Prosecuting Nandy for what he said is patently wrong. to not challenge him would be folly too.
The motto of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI) is ‘Be Job Givers, Instead of Job Seekers’. Its agenda is to “create new role models of job-givers and to contribute even more in nation-building”. What would the members of this nascent body have to say about Ashis Nandy’s gratuitous comments, which virtually excuses bribery among the SC/STs and OBCs as a way of levelling the playing field in India?
My guess is they would find them extremely offensive. Not merely because they suggest corruption is a good way to advance one’s station, but also since they imply corruption is what has entrenched upper-caste hegemony. Which is why, he says, the corruption of the Madhusudan Kodas and A. Rajas is welcome, because it equalises the situation. Nandy says he was being ironic and that his remarks were not anti-Dalit, but actually in their favour. He may think so, but their import is excessively cynical.
The reactions of the Rajasthan government and Minorities Commission chairman P.L. Punia are absurd in the extreme. However inelegantly Nandy phrased his point and however provocative he may have been, he has the right. The window of tolerance in this country is rapidly closing. When an academic has to worry about what he says at a literature festival, it’s the thin end of the wedge. On this, Nandy has the support of every liberal and right-thinking Indian. But had Punia and other Dalits really considered the substance and tenor of the remarks, they would still have grounds to be offended. For, Nandy’s nostrum is problematic on several fronts. To begin with, it mocks the millions of honest Indians, from all castes, creeds and linguistic backgrounds, who may be trying to carve out a place for themselves by virtue of hard work and merit. Their role models are not shady crony capitalists or rentiers or sundry crooks who take short cuts. They crave for an environment that allows for those who want to play it straight. Yes, gaming the system gives an unfair advantage to many. Is that something to aspire to?
It is also patronising to suggest that young, educated Dalits now entering the workforce as professionals or entrepreneurs would necessarily want to pick up tips from the Kodas and the Rajas. Their biggest icon Babasaheb Ambedkar rose by dint of hard work and intellect. Wouldn’t they want to emulate him? Why wouldn’t they want to create a new paradigm that moves away from the existing one? M.N. Srinivas spoke about Sanskritisation, the urge among the lower castes to mimic the Brahminical order. Is corruption the new Sanskritisation? That’s what Nandy would have us believe.
Most important, though, Nandy neglects the fact that millions of Dalits (as much as other poor Indians) are the bribe givers, not the takers. They find it is the only way to negotiate a society that can be deeply unfair. What would their takeaway be from Nandy’s glib assertions? Once again, prosecuting him for what he said is patently wrong; but letting him get away unchallenged for his flip theories would be a mistake too.
Sidharth Bhatia is a journalist and author based in Mumbai; E-mail your columnist: sidharth01 AT gmail.com