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Ashis Nandy, Media and the Work of Acceleration: Anirban Gupta Nigam

January 30, 2013

Guest post by ANIRBAN GUPTA NIGAM

The hornet’s nest stirred by Ashis Nandy’s comments at the Jaipur Literature Festival might – hopefully – be dying down, but certain questions raised by the occurrences on the 26th probably require a little reflection on everyone’s part.

In the corporate and social media blitz, a lot of the details have been forgotten, excised and overlooked. Till yesterday it was not clear what his entire speech consisted of. The most quoted line from his talk at the festival is: “it is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBC, the Scheduled Castes and now increasingly the STs and as long as it is the case, the Indian republic will survive.” None of those attacking Nandy for being casteist or spewing hate-speech have in fact even attempted to explain the latter part of the quote: “as long as it is the case, the Indian republic will survive.” How is that a casteist statement? More importantly, media reproductions of his statement have excised a crucial disclaimer he himself gives at the beginning: “It will be an undignified, even vulgar statement, but it is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBC, the Scheduled Castes and now increasingly the STs and as long as it is the case, the Indian republic will survive.”

It ought to be clear to anyone who can understand the language that no matter how weirdly stated, Nandy’s words are in fact pro SC, ST and OBC groups. Regardless of how one frames the speech, it has to be admitted that his choice of words was poor and his presentation made without the kind of substantiation that should have accompanied it in our hyper-sensitive times. But how did we get to the point where, catastrophically, a brilliant mind like Nandy might be on the verge of being charged with a non-bailable offense? There are – apart from his own carelessness in speech – two intertwined answers to this.

First is the simple fact of journalistic idiocy. If we follow the trajectory of events it becomes evident that the first media channel to go to town about his remarks was IBN-7, whose Managing Editor Ashutosh was on the panel with Nandy. IBN-7 presented the panel as one where a valiant, righteous Ashutosh defended the offended sections against Nandy’s remarks. And what did Ashutosh say – there and on TV later? He said that Nandy was wrong because he was making corruption a caste issue whereas actually, “corruption has no caste.” This kind of idiotic rebuttal is symptomatic of the simplistic rubbish that has come to characterise the journalism prevalent in most of the country today. Nonsensical statements like this grasp for some vague universalist logic – the same as saying ‘terrorists have no religion.’ In this case not only does it completely misunderstand Nandy’s point, but more importantly it obfuscates the issue. By saying something about how caste might relate to corruption Nandy was, however miserably, trying to politically understand the issue. He was trying to say that corruption by rich, elite upper castes is not labelled as such and it is only when the Other is the criminal that we apprehend corruption as corruption. Most shockingly of all, upon reading an interview in Firstpost it becomes clear that Nandy’s views on the matter were well-known to Ashutosh for whose book on Anna the scholar wrote a foreword. This is not to say that the comments made in the JLF are not problematic; but the immediate campaign to produce Ashutosh as the hero of the day sparked off a massive row where hordes of illiterate journalists pounced on one, edited fragment of the statement and accused Nandy of casteism.

Today the video of the session has finally become public and it only adds to the general picture of journalistic mediocrity.

Upon seeing the video it becomes clear that Ashutosh essentially chastises Nandy for not saying what Nandy has just finished saying! If you listen closely in fact, you can hear the psychologist protest in precisely these terms in the background; and finally when he gets a chance to clarify in the closing comments to the session, Nandy points out that Ashutosh has indeed merely repeated verbatim Nandy’s own words as a critique of Nandy’s position.

Still, perhaps one can excuse that. Hyperbole or not, journalists do this to everyone and if you open your mouth without extreme caution you can, in these slippery times, be caught in an unfortunate situation. What was more disturbing about the events that unfolded had to do with social media. Of course things go viral; and often things which go viral are those that we are in favour of – protests against the Delhi gang-rape for instance. But the general condition of virality can assume worrying dimensions as it did yesterday.

When a friend first told me that Nandy allegedly said something casteist, we both reacted with disbelief. This disbelief stemmed – and it is crucial to note this – from a familiarity with the man and his works. Not only have me and others around me grown up reading Nandy, many of us have also had the pleasurable experience of sitting at his lectures, hearing his interventions at seminars and being in quasi-social gatherings in his presence. There are those, especially those in the Left, who strongly disagree with his critique of modernity and the Enlightenment; and there are those who find his writings on women to be borderline patriarchal. His reaction to Mohan Bhagwat was symptomatic of a blind spot in his work, and even his earlier (and much more sophisticated) work on sati has been the subject of engaged, serious critique by scholars like Ania Loomba. However, very few people who have known Nandy personally or intellectually would think that he could, in any possible situation, be casteist; not the man who says that “the oppressed have no obligation to follow the rules of the game.”

