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Ashis Nandy’s Predicament and Ours

January 30, 2013

For the past few days I have been preoccupied in one part of my mind in dealing with two reasons for anguish. The first reason has to do with the profound sense of disappointment and anger with which I heard Prof. Ashis Nandy, a man I consider to be a great teacher, friend and in possession of one of the finest minds of our time, commit himself in public to a flippant and vulgar position when speaking of the relationship between caste and corruption at the Jaipur Literary Festival.

I was saddened because Prof. Nandy’s statements do a great disservice to the suppleness and ethical integrity of his thinking, and represent one of those sadly paradoxical situations where an intellectual can become their own worst adversary. I am unambiguously critical of the Nandy who chooses to be pompously opinionated and misinformed at a forum like the Jaipur Literary Festival or while riding the hot-air currents of television especially because I remain a partisan of the Nandy who can be (when he chooses to be) one of the most thoughtful and insightful witnesses to our time in his writing.

The second reason for my anger has to do with the knee jerk reactions that have followed this episode, calling for Nandy’s prosecution and imprisonment, that come laden either with a disturbing sense of authoritarian rectitude emanating from the foot soldiers of identity politics and brokers of victimhood or with a degree of schaudenfraude from intellectual charlatans.

In all honesty, I cannot deny that Nandy’s remarks at the Jaipur Literary Festival reflect a profound lapse of judgement. As a person who claims to be a student of psychology among other things, I would urge Prof. Nandy, out of the solidarity and respect that I have for him to do some honest introspection and think about the conscious and unconscious habits of thought and affect that so speedily bring an invocation of caste, even when it is not immediately relevant, to the lips of our intellectuals. Corruption is a question of an unregulated access to power, or, a measure of the way in which the absence of a sustainable wage makes it necessary for millions of ordinary people to pursue informal economies and ways of life outside of or on the fringes of legality. A meditation on neither of these two polar phenomena necessarily requires us to weigh in on the caste identities of those who corrupt, or are corrupted by the ordinary operations of power and the economy in our society.

To say that ‘most of the corrupt are Dalits or come from backward communities’ is to say something as nonsensical as ‘most terrorists are Muslim’, or, ‘most people in the top echelons of right wing Hindu groups are Chitpavan Brahmins’ or ,’most of the financiers and speculators in global Capitalism are Jewish’, or ‘most of the people who were carriers of the HIV virus in the early days of the AIDS epidemic were homosexuals’.

First of all, such statements are of extremely dubious empirical value. They reflect the prejudice of the speakers and the spoken to more than they mirror facts on the ground. Secondly, even if they were to contain a modicum of truth – ‘yes, some of those caught for corruption have been Dalits, yes, some of those found guilty of terrorism are Muslim, yes, some of those who were early carriers of the HIV were gay, and yes, some of the leading plutocrats are Jewish and some of those involved in right wing Hindu fascism are Marathi speaking Brahmins’ stating them in bald terms necessarily involves the assertion of a falsehood, simply because there are always more counter factual instances that disprove each of the above assertions. For each X that is why Y ( here, for X, read an identity category – Dalit, Muslim, Gay, Jew, Brahmin etc. and for Y read an attribute – corrupt, terrorist, disease carrier, plutocrat, fanatic), there are way too many Xs that are also not Y for any correlation between X and Y to be meaningful. In fact no statements of this kind, or pretences to facticity of this nature actually tell us anything valuable about corruption, terrorism, AIDS, finance capital, or hindutva, or for that matter, about Dalits, Muslims, Jews, Gays or Brahmins.

They reflect instead a habit of inexactitude and imprecision that is indulged in Indian intellectual life, based on the easy anecdote, idle prejudice and plain statistical dissimulation, and deployed, casually, in passing as the currency of opinion, in may I add, largely male homosocial gatherings, where no one actually challenges anyone else. It reflects the sad fact that the mainstream of Indian intellectual life has not yet learnt to think beyond, below or besides identity based categories.

With regard to a discussion of corruption, the question of caste has a relevance insofar as the informally expressed networks of power and privilege are concerned, through which corruption operates – nepotism, for instance, in a specifically Indian context has to be read in terms of caste, because of the relationship between kinship, the closed structure of many affinity groups and affinal ties and caste structures in India. This is perhaps the territory that Ashis Nandy intended to step into when he began talking about corruption at the Jaipur Literary Festival. But a consideration on the matrix of privilege, informality and familiarity that comes with an assessment of how the wheels of corruption are greased – which is best represented by Nandy’s remark gesturing towards how elites reward and protect their own (which in all fairness cannot be read in an ‘anti-Dalit’ manner) does not necessarily translate into a quantitative assessment of which caste embodies how much corruption. That leap, I am afraid, takes us straight into a habitual, reflexive cast of thought that cannot articulate itself in terms other than those of caste. That intellectual failure, the rush to make a sweeping statement about millions of people, their intents, actions and motives is what disappoints me. If anything, a serious consideration on kinship, influence, caste and corruption would show that there is not a single caste, community, old boys network, professional sector, affinity group or vocation that is free of corruption in India. To single out any particular group or identity, for the purposes of a conversationally discursive rhetorical flourish, is to be utterly deluded, and to provide fuel to the purveyors of prejudice, even when the person doing so may not be prejudiced themselves.

The political theory that emanated from CSDS may well have said important things about the relationship between caste and electoral politics in parts of north India in the latter half of the twentieth century, but to have caste become the inevitable conceptual short-hand for any random feature of social, political or cultural life in India, shows us what happens when the contingent results of time bound quantitative surveys become intellectual fetishes that can be used to talk about any and everything in the name of a faux and au-fait indigeneity. Nandy’s profound error is not his alone, he is only the canary who sings in a predictable monotone as the conceptual mine shaft around him begins to cave in on itself. Perhaps there is no coal left in this particular seam.

What is particularly distressing to me is the fact that Nandy is actually at his best when he offers us the intellectual tools that help us critique the cults of empiricism, expertise and scientism. He is at his best when he speaks in riddles, enigmas and allegories. To see him pillory his own method at the altar of a vocabulary of ‘facts’ and ‘data’ is to see Nandy become the caricature of what he has most relentlessly criticised. Again, he is not alone in this. Great minds fall from great heights, and they fall hard. Let us not forget Martin Heidegger’s sinister Nazi period, Michel Foucault’s enthusiasm for the venality of the Islamist revolution in Iran, Hannah Arendt’s alleged abandonment of her principled anti-Zionism for the sake of a bizarre celebration (late in her life, and in private) of the military prowess of the Israeli state, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s anti-semitism and Jean Paul Sartre’s disgusting apologetics for Stalinism. We need not be blind to any of this when we read and learn from the work of these intellectuals and writers, nor do we need to be blinded by it. Intellectuals are not infallible, and there is no need for us to be incredulous when an intellectual that we otherwise admire succumbs to an ethical or cognitive lapse that we cannot, and indeed must not ignore.

