“An intellectual man can be a good man but he may easily be a rogue. Similarly an intellectual class may be a band of high-souled persons, ready to help, ready to emancipate erring humanity, or it may easily be a gang of crooks or a body of advocates of narrow clique from which it draws its support.”
“[The] racism of the intelligence...is specific to a dominant class whose reproduction depends, in part, on the transmission of cultural capital, an inherited capital that has the property of being an embodied capital and thus apparently natural and innate.”
Ashis Nandy is a reason-buster. That is his e-mail id, his raison d’etre. And when he makes totally unreasonable comments, his friends expect us to stand and applaud. His acolytes—who have predictably and unimaginatively started an online petition to save his right to free speech and have created a blog dedicated to him—tell us that the political psychologist (a term he uses to describe himself) likes to “illuminate through anecdote, aphorism and irony”. But apparently Dalits, adivasis and OBCs—he lumps together 70 per cent of the population—and those of us non-Dalits whose work requires us to actually know something about caste, cannot understand such nuances.
At the outset, let me state that I am not for Nandy’s arrest—though an absolute right to free speech should make us defend the Thackerays and Akbaruddin Owaisi as well—under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, for that would trivialise the realities of caste violence. Like my friends Chandra Bhan Prasad and Kancha Ilaiah have said with such grace and maturity, let us forgive Nandy and not drag him to court.
But first let us look at what exactly Nandy said in Jaipur. Here is a faithful, unedited transcript based on a YouTube video via ABP News. My comments figure in parenthesis, and these are necessary, for what transpired on stage was a performance with gestures, pauses and interruptions adding to the overall effect.
Nandy: How should I put it? Almost a vulgar statement on my part. [Raises his voice and speaks slowly, with deliberate emphasis on each word.] 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, [the] Indian Republic will survive... [some interruption, with moderator Urvashi Butalia saying “Alright” as if sensing the tension and wanting to move on; TV journalist Ashutosh is raising his hand in protest, but Nandy soldiers on]. Also, I’ll give an example. One of the states with the least amount of corruption is the state of West Bengal, that is when the CPI(M) was there. And I want to propose to you, draw your attention to the fact that in the last hundred years [pause] nobody from the opp... [opposition? oppressed?], 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. [Point made, Nandy wants to pass the mike.]
Ashutosh: Urvashi, sorry...
Urvashi Butalia: Wait...
Ashutosh: I know, I know...I have to respond to this.... I think, I think...this is the classical [sic] case of...
Butalia [again butts in]: Ashutosh, please, please, please...
Ashutosh: This is a classical case of how the elite in India...they perceive the downtrodden, the Dalits, the OBCs, and all...[huge, heartening round of loud applause from the audience]. I think this is the most bizarre statement I have ever heard in this country [more continuous applause].
It’s not just the dirty outsiders who failed to grasp what Nandy later assures us was the case: that he was being pro-Dalit. It was also the presumably elite audience at the ‘DSC’ Jaipur Literary Festival who clapped for Ashutosh. And all this was well before the CSDS/twice-born spin machine cranked into action.
The transcript is of words spoken in just 80 seconds. This is a rushed, media-driven world where people seem to first speak, and then think, if at all. Just when we are to hear Ashutosh say something about the ruling castes, the video feed is cut, and ABP decides to typically amplify only Nandy’s words. The media will do what they are paid to do. (A corporatised media that a 2006 CSDS statistical survey—irony, again!—proved had near-zero representation of Dalits, adivasis and OBCs. And by the way, why can’t CSDS—the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, which is apparently running as a jobs programme for politically connected academicians who failed to get tenure in the US—ever implement reservation?)
Surely the corruption that drains India is in real estate, arms deals or preferential bids for government contracts, not ticketless travelling.
Nandy did not stop with this. He persisted with his efforts at reason-busting in an interview to NDTV’s Barkha Dutt (January 28), where he claimed: “Even in this particular presentation [in Jaipur], I was [being] aggressively pro-Dalit, pro-OBC and pro-adivasi...unless and until you tease out that one sentence, and say ‘you are factually wrong, because this has not been empirically demonstrated’, though I have a feeling that probably I’ll not be shown wrong if you count the number of ticketless travellers and so on and so forth who get away [here Barkha smiles mischievously, a finger on her lips] in the second-class compartments of trains or on the terraces [sic] of railway trains and so on and so forth. There are many such cases. If you take the young urchins who sell tickets in the black outside cinema halls....” When Dutt interjects, Nandy says of his Jaipur utterances: “It is not an accidental slip, it is a Freudian slip.”
