FOREWARD TO TRANSCRIPT
This is a transcript of sociologist and scholar Ashis Nandy's statement at the session titled Republic of Ideas at JLF. While discussing different aspects of India, Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal had suggested that maybe one way of looking at corruption is that it is a sort of equalising force in society as power structures are always created by the elite to keep the status quo in their favour and the poor can break through these glass ceilings created by the elite only by bending and subverting the system. Tejpal went on to give Dhirubhai Ambani as an example; that if he had not bent and subverted the system, he might have remained a petrol pump attendant.
Ashis Nandy picked up on this thread of argument and said he agreed with Tarun Tejpal that corruption was a way of creating social mobility. He said the corruption of the rich get noticed less because the rich have learnt to be sophisticated — and gave an imagined example of how he and another speaker Richard Sorabjee could be corrupt and nepotistic in ways that no one would catch on. The corruptions of the poor or those who have newly broken through the glass ceiling, on the other hand, are often more noticeable because they are more conspicuous. This, Ashis Nandy, argued was because they do not have the sophisticated mechanisms of the rich to hide their money. They only trust their families to be loyal so park their money only with close relatives — which again makes their corruption more visible. But, Ashis Nandy continued, according to him all of this was fine and part of a necessary social churn because this was the only way that the poor could break free from centuries of being downtrodden and access the power and entitlements that should be theirs by right. Another speaker had earlier criticised dynastic politics but Ashis Nandy explained that even that was part of social churn as Mulayam Yadav and the entire Yadav community that are seen as mainstream now were part of the historically oppressed classes barely 20 years ago. He explained how important it is for Dalits and backward classes to break through centuries of oppression and access power and money so that society can become more equal. He spoke of the desperation they feel.
Ashis Nandy then went on to say that though what he was going to say would sound vulgar, he felt it may even be a fact that the SC/STs and OBCs were among the most corrupt today, BUT (and it is important to note this) he said he felt if this was true, and as long as the percentage of the poor or oppressed classes was more corrupt than the elite, he felt the Republic of India was safe because the necessary social churn was taking place. He went on to give the example of Bengal, where according to him, 40 years of Left rule had meant it was comparatively less corrupt but at the same time it meant no Dalits or OBCs had been able to even come close to accessing power and the social hierarchy was frozen with only the upper castes having a grip on power.
The statement that is being interpreted as offensive therefore has been taken wrongly out of context. It was part of a larger argument Ashis Nandy was making that corruption should not be read in narrow terms and sometimes can be an important social mechanism to correct the wrongs of history. In his reading the social churn is more important to India's health just now than a perfect corruption-free society.
Ashis Nandy is a scholar who has always been pro-Dalit and backwards and all his writing over the past 30 years would be proof of this.
[We've not edited the foreward or the transcript, other than fixing typos, spelling mistakes and in the foreward, adding the second names where just the first were used]
TRANSCRIPT FROM SESSION DVD
Urvashi Bhatalia: Ashis da, your comments now on the ideas that have been discussed here: equality, the changeability, the need for change, the dreams of the founding fathers and mothers. Um, and on utopia generally, I mean what have you been writing about utopia? You want to tell us a little bit.
Asish Nandy: Well let me first clear two things, I think you heard when you said that I’m a philosopher. I’m a philosopher only in the sense that philosophy can come from texts but it can also come from slums. So I’m talking about the second kind of philosophy and I do hope that I will convey some idea of it today. First of all I do endorse the view which has come, that a realized or successful utopia is the other name for terror. In Soviet Union they used to put dissenters in mental asylums after the psychiatrists have diagnosed them as mentally ill because anybody who dissents in a utopia is naturally insane. Normally, we should diagnose them as insane so utopias can be dangerous and visions can be also dangerous but on the other hand no collectivity, and for that matter no individual, can live without visions. A good life requires vision. But such visions must also have a touch of the imperfect. And unless you are sensitive to that, I think it will be very dangerous to mount a kind of informed movement, which strives for perfection.