A robust commitment to the principles of free speech can reconcile trenchant intellectual disagreement with a passionate embodiment of the ethical defence of the liberty of that with which one disagrees. I am prepared to argue strongly in favour of the freedom of speech of those who are my bitter intellectual and ideological adversaries, not because I think they are all wonderful people but because I think we are left poorer as a society when we do not make room for contrarian points of view (even when they are profoundly disagreeable). I strongly believe we need to consign every single law in the statute that restricts the freedom of speech, whether on the grounds of offended religious sensibilities, caste sentiments or the sanctity or security of the state to the garbage bin.This needs to begin with a rejection of the first amendment to the Indian Constitution, and its infamous ‘reasonable restrictions’ clause, which is the fountainhead of every justification for the stifling of liberty. Whatever damage violent and hateful forms of speech do can in my opinion be effectively addressed by those legal instruments that define and target acts that are accessory to, or abet, the conduct of actual violence be it on casteist, sectarian or misogynist grounds. As for the specious argument of offended sentiments, especially on the grounds of religion, identity and honour, I maintain that a consistent and just application of this principle would also necessarily entail the potential prosecution of almost every religious believer because virtually every religion enshrines in its scripture hateful and damning sentiments regarding the believers of other religions, non-believers and those who undertake to lead forms of life, particularly in the intimate sphere that are not in conformity with religious dictates. My doubt may be as sacred and important to me as the faith of a believer. While I think that these sentiments (that damn those who are not of the right or sufficient faith) are provocations for us to think carefully about the relationship between prejudice, misogyny, homophobia and tradition, I would not think for a moment that the scriptures be banned or that religious figures be imprisoned for wanting to send the likes of me to hell, because there is a great deal in the same religious traditions that I am interested in and care for, even as an unbeliever. If I am, and millions of people like me are, prepared to live with the fact that our sentiments are offended on a daily basis by religion, then why must we not insist that we be returned the favour?

Because I am committed in principle to the freedom of speech, especially of the speech with I do not agree, or even disagree strongly, I do not think that Prof. Nandy’s words are sufficient ground for arrest or legal action. i must say here that even if someone made rank communal or casteist remarks, I would still not agree with them being ‘locked up’, ‘put away’ or gagged in any form. While I would urge everyone to either combat such speech, or deprive it of the oxygen of publicity by ignoring it, (even by means of a social boycott when necessary) under no circumstances would I endorse or call for punitive measures like a ban or imprisonment. The discomfort that some of the intellectuals who are currently standing in support of Nandy is something that I can recognise, but not sympathise with. It is this discomfort that makes them adopt several rhetorical contortions by means of which they are trying to either overlook or retroactively justify the import of his statement so that they can prove to themselves that he must not be banned or punished. This is the discomfort of those who have no issue as such with a mild climate of censorship (of the ‘reasonable restriction’ variety) but believe that someone like Nandy (one of ‘us’) ought not to be bound by it. Meaning they can perform the complex acrobatic manoeuvre of reconciling a mild hostility to free speech (in general) with an automatic endorsement of Nandy’s particular right to free speech because he is special. This is why they are making excuses for Nandy today. I make no excuses for Nandy. I do not believe that his words have not done damage. I do not think his is a special case that one should make exceptions for. I would defend him even if he was not a scholar of eminence, even if he was not someone I respected, or regarded as a friend. Even if he was a clear adversary, or an inhabitant of the widening constituency of right wing lunacy in this country. We have to learn to distinguish between different kinds of speech acts. Nandy’s words embody an opinion, a reactionary opinion, and must be confronted, immediately, with counter-speech, and vigorous, militant thinking, but they are not intended to act as a threat. On the other hand, when a Praveen Togadia or an Akbaruddin Owaisi, or a Varun Gandhi, or the family firm of the Thackerays call for the undertaking of acts that would involve physical harm or violence against particular communities, then, we can and indeed must consider whether or not the speech act itself constitutes the kind of violence that must be punished. Even at the sidelines of the Jaipur Literary Festival this year, there was a man, Kirori Lal Meena, an independent MP from Dausa, Rajasthan who loudly declaimed on television that he would personally beat up the women who he said were ‘drinking alcohol in the evenings at the festival’.

Now that is a threat, a clear statement of an intent to do or support physical harm being done to someone else for no good reason. That is the kind of speech that should make us think about whether or not to invoke the law.

The damage that Nandy’s flippancy has done on the other hand can be addressed only if we make room for stringent intellectual criticism and a demand for introspection, on everybody’s part. No amount of retrospective qualification can restore to the statements that Ashis Nandy made about caste and corruption, (or for that matter to the ones that he made just a little earlier endorsing the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s bizarre two-nation theory of rape), any degree of ambiguity or irony. And the various attempts that I have seen by some of Delhi’s intelligentsia and commentariat at closing ranks around Nandy, by referring to his ‘maverick sense of humour’, his almost apparently zen master like ‘provocative intentions’ cannot take away from the intellectual and moral harm that a set of grossly incorrect statements pretending to facticity do when they are said with authority, and may I say, with an unnecessary degree of braggadocio. It is also not adequate in my view to say that these statements were made, as Nandy and some of those around him have been saying, in a context that was otherwise supportive of Dalits and other marginalised groups. Let us take this position for what it is worth and examine it closely. Basically, (and this is a generous interpretation if this position) what it implies is that the marginalised get ‘caught’ because they are not sophisticated or intelligent enough to develop strategies that would help them get away with it, like upper caste elites have long been accustomed to. There is something profoundly, vulgarly patronising about this attitude, that shades off into the snigger about the foibles of ‘simple people’ who can’t do better. I have no hesitation in saying that this needs to be called out, not because it is necessarily casteist, but because it is egregiously patronising.

I do not for a moment believe that Ashis Nandy is personally casteist. I know him to be an unorthodox and irreverent thinker who is deeply uncomfortable with any kind of intellectual protocol premised on hierarchy, and therefore, but naturally, is a trenchant critic of the actual operational existence of the caste system. But at the same time, like the Gandhi that Nandy admires, he is both a critic as well as a captive of the conceptual cage of caste. He may think against it, but he cannot think outside it. In doing so, he is on the same page with some amongst those who are calling for his punishment. They have spent their lives preventing themselves and others from thinking in terms other than those provided by the caste system, even if they have done so as its victims.

I know Nandy to be refreshingly egalitarian in his personal conduct, life and work practices. He has stood bravely in support of very radical positions, even when these positions have brought upon themselves the wrath of state fury or an angry majoritarian public consensus founded on negativity. One can only salute all of these attributes of his personality. But these facts do not in themselves absolve Nandy of the intellectual irresponsibility of his recent statements. While I strongly condemn any move to use the law to effect punitive measures against him, or to send him to prison even for day. I do believe that a refusal to be critical, and even harshly critical of his language and expression is irresponsible. The times that we live in require us not to be irresponsible in this way.

One of the finest statements that I have heard in the wake of this unfortunate episode has come from a person I find myself rarely in agreement with – the Dalit intellectual Chandrabhan Prasad. I heard him say on television (in conversation with Ashis Nandy and Barkha Dutton NDTV) that it is time to invoke ‘the great Dalit tradition of forgiveness’ while dealing with someone like Ashis Nandy. I agree with this view. Forgiveness involves a tacit admission of guilt on the part of the forgiver as well as the forgiven. First of all it means that both parties agree that the person who is to be forgiven has in fact done something wrong. One cannot forgive the innocent. And it does not evade the question of justice in the way that a anodyne invocation of reconciliation does. One need not ever be reconciled with the act that one chooses to forgive. Forgiveness is also a greater and more powerful instrument in the hands of the weak than the weapons of retribution. Forgiveness strengths the weak while doing away with weakness while retribution only redistributes weakness. Chandrabhan Prasad’s very intelligent deployment of the trope of forgiveness offers everybody, and especially the Dalit position, an opportunity to discover and flex its ethical strength, I hope it will be listened to.

