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A Guide to Infantalising and Trivialising the Public sphere

January 30, 2013

It is no  coincidence that Salman Rushdie who remains the poster child of the censorship debate in India begins his celebrated Midnight’s Children with the twin image of the birth of a child and that of a nation. The rest of the novel traces the intertwined stories of the child’s growth with the political history of independent India. But if one were to extend this allegory taking into account the kind of public sphere that seems to exist in India 65 years after independence there seems to be something amiss about this metaphor of birth and subsequent growth into maturity. A strange malaise pervades the public sphere in India today, where it seems almost as if we have turned the natural cycle of growth around and the children of midnight appears to suffer from the malady of the protagonist in David Fincher’s film “The Curious case of Benjamin Button” where a man is born a mature adult but ages backwards and slowly slides into infantile regression. If we were to consider the unreasonable response to Ashis Nandy’s talk at the Jaipur literary festival as one in a long continuum of such cases where individuals are hounded for hurting sentiments of communities, the Indian public sphere sadly appears as a weak and sickly child suffering from irony deficiency.

Consider for instance the fact that in 1922 Gandhi proudly declared that it was his duty to be seditious describing Sec. 124A of the Indian Penal Code as a prince amongst political provisions of harassment or Lala Lajpat Rai’s bold response to the Indian Cinematograph Committee (which demanded greater censorship of cinema because Indians were not mature enough) that he did not want the future citizens of this country growing up in a nursery and that they should be exposed to all influences to enable them to arrive at better judgments. This situation has largely been brought to bear by a lethal combination: the existence of draconian penal provisions that curtail speech, a criminal justice system that makes it ridiculously easy for groups to file complaints on the basis that they have been hurt and an instrumental media that profits and feeds on the eruption of scandals.

A plain reading of Ashis Nandy’s statements at Jaipur make it abundantly clear that far from making casteist slurs, he was actually critiquing a narrow understanding of corruption that did not question the unstated assumptions of upper class and caste privilege which to Nandy’s mind is a greater form of  corruption. Those who are up in arms against him seem to have huffed and puffed to a  point of breathlessness and shortness of breath- doctors will tell you- can affect your hearing. So it might be worth our while to pause, take a deep breath and agree that even if we disagree with what Nandy said it may at best be a disagreement about form in which case one can generously shrug the statement as an awkwardly construed statement. And if one disagrees with him in substance then lets pretend for a while that we are a mature democracy and challenge him intellectually.

Filing a case under the SC ST (Prevention of atrocities Act) and the IPC against a speech act with absolutely no malicious intent only trivializes the intent that corrective legislations like the former were meant to address. Asad Ahmad in his work on blasphemy in colonial India demonstrates how criminal cases around hate speech in colonial India became public events by way of their circulation in media and through rumours so that legal claims of emotional hurt become the basis of mobilization of affective communities centered on the public performance of emotion. This is a strategy that was perfected by the lumpen right wing which has unfortunately been adopted by all minority groups as well.

Assuming that members of the Dalit community feel upset with the form of the statement as a result of historic prejudice, this would call for a verbal or intellectual redressal rather than resorting to legal remedy or street protest. An often ignored virtue in the debate on free speech and censorship is the virtue of listening. The time has come to admit that freedom of speech and expression is highly overrated without an equal commitment to careful listening. This is particularly true when one lives in an eggshell democracy where every step we take, and every word we utter has to be carefully measured against the potential ‘hurt’ that can be caused. The true test of a democracy lies as  much in the amount of speech that it willing to grants its citizens as in the amount of uncomfortable speech that it is willing to listen to. Azra Tabassum, a writer in Delhi says “Fearless Speech demands fearless listening” and while Ashis Nandy is paying a heavy price for his speech the real casualty of the entire affair will be on our collective ability to listen fearlessly and genuine speech in India will be held in perpetual ransom those who infantilise and trivialise our public sphere.

(First published in the Economic Times.)

8 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2013 10:07 AM

    Dear Lawrence we are verythankfull to you as a student of socialscience as well as the one who does nt feel ourselves as a part of so called public whose sentiment keep open itsef for gerting hurt.I think the only way we can fight wid this politics of hurt , is by saving the publicsphare by not letting it terrorise by this.so this article i hope is a firststep in that direction.

  2. Ulaga Tamizhan permalink
    January 30, 2013 10:07 AM

    Why assume only “members of the Dalit community feel upset”??