In the context of our discussion, if I may point that the only country which I know is close to zero corruption is Singapore and that’s not part of my concept of utopia, it can be very much a part of my concept of dystopia. I do wish that there remains some degree of corruption in India because I would also suggest that it humanizes our society. Indian society, Indian republic if you would like to call it like that here, is that it has left only four sectors of the society where your true talents are recognized, your true capabilities and skills are acknowledged. Rightly or wrongly, that’s a different thing but at least they’re acknowledged, people think they only work for that. In other words, no considerations of caste, religion, sect enter your considerations.
And these four sectors are: spectator sport, which is a very small sector because sports heroes are not that many.
Two: entertainment industry, which is a very slippery category because contrary to our belief at least four fifths of all Bombay films for example fail in the box office, so it’s a very risky business. Actually all four sectors are risky but it is perhaps the most risky business.
Third is crime, our criminal gangs are perfectly egalitarian. Do not forget that Dawood Ibrahim’s gang had a lot of Hindus in it…Totally secular.
And finally politics. You fight it out in politics and make it. All this talk of dynasty is an illusion created by the middle classes. Mrs. Gandhi did not become prime minister when Nehru was living. There was a large and very noticeable gap between her ascent to the throne and Nehru’s demise. She fought her way up. She was seen as a very meek, very unskilful, politically naïve woman. And therefore the syndicate chose her. She knew that in Indian politics that you should not project yourself as either too intelligent or too shrewd or too clever or even too political and that helped her. She clawed her way to power and so have each one of the names which have come up whether it is Mulayam Singh Yadav or Lalu Prasad Yadav. In addition, in the case of Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh, and people like them, exactly because of the reasons you give, there is a sense of desperation, utter desperation and insecurity.
Even if you make through corruption millions of rupees, you suspect that you will not be able to get away using the machinery of law or cleverly manipulating your investments in the right way with the right connections because you have none. If I may point out to you that to the best of my knowledge the only unrecognized billionaire in India today, in dollar terms, is Madhu Koda. Madhu Koda. He’s a tribal and I can assure you that Mr. Koda must have been a very insecure, unhappy, tense person. And in this kind of situation, the only people you can trust are your own relatives. Your son, your daughter, your nephew or your own cousins, where you can use them for keeping your money, keeping your political secrets or trusting them to remain loyal to you. And if you fit your experiences within this model, you will recognize, why this insecurity is there because politics looks a very impersonal/contractual work to a large part of Indians. They are new to politics. And your family members do not have the capacity to absorb the additional money in more clever, intelligent way. If I do a good turn to Richard Sorabji, he can return the favour by accommodating my nephew at Oxford, if it were in the United States, it would be a substantial fellowship. Miss Mayawati doesn’t have that privilege. She probably has only relatives whose ambition was to a nurse earlier or run a petrol pump. If she has to oblige somebody or have somebody in the family absorb the money, she will probably have to take the bribe of having hundred petrol pumps and that is very conspicuous, very corrupt indeed. Our corruption doesn’t look that corrupt, their corruption does.
Tarun Tejpal: Urvashi, can I add something to what Ashis da just said. You know on this corruption issue, I just want to put this corruption issue in a different kind of light along the lines of what Ashis da just said. I just want to throw a thought amongst all of you, which I’ve said earlier on also, perhaps, I’m saying perhaps corruption in a country like India is also a great class equalizer. And I’m going to try and explain that to you. It’s not all bad, it’s probably a great class equalizer.
I’m saying suppose in an extremely class ridden society like India where somebody who works in my house, my driver or my cook, what chance do his children have in the way India is constructed today versus my children where for the last fifty years in many senses the class that has ruled India, the elite, the privileged, my class of people, have built a set of rules that makes things easy for them and makes things lucrative for them. I mean all the rules that are laid down, let me give you the dumbest rule of them all, that English is the kind of dominant, hierarchal language. You know almost everyone who exercises power in India in some sense has an advantage if he comes from an English speaking background, a clear advantage over everybody else. In a situation like this if you come from the wrong side of the tracks of which roughly a billion people in this country would, what chance do you have of breaking through to get your hands on the spoils of life and on the spoils of a country. I’d say almost nothing. What do people like that do? People like that subvert the rules; these are not God’s rules, these are man made rules. God’s rules are you shall not kill anybody, you shall not rape anybody, you shall not oppress anybody. Those maybe God’s rules. Men’s rules are rules of examinations, taxations, privileges. I’m saying what chance do you have if you come from the wrong side of the tracks where I would say roughly a billion people of this country do, of breaking into and getting your hands on the resources available to the 200 million. I’d say a lot of these people do that by subverting the system which is what we call corruption, which are these man made rules.