Yet, so many who have known him – at a distance or closely – had no trouble whatsoever in condemning his words within hours through endless posts, likes, shares, and comments on social media yesterday. At a time when it was clear that belligerent responses from Mayawati and other Dalit leaders, as well as leaders of almost all other political parties, was creating an atmosphere where speech was going to be stifled and its speaker possibly jailed, even those who know him thought he could have said something blatantly casteist. The point here is not an idle, theoretical one but a deeply personal one. Of late, in a climate of clampdowns and hurt sentiments across different parts of society, it has become increasingly common to fling accusations at any and every one regardless of their track record. One hopes that in such situations those who know the persons in question will hold off on judgment; that they will refuse to believe the charges till there is no option left; that they will definitely not resort to news reports as the basis for condemning something as ‘hate speech’ and calling for someone’s arrest.

The rush to judgement has many causes, but one of the primary ones is social media. I say this not as a conservative critic of a medium we really are no longer in control of, but as someone who is a little concerned by the pressure exerted by online communities to proclaim that you are the first and – in our case – the most radical. Everything is sacrificed at the altar of acceleration as we want to be the first to report the news, to comment on it, and to take positions which subsequently become extremely difficult to withdraw from. Sometimes, good old fashioned media critique seems like the most incisive response. Combined with a media-on-speed, social networks spur opinions without temporal lag, everything just keeps coming, tickers keep updating and condemnations never end. Although I say this in the context of Nandy, this is an issue which has been distracting me for a longer period of time. On innumerable occasions the media-network combine has worked in sync to shut down avenues for discussion by producing opinions on a conveyor belt. Sometimes, as I said above, all this goes in our favour. On other occasions – as with the recent Indo-Pak tension or debates on Maoism and the like – everything seems to be go haywire.

Recently on Huffington Post I saw this minor call to action. Like slow food, slow news might be urgently required. But slow news will solve nothing as long as social networks continue to accelerate. Slow blogging is one answer to the predicament, but in today’s age, with cross-platform synchronisation, blogging is no longer slow. Any controversy surrounding the ‘speculative realists’ or ‘object oriented ontologists’ in the blogosphere is a prime example of how speed takes over thought; how even philosophy must shift gears to keep up. As dromology becomes a condition of being, it might be time to think about forms of ‘deactivation,’ of non-speech and withdrawl as a way to not react to events. If we refuse the sound-byte we might also refuse the event itself.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Sanjay Kashyap permalink
    January 31, 2013 12:07 AM

    “It will be an undignified, even vulgar statement, but it is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBC, the Scheduled Castes and now increasingly the STs and as long as it is the case, the Indian republic will survive.”

    This is just BS, isn’t it? There are parts of the intelligensia that will take offense at the perceived insult to lower castes, and there will be parts of the intelligensia that will defend Nandy for his basic pro-Dalit stance, but it really is Bull-shit, isn’t it?

    It’s the sort of thing that sounds deep, but does it even mean anything?
    The fact is that most of the corrupt *don’t* come from the OBC etc. It’s just a BS argument for the sake of sounding clever. Nandy should not be flogged for insulting Dalits. He should be flogged for talking crap.

  2. January 31, 2013 8:58 AM

    Like the media omitting the disclaimer, you too seem to omit an important part.
    “I will give an example. One of the states with the least amount of corruption is state of West Bengal when the CPI(M) was there. And I must draw attention to the fact that in the last 100 years, nobody from OBC, SC and ST has come anywhere near to power. It is an absolutely clean state.”

    He doesn’t say about perceived corruption in WB. He says WB is clean. And what is the reason? The obvious. The clean upper castes have kept the corrupt lower castes away from power. So all clean. After that how can any explanation like

    “He was trying to say that corruption by rich, elite upper castes is not labelled as such and it is only when the Other is the criminal that we apprehend corruption as corruption.” be made?

    • anirban permalink
      January 31, 2013 2:13 PM

      Well, in the context of his talk in Jaipur there is no ambiguity that Nandy considers a state without corruption (a “clean” state) to be a Dystopian, not utopian one: “zero corruption will be despotic” he says. We can surmise from this that his suggestion that Bengal is a “clean” society is not necessarily meant to be a certificate of merit to the state. In fact, it can only be a condemnation of its authoritarianism.

