The remarks by sociologist and academician Ashis Nandy at the Jaipur Literary Festival recently that most of the corrupt are from the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes have caused a national furore. Then there are the two sides — those from the media and liberals urging those who are protesting to view his remarks in their entirety and fathom his “pro-Dalit” stance, and overzealous politicians who are baying for Nandy’s blood and wanting him arrested for “violating” The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. In the cacophony, rational and irrational voices have made it difficult for educated Dalits to break the impasse by engaging in meaningful dialogue over the issue.
Let me clarify that I am against the arrest of Mr. Nandy. His remarks, though misguided, certainly do not qualify to be categorised as profoundly hateful, promoting enmity or inciting violence. Applying the provisions of SC/ST Act for a supposedly innocuous speech would mean doing gross injustice to Nandy as well as to the freedom of speech and expression that is guaranteed under the Constitution. In the same way, it also bestows protesters the right to air their grievances. Even if Nandy is a celebrated sociologist, it does not in any way place him above criticism of any kind. An objective scrutiny and an analysis of his clarifications are needed more so because his generalised statements are likely to affect the sensitivities of the majority of our population.
Was his speech really innocuous? Or as he has said, pro-Dalit? Personally, I feel that if not grossly prejudiced, his remarks were misguided. Nandy had observed: “It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from SCs, STs and OBCs and as long as this continues, our republic will survive.” Its ambiguous and bizarre nature should prove beyond doubt that he was expressing his opinion — there is no empirical data to back it, and it seems to be coloured by his own judgment. What is more troublesome about the whole episode is that the Nandy-esque style of stating something as “fact,” which quickly turned to “hypothesis” and later into a sugar-coated “explanation” masquerading as a pro-Dalit stance, proves that the comment was baseless and ill-founded. Nandy argues that his “fact” must be considered in a positive sense as the newly emergent corrupt from the disempowered and marginalised communities have found their way to work through the system. They manage to defy the law to suit their personal interests and gain access to resources hitherto denied to them.
Let me examine his explanation at face value. He proclaims that the poor and the dispossessed use corruption as a means for upward mobility, which he states, should be a reason for celebration. Further, the kind of corruption that the elite and privileged classes indulge in is invisible. However, the backward classes get trapped in the cobwebs of the legal system which ends up penalising them unjustifiably even though the malady of corruption impregnates every class.
Let us deal with the nuances of his utterances about corruption at length to decipher the hidden meaning of his pseudoscientific claims. I am reminded of the “Barnum Effect” — the kind of strategy employed by proponents of the pseudo sciences like astrology and palmistry. “Keep the statement general with a little something for everyone, and it will please nearly everyone.” Nandy has successfully utilised the same strategy by making loose ended statements that are open to multiple interpretations. At one go, his remarks and subsequent justifications can be termed variously as being “pro-Dalit” or “anti-Dalit,” “pro-Indian” or “anti-Indian,” “pro-corruption” or “anti-corruption.” Herein lies the enormous danger of accepting his arbitrary clarifications, which only become the basis for people harbouring all kinds of prejudices to conform to their own previously held biases. This in turn increases the psychological gap between various warring groups instead of promoting harmony.
Corruption is corruption
Nandy has classified corruption as being visible and the invisible. The former, he says, is the kind of strategy deployed by the backward classes to move up the ladder by subverting the laws of the land. First, by dividing corruption this way, or by derivation, into “Good Corruption” and “Bad Corruption” is in itself a self-defeating and futile exercise. Corruption is an evil in every form and sense and whatever manifestation it takes. It must be abhorred in every way. The root cause of corruption of all hues and shades is moral depravity. Unless this is addressed, this hydra-headed monster will keep surfacing, eventually engulfing the very ethos that provides stability to our social fabric. While ensuring zero corruption might as well be a gargantuan and almost unachievable task, the mere reason that such a utopian society cannot be envisaged should not be used as an excuse to turn a blind eye to it. If not to zero, keep it at minimal levels.