I’ll give you one of the greatest examples of this which will easily strike a chord with most of you. There’s a man called Dhirubai Ambani. If he had not known how to subvert the rules; all the rules that he subverted today are now law. At that time they were not, at the time he was subverting them they were not, he would have still been filling petrol in a pump in Doha. And that’s how I’m saying, today you see all across the landscape in Delhi and Bombay, people coming from nowhere, from the wrong side of the tracks not having the privilege of elite education, of elite background, of admission to elite clubs, but breaking through on the basis of their wit, their intelligence and their hunger and very often subverting the rules that certain classes made.
Ashis Nandy: Just a response to this part, very briefly, he’s not saying the most important part of the story which will shock you and it will be a very undignified and, how should I put it, almost vulgar statement on my part. It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBCs and the Scheduled Castes and now increasingly Scheduled Tribes and as long as this is the case, Indian republic will survive. And I give an example, one of the states with least amount of corruption is the state of West Bengal where when the CPM was there. And I want to propose to you, draw your attention to the fact that in the last 100 years nobody from the OBCs, the backward classes and the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes have come anywhere near power in West Bengal. It is an absolutely clean state.
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
What Nandy probably meant was this -
Dalit/OBC corruption is disproportionately large with reference to their representation in position of power (politics and bureaucracy), and hence corruption, compared to the FC. More visible Dalit/OBC corruption is a positive sign since it points to their increased empowerment.
Having said so quite explicitly, Nandy is now desperately trying to wriggle out of the situation. If he is really speaking in favour the Dalit/OBC, looking at all the brickbats he is getting from them, he is certainly not speaking their language. How can you be speaking for them, if you can't make them understand what you are saying?
Ashish Nandy made a very valid point.
Our corruption doesn't look very corrupt. Only their corruption does.
But I disagree with his conclusion. We may not ever realize a zero-corruption state, but we should nevertheless aim in that direction. A fundamental step in that direction is how to bring about true equality in India, that includes addressing the inequality between the haves and the have-nots of the underprivileged castes and classes.
Encouraging corruption will only exacerbate the inequality. The countries that should be looked up as role-models are North European countries which are very egalitarian, but also very low on corruption. The example of Singapore is tangential to the discussion.
Mr. Arun Maheshwari, the reason why Dalits are in a situation, not exactly good, as a community, is because the other social order made laws, as anyone could become a Dalit, and if Dalits are not Dalits, then no one can become a Dalit. This seems to be the social reality. Otherwise, Ms. Sheila Dixit doesn't seem to ask the caste of the homeless in New Delhi, and it wouldn't matter, anyhow, because it shouldn't matter now.
The idea that I get is, that people generally have an idea, among certain circles. Which is, if there were two people, with one piece of bread, one might give the other, or one might take the bread. The second person, eventually keeps on taking bread, even when not hungry, and reaches a sense of brevity and importance, after a considerable time passes. This is what it seems. The Dalits are certainly not the second type. Would you want them to be? I mean, if an urbane politician from New Delhi is thought of as corrupt, and when A. Raja was perceived as corrupt by others, people say A. Raja used poverty as an excuse to embezzle money in a way, where money was gained, not in the cost or selling of a resource, but because the money gained was associated with the resource, nonetheless. This seems to be not what is normal as a practice, and there is no law for it. Money can change hands, without any buying and selling. We don't look good, when we say these things. We don't bother if we are given one or ten rupees more or less, in shops, if we don't have change. How in imagination, can we level such charges against a Union Minister, when he is in power? We don't want such allegations against ourselves. Why should we want a situation, where everyone is in such a situation?
Ashis Nandy should dumb down his philosophical arguments for mortals like me. I initially took what he said about SCs/STs/OBCs in relation to corruption literally, and found it casteist. It shouldn't be like Hindu philosophy which goes over the heads of the masses.
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