The Bhagawad Gita opens with Arjuna’s predicament on the battlefield. He sees arrayed against him his teachers, his kin. And he says he does not want to take up arms against his teachers. This does not necessarily mean he is unaware of the harm that they have done. It only means that he is looking for a way other than violence or victory to confront their perfidy, because he is attached to them, because they mean something to him. Krishna’s counsel to Arjuna is well known, and I need not distract us with its details, but in essence it commands Arjuna to rise above his attachments in order to fight the war. I have never been satisfied with Krishna’s answer, while I remain fascinated by Arjuna’s question. Today, I find myself in the place of Arjuna, and in front of me is an acharya, a teacher who has done wrong. Perhaps the first thing to do is to invert the logic of the Bhagavad Gita, to insist on the ethical validity of one’s attachments, to think not against, but with desire in the pursuit of an ethical life. Doing this means being critical of the long tradition of renunciative abstraction as the engine of a meaningful life that includes not only Mohandas Gandhi but also some of his foremost interpreters today, including Ashis Nandy. It is to insist that one need not rise above or beyond the matrix of one’s attachments in order to fashion an ethical life. It is to find a language of criticism that is also the grammar of solidarity.

I hope that sense prevails, that Ashis Nandy is not sent to prison, so that we can roundly and thoroughly criticise him on intellectual grounds. Should the powers that be decide that a spell in prison is the only way their meagre imaginations can deal with this situation, I call upon everyone, regardless of whether they agree or disagree with Nandy to denounce such a move in the strongest, harshest terms because of its inherent authoritarianism. I also call upon us all to call for a thoroughgoing review of every repressive legal instrument in the constitution and criminal law, from the first amendment onwards, that restricts free speech.This country has already been shamed when it sent writers like Arundhati Roy or Varavara Rao to prison, or when it has banned or prohibited the work of M.F.Husain, Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen at the urging of bigots. If Ashis Nandy is sent to prison, we will once again find ourselves rightly accused of being the citizens of an illiberal, immature and closed society that is unable to live with difference.

Nandy himself has said that he will dance and write if he is sent to prison. I hope that he will dance and write even if he is at liberty. And I will happily dance with him, and read what he writes, and tell him while I do so, how wrong he has been in this instance, how profoundly exasperating he can be, and how much I love him. I believe that given half a chance, and had he been possessed of the intelligence and moral courage to defy Krishna that the situation warranted, that is what Arjuna would have done with Bhishma.

56 Comments leave one →
  1. 4thaugust1932 permalink
    January 30, 2013 11:48 AM

    Caste system seeds hatred among people in India. It’s only going to get worse in the future.
    What makes you think your parents/children/future generations/houses/properties are safe from sections of society whom you’ve abused for thousands of years?
    “Two eyes for an eye begets justice.” –Kanshiram

  2. S. Krishna permalink
    January 30, 2013 11:58 AM

    This has to be one of the best commentaries on this topic I have read yet. I don’t agree with everything Sengupta says, but this is superb in its adjudication. And, I must confess, it has made me rethink my position on a number of issues. What more can one ask of an essay?

  3. January 30, 2013 12:24 PM

    Dear Mr Sengupta, Notwithstanding the fact that I almost always think after reading your posts that it’d be wonderful if you subscribed to the Less is More philosophy, and that you wrote in simpler English minus the esoteric allusions, I find myself in complete agreement with what you say as now, except that the little I have read of Mr Nandy in the past few days seems at odds with your glowing tributes. Sample this: “Even for many highly educated, urbane, middle-class Indians, what matters is that Pakistan is full of Muslims, most of them from north-west India and belonging to the `martial races’. India’s north-west includes Punjab and that makes it worse. Secularism is all right, even commendable, but rationality demands that one recognises Muslims to be hot-headed, tough, masculine, anti-democratic and prone to fundamentalism. More so if they happen to be from the north. One must handle them firmly to protect progress and democracy and to ensure that they get stewed in the global melting pot to become atomised, law-abiding citizens of a proper modern state. ” How would you categorise this statement?

    • January 30, 2013 4:56 PM

      Dear beenreading, can you please provide a citation for the quote you refer to above.

      Best, Shuddha

    • Pyoli permalink
      January 30, 2013 5:18 PM

      This is statement is taken from Ashis Nandy’s article THE FANTASTIC INDIA-PAKISTAN BATTLE
      Or the Future of the Past in South Asia and is about what middle-class India thinks, NOT what Nandy himself thinks.

      • January 30, 2013 5:29 PM

        You mean this quote is Nandy imagining what an imagined middle class India thinks in this essay. Or is it what he himself holds?

      • Pyoli permalink
        January 30, 2013 6:01 PM

        These paras preceding and succeeding the quote make it clear that this is not what Nandy holds-”Pakistan is the name of a country to the north-west of India, carved out of the Muslim majority provinces of British India. It has survived for nearly fifty years, to intermittently haunt the Indian state and army. About twenty-five years ago Pakistan shrunk to less than half its original size, when Bangladesh was born. India played an important part in that shrinkage. But few Indians believe that the bisection taught Pakistan any lesson or reduced its power an iota. Pakistan, they believe, is exactly what it was when it started life as a new nation. Most Indians, therefore, react to Pakistan as if it was the Pakistan of 1947.
        For the Indian state, therefore, Pakistan has retained its parity and remained a genuine counter-player. Few Indian state functionaries think of Pakistan as anything but superior to India in its ability to make mischief or subvert neighbouring states. This is no mean achievement, given that Pakistan is one-eighth the size of India, that even after spending nearly 6 per cent of its GDP on defence-as compared to India’s 2.5 per cent -its army is about one-third the size of the Indian army, that the country has its own ethnic problems and separatist movements, and Pakistanis seem more unsure about Pakistan’s sustainability than Indians are about India’s.
        Even for many highly educated, urbane, middle-class Indians, what matters is that Pakistan is full of Muslims, most of them from north-west India and belonging to the `martial races’. India’s north-west includes Punjab and that makes it worse. Secularism is all right, even commendable, but rationality demands that one recognises Muslims to be hot-headed, tough, masculine, anti-democratic and prone to fundamentalism. More so if they happen to be from the north. One must handle them firmly to protect progress and democracy and to ensure that they get stewed in the global melting pot to become atomised, law-abiding citizens of a proper modern state?
        At this plane, Pakistan is what India does not want to be; indeed, it is what India’s modern élite would hate to be. This bonding in hate, fifty years after the division of India into two nation-states, is growing. As India becomes more of a modern nation-state, Pakistan for it becomes both a double and the final rejected self. The next-door neighbour now arouses deep anxieties not merely in Hindu nationalist formations like the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena, but also in Indian liberals and leftists. For them, too, Pakistan is the ultimate symbol of irrationality and fanaticism.” I just wanted to put the context straight. At the same time, it is true that the current casteist remark is not the only problematic stand of Nandy’s. Equally deplorable are his defense of Mohan Bhagwat (while discounting sexual violence on countless rural dalit and tribal women by those of powerful castes and or class and as a form of State repression) and of Sati (his analysis of a socially sanctioned murder of a woman, to quote Sujata Patel, shifts the focus away from the culpability of the state and the society to this crime, to the culpability of the ‘modern mind’.)

      • January 31, 2013 10:11 AM

        thanks, Pyoli, Mr Sengupta —– but how does the context explain the fact that Mr Nandy is ascribing to “many” Indians attitudes/beliefs of his own invention without any empirical basis? And how many are these “many” Indians? and what of the rest of India? I have no quarrel with Mr Nandy, I hadn’t even heard about him before this brouhaha erupted, but now that I have begun reading, I am a little mystified by the fact that an academician of his repute writes a lot many things without providing any empirical data to support his thesis.

