In the rush to condemn Ashis Nandy and demand that he be jailed, no one bothered to understand what exactly he had said about corruption and caste

It is symptomatic of the times we live in, of the climate of political discourse that we have contributed to, that even relatively innocuous statements can get so easily misrepresented and twisted to convey a meaning that is diametrically opposite to what was said and meant. The Jaipur Literature Festival 2013, which until the morning of Republic Day had managed to successfully steer clear of any controversy, was suddenly rocked by angry protests based upon (and this must be stressed) a total misreading of remarks made by Ashis Nandy.

The panel discussion on “The Republic of Ideas,” featuring IBN7 Managing Editor Ashutosh, author and Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal, historian Patrick French, philosopher Richard Sorabji, and social psychologist Ashis Nandy, was moderated by the author and publisher, Urvashi Butalia. Following a fascinating exchange on the “promise” of the Indian Republic and Constitution, the discussion turned to the theme of corruption and the significance of the anti-corruption protests led by Anna Hazare.

Making a passionate plea to deconstruct the sociology of corruption, Tarun Tejpal argued that we need to understand the “corruption” of the poor and the marginalised as a necessary strategy to break through the stifling nature of our rules, regulations and laws. Characterising Indian society as deeply stratified, hierarchical and oppressive, our laws and rules, he claimed, are mostly designed to “keep out” the erstwhile excluded strata from having their say. The corruption of “people like us” — an elite which has both the resources and power to subvert the system — often goes unnoticed, and if discovered, rarely results in prosecution. The misdemeanours of the “others,” in contrast, not only get caught, but also generate outrage, in part because they do not have the necessary skills to successfully cover up their corruption.

Grounded in earlier remarks

Subsequent remarks made by Ashis Nandy need to be read and understood in the context of what Tarun Tejpal said speaking before Nandy did. Agreeing with Tejpal, Nandy went on to argue that such “corruption” of the excluded — the Dalits, tribals, Other Backward Classes (OBC) and minorities — is inevitable if they are to break out from the bonds of an oppressive web of rules and regulations. He went on to say, referring to both himself and Richard Sorabji, that if they “arranged” to get fellowships for their children at Harvard or Oxford, as part of a trade in mutual and selective favours, none will comment about that, as if it is axiomatic that the fellowship was awarded on the basis of merit. Politicians or leaders of the oppressed strata, being new to the game and relatively untutored in the skills of manipulation, are unlikely to seek academic fellowships as a form of graft, and are more likely to covet and corner licences to operate petrol pumps. These pumps are publicly noticeable and can provoke outrage. Their licensees are linked to their “corrupt” benefactors, who are then condemned by the chattering classes in metropolitan cities.

So far so good. Nandy then went on to more provocatively stretch the argument, asserting that it is precisely this kind of “corruption” that has “saved” the Republic and democracy by enabling a degree of social and economic mobility and pluralising the composition of India’s elite. Furthermore, he argued, that it is most likely the list of “corrupt” could be inordinately dominated by Dalits, tribals, minorities and OBCs. Despite his prefacing his last remarks, saying that what he was about to say may shock many people, and that he nevertheless wished to stress the point about how we understand corruption, many in the audience (and one on the panel) completely missed Nandy’s point, and immediately accused him of casteist bias, calling upon him to withdraw his remarks and tender an apology. Some in the audience demanded that he should be charged under the Protection of Civil Rights Act for hurting the sentiments of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.

Competitive outrage follows

Nandy’s protestations that what he said and meant was completely the opposite of what he was being charged with were not persuasive once the atmosphere was charged with heightened emotions. Competitive outrage, taking on the familiar form favoured by some overly strident and aggressive TV anchors, evidently gives no quarter to nuanced arguments, any irony, or even black humour. When Nandy characterised the former Chief Minister of Jharkhand, Madhu Koda (now in jail), as India’s first dollar billionaire, he was hardly extolling the virtues of corruption or turning a blind eye to the “perfidies” of upper caste politicians. At best, in an underhand and sly way, he was expressing admiration for the abilities of a tribal leader in matching up to what has hitherto been an exclusive preserve of India’s upper caste elite.

Accusations of Nandy of being anti-Dalit/tribal/minority groups, the calls for registering a FIR against him, and demanding that he should be arrested would, in our better days, have been dismissed as an irrelevant, if not comic, aside. Such innocent days have faded, unfortunately, into a distant past. So quick are we now to take offence and demand immediate retributory action against alleged offenders that we almost never take a moment to pause, to ascertain the facts, understand what was said and meant, in what context, and to what ends. All we want is action, and now!

Signals shrinking discourse

Subsequent demands by the Bahujan Samaj Party leader, Mayawati, by the chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes P.L. Punia, and others, to arrest Ashis Nandy, even though none of them was present during the discussion, illustrates the danger of a growing kind of prickliness and intolerance. Worse still, such occasions are used by politicians to signal their commitment to their constituencies and shore up their images. In the process we are left with a diminished public discourse. Even liberals, usually quick to defend “freedom of speech,” advocate caution and temperance in the expression of reactions to intemperate allegations of the kind made against Nandy. Is this stance, one wonders, a compensatory guilt, marking what is politically correct, an obverse privileging of the erstwhile dispossessed?

Ashis Nandy’s choice of words, phrases, and examples can be questioned. He is not an organised and scintillating public speaker. One can also differ with his argument and analysis, for instance, his failure to distinguish between “corruption of the poor” and the “corruption of their leaders,” whose subversion of rules often results in them robbing the very poor who are also their constituents. Nevertheless, Nandy’s argument that the “rules of the game” have been set by an elite class to which he belongs, which remains a privileged lot, and therefore, that the deliberate subversion of those rules is an inevitable strategy for those striving for survival and upward mobility, certainly has merit. Clamping down on nuanced utterances and elliptical statements of the kind Nandy made will only make us a poorer democracy and Republic.

(Harsh Sethi is Consulting Editor, Seminar magazine.)

More In: Comment | Opinion