the clarification is an uncomfortable truth that the Indian intelligentsia has tiptoed around for too long. To quote Mr. Nandy: “What I meant was that most of the people getting caught for corruption are people from OBC, SC and ST communities, as they don’t have the means to save themselves unlike people from upper castes who can hide their corruption.”

The Nandy episode would have been well served if this statement had become the peg on which to examine the persisting caste prejudices and double standards that allow one kind of corruption to be exposed and the other to be hidden. However, it is important to understand that exposés and blackouts happen not only because one section is smarter than the other, which surely it is, but because the dominant discourse in India – as is evident from l'affaire Nandy itself — continues to be shaped by the socially advantaged classes. The media, as surveys have established, are a classic example of this stranglehold but upper caste dominance is as much a reality in academia and other key policymaking institutions. This collective is superficially progressive. Yet at a subconscious level, its members harbour all the entrenched biases, resulting in the backward castes being censured far more severely than their “twice-born” counterparts for the same alleged crime — be it ostentation, self-promotion, a specific legal violation or patronage of a particular caste group.

Mayawati and the Gandhis

A case in point is the differential treatment extended to Mayawati and the Nehru-Gandhis. This difference endures despite xenophobic intolerance of the First family by right-wing sections of the middle class. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief’s wealth and her self-projection — creating parks and monuments, naming projects after herself and celebrating lavish birthdays — have been obsessively written about by a media that ignored her political achievements until she compelled attention by forming in 2007 the first majority government in Uttar Pradesh in 17 years. The star of that watershed election was Ms Mayawati but the media ignored her, choosing instead to be embedded with Rahul Gandhi whose party finished last and is still stuck there.

Compare the relentless focus on Ms Mayawati’s financial assets with the easy ride given to Robert Vadra. The Vadra real estate papers were avidly consumed in private, they had been available for years with the principal Opposition party, but the veil on the Gandhi son-in-law’s vast business empire was lifted only after Arvind Kejriwal made bold to mention the unmentionable. Today, while Ms Mayawati finds the law chasing her, there seem to be no such anxieties for Mr. Vadra. In Prime Minister Vajpayee’s time, similar deference was shown to his foster son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya.

Tracking the BSP

I had my first real brush with deep-seated caste attitudes in 1988 when I was in Allahabad for a Lok Sabha by-election contested by Rajiv (Gandhi) challenger V.P. Singh. His opponents were Sunil Shastri from the Congress and Kanshi Ram from the BSP. Singh was the media darling and Mr. Shastri derived his importance from being his principal opponent. The BSP faced a near media blackout, and as it turned out, the party was equally contemptuous of the “manuwadi” press. BSP volunteers blocked me off from their meetings, saying they knew what I would write. Over the years, as I tracked the BSP’s astonishing growth, I could not help but notice the unfailingly skewed media coverage of the party, whose rallies would be reported, not for their content but for the traffic chaos they caused.

As a part-time journalism teacher in 2005, I would discover the same unconscious bias in the essays turned in by my students. Writing on Ms Mayawati’s birthday, they left out the political aspects of the event, concentrating instead on her diamonds, her “flashy” clothes and the size of the cake she cut. They would accept later that diamonds and silks were worn by other women politicians too but that somehow, these outward manifestations hit the eye more in the BSP chief’s case. There is an ironic reality here that must be understood in its proper context. What people saw as distasteful flamboyance was a political tool that Ms Mayawati consciously employed, especially in the formative years when it was important for her to raise the self-esteem of her constituency. This was explained to me by the part Hindutva, part OBC Uma Bharti. The Dalit girls in her village were forbidden from crossing the threshold into even OBC homes. But they would rebel in their own way, wearing Mayawati hair clutches and imitating her mannerisms, thereby signalling that they would not be kept down by force. The handbag, symbolising status and accomplishment, is similarly a deliberate presence in the much-criticised Mayawati statues.

Admittedly, the showmanship can get excessive, as it did in 2010 when the then Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister wore a gigantic garland of currency notes, estimated to add up to several crores of rupees. This kind of extravagant cash display undoubtedly raises questions about source and accountability. However, in all the outrage over this incident, the media missed mentioning that Indian politicians have traditionally been weighed against coins. At election time this becomes a means of adding to the party coffers without the bother of disclosing the source.

There is equal duplicity around the perceived caste consciousness of parties such as the BSP and the Samajwadi Party (SP). As a journalist posted in Lucknow in the late 1980s, I was witness to the transfer of power in Uttar Pradesh from the Congress’s Narain Dutt Tiwari to the Janata Dal’s Mulayam Singh Yadav (now with the SP.) The latter took charge to immediate accusations of Yadavisation of government and bureaucracy. Nobody cared to find out which castes ruled in the previous regime. In 1984, 93.8 per cent of the principal secretaries and secretaries to the U.P. government were from the upper castes and 78.6 per cent of the District Magistrates were from the upper castes, including 41 per cent of Brahmins (Christophe Jaffrelot, India’s Silent Revolution).