      On another note, it ought to be added that at least in popular perception (and possibly even in statistical terms) individual MLA corruption in Bengal is not considered to be very high. The kind of corruption prevalent in Bengal was/is largely understood to be structural.

      With regards to caste, academic studies, notably by scholars like Christophe Jaffrelot, suggest that in Bengal there has been a consistent over-representation of upper castes in legislature, far more than in other states of India, especially North India ones. Here is an Indian Express report which provides a quick summary of this longer trajectory: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/importance-of-being-an-upper-caste-in-bengal-house/585881/0

      Where does this leave us? Within the terms of Nandy’s talk it is evident that:
      1. When he says Bengal is a “clean state” he is not necessarily saying this as a glowing tribute to the state’s political culture.
      2. If we are to assume that only the corruption of Others appears as corruption to us, then it is precisely the absence of the Other than gives Bengal what is perceived to be a clean image.

      • January 31, 2013 11:30 PM

        I do understand the context. I find it hard to agree with the context itself. In a caste based society how can corruption be a leveling factor. Only people who are in power can do corruption.
        Apart from that this whole explanation reminds me of a blog i read long back, where a Pakistani lady was trying to defend the feudal class in her country against allegations of atrocities towards the farmers. She was using the example of her father who according to her was a just “master”, and who was loved by his workers, tillers etc…
        The whole of India is known for it’s corruption, and since upper caste holds power using subtle age old methods, obviously they are responsible for the corruption. But not sure that will come across as public perception and inverted perception of the state of events can be felt more. Now taking Bengal for an example in such a way just painfully reminds me of the Pakistani lady’s blog.

      • February 4, 2013 2:32 PM

        There certainly seems to be merit in the argument that Professor Nandy seems to be emphasising corruption among the SC / ST /OBC group as a pricincipal issue, and apparently ignoring caste-dominated corruption which is the overall situation in India. If that was not his intention he perhaps did not make this clear enough, but that is his only offence. What needs to happen now is instead of a vilification campaign against Professor Nandy from apologists of Dalit politics, we need a study to investigate the profile and extent of corruption across India and its relation to caste and class so that some data can be brought to bear on this war of words. However, fundamentally, can we please remember that India is a democracy and people are entitled to express their opinions whether you like it or not. I do not see many attempts to bring legal cases against senior Hindutva leaders to reign in their constant abusing of Muslims, Christians, tribal and dalit minorities, foreigners of any description in a kind of comprehensive and indiscriminate war against anyone who doesn’t fit into Brahmin-dominated caste politics.

  3. Nivedita Menon permalink*
    January 31, 2013 10:26 AM

    Jamia Teacers’ Solidarity Association’s Statement:

    In Defense of Ashis Nandy: for academic and intellectual freedom

    On 26 January, 2013, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Ashis Nandy, an eminent scholar and intellectual was attacked for his alleged “offensive” remarks against the backward communities – OBCs, SCs and STs – of India. He has been accused by a section of the media and political class of holding the backward communities responsible for the widespread corruption that ails the country. Those who are familiar with Nandy’s work and his impeccable credentials would know that the accusation is farthest from the truth. Not only has he been grossly misunderstood but the accusation is an affront to his decades long deeply sensitive scholarship including that on the backward communities.

    A section of the media, IBN group senior journalist Ashutosh in particular, in the garb of safeguarding the dignity of the underprivileged has not only harmed that further but has also disgraced the eminent intellectual by forcing an apology out of him. It is interesting to note that those in the political class and media who now claim to stand for the rights of the backward communities vis-a-vis Nandy have been active participants in the violent anti-Mandal agitation that rocked Delhi and other parts of India two decades ago. This hypocritical attitude and type of media sensationalism has eroded the culture of free ideas and speech in India; it is unfortunate that all complex and nuanced arguments are being sacrificed at the altar of hunger for TRPs and two minutes of sensationalism.

    It is against this intolerant culture that voices should be raised so that ideas and opinions remain unthrottled and free, and individuals are not forced to publicly apologise and face police action, as Nandy does, for crimes they have not committed. We, in solidarity with Ashis Nandy, stand against such kind of media violence and culture of intolerance.