For that to happen, we need to wage a continuous war against it and at all levels. There should be no excuses to support the looting of public money and resources. Needless to say, corruption cannot be treated as the exclusive preserve of public officials. Unless corruption, at a societal level is dealt with, pointing fingers and making laws are no remedy. Gaining access to resources through corruption (even at so-called acceptable levels) is an exercise of self-aggrandisement. It is worrisome if at all any person, whatever caste he/she may belong to, is “forced to” indulge in “such a form of corruption.”
What is that motivates Nandy to take it as a reason for celebration, instead of being a matter for serious introspection? Can the republic survive long enough if we continue masking this degraded practice with flawed raison d’être like the kind Nandy extols? Going by his proposals, the lower classes resorting to corruption to acquire resources that should be available to all in a society founded on the principles of justice and equality validates the failure of the State to provide equitable access to resources to all irrespective of caste. Applying this logic, what has been proposed as a recipe for survival of the republic is indeed a recipe for anarchy.
The same rationale has also been used by anti-reservationists to bring forth their flawed argumentation that it is reservation for the lower castes that has allowed corruption to flourish and that unless this is withdrawn, corruption will continue unabated. Nandy’s dissertation, perhaps in an unintended way, has provided opportunists an excellent chance to denying the single window of hope open to the marginalised to procure resources through reasonable and legal means instead of acquiring them using unjust ways.
The very division of people on the basis of tactics used for corruption ends up in the imaginary separation of people on the basis of caste. This defeats the very purpose of the annihilation of the caste system. Such a vague classification of people by attaching their identity of caste and related insecurity with visible forms of corruption or by the ways and means of achieving equality through unjust modes results in unintended and evil consequences of providing life support to the deadly monster of caste. It also strikes a blow against the very cause of the eradication of caste. By not providing any prescription whatsoever for the current set of laws to effectively deal with corruption, Nandy has, implicitly or explicitly, placed the burden of responsibility on the shoulders of the lower castes for the failure of the State as well as the loopholes in the legal system. His Orwellian doublespeak at once points a finger at the lower castes for the menace of corruption while applauding them simultaneously for finding unique and exemplary ways of procuring their rightful place in the society.
Even if we were to presume that the lower castes indulge in so-called visible corruption, it can never ensure equitable access to resources for all because such means can be accessed only by those (a handful) who have gained entry into public service, while the vast majority — of dispossessed lower castes — still live on the brink of survival. Crores of public money accumulated by the likes of former Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Koda is of no use to them. Therefore, Nandy’s pronouncement that when the likes of Koda arrive centre-stage “he likes it” is again indicative of the fact that his view of good corruption is jaundiced. Corruption can never act as an equaliser. Rather, it increases inequality by further increasing the raising divide between haves and have-nots.
If Nandy was ever serious about eradicating the evil of caste, he should have exhorted the State and society to engage in the task of uplift of the backward classes instead of rubbing salt into their wounds. Yet, he is not alone in using his rhetoric in hailing corruption that he ascribes to the lower castes. The left liberal intelligentsia and the media need to share the blame equally for refusing to listen to our grievances or sometimes even brazenly attacking us as being “elite anti-casteists” who have suddenly woken up to take advantage of the situation to assert our superiority. Therein lies the deepest problem. By labelling us this and by ignoring our justified demands, they have exposed their own hypocrisy. We have been trying to draw attention to historical injustices — and which continue — that we have suffered. If the others have not bothered to listen, then the problem lies with them.
Rabindranath Tagore once said: “My unfortunate country, you will have to come down from your pedestal and acknowledge those as your equals, who you have humiliated. Those that have been deprived of their human rights and those that you have not embraced to your bosom — you will be forced to descend to their level one day.” It is a warning with contemporary relevance. The lower castes have displayed virtues of tolerance and forgiveness for generations, but to expect them to show the same even at the cost of their self-respect would mean draining blood from one who is already anaemic. A tolerance for casteism and a tolerance for corruption will unavoidably result in promoting casteism and corruption.
That, I am very sure, will sound the death knell for our surviving republic.
Anjali Rajoria is a medical graduate based in New Delhi and is a civil services aspirant. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org.