Political empowerment of the backward castes is a dramatic reality today. But social attitudes have stayed frozen. Why else would 50 per cent of all Central schemes and projects be named after the Nehru-Gandhis? Why would there be a chorus of protests over Mayawati statues but not over the renaming of the Borivali National Park after that champion of democracy, Sanjay Gandhi? In her outstanding book, The Grammar of Caste, Ashwini Deshpande cites evidence from four pioneering studies on the Indian urban labour market to conclude that employers discriminate between equally meritorious candidates on the basis of their caste identities. “Employers talk the language of merit and confess a deep faith solely in the merit of the applicant. However, they also believe that merit is distributed along lines of caste, religious and gender divisions. Nowhere do employers see this as discrimination. It is as if they were describing a neutral and unbiased state of the world.” Back to 1964 and Ram Manohar Lohia?

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The chief problem with India's caste debate is that it tends to center around
individuals rather than sections. Discrimination against one leader is portrayed as
discrimination against a whole caste. Letting off of Vadhra and the media circus
around Rahul Gandhi has more to do with Congress clout in the media post 26/11
rather than any caste favoritism. If really the writer is interested in re-orienting the
debate on caste and push for its removal from the Indian psyche, then she should
rather base arguments on facts that have substance and force of numbers. It is
common fact that millions of Indians are economically distressed, of whom
Scheduled tribes and castes are a disproportionately large section.However, the
current champions of the lower castes/minorities are more interested in furthering
their political careers rather than any real upliftment of the disadvantaged as is
evident in the years of mis-rule in UP by SP and BSP.

from:  Harish Pandey
Posted on: Feb 12, 2013 at 20:36 IST

Excellent article. A brave but truthful and impartial article. I want to do "salaam" to such journalist in Indian media and journalism who are workink on these line( others are like P.Sainath, Ravish, Ashutosh,Dilip Mandal and many more)..these are modern "Voltairs" in India who are trying to judge everything on the basis of rational and logic. Kudos to V. Subramanium.

from:  ranjeet singh
Posted on: Feb 12, 2013 at 16:01 IST

It is the subconscious that can't be regulated, that is what the writer
is telling us and confirms her point when you read the quote by Lohia.

from:  Kris
Posted on: Feb 12, 2013 at 02:36 IST

Your article seems to support Mayavati rather than discuss about
backwardness being brought to us by caste system. Caste system and
treatment of scheduled caste in past has been nothing but a form of
slavery. One of the reasons we are backward and have low average IQ is
caste system, as we have genetically closeted ourselves. But then what
about reverse castism in practice now a days? I am from Bihar and only
a person of Bihar can tell you real effect of reverse castism to day
to day lives. We need to perfect our society but discussing only one
side of coin will take us more backward as Bihar is a living example.
Everybody is so courageous slamming Mr. Nandy (I believe slamming a
known liberal is a very courageous thing to do in today's India), but
where were the same courageous people when Lalu gave call for 'BHURA
Baal Saaf Karo' (Remove Bhumihar, Rajput, Brahman, Lalaji). Ashish
Nandi clearly showed he can see only side of coin but so are the rest.

from:  Shiv
Posted on: Feb 12, 2013 at 01:34 IST

Excellent article, with astute and bold observations about the state of our country. Kudos to the Hindu too for giving a platform to voices such as this.

from:  gaurav
Posted on: Feb 12, 2013 at 00:58 IST

The truth is that handling power is a tough job and being a human every person in power at a point draws some favor out of it for himself and for his peoples which defines the nature and character of the person in power. your-Self then your-peoples then your-society then your-city then your-state and then your-country is the priority order everybody follows and this results in clashes because there are number of persons, number of societies, number of states and number of countries, and if not everybody then at least 99% peoples are in dilemma that their path is the right path. it is basic human nature. The right path is to learn from experiences and try to build a mindset in which everybody considers other equal to himself, try to build paths following which leads to peace otherwise catastrophic results, try to build a world where everybody has its space, then only true peace can be brought. Then topics like Caste, religion, ethnicity, color etc. will become too small to consider.

from:  radhesh ranjan
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 23:47 IST

having published this opinion the Hindu really out stands every other
mainstream news has correctly put up the things and shown
the underline idea of the whole domination of upper castes not only in
corruption but also which corruption should be highlighted. when it
comes to upper castes corruption the whole media(upper castes)and both
big political parties i.e. congress and BJP comes in holy nexus to
protect their own upper caste fellows. however, it is not limited to
the political level but at each and every level of our society and
institutions. we do need to criticize the media for the biasness
towards the other section of the society. i heartily congratulate the
author to come with this point of view......