  4. Vishwajyoti Ghosh permalink
    January 30, 2013 12:43 PM

    Well yes and no. Shuddha in many ways your argument too extracts a line out of the thread to begin with. Yes that same line of fire now. Taking cue from Tarun Tejpal’s point ‘corruption is a great equalizer’ Ashis Nandy took it forward saying that in the recent past most cases of corruption have come from the SC, OBCs and now increasingly STs. In his usual sense of wry humor he proceeded with ‘as long as that happens I have hope for the republic.’ However this latter part of the statement has become like Yudhishthir’s low ‘iti gaja’ that was preceeded by the loud ‘Ashathwama hatha’. Not for a moment was it a blanket statement against the castes/groups he mentioned. The blunder he committed was in thinking that he was in a literary meet amongst his like minded folks. He should’ve paid attention to the television anchor sitting opposite him who quickly stepped on to work, grabbing the mike, sensing red while wearing a red sweatshirt. A story had arrived. But moments before this Mr. Nandy too gave into a sense of television while beginning his statement with ‘here I am going to say something controversial’…As you rightly said ‘flippancy’ it was. And that is where the panel discussion ended and television took over.

  5. Shajahan Madampat permalink
    January 30, 2013 1:31 PM

    This is a wonderful piece based entirely on the wrong assumption that Professor Nandy made at worst a casteist and at best a politically incorrect statement against marginalized groups. Professor Nandy’s comment, looked at in context, does not reflect any casteist prejudice, nor any claim to facticity. Having listened to him on several occassions, I believe it was a rather humorous take on the egalitarian nature of corruption. Also, even when a writer of Nandy’s stature, is seen as or claimed to have made an offensive statement (espicially if it is a spontaneous oral remark, should it not be evaluated in the backdrop of his entire body of work? (A mere spontaneous oral remark against a rich, formidable body of solid intellectual output spanning decades). Comparing him to Drona or Bhishma, therefore, appears a bit too hyperbolic, though one could grudgingly (may be a bit patronisingly though) grant the author the status of Arjuna!. The frightening implication of this whole episode is not just whether or not Professor Nandy will be sent to jail, which in all probability will not happen, but the fact that we are all now forced to exercise self censorship and to submit to the multitude of offence takers of all hues even in the otherwise safe environs of seminal halls and discussion rooms, not to speak of other public platforms. The first casualty of political correctness is humour, and Professor Nandy is one of our rare intellectuals who are endowed with plenty of that.

    • Sharmishtha permalink
      January 31, 2013 4:49 AM

      I say this as not a real fan of Ashis Nandy, except for his Intimate Enemy work. @Shajahan Madampat writes, “I believe it was a rather humorous take on the egalitarian nature of corruption.” That’s the problem – Ashis Nandy was trying to be humorous in a society that is becoming increasingly literalist. No place for humour, nuance, subtlety here. One has to be as ponderously heavy-handed as the state these groups wish to establish if one wants to live without persecution. But, seriously, shouldn’t the police be filling the jails of India with people other than writers, artists, actors and scholars? How about some gang rapists for a change?

  6. neerja permalink
    January 30, 2013 1:37 PM

    I cannot thank you enough for writing this piece. It is inspiring, moving and extremely heartening to see someone think through this with such clarity and empathy. The responses to this incident have been unsettling – and now I know exactly why. I hope that someday I’ll be able to articulate my doubts as clearly as you do, so that they transform from being merely seeds of dissent to instruments of creative engagement.

  7. January 30, 2013 1:55 PM

    Thank you for this, Shuddhabrata. Your post is the only piece of writing I’ve seen that does not try to excuse Nandy’s comment under any light. I agree with you in entirety, something that’s a rarity on the Internet,

  8. ravi permalink
    January 30, 2013 2:05 PM

    The entire essay deals with the two position in context to Ashis Nandy’s statement. One about his remark, only a part is dealt in the essay. The other one the present legal ‘prosecution’ Ashis Nandy is facing. At the outset, i too dont believe that an intellectual such as Nandy could be put behind bars for his comment. I also feel the comment is not anti-dalit as the media is trying to portrait. Rather it is a maligning campaign against the Dalit, Adivasis, Bahujans, these three words do have a historical differences and bringing the word only dalit is also not right in the discourse. And i was also sadened to see many English news channels and papers misquoting Kancha Ilaiah’s statement.

    please to the writer that dalit poilitics is not about victim hood, rather its an self-assertion. The movement is one of the democractic politics in India at present. Among dalits there are many differences, and they do debate it. Take the case of inner-reservation, and also dalit movement, has many critics from dalits itself, Anand Teltumbde, Gopal Guru etc. Henceforth I find very sad in many discussions where a writer has to take a ‘neutral’ position then s/he criticises both and tell the point.
    I also see that if the case was not lodged there wont have been any discussion over the issue itself.

  9. Nirmalangshu permalink
    January 30, 2013 2:17 PM

    I am puzzled by the nuanced, even oratorically humble, arrogance displayed in these remarks. Now the charge is no longer that Nandy is casteist but that he is unable to think “outside of caste”. I guess the suggested theoretical innovation is riddled with historical ambiguity just as possible phrases such as thinking “outside of class” or “outside of Indian culture” etc. are. In any case, that is at best a dubious theoretical position which will be discussed when it is presented with adequate evidence, scholarship and reflection. But one cannot charge someone else with moral failure if the latter fails to adhere to the theoretical postulates favoured by the former. The strategy in the article, to cite a case of profound theoretical controversy, seems to imply that Neils Bohr could have charged Einstein of intellectual, even moral, irresponsibility for not being able to think “outside of Platonism”. Sadly, the anguished spontaneity of the original remark in FaceBook has degenerated by now, on reflection, to verbosity.

    • January 30, 2013 2:26 PM

      Dear Nirmalangshu, thank you for your thoughtful criticism. It’s just that I think that the consequences of being unable to ‘think outside of caste’ while discussing corruption and being unable to think ‘outside of Platonism’ while thinking about space and time have different valences. I maintain that it is possible to think in terms of caste, as Nandy suggests, while discussing the networks of informality that grease the levers of corruption in Indian society, but that is true of all people, all castes, all communities, as I have tried to point out. To follow on from this by singling out a particular set of identities is to fall prey to talking in the language of caste when it is redundant, and it leads the speaker in the direction of making judgements that can be read as prejudicial. My intent is to invite reflection on the process by which the first move had in this case degenerated into the second one. I hope I have made myself clear in as non-verbose fashion as possible. Best, Shuddha

      • Nirmalangshu permalink
        January 30, 2013 6:56 PM

        Dear Shuddha, Thanks for the clarification. Given the reality of castes, I still don’t know what thinking “out of castes” amounts do. But let us keep that aside for now and focus on whether thinking “in terms of castes” has valid applications. I think it is important to know how individual castes and tribes and generic groups of them are faring with respect to welfare indices. For example, as Ram Guha argues, North-East tribes seem to be doing better in terms of education, health, general wealth and other indicators than tribes in the plains. It simply means that the latter have so far been left out of access to these opportunities. Now thinking of corruption as a general fund of welfare in the Indian Republic–and that’s the point of Nandy’s wry humour–it is perfectly legitimate to assert that these marginal sections are beginning to have access (at least) to this “welfare” index. Of course, your argument about widespread counterexamples applies to these cases as with North-East tribals, but that does not defeat the general observation.

        I also think that underlying Nandy’s oblique remark is a persistent anguish that that is all that the Republic has offered to a selected few such as Mayawati, Shibu Soren, Lalu Yadav, Madhu Khoda and others who have been able to join the loot exactly in terms of their caste identities and are indistinguishable from the likes of Tewarys, Sukh Rams, Yeddurappas, Rajas, and the like. The egalitarian promise that emerged about two decades ago with the appearance of these once powerful voices from the margins has now been submerged in the great distributive effects of the Indian Republic. The original emancipatory movements thus are shattered. It is time someone stood up and called a spade a spade. Maoists do, but in terms that shatter the brain.

        To me, this is salient “out of caste” thinking that is phrased “in” caste terms. That is why I said the construct is ambiguous. Request you to keep writing on this absolutely urgent theme.

