Let's talk about what Nandy really said

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:39 pm IST

Published - February 05, 2013 12:12 pm IST

They say we live in a post-Darwinian world, and if you live in India, you would never doubt it. Here survival of the fittest has been replaced simply by survival of the richest. It is a dog-eat-dog world, which – if Ashis Nandy and Tarun Tejpal are to be believed – is a great thing, because every once in a while, the smaller dog succeeds in eating the larger one. But at the very outset, let me say three things. One, that the statements made by Nandy were meant to be absolutely un-casteist, and actually meant as arguments in favour of the oppressed classes (though in some warped, elitist kind of way). Second, if we are to even pretend to be a civilized society, then it would be monumentally stupid to debate whether he should be prosecuted for offending a section that he has spent his life defending. And finally, the truly interesting aspect of this whole fiasco is not what Nandy has a right to say (because that debate is quite one-sided), but it is what he actually said.

Let me first acknowledge that there is a lot of merit in what Nandy and Tejpal said at the Jaipur literature festival. India has indeed been, and continues to be a deeply hierarchical, unequal society with very little class mobility. And for a majority, who are on the brink of survival, it is nearly impossible to cross over to the fairer side of the green after even a lifetime of hard work and toil.

But Nandy and Tejpal are not the first ones to have noticed that caste itself is a form of corruption. Fortunately, our founding fathers were acutely aware of this when they drafted the constitution, which is why they evolved various provisions for safeguarding basic rights for all citizens, and according special protection for those sections that had been suppressed for centuries. This is also why they injected the constitution with an extremely progressive and egalitarian soul in the form of the directive principles of state policy, which go so far as to say:

Article 38 (2): The State shall, in particular, strive to minimise the inequalities in income, and endeavour to eliminate inequalities in status, facilities and opportunities, not only amongst individuals but also amongst groups of people residing in different areas or engaged in different vocations.

Article 39 (b): that the ownership and control of the material resources of the community are so distributed as best to subserve the common good;

Article 39 (c) that the operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment;

In spite of these glorious ideals being enshrined in the supreme document of this country, policies that serve exactly the opposite purpose have been adopted in the name of ‘economic reforms’. Inequalities have actually increased, and poverty still remains alarmingly widespread after 65 years of independence. And the primary cause of this continued mockery of our constitution is the same entity that Tejpal calls a “class-equalizer”- i.e. corruption. Nandy, while giving the example of Sorabjee and himself engaging in an exchange of favours, was absolutely right in saying that our society has a very narrow definition of corruption, and does not recognize many institutionalized forms of the same. However, instead of elaborating on how these forms of corruption should be recognized as such and weeded out, Nandy conveniently assumed that they cannot (in fact, should not) be weeded out, and that to strive for a corruption-free society would be to strive for a dystopia. He then proceeded to sermonize on why corruption should instead be celebrated as a desirable imperfection in our society and how the ‘survival of this republic depends on it’.

But this was not the only statement that one of the most prominent sociologists of India made without any shred of empirical evidence. He started with his now infamous statement claiming that “most people caught for corruption are from the backward classes”, he denied the ‘myth’ of dynastic politics in India, celebrated the rise of Madhu Koda, Mayawati, and even Mrs. Indira Gandhi by describing how they had fought their way to the top. He also said that the amassing of wealth by Mulayam Singh, Mayawati, etc is only borne out of the noble intentions of defending their families from the desperation that their ancestors have faced. For some inexplicable reason, Nandy then claimed that Singapore is the only corruption-free country in the world (even though Denmark, Sweden, Finland and New Zealand all rank above it in the 2011 and 2012 corruption perception index released by Transparency International), and went on to say that “Singapore is a Draconian society” and that he would not like to live there.

Well, with all due respect Mr. Nandy, perhaps you would prefer to live in a society that gives the elite (i.e. people like you) a natural advantage over everyone else, but shall we ask the other 90% whether they would prefer to live in the ‘imperfect utopia of India’ (as you call it), or the dystopia of a Singapore or a Sweden or a Finland?

Since Nandy and Tejpal have graciously accepted that their statements were not based on any facts or research, and were simply ‘ideas’ (how can you expect facts at a literary festival, folks!), I have just one simple question for both. Do they really think that the impoverished, oppressed masses of India think of corruption as an equalizing force? The farmer on the brink of a suicide after being denied a loan by a bribe-seeking bank official, the street vendor forced to pay a hafta to the policeman to avoid being beaten, the tribal forced out of his/her land due to a politician-mining nexus, and the Dalit who has to pay a bribe to register an FIR after the rape of his daughter by upper-caste goons…

Do Nandy and Tejpal seriously think that all these people celebrate corruption, and think of it as an instrument for achieving equality? Corruption is the abuse of power, and it will always favor the person with deeper pockets. Hence to argue that the powerless are beneficiaries of corruption, rather than victims, is to add insult to the injuries inflicted by centuries of injustice.

The essence of Nandy and Tejpal’s argument is very simple: The status quo suits us (the upper classes), and although we recognize that it is a form of corruption, we will not change it. So you (the lower classes) should stop complaining about corruption, and learn how to work the system. There is of course a clear reason why clever people like Nandy and Tejpal have chosen to advance such a specious argument- the fact that you need to take controversial and contrarian positions in order to stand out in the ‘intellectual’ community in India and abroad. And for them, this statement has served its purpose. They will be invited to more talks, discussions and literary festivals, and there will be endless discussions on television about them. But we would not be serving any purpose if we chose to buy into such baseless rhetoric. A spade needs to be called a spade, and the Nandy-Tejpal argument needs to be called self-serving and completely irrational.

Manav Bhushan is a final-year PhD student at Oxford University.

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