from:  shailja nand
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 21:42 IST

My father told me about the conversation he had with a potter while
he had been to UP couple of years ago. The potter told my father "Sir
you can insult Mayawati to whatever extent you like, but, only
because of her, we are now courageous enough to go to a police
station and file a compliant. Everybody is involved in corruption,
but people and medias are interested in throwing stones only at
Mayawati". This conversation had an effect on me and I started paying
attention to the news related to Mayawati and compared it with other
corruption news. Interestingly I reached the same conclusion as
author mentioned in her article.
Maybe, this is due to the insensitveness of powerful sections('upper
castes' and some 'lower castes' who has power) towards the plight of
weaker section. This weaker section being ST's, SC's,
women,physically and mentally challenged. And what's more disturbing
is the insults these people have to bear which affects their lives
seriously. Is India inherently anti-poor

from:  Lal
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 21:22 IST

The authors seems to pick and choose. In any case, two wrongs don't make a right. If Vadra is corrupt, let him be punished. That does not make Mayawati any less culpable.

from:  Krishna
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 17:55 IST

An eye opening article that shows the biased attitude adopted by the mainstream media to see the rise of backwards in right perspective. For long Mayawati/ Mulayam Singh has been accused of arousing caste identities to win elections. However it was this arousing that has given confidence to the downtrodden that they also count for something and power is something that can not be ascribe to just one group of society.
The rise of OBC leaders has given credence to this faith. However, media still continues to use two set of lenses: one for upper castes and one for backwards. This has become evident in the recent Ashish Nandy incident, where rather than criticizing the person, his scholary work has been sited in his defence.
It is high time that media came out of its ostrich like attitude and give due respect to feelings of backward communities.

Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 17:13 IST

This article rightly bares all the prejudices and biases of the media against the "lower castes" people open. One more prime fact is that most of the media houses, if not all, are being occupied by the "upper castes" people, the worse part is that this is all after the sixty five years of independence and all the measures which had have been taken by our nation's leader after independence.

from:  santhosh k
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 16:53 IST

1. It was not correct to invoke SC/ST act in the case of Ashis Nandi. 2. Instead it is better to publish articles and views from authors from SC/ST people (if available). 3. "comments" (I used apostrophe around the word comments) against sc/st are very common in private conversation and sometimes in semi-public situations like among co-passengers in long distance trains, but it is uncommon and unbelievable that this type of comments can be heard in forum like World Literary Fest and from scholarly and educated people like Mr. Nandi. this one single unity that unifies divisiveness and diversity of India (cutting across class , caste and everything else).

from:  Haru
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 16:51 IST

Caste discrimination occurs all over the india, not only in UP.Anyway i personally dont feel it is because of caste, Mayawati is being censured. How can you substatiate, mostly those who are caught for corruption are from OBC SC and ST, neither they dont have the means to hide it by citing something from UP. This is not the case always. Author is extolling Mayawati more than she desrved and sympathizing for her exponding she is discriminated based on caste. if you want to talk about caste discrimination, talk about common people who really face it. Here it is mentioned only about in UP and that too about those who enjoy the privilage. But more worst scenarios are there in else part of india. Caste discrimination needs to be eradicated from society, for that proper awareness and liberelization is required.

from:  Binil Kuriachan
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 14:28 IST

I enjoyed reading this article. The author is in touch with the Indian
realities. Her fine grained analysis deserve whole heated admiration.

I certainly hope to see such write ups being encouraged and published
in our dailies, especially, in our vernacular ones, most of which are
typical instruments in the hands of the so-called "high caste" men and
women who use it to keep the casteist sentiment in the so-called "low
caste" but compellingly made part of the varnashrama dharma.

By publishing and encouraging such critical thinking and writing, i am
sure, the Hindu is certainly taking a revolutionary step which has
been lacking in our country.

from:  tony
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 14:09 IST

I agree partly with Rishi. I too lived in Bengal and experienced what
he stated.However,his reasons donot speak the complete
truth.Birendranath Sasmal was refused the post of Chief Executive of
the Calcutta Municipal Corporation by Chittaranjan Das on the grounds
that his appointment would offend the Kayasthas of the city.The job
ultimately went to Subhas Chandra Bose and this happened after a
century the period which he stated.and one can find numerous such
example in contemporary Bengal mostly implicit but some explicit.
R C Majumdar in his two volumes (second being edited by J N Sarkar)
'History of Bengal' stated that the skull shape or the whole physical
built up of a upper caste Bengali do not match with their counterparts
of north India but are similar to the lower caste people from
Bengal.This means they imported the obnoxious culture not the
Aryans.This was endorsed by Nitish Sengupta in his "Land of Two
Rivers'.People are Ashis Nandy are a burden on Bengal.