        Needless to say, I am taking some pains because I can feel and share your anguish even if I would articulate them in somewhat different terms

  10. prabhat permalink
    January 30, 2013 3:25 PM

    Respected writer- I challenge you to argue on following points-
    1. Nandy was discussing sociology of corruption. and any sociological discussion cannot transcend caste and class.. If it tries to do so then it would be of no utility except being politically correct.
    2.Do not you think that calculus of democratic polity itself is further accentuating caste identity. Sociology being more or less a descriptive descipline, how could it transcend caste if polity itself is caste based.
    3.You have mentioned Foucault. If one were to do a Foucauldian analysis of corruption and its role in sustaining democracy then Nandy would not be far from truth.
    4. Nandy’s opinion is reationary– do not you think this is a typical Stalinist reaction.
    5.Michel Foucault’s enthusiasm for the venality of the Islamist revolution in Iran— i think he was/is right.
    6.i think your article is based on premise that what Nandy said was Freudian slip and hence it can be utilized in unravalleng his unconscious, which is, of course, castist.

  11. angeli alvares permalink
    January 30, 2013 4:26 PM

    I prefer to be around refined, educated people who are interested in learning and improving themselves and society and who are impeccably honest and true in their dealings. Put me in the company of dog eat dog types, who only see you as an engine for making quick bucks by any means and I really enter a hellish environment. So let’s not put down the highly educated when by slip of the tongue they make a mistake. No one is infallible and Asish Nandy is only Human and God bless him for that. It would be bloody hard to keep up with any 100% pure pure angels and guess what, in the Human Race, the 100% perfect person DOES NOT EXIST just because YOU want it!

  12. Mihir Fadnavis permalink
    January 30, 2013 4:41 PM

    Its funny that a site which paints everyone of a particular religion and everyone of a particular caste in a bad color and has primarily casteism as its main agenda takes offense at a casteist remark.

  13. Hargopal Singh permalink
    January 30, 2013 4:41 PM

    The post although overwhelmingly personalized makes a very very interesting reading.Somehow the context and the setting in which Ashish Nandy made the controversial remarks got lost under the over-weight of emotions of the author.Leaving aside the invoking of great Dalit tradition of forgiveness Prof.Nandy has asked for an apology.That is another thing that he is not scared of going to jail and would dance there in ecstasy of making a flippant remark that has created a storm of controversy by arousing caste -consciousness among the hurt ones.Now the ball is in the court of police where it has been very wrongly pushed.It is doubtful whether the police can understand the import of his remarks or he make them do so.That is the irony in this case.The matter needs an early burial.Better if it is graceful.

  14. January 30, 2013 4:43 PM

    I appreciate this essay for being the only intellectual-circuit response to Dr. Nandy’s remarks I know of that has been brave enough to term them “nonsensical”, more or less outright — a luxury very few (perhaps none) of Ashis-da’s ever-deferential explicators and apologists appear able to avail of. Reading the essay, I was, to an extent, lulled into the belief that it was possible, even appropriate, to take a less agitated view of the affair (‘controversy’ dignifies it too much) than I initially had. Then I went to the Barkha Dutt show. Time code approximately 16:07, under discussion are the reasons why India will take time to figure among nations with low corruption indices. According to Nandy: “What other countries do not have is…so many people living at the margins of desperation, often for centuries. [Barkha tries to interject; Nandy continues.] In this kind of society, there must be escape routes for the desperate.” It feels shameful to announce this as though it were some hard-won discovery, but the ticketless migrant and the cinema-hall black-marketeer are very far from bearing sole or even partial responsibility for the failure (and at best, under-performance) of virtually every one of India’s attempts at clearing its extreme and unspeakable poverty — the very failures that the industrialised world points to in demanding the reduction, if not elimination, of welfare spending. These failures do not emanate (does this really need saying?) from those at and far past “the margins of desperation” — they begin (among many other points of origin) with every paisa of public money siphoned into an upper-caste/class pocket on its tortuous and usually fruitless way to the vast base of the Indian social pyramid. This is where I too would like to channel the irony, the sly black humour, the provocative underhandedness that Dr. Nandy has been so feted for this weekend, and declare my full support for every legal entanglement that can be brought against him, for every hour spent waiting to make statements in police stations, for every postponed hearing at all levels of the judicial system. That Dr. Nandy will ever be jailed is, I firmly believe, inconceivable — were such to happen, letters of protest would pour in from Berkley to the Sorbonne, India’s credit rating would dip (“First they rape medical students, then they jail thinkers — oh, the savages!!!”) and finally a few South Block phone calls would ‘settle’ the matter. So, the prospect of Dr. Nandy’s arrest does not alarm me; what does is the hold of unexamined bad premises and the staunch lip-service they are able to elicit.

    • January 30, 2013 5:03 PM

      Shyama, I have seen the fragment you mention. And yes it is saddening. But I have to disagree with you. I have some understanding of what this potential for harassment that you refer to is, regardless of whether or not it results in imprisonment or detention, for reasons i don’t want to go into here. But I have to say that no matter how much I disagree with Prof. Nandy on this issue, I would not wish that harassment on him or on his family. We lose nothing in being magnanimous and affectionate while being critical. I do hope you understand and will come around to agreeing with me on this score.

      • Vandana permalink
        January 30, 2013 8:11 PM

        I do not believe ‘any’ human being needs to be jailed for one comment or action…so am in agreement with the sentiment of your article. Every human being deserves a second chance : intellectual or not; inside or outside the caste boundaries (made by people dead millenia ago).
        Like Shyama said, if Nandy were to be ‘sent to jail’, other “letters of protest and…south block phone calls” would put the matter to rest.
        My point is India will prove to be a true and strong democracy the day a successful or recognized person goes to jail against his will, and no phone call from South Block impacts. OR
        A person from even a ‘designated low caste’ goes to court and gets justice for the right reasons against a man in high position, because though these people make the fabric of the Nation but get jailed for reasons simpler than hurting public sentiment living in the SAME democracy and having same freedoms.
        It is upto us to erase the boudaries made by ‘jobs’ generations ago by people who dont matter anymore.

      • January 31, 2013 3:49 AM

        I felt I would be obliged to apologise for my jibe about Nandy’s being jailed practically as soon as I made my previous post. It is by no means an amusing possibility to consider; and in toying with it, one also sets aside the actual person referred to, and the anxiety and strain the present episode has placed him under. Reducing a person to a quite empty abstraction is not constructive by any standard. Apologising can do nothing to retract that, beyond stating that I am not proud of it. However, the anger that prompted me has yet to dissipate. And it is an anger produced less by the event itself than by the responses to it. Reading the posts at Kafila, the coverage in The Hindu and in other inputs online, one finds a fairly continuous insistence on meanings in Nandy’s statement beyond the immediately apparent. He is not to be taken at his word, one is repeatedly assured; the only proper way to receive his speech is to see it as a form of ‘joke’. Is this a valid assumption? Nandy’s defenders assert that this is so, implying additionally their own authority, based on long engagement with Nandy’s texts, an engagement attested to as intellectually enriching. These being the terms of their advantage over the lay-consumer of mass media, Nandy’s defenders then assemble what the acceptable interpretation of his utterances is to be, swathed in disparagements both veiled and overt of anyone who continues to disagree. I, however, am still unable to grasp how a sentence like “Most corrupt people are OBCs” constitutes a challenging of old dogmas. Perhaps the challenge is in the *utterance* of the sentence, in its performance at an anonymous, tenuously associated gathering, in its being aired to public view, away from the familial drawing-cum-dining room conversation where it may otherwise be commonplace. The public assertion of a commonplace can conceivably represent a breaching of the stultifying limits imposed by ‘political correctness’ – but where does the breaching take one? What cause does it further? What fresh depths past stereotype does it reveal? Is it all that illegitimate to hear in it an accommodation of elements of one’s societal setting that one has hitherto been assured must be undone? An undoing that the speaker also makes claim to believing is both desirable and necessary. This point of paradox is where one feels the urge to resign the field and say, “Hey! I’m not an intellectual. I haven’t read Nandy. I’m not even an OBC. I have no business being here.” But this is not a seminar one has stormed. One is not reacting to an article in a social sciences periodical. Nor was this a conclave of mathematicians, specialists in the manipulation of symbols that are the rightful preserve of expertise alone. This is public material, raising matters of public concern, open to all who may be interested. The openness is delusory, though. There are restrictions on how the material presented is to be received, with credence accorded only to the most generous view; it is impermissible to be “easily offended”. To be offended is to be either a pawn or a schemer. There are no alternatives.
        If the unexamined life is not worth living, it is disappointing if this is all that examining has to offer.