  3. Hargopal Singh permalink
    January 30, 2013 10:58 AM

    It was very much disturbing to hear about the noisy protests over the comments made by a sociologist in a panel discussion on an issue .The topic was Republic of Ideas.It was part of discussions held in the Jaipur Literature Festival.The name of the topic itself is pompous and suggestive of its own autonomous and separate domain.One cannot have any objection to it whatsoever.Rather to drag it into any controversy is totally unjustified.Whether there can be a Republic like that is beside the point.Every body is free to indulge in such luxuries.How such discussions fall under the jurisdiction of Indian Penal Code passes one’s comprehension? Even if media persons are allowed to cover such discussions , they are supposed to look upon them as such and certainly not as a material for sensationalism.If it uses it for that purpose it is the media which should be held responsible for hurting the sentiments and not the panelists.How does the police come in ?How an FIR lodging is justified?If that is so police will have to be posted in the class-rooms also. . .

  4. January 30, 2013 3:17 PM

    Well said and well written. Freedom is definitely something we fantasise about. And with great freedom comes great responsibility. We don’t realise that ‘freedom’ is also a measure of a society’s ability and maturity to withstand criticism. My God if we were all to be sugary syrupy with each other either we’d be living in Utopia or more likely in Fool’s paradise. It is this perceived uninhibited ‘freedom’ of speech that has seen Indians taking to social media so fiercely. After all anonyomity is the cloak of fearlessness.

  5. Jason Keith Fernandes permalink
    January 30, 2013 3:42 PM

    Dear Lawrence,

    I find the way in which you lump the wide variety of responses to Nandy’s “flippant and vulgar position when speaking of the relationship between caste and corruption” deeply disappointing, and indeed, if I dare say so, offensive.

    Not all of those offended by his statement have called for him to be arrested. Some have even pointed out the tragedy that the meagre option that the Prevention of atrocities Act provides to this group provides is being squandered on this silly (but nevertheless offensive) statement. Indeed, not all are asking for street protests.

    However, all those who are protesting are asking that it be recognised that one cannot flippantly make statements using the SC/ST/OBC groups as fodder. One must have the that much common courtesy, which incidentally save Shuddhabrata, not many, and definitely not you have shown. How is THIS for not listening?

    disappointedly yours

    Jason

  6. Ramesh Narendrarai Desai permalink
    January 30, 2013 8:24 PM

    Lessons from la affaire Nandy :-
    1. Intellectuals should understand emotional state of the oppressed and erstwhile oppressed people. They can not always understand nuances of intellectual statements.
    2. Touchiness is intimately connected with maturity of individuals and collections of people. Lesser the maturity, more is the touchiness.
    3. The weak and the erstwhile weak, use newly acquired strength, in a disproportionate quantity. Provisions of the law are used where a debate or a mere censure would have been adequate.
    4. We all need to become maturer. Wisdom is an entity greater than intelligence. Intellectual arrogance makes us to transgress the boundaries of wisdom.
    5. The authorities while adhering to the law, need to use wisdom, in its implementation.
    6. With passage of time, the erstwhile oppressed would become mature. In the meanwhile, others who have not been oppressed in the past, need to be cautious about touching the sensibilities of the erstwhile oppressed.
    This is the learning that I got from this issue. It is for others to accept them or not. Consequences do not spare anyone including me.

  7. January 31, 2013 9:29 PM

    I think fearless listening has not been practiced here to understand the protesters’ point of views and sentiments/ hurt. Intellectuals from privileged positions putting up a great defense for their sapient saint Nandy, latching on to only exposing the fallacy of the protesters, albeit falsely assuming they are a unitary unit, and blowing the arrest demands out of the proportion to minimize demands for the critical analysis of Nandy’s comment. People who lack cultural and political capital sometimes articulate their outrage through demands of actions (arrest for this one), but there are many who have been condemning Nandy critically without calling for his arrest, that group is less focused here. Writers in this forum while condemning Nandy right at the “Introduction” of their essays end up advocating on his behalf, seeking forgiveness for him. Most writers here on Kafila came out calling themselves, still, a “student” or a “follower” or a “disciple” of Nandy, completely setting the tone for the partisan stands on his behalf. Why should freedom of speech only involve disciples defending their Guru and namecall others as undemocratic? To obfuscate caste categories, Nandy, in this forum, has been referred to as an “Acharya” and his so called critics have called themselves “Ekalavya”, really! Why not Arjun? Such derision for practicing identity politics, yet disciples defending their Guru, Bengalis defending another Bengali, Upper caste defending another upper caste, privileged defending another privileged, are somehow not identity politics. I am not calling for Nandy’s arrest, but I think he has lost his intellectual right to be called a Guru so often on Kafila.

  8. February 17, 2013 6:01 PM

    Here is an engagement with this piece by Lawrence

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