from:  ajay
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 12:56 IST

Cows! Even the constitution (which apparently we have given to
ourselves) defends them. I wonder how constitution can decide that I
won't like to have beef in my dinner plate.
Secondly, I support the view that the very structure of our laws is
based on the assumption that SC/ST/OBC are certain weaker sections of
the society and that's why reservations of course. This very
assumption has been asserted so much by law that it has now been
internalized by a large population. Half the people look up to the
government for getting their needs fulfilled and rest half are not
allowed by the government (by law) to have their own way.
Right to choose is often compromised.

from:  Deeksha
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 12:52 IST

To base an article of caste oppression on victimization of a politician of a certain sect is highly ludicrous.Is the author trying to say two wrongs make a right?I am not a fan of Nehru-Gandhi dynastic politics but is there any other Chief minister in our country known for such obvious ostentatious display of power,trying to make a saint out of her or worse victimizing someone so powerful is woeful

from:  ravikiran
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 11:42 IST

Case in point is recent trial going on in the case Delhi rape case. This
time the accused involved belong to the so called upper caste. You can
discern a conscious attempt by the media in general and even by the other
wise unbiased newspapers, to avoid mentioning their complete names or even
if at all, then not so frequently. Had it been the usual suspects, you
would have seen a frequent tossing around of the names.

from:  Bharat
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 11:09 IST

Please do not fabricate facts. Nandy is spot on. I grew up in WB and I was never made to realize/wonder what caste in belong to throughout my life although I have been living abroad for the last half decade. I would say WB is a paradise island in India where CASTE CONSCIOUSNESS (let alone caste bias), does not exist. The rest of India/indians suffers from this heinous prejudice due the lack of reformers like Rammohum Ray or Henry Louis Vivian Derozio and lack of reform movements like the Bengal Renaissance. Brahmo Samaj never quite caught the fancy of indians outside Bengal. On the other hand the "entrenched" families in Bengal like the Tagores and Rays took up Brahmoism. Nandy is simply been bullied by only those elements of the lower caste/ "oppressed" who are simply not able to digest his Bengal analogy - as I said its hard to digest for any indian outside bengal.

from:  Rishi
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 08:55 IST

Power, and not caste, decides individual’s ability to make money in an illegal way. Yes, caste is not a factor in corruption and Mr. Ashis Nandy is wrong. But it is also true that in the name of caste, protection from penal action is definitely sought and given to the corrupt ministers from Dalit communities as it is given to ministers from other powerful communities. But how many are ready to accept this bitter fact? By saying that all politicians are corrupt, can any one ignore wealth accumulation by Shri Mulayam Singh, Ms Mayawati (and now her brother) and others whose appeal to voters is essentially in the name of caste? Just as we are free to criticize Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and his family, are we free to criticize the Dalit leaders without being questioned of our caste background and so called manuwadi views? Lastly, what refrains people like Ms Mayawati to annihilate Dalit sub-castes, except queer ideas among some Dalit communities of their superior status?

from:  Narendra M Apte
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 08:28 IST

Issues such as caste based divisions and oppression have been addressed only under the
legal and political framework. However the sheer immorality of caste based divisions has
never been addressed by current day religious leaders. Periodic efforts to reform the religion
have resulted only in spin offs, such as by Narayana Guru, or RK mission (not swami
vivekananda) but not change from within. Unless caste is addressed at the religious level
the culture of oppression and discrimination will never go away.

from:  Anand
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 01:48 IST

I find it quite incomplete and away from the basic point, comparing Mayawati with Gandhis is not a biased or caste based issue at all. Its clearly a question "Who is more Powerful?". Vadara a member of the most powerful family of this nation, who have blind support of Congress Men, and own PM and President on the other hand a CM whose session was about to end and there were more than 100% chances of her not getting into power again. Also there were certain other stories which never made news and were the basic reason about her degrading popularity, (the fact that she made everyone from her cabinet to sit on the floor in front of her while only her sitting on the chair) only because at that time she was the rising star of Uttar Pradesh cherishing on cast politics who diverted every blame ( political or social) on the minorities by calling it anti-Dalit. So it is obviously a matter of power and not of caste.

from:  Gaurav Tyagi
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 01:45 IST

Equality means abolition of all sacred cows across all castes. Unfortunately the author falls into the same trap of defending certain sacred cows. Why limit oneself to data from UP in 1984? It is just as relevant to ask what percentage of secretaries and district magistrates in Tamil Nadu are from the upper castes? And since when did Sonia Gandhi and Robert Vadra become upper caste Hindus?

from:  Viswanath
Posted on: Feb 11, 2013 at 01:14 IST
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