        • January 31, 2013 10:57 AM

          Dear Shyama,

          I do not doubt or disrespect the place from which your anger emanates. It is just that I cannot support any call for imprisonment on the grounds of speech, no matter how offensive it may be. I am an anarchist, and if you like, a free speech fundamentalist, and I do not believe that the state or any organized coercive power has any business regulating and restricting opinion and speech, when the speech act in question does not call for direct, specific acts of assault or violence. And I know very well what it means to think about having ones thoughts questioned by the police, and i would not wish that on anyone, not even people i do not like, let alone Prof. Nandy, whom i have a great deal of affection and respect for, despite our rare disagreements. Finally, I maintain that I think Prof. Nandy made an error. But, it distresses me enormously to see people rejoicing in his misfortune. That just shows me that many of us are not mature enough to go beyond the base instincts of schaudenfraude. Because I know you well, I expect better from you than that. Yours, Shuddha.

    • January 31, 2013 3:02 PM

      No, no, no, no!!! It is irrelevant whether or not you know me at all — when is our intellectual culture going to get away from that? I have, I think, apologised for inelegant rhetorical flourish, but whether I am capable of better thinking than spiteful schadenfreude is evidenced by the next thought of mine, whatever and such as it may be, that may come to your consideration, not by the details of my biography. Why can’t what is thought/said/written be enough, with any reader/hearer at liberty to reject or accept it as they will, without reference to anything but the validity of the idea itself, as it appears to the receiver? All the commentary on Nandy these last few days has been demanding his statement be accepted almost solely on the commentator’s say-so — today’s Hindu editorial at least did its readers the courtesy of unpacking his ideas (not “There is no Nandy in Three Easy Steps” esoterica).

  15. January 30, 2013 7:07 PM

    I believe this to be the crux of the matter: “There is something profoundly, vulgarly patronising about this ['presumed lack of sophistication in the'] attitude ['of lower castes'], that shades off into the snigger about the foibles of ‘simple people’ who can’t do better.”

    Perhaps it is patronising and perhaps it could have been said differently. But perhaps embedded in it is also a kind of self-critique of the upper castes who through their self-presumed and constantly reassured superiority and in their guile keep thinking that they ‘can always do [it] better’. They and their brethren self consciously celebrate such guile that they allegedly find missing in the lower castes. They are caught in a self-congratulatory situation of directly evading the main ethical issue at heart, i.e., in this case of confronting corruption and ironically earn bragging points? Could one say that Arjuna’s ‘ethical guilelessness’ was met by the ‘pragmatics’ of Krishna, a pragmatics that you rightly observe creates considerable unease.

  16. Davidpaswan permalink
    January 30, 2013 7:58 PM

    Thanks for such brainstorming views on interplay of caste and corruption…It’s an extraordinary analysis that weaves the matrix of discrepancies in our thought and perception, when we tend to comment on disadvantaged groups, minorities, state-criminals, etc. Nevertheless, predisposed conceptions those embedded in our mental frameworks just slip out, due to incalculability of words. Whatsoever this hardly matters but what matters is that it provided an opportunity to discuss the burning issues in ‘public sphere’. If I understood well the author in this text! Other day I’ve read a broad illumination in an article by Yogendra Yadav on Nandy’s slip of tongue after this fiasco at Japiur Litfest, in which Yadav remarks: “here lies Ashis Nandy, who died of a bad joke… “most appropriate epitaph for Nandy”. Contrary to that note, does this text entail an official clarification from his students and sympathizers, followers of his finest ‘minds’ on behalf of CSDS?… But definitely to a lay man like me, this write-up literally enlightens me…thanks again

    • Dinakaran permalink
      January 31, 2013 12:20 PM

      Like the famous “Freudian Slip” rampant in twentieth century intellectual discourse, can we re-configure, for post-modernist India, a new psycho-analytical term : the “Nandyan Slip”?

  17. Chandrika Parmar permalink
    January 30, 2013 9:02 PM

    I am sharing the youtube 57 odd minute clip of the session.

  18. January 30, 2013 10:15 PM

    Shuddhabrata, While one broadly agrees with your argument, I _feel_ that writing an article as long as this and as convoluted as this is akin to paying a left-handed compliment. Too many distractions in your article, too many strings you attach to free speech. Sorry, this is less “readable” than your other articles.

  19. January 31, 2013 1:10 AM

    what the hell is the problem with everyone?? why does everyone get so agitated/irritated/angry/flummoxed-enough-to-write-an-essay about this one remark that prof. ashis nandy made without even bothering to consider it within the context of which it was made??
    read this.. hope it will open your eyes:

  20. Ashis Nandy permalink
    January 31, 2013 10:33 AM

    All this is fine but really, I don’t want to dance with you .. nor do I want your love. We can remain colleagues and friends with strong points of view.

    • January 31, 2013 10:41 AM

      Ashis da, thank you for your response. We will always remain colleagues and friends with strong points of view, and I will always learn from you. Meanwhile, will work hard on all my dance moves, so that one day you might find me a good enough dancer to dance with. And, in all our traditions, there is a honourable history of unrequited love, even of the kind that Ekalavya had for his teacher. Yours, sincerely, Shuddha

      • S. Krishna permalink
        January 31, 2013 12:13 PM

        This entire exchange so far – especially that between Sengupta and Haldar – has been so wonderfully enriching and enlightening. And Ashis-da’s riposte right here is too funny for words.

    • saffron permalink
      January 31, 2013 2:45 PM

      Dear Prof,
      Hello from San Francisco. Loved your perfect, poetic post. As an intellectual your role in society is to speak your mind without concern for political correctness (because you are not a running for office or being funded by a corporate sponsor). If you believe there is truth to your statement statistically speaking, that’s all that counts for someone in your role. The truth hurts. Your fans can be faulted for examining you under a microscope and the reporter hit you below the belt in a way. You should disguise yourself and attend the next Natl. Press Club Annual dinner and record and publish what those cowboys have to say when they are amongst their own kind.

      p.s. to the original commentator: it’s clear that you mean well but it’s really not easy to live under a microscope and separately it’s also statistically possible for a, b, c, d and e to all be strongly positively correlated to z so you may wish to modify your analogy a bit.
      Good luck Prof.

    • Aditya Nigam permalink*
      January 31, 2013 7:47 PM


  21. Humsaathsaathhain permalink
    January 31, 2013 12:56 PM

    Despite the long-winding article, in an response to Shyama Haldar’s points the writer ends up providing an extremely feeble, simplistic and utterly unacceptable defence. “I maintain that I think Prof. Nandy made an error.” To call it merely an ‘error’ is to trivialise the matter. An error, is an unintentional mistake, a slip of the tongue, an inadvertent blunder – like a grammatical faux pas.