    Signatories:

    Manisha Sethi
    Ahmad Sohaib
    Arshad Alam
    Tanweer Fazal
    Azra Razzack
    Sanghamitra Misra
    Farha Farooqi
    Ghazi Shahnawaz
    Ambarien Al Qadar
    Anwar Alam
    M S Bhatt
    Manoj Jena
    Adnan Farooqui
    Sucharita Sengupta
    Abhijit Kundu, University of Delhi
    Nabanipa Bhattacharjee, University of Delhi

    • Davidpaswan permalink
      February 1, 2013 2:07 AM

      Me a bit far from Enlightened crowd sitting in Kenya, this war of words I found more interesting, fabulous and stunning from the proprietors of FREEDOM MARCH …now we have to debate on what is academic ‘freedom’ and ‘non-freedom’, without taking on board, the academicians who are representing or interpolating most abused, and always contained on receiving ends, what I mean SC/ST/OBCs. That also numberless, if we try to hunt them across universities in India. No doubt they would fall short of numbers, relegated only of being an academic MINORITY against the MAJORITY that constitutes the Torch Bearers of FREEDOM PARADE… I think numbers in support of MAJORITY (in their FREEDOM MARCH) should only rise as soon as the penchant of NANDY-ISM take a toll, when the issue would more debated in media vis-a-vis academic circles. I appeal you kindly try to be democratic and sensitive to such issues without making any Win-WIN situation by building up such consensus… For detouring the matter, just think about the Nazis and their subjects of contempt–Jew community, though Hitler succeed in massacred/abused the Jews(that time they were minority), but Nazis were never able to call themselves Victors, because HISTORY turned out to be more victorious than the mighty NAZIS/Fascist… Merci :)

    • Shewli permalink
      February 4, 2013 6:00 PM

      Nibedita and the teachers who signed in defense of Prof. Nandy: Prof Nandy himself used a disclaimer before making the biased statement. It actually does not require any of your defenses in the name of freedom of expression. There is something called civil behavior and rationality as well and it is very often said that Prof. Nandy is known for wit etc. So what he said is not an example of choice of wrong words rather an example of a deep-rooted casteist mindset. Somebody has rightly said that it is a case of “Freudian slip”. However, in his irresponsible attack on the marginalized, he had actually confessed on behalf of the Brahmin-Kayasta dominated state that the dalits are powerless in West Bengal.

  4. Shama Zaidi permalink
    January 31, 2013 1:20 PM

    Only a cretin would think that saying : “And I must draw attention to the fact that in the last 100 years, nobody from OBC, SC and ST has come anywhere near to power. It is an absolutely clean state.” amounts to praising West Bengal for God’s sake!!! The word “clean” is dripping with sarcasm and irony at the way the “bhadralok’ have kept West Bengal as a private preserve.

    • January 31, 2013 11:33 PM

      Specifics somehow spoils sarcasm.
      “I will give an example. One of the states with the least amount of corruption is state of West Bengal when the CPI(M) was there.”
      If he meant clean in sarcastic way about badralok, he needn’t have mentioned the CPI(M) rule. Did the badalok disappear as soon as Didi came to power?

  5. Rohit Kaim permalink
    January 31, 2013 1:47 PM

    How can a prominent writer be so loose with his words that he is grossly misunderstood or his statement be misinterpreted.

    • Shohini Ghosh permalink
      January 31, 2013 3:09 PM

      Almost anyone in the world – prominent or otherwise – can have their words taken out of context and served up for misunderstanding. In the age of speed and electronic circulation,a quote can go viral with the context falling entirely by the wayside. Thats precisely the point Anirban has made. The history of censorship and `hurt sentiments’ is replete with such instances.

  6. jomo permalink
    January 31, 2013 10:14 PM

    What is strange here is the deployment of pedigree as an insulator from bias. Just because you are a careful thinker(best case), doesn’t mean you are completely self-reflexive about the manner in which you deploy castiest or sexist tropes.
    While I must admit that I am still coming to terms with what “hurt sentiments” mean to the politically marginalized, I think it is important to pause a while and ask “How have I understood so quickly what exactly was so hurtful and have I perhaps been too quick to dismiss this hurt? Have I too easily collapsed this hurt and its recourse to law with majoritarian state-backed attempts to stifle difference?”
    A small note on the atrocity act. The atrocity act is a blind and blunt tool meant specifically to blunder through recourse to pedigree. Created on the assumption that prevalent mores will tend to dismiss the presence of casteism and its devastating impacts.

    Having said this I must say that I do not feel that Nandy should be jailed. I dont have any reason for this (definitely not because he is great, wise and well read or eminent as the petition puts it) , just a nagging feeling that although the demand for his punishment is legal and most likely justified, this is not the site the battle must be fought.