The more Nandy tries to explain, the more he sounds rabidly casteist. Ticketless travellers, black-ticket marketers, rickshawwallahs and thelawallahs who have to bribe the police—all these are presumed by Nandy to belong to once-born communities, simply because they are preponderant in India’s population. According to Nandyian logic, then, whoever is in the majority must necessarily be the most corrupt. What he claims as a ‘fact’—that most petty lawbreakers are from the bloc BSP founder Kanshi Ram called ‘bahujan’—is not a fact at all but a tautology, a case of circular reasoning. Even the elite anti-corruption campaigns of Anna Hazare/Arvind Kejriwal had bigger fish in mind. Surely, the corruption that drains India is concentrated in fields like real estate development, arms deals, concessions to rural landowners and SEZs, preferential bids for government contracts, and yes, lit-fests (some of which I’m ashamed to say I’ve attended). The sorts of corruption that matter most are the purview of the privileged, and Dalits do not make up even one per cent of these lucrative fields. They are the victims of corruption, not its beneficiaries. Corruption is not a democratising force, but most fundamentally an extra-legal form of rent-seeking behaviour by elites, that systematically sucks wealth upward. And until Nandy grasps this most basic reality, he should consider refraining from speaking publicly on the topics he knows nothing about.
And yes, the man who triggered this all, Tarun Tejpal, creator of the ‘Essar Thinkfest’, has gotten away with arguing that corruption is a “levelling force” in society, an “equaliser”—why then did Tehelka con Bangaru Laxman, a Dalit, into accepting a paltry Rs 1 lakh “for the party fund” and ensure prison for him? This vulgar understanding of democracy was further turned into a joke by Nandy, who blustered along as if he were sharing a drink with buddy Tejpal in the IIC lawns. Later, Nandy clarified to Barkha: “As long as the poor can be corrupt, it will be like a safety valve for society...it will be better for the republic.... Corruption is about equality and redistributive justice.” Is this all India’s “finest intellect” has to offer?
Whatever the explanations, clarifications and defences, it is quite transparent what Nandy said and meant. Section 3.1.(x) of the PoA Act—invoked when someone “intentionally insults or intimidates with intent to humiliate a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe in any place within public view”—was meant to challenge the impunity with which the privileged castes routinely and habitually insult Dalits and adivasis. More than as a matter of freedom of expression, the twice-born have considered it their birthright—janma-siddha adhikaar—to be disparaging of all once-born folk. And Nandy’s words wound as much as the actions of khap panchayats and Ranvir Sena do.
However, it would be a sick irony if police who routinely refuse to file atrocities firs on even the most grossly violent attacks on Dalits were to file one against this completely non-violent pontiff of unreason. That Nandy has been threatened with arrest under this law is a red herring and a gift to him, which serves only to make him a martyr and a cause celebre for the Mandal-hating privileged-caste intellectual establishment. Worse, his arrest could bolster demands for the repeal of this important and seldom implemented law.
Nandy’s views on caste and corruption—quite like his qualified endorsement of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s statement that rapes happen in India, not Bharat (Tehelka, Jan 4, 2013)—must be debated and challenged. Nandy is a master at repackaging elite prejudice as counter-intuitive insight and paradoxical wisdom. But the best cure for these intellectual parlour games is simply to expose his ignorance to light of day.
Thus we should welcome Nandy’s comments as a brazen public expression of the “common sense” racism that the privileged in urban India routinely articulate in private conversations. The privileged who casually dismiss the policy of reservation in education and jobs (rarely implemented in earnest), and who refuse to acknowledge that they have availed of unstated reservation for millennia owing to their exclusive monopoly in various fields, including corruption (even if understood, according to Nandy’s reductive definition, as petty bribe-taking). The privileged who refuse to see caste itself as corruption, as moral depredation.
Before going further, let me pick some nits in what Nandy exactly said, especially since some of his most resourceful and powerful friends in the intellectual establishment—Nandy has at his disposal a large cache of what Bourdieu calls social and cultural capital—have rushed to his defence. These include the feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia, who helpfully parroted out his clarificatory statement (she moderated the Jaipur panel), and three of his former CSDS colleagues—Harsh Sethi (The Hindu, Jan 28, 2013), Yogendra Yadav (Indian Express, Jan 28, 2013) and Shiv Visvanathan (Firstpost, Jan 28, 2013)—who similarly constructed elaborate and contorted explanations to help the unnuanced masses understand that the emperor does have clothes after all.