    It would have been nice to read at least one article that does not use personal loyalty, feelings of affection and overwrought character testimonies to build an argument. Trust me, it is more ‘distressing’ to see Nandy’s personal P.R force launch in to damage control mode, falling over themselves to provide one emotional defence of Ashis da after another, than the pain it causes the writer to “see people rejoicing in his misfortune”. Ashis da should count himself lucky for having such a doting extended family that will sing his praises every time he says something revolting.

  22. deependra baghel permalink
    January 31, 2013 9:16 PM

    although rigorous empathetic  defense has been theoretically established by you and your liberal stand to defend prof nandy’s’ flippant’ and ‘vulgar’ views  is relevant in the current times of media;s  hype manufacturing and its  projection of ,aggressive  emotive response. thus your thoughtful article creates  accommodation for ashish nandy ‘flippant ‘and ‘vulgar’ views ‘and aptly critiques populist violent response. but what is missed is the hermenutic analysis  of the text of the ashish nandy . his statement is paradoxical and ironical so de-contextualizing his statement from the flow of the communication that is from what tarun tejpal had stated would be to distort his intellectual  position . tarun tejpal too had stated that ‘corruption is a great equalizer’ in a ironical manner  and that has prompted nandy to proceed further in construing ambivalence. so to reduce nandys complex nuance into one statement of the ‘truth’ will amount to decipher  arbitrary interpretation.and pun of his  sentence exist in the part  of the sentence .i.e ‘  republic will survive’.thus in a literary conclave before a peer group that appreciate irony in sustaining  critique of our polity , any reduction of complex ambivalent sentence  into a utterance of truth will be strategic reductionism to appropriate the’ other’
      and  if we come across any interpretative difficulty , we must refer to his oeuvre. and we can easily decipher that he has always pleaded for the social and political liberation of the oppressed.and has rigorously critiqued the bramhanical  dominance over social and political institutions. 
    but the theoretical problem also exist in conceptual closures of identity politics. any attempt to articulate dalits plight should not fetishise  it in the identity trap. but rather should state
    the matrix  of power . because we can never theoretically and empirically substantiate that dalits who have also made their  way to the  the elite position in the power structures are not fallible before the magical  power of money i. thus their subversive quest to acquire resource to effect a historical vendetta to come to terms with the humiliation they encounter needs to be addressed differently from the common paradigm of corruption. . and if we analyse it merely on the basis of common-sensical logic of corruption .then we are utterly ignoring the sigh of the oppressed . and analysing corruption on the basis of impersonal exchequers discourse is to to exclude the pathos of humiliation which dalit have to face while encountering symbolic mandates of meritocracy and traumatising exclusion in the public life,, thus the social pathologist perspective of ashish nandy to understand the projection of corruption committed by dalits in public domain , in an entirely different paradigm intend to recover the wounds of humiliation , and we also come to understand that moral stick of money based ,honesty ‘is also an ideology of higher castigate the dalits.
    deependra baghel , bhopal

  23. February 1, 2013 1:12 AM

    Great article. It articulates so many things that I could not have bent my mind around. I’m going to write this down: ‘to find a language of criticism that is also the grammar of solidarity.’

    Two responses:
    1. Critiquing Ashis Nandy’s ‘unnatural’ yoking of corruption onto caste categories and simultaneously exalting Chandrabhan Prasad’s selective caste claims on a universal category like forgiveness seems hypocritical. I happen to agree with opinions on the misguided reasoning behind that remark by Nandy so I’m wondering whether it becomes okay to pin attributes to a heterogeneous community just because it has a positive ring to it. The fact that he used it opportunely to turn the tide on rising negative discourse is commendable but I have a conceptual problem with painting a whole people in monochrome. That kind of thought process is what makes us think of Dalits as intolerant. Sometimes it may be constructive to avoid wholesale compliments even if it only affords us the chance to differ.

    2. Why should we insist on keeping humour out of the house? It was clearly a part of his repertoire and if he had the audacity to joke about it, why can’t we pay back in equal measure? I’m inclined to say something snarky about indians and intellectuals insisting on appropriate gravity but that would lead me down the (pigeon)hole i precisely want to avoid. Humour is essential for a more meaningful democracy, implied in forgiveness and seems likely to afford us the final trump card in this affair that’s turning terribly humourless.

  24. Vikas Rathee of Tucson permalink
    February 1, 2013 11:44 AM

    Prof. Nandy has at the least been a victim of the foot in the mouth disease. In this whole drama being staged about free speech and intolerance, the controversial statement seems to have acquired legitimacy! Perhaps, this was not Prof. Nandy’s intended message in the first place, but the messiahs of free speech and public spaces on Kafila, Outlook and other such have been unable to talk about this issue. I would ask them to take a look within and think why they have done so.

    What is corruption? Who is not corrupt in this country? Yes, Tarun Tejpal and Ashis Nandy are correct in saying that corruption has accompanied democratisation. The nature of politics, a function of patronage and finances, is such that the people at the top have to be ‘corrupt’. Earlier, those at the top were UC and now they are BC and SC. In the economy of corruption, OBC and Dalit politicians (not OBCs and Dalits in general) get leftovers because they change with elections. The main course is reserved for the trading and business communities, and secondarily the bureaucracy. I am yet to hear of Dalit or OBC businessmen. Have you? Thankfully, minor (note MINOR) govt contractors from BC and SC have emerged in the recent few years. The bureaucracy does carry constitutionally-mandated representation of Dalits and OBCs.

  25. February 1, 2013 1:40 PM

    Dear Asha ji, Mr. Sengupta indeed deserves to be taken to task for “exalting Chandrabhan Prasad’s [opportunistic and] selective caste claims on a universal category like forgiveness” and likewise for “[pinning] attributes to a heterogeneous community [even though] it has a positive ring to it”. It would appear that Prasad was (opportunistically) referencing the sentence “Maafi chahta hoon” which is the customary and invariable (so un-creative) leave-taking of the “untouchable”, no matter how hard and how faultlessly he may have worked for the twice-born avatar he has had the privileged chance to serve, at whatever cost to personal health, stamina and sanity. The redemption the (opportunistic) “untouchable” is eyeing is not of this passing illusion of a world alone — it is cosmic, across all possible yugas; and every service he has earned merit enough to perform takes him a little closer to that ultimately all-enveloping forgiveness. Which is why, as the able Chief Minister of India’s most prosperous state explains in his 2007 publication, Karmayog: “I do not believe that they have been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood. Had this been so, they would not have continued with this type of job generation after generation….At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their (Valmikis’) duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods; and that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries. This should have continued generation after generation. It is impossible believe that their ancestors did not have the choice of adopting any other work or business.” (Cited in Rajiv Shah, “Modi’s postal ballot Confusion”, available at, last accessed Feb 1, 2013.) Indeed, the cycle of time is truly merciful, since in kalyug, he/she no longer has to carry shit from every home, but only from select locations, like the Indian Railways. (See Nupur Sonar, “The Disgusting Stench of Incredible India”, Tehelka 5(10), available at, last accessed 1 Feb, 2013.)

    • February 1, 2013 3:06 PM

      Dear Shyama,

      Thank you for your excellent comment above, which ties in so many other things, especially the wisdom of the man who thinks he is the ‘man of the moment in waiting’. The only thing that I would cavil with is the subject position of the person who forgives or is forgiven. The customary leavetaking salutation that you refer to – ‘maafi chahta hoon’ (I request your forgiveness), refers to the speaker asking for forgiveness, and can only be spoken in the voice of said person. When Chandra Bhan Prasd invokes what he calls the ‘great Dalit tradition of forgiveness’ he is not ‘asking’ for forgiveness at all. In fact he is doing the absolute opposite. He is ‘offering’it. He is the ‘forgiver, speaking from a position of strength, not the ‘to-be-forgiven’, who must necessarily speak from a position of abjection. Words, the difference between being a subject and an object, the voice of the speaker, whether it is the active or the passive, do matter, I think. Wouldn’t you agree?