  7. brahma permalink
    February 1, 2013 2:35 AM

    This way or that way, there is absolutely no merit in what Mr. Nandy has said. It is not really a question of pro-dalit or anti-dalit. I am more concerned about the merit of the argument itself. At the end of the day Mr. Nandy has justified corruption. The question is can corruption be justified, under any circumstances whatsoever?

    Since dalits have been oppressed therefore corruption acts as an equalising factor, says Mr. Nandy. But this is a flimsy pretext. If social oppression can act as justification for corruption then so can economic oppression or political oppression or religious oppression. Then where do you draw the line? And more importantly is corruption the way out? Corruption may bring about economic equalisation but it will never eradicate social or political oppression. Instead, it will serve to discredit a long history of injustice meted out to these classes and encourage reactionary tendencies. It will act as a justification for prejudice and only bring about perpetuation of oppression. Is that hope for the Indian republic?

    Oppressed do not have an obligation to obey the rules of the game, says this article. It is a dangerous thing to say. Rules of the game can be flouted by means other than corruption. The Maoists could use the same logic to justify their actions. Is that right? I think Mr. Nandy has spoken in a specific context and it is important to limit the argument to that context. Specifics are important. A crude generalisation will be self-defeating. Almost everybody feels oppressed at some point or the other. Does that give one the right to bend the rules as one pleases? There will be no rule of law if that were the case.

    Mr. Nandy’s remarks are even more unfortunate and untimely given the demand for a strong Lokpal from the government. You cannot on the one hand ask for Lokpal and defend even glorify corruption of a particular section on the other hand.

  8. anirban permalink
    February 4, 2013 11:33 PM

    One example of his “deep-rooted casteist mindset”, referred to above:

    “I think the dalit and the tribal communities of India now constitute two formations of cultures about which most other Indians know little and believe that they need to know nothing. A dialogue with them should be able to humanise our polity and make it a richer, more informed democracy.

    All dialogues have to cross borders – cultural, political, and above all, psychological. Usually these borders are thought of as international or civilisational borders. When we cross these borders, we are supposed to get a new, deeper, more empathetic understanding of the other ways of looking at the world and at ourselves. There is an implicit assumption in this proposal, particularly when it involves crossing the borders within us: Others are never entirely strangers. They are also templates of the temptations and possibilities within us. We are what we are because we are shaped by the seductive pulls of these templates. A dialogue breaks stereotypes more easily than it erases these partly alien fragments of our self, operating as anti-selves and rejected selves. Both our creativity and destructiveness depend upon how we grapple with these inner vectors. It is thus that a dialogue sharpens and widens our awareness of what we are and what we are capable of. Only when we are in dialogue can we claim to have opened India to the other India where the dalits and the tribals live.

    Sixty years after formal decolonisation, small sections of the post-second world war democracies are at last showing some signs of offering resistance to the obscenity of speaking on behalf of the oppressed and the exploited. Some of the victims, too, are now obstinately refusing to fit into the model of a one-dimensional life as the “the poor and the exploited”, perpetually dependent on experts and ideologues who have become their voices and guides to a better future. These victims are claiming the right to imagine and write their own future.

    Pity and sympathy, after a point, can be degrading and vulgar. Instead of shedding copious tears for the poverty and the exploitation of the dalits and adivasis, the time has come to celebrate their self-affi rmation and the enormous diversity of cultural, ecological, artistic, technological and intellectual riches they, as communities, have nurtured over the millennia. I refuse to believe that in these communities grandparents do not tell stories to their grandchildren and mothers do not sing lullabies to their babies. I refuse to believe that, outside the reach of sloganeering and propaganda, they do not have mythic heroes and myths of origin, their own and that of the world. There are impressive ethnographic works on the healing traditions, technological knowledge and agronomic practices of some of these communities. Now there is even some interest in their distinctive cuisines and there has been some serious interest in their artistic traditions. All this can be a reasonable vantage ground to launch a search for different world views and different visions of the future. I am tempted to adopt the plea of the Zapatistas that one of their finest thinkers, Gustavo Esteva articulates: the challenge today is nothing less than “to host the otherness of others”. We have been terribly busy all these years hosting the sameness of others.

    Dialogue of cultures can acquire new depth if it engages communities and cultures at the receiving end of the system and reaffirms their right to intellectual – yes, intellectual, not only social – dignity. The oppressed do have their own, often-implicit theories of oppression and have no obligation to be guided by our ideas of the scientific, the rational and the dignified. They have every right to be historically, economically and politically incorrect.”

    (http://www.epw.in/perspectives/theories-oppression-and-another-dialogue-cultures.html)

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