His choice of words is surely not a result of any momentary lapse of reason. It is clear to anyone who cares to listen what Nandy in fact said and meant. Though it is fascinating to watch a man who scorns empiricism as vulgar western ideology gradually backtrack in a series of interviews, in which ‘a fact’ becomes ‘a hypothesis’, and finally an ‘expectation’. Equally fascinating is the spectacle of a man who has always resisted the idea of state-mandated bureaucratic rationality diligently sticking to state parlance when it comes to referring to Dalits or adivasis—steadfastly using ‘Scheduled Castes’ and ‘Scheduled Tribes’ and ‘OBC’ as if he were a babu in a sarkari department.
When he offers an illustration to corroborate his conclusion (mind you, Nandy’s authority comes not from any actual research, but the certainty of his intuitions), he says West Bengal under the Communists was an “absolutely clean state” because the once-born never had a share in power there. Such a man is marketed as an intellectual “maverick”, but the views he endlessly espouses are just cleverly repackaged versions of the ones most privileged-caste Indians anyway hold. For we, after all, live in Kaliyug, a fallen era when people have moved away from varna-ordained stations in life and have wrested some power.
Nandy’s comments are a public expression of the ‘common sense’ racism that the urban privileged articulate in private conversations.
Much of this narrative fits snugly with—in fact, follows from—Nandy’s larger body of work that valorises pre-modern approaches to community and thought. Which is why his foundational work, The Intimate Enemy (1983), revolves around Gandhi and Tagore, but does not once mention figures like E.V. Ramasamy Periyar, Tarabai Shinde, Jyotirao Phule, Pandita Ramabai, Narayana Guru, the Aulchand-led Kartabhaja movement in early 19th century Bengal or B.R. Ambedkar. Even when writing controversially about Sati in 1987, Nandy invoked Tagore’s poem on Sati as an ideal, but did not engage with Ambedkar’s brilliant essay ‘Castes in India’ (1916) where he argues how Sati (besides child marriage and enforced widowhood) was among the building blocks of the caste system. This non-engagement is actually an estrangement; because Ambedkar’s project of fusing European Enlightenment thought with anti-metaphysical Buddhism does not suit Nandy’s indigenist longing for Gandhi’s revanchist Ram Rajya envisioned in the 1908 tract Hind Swaraj, whose critique of modernity, the West and industrialism comes with an abiding love for varnashrama and women’s enslavement. Nandy would happily cite Aime Cesaire, Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi, but never Ambedkar, Periyar or Phule who challenge his very hypotheses.
It is such a trajectory that leads Nandy to utter the ultimate racist slur when he condemns entire population groups, not just individuals like A. Raja or Madhu Koda who happen to be Dalit or adivasi. Such views are baked in the crucible of prejudice and ignorance. In the US today, even Republicans would not say something so derogatory of all Hispanics, Blacks or First Nation peoples. When they do, they pay a penalty (not necessarily legal) and are excoriated, not hailed as mavericks. Two examples given by two friends will suffice: from the world of entertainment and from the world of science (just to pique Nandy). In 2011, when America’s highest-paid TV actor Charlie Sheen made anti-Semitic remarks against producer Chuck Lorre, CBS dumped him and discontinued the production of Two and a Half Men, a hit show that had been running for a decade. In 2007, when Nobel-winning biologist James D. Watson, who worked on the Human Genome Project, was quoted in The Times as suggesting that, overall, people of African descent are not as intelligent as people of European descent, the outcry led to the cancellation of his lectures and his eventually being sidelined at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island.
Nandy’s tendency to make gross generalisations stems from his penchant to essentialise. For him, the coloniser has necessarily been white British power. Internal colonialisms hardly matter. Nandy’s binaristic understanding of coloniser-colonised does not enable him to recognise the colonialism that is played out in almost every village in India where blatant caste-based segregation is practised. Last year, Nandy delivered the Ambedkar University Delhi’s annual lecture on April 14, Ambedkar’s birth anniversary (published in EPW, July 28, 2012). The topic was ‘Theories of Oppression and Another Dialogue of Cultures’. I had hoped the very topic would give Nandy an opportunity to engage with radical anti-caste thought in India. But he disappointingly stuck to familiar ground.
Nandy’s disengagement with issues of caste and anti-caste thought is symptomatic of the apathy of India’s intellectual classes to these issues. Which is why we see feckless intellectuals eager to be complicit in his crime—the slew of luminous signatories to the petition is a virtual who-is-who. One does not have to be a Dalit, adivasi or OBC to be outraged by Nandy’s pronouncements just like one need not be black to see why Watson was so very wrong. In being ashamed of Nandy, we merely have to reach out to our own humanity. But I suppose that would be an unnuanced, anomic, banal and secular expectation.
(Anand is the publisher of Navayana.)