      • February 4, 2013 1:19 PM

        Thank you, Shuddha. Asking forgiveness, however, is not something I’ve seen many people do; I’m drawn here to turn out such phrases as ‘in recent times’, ‘these days’, ‘aaj ki date mein’ — truth is, I don’t know any other times but these. And in them, such as they are, ‘sorry’ is the word least-heard — on our streets, in our workplaces, and from public figures who’ve goofed. Indeed, people’s entire sense of being able to value themselves appears to lie in *not* saying sorry — never admitting that one might possibly have been iwrong is how to show one has ‘confidence’, one has ‘self-esteem’, that ‘hum mein bhi kuchch baat hai’. Dalits and other such, however, (I don’t seem to be able to think out of the sarcasm box here) have long experience in the matter. Such an ancient, generational way-of-life might well be seen as deserving (meriting?) the term ‘tradition’. Of course Chandra Bhan Prasad is not asking forgiveness — but shouldn’t he? The entire burden of most of the posts, editorials and opinion columns on the episode is overwhelmingly that anyone who objects, who has failed to be awe-struck by Nandy’s Proven Track Record’ (the character certificate that ends all doubt), *ought* to ask forgiveness — humbly, abjectly, without reservation. Chandra Bhan Prasad, however, is *offering* forgiveness, thereby pre-empting Nandy in what he has not asked — and, as with unsought largesse generally, its recipient was less than pleased by it, or so his cut-away could suggest.

  26. Jayaram permalink
    February 1, 2013 3:23 PM

    I enjoyed reading this extremely well written article and the thoughtful comments that followed it. However, I think Shuddhabrata misses a crucial point by dismissing Nandi’s point as ‘empirically dubious’ or ‘inexctitude’ or imprecision. To do this is to misunderstand Ashis Nandy’s method of analysis. Nandy is primarily a phsychonalyst and therefore his approach would be to construct an archetype. You may challenge the validity of his archetype or challenge its empirical prevalence but you do need to understand his frame of reference. It is not enough to dismiss this as lazy or anecdotal perception. I think Prof. Nandi was referrring to a concept of corruption which could be seen as an in-your-face assertion of a right to wealth acquisition, which has traditionally been an elite entitlement. In fact Prof. Nandy did make this point, somewhat incoherently, in his later clarification when he contrasted this type of corruption with subtler forms of corruption prevalent among the upper class. I don’t think Nandy was talking about whether corruption was widespread or even typical to Dalits or OBCs. One might argue for or against such a construct but it is best done within that framework. But thank you alll the same for starting an interesting debate.

  27. Vandana permalink
    February 1, 2013 5:54 PM

    Minorities in any country have had to struggle unreasonably but the the very fact that in our democracy, are still not past the titles of SC, BC, OBC and consequent stereotyping… means we are not intellectual enough to give them even a chance to come up in life.
    Ever lived in a situation where you were forced to be a minority? Unless you experience that, it is impossible to begin to comprehend what a minority and stereotyped population deals with.
    Though they are a tolerant people and have struggled to deal with actual work which you and I havent even had to imagine doing, why would “all” of them have to be “tolerant” of what others dole out to them?
    We can get caught up in an intellectual debate of each little quote of who said what to whom and why or we can completely get in the field and action fair opportuinities to the people of India who have been classified backward for no earthly/Godly reason by people dead long ago. If we allow them avenues to grow above and beyond the limits imposed on them against their will, then I am positive they will emerge stronger than anyone around us and will never need a quota system for opportunity.
    Would you like limits/ stereotypes imposed on you by your society or work?
    I reiterate, India will prove to be a true and strong democracy the day a person from a ‘designated low caste’ goes to court and gets justice for the right reasons against a man in high position, because though these people make the fabric of the Nation but get jailed for reasons simpler than hurting public sentiment (like, Prof. Nandy) living in the SAME democracy and having SAME freedoms.
    So Nandy need not be jailed for his SOTs but he could consider stopping his rise at the cost of caste-typing the so called SC, BC, OBC’s.
    First thing to do is to remove these letters which mean nothing to anyone anymore, especially, I hope in intellectual circles and un-biased media.
    Dr. Satyanarayana, you have our support, because we know that this is an uphill task in our humorous societies. Many people will make jokes on minorities, but the human being endeavours only to progress.
    Shyama, appreciate your un-biased research.

  28. February 3, 2013 11:06 AM

    One more from the Old Guard, the ancien regime, (notable among) the reason(s) why all is as is:

  29. G. Bharali permalink
    February 6, 2013 12:38 AM

    Dear Shuddhabrata, I would’ve loved to describe your post as being among the most perceptive commentaries on the present subject. It is refreshing to see someone who does not have an intellectual axe to grind with Ashis Nandy, or with academics in general: a) call Nandy out unequivocally on the dubiousness of his remark; and b) point out to the casualness and imprecision that pervades the discourses of most Indian academics. But the thing that stuck a sour note with me was the following:

    “The second reason for my anger has to do with the knee jerk reactions… foot soldiers of identity politics and brokers of victimhood.”

    To be fair though, my first sense of the above passage was not of sourness but of puzzlement. Firstly, who are the “brokers of victimhood” that you write about ? Unless you and I are tuned to completely different sets of voices, if I consider the aggregate of all voices—on the televised shouting matches, in newspaper editorials, in quotes appearing in news reports—I find that a respectable fraction (albeit a minority) of voices “emanate” (to use your word) from people who cannot be called “brokers of victimhood” by any reasonable definition. Among them are legal experts and/or opinion-dispensers whose two pennies on this matter are informed merely by a narrow and legalistic reading of certain laws. So I repeat: who is a “broker of victimhood” and who isn’t ? I don’t ask you this question in order to attack your views but because I am genuinely puzzled.

    Accompanied by this puzzlement is a faint suspicion that easy phrases like “broker of victimhood” work rather well in lumping together voices that don’t actually belong to the same continuum, and are preventing the English-speaking commentariat from tuning into the many voices that address Dalit causes in many different tones and tunes.

    My second point is that, perhaps, you anger too easily! Let me elaborate on this. I too feel disturbed by how overly broad some of the provisions that limit free speech in India are. But I—and many people who think like I do—can clearly see that certain slurs will feel so repellent to those at the receiving end of them that cries to throw the book at the offender really cannot (should not ?) evoke the same anger that a more common-or-garden appeal to invoke the statutes would. I mean: surely there is a difference between a cry from the heart (or even just the larynx!) voiced by the representatives of a community that has been oppressed in unimaginable (i.e. to the privileged) ways, and the cries of a comparatively more privileged group of people who profess to find a book that they haven’t read to be offensive.

    What I am perhaps trying to say is that I hold you to a standard. What I am saying is that, while I greatly admired the perception and nuance of your piece, you have perhaps not acquired the gift of imagination that would enable you to imagine yourself in the shoes of some of the public figures who speak for or about the Dalits in India today. Unless you used the word “anger” merely rhetorically, there are surely more compelling targets for your anger!

  30. August 30, 2013 7:42 AM

    Caste system is the bane of Indian society but unfortunately political parties promote caste base politics for votes this will get worse as the elections come near


  1. Ashis Nandy’s Predicament and Ours « Bargad… बरगद…
  2. Speaking Volumes: Freedom For The Thought We Hate | nilanjana roy
  3. In praise of : Ashis Nandy | Dilawar's Blog

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