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Corruption and Political Correctness: A Severe Case of Intellectual Laziness: Meera Ashar

January 30, 2013

Guest post by MEERA ASHAR

Ashis Nandy has been called, rather, accused of being, many things—sociologist, historian, political theorist, public intellectual, philosopher, psychoanalyst, leftist, centrist, right wing, Dalit, Christian, Brahmanical, casteist (he describes himself, more poetically, as an intellectual street fighter and reason buster)—but ‘politically correct’ has never been one of them.

This time, Nandy’s political incorrectness has cost him more than before. As in the past, he has been attacked by politicians and the popular media for presenting his analysis of social phenomena—for doing his job well. The response of the Indian intelligentsia to Nandy’s threatened arrest by the right wing government of Gujarat in 2008 was markedly different from the response now. The difference this time, of course, is that Nandy has not offended the right people. He is seen to have betrayed the marginalized. This time, he has been unfashionably politically incorrect. The similarity between the two episodes is the ‘freedom of speech’ brigade, which has dutifully stood by Nandy. But I shall turn to them later.

Nandy’s abandoning of political correctness, perhaps the second-most malignant epidemic of the modern age after ‘bullshit’, is not just an act of impudence or foolhardiness. Sympathetic students and avid readers of Nandy’s writing have often been heard asking, “but why does he have to say these things in this manner; why does he make jokes like this?” It is as though we have assumed that Nandy’s ideas can be repackaged into a politically appropriate, academically gratifying, sanitized format, preferably footnotable. (Many have actually succeeded in achieving that—and rendering him redundant in the process.)

At a time when academics presume that their role is to perpetuate more and more politically correct research (“score one more for the underdogest of the underdog”), Nandy’s work, while challenging old dogmas and hierarchies, cannot be recast into a bite-size snack. There is no ‘Understand Nandy in 3 Simple Steps’…or even 5. Perhaps this is why he has been critiqued almost equally by ideologues of all hues. For example, his brilliant essay on humiliation baffled many. What could he possibly mean when he argues that for humiliation to occur, both the perpetrator and the humiliated need to share the same symbolic world. Humiliation cannot be completed unless this cognitive circuit is complete and another’s categories are violently imposed upon one. A potent identity marker, humiliation can have “creative possibilities”; it can “crystalize new forms of political awareness”. “He makes these statements, and then we have to unpack them for days,” one of my bright students once said of him. But this is a far cry from inane questions such as: Is he justifying humiliation? Is he blaming the humiliated? Is he forgiving the perpetrator? Nandy does not give us new and improved answers; he compels us to question our own questions.

The reactions to Nandy’s exposition on corruption (which has strangely been relegated to the status of ‘remarks’) betray once again the intellectual laziness that pervades society. At the crudest level, Nandy’s words were taken out of context. No surprises here. Blame the media: 24×7 news bites, running the same half-sentence over and over again, uproar, more reruns of the sentence fragment. You get the picture. And indeed, there were people who are either just waiting to pick a fight, be offended, outraged, protest… a familiar routine. Some shook their head in dismay and said this was a reflection of the attitudes of a casteist society.  Brinda Karat called him elitist and Mayawati and the rest wanted him arrested. No one paused even to hear the end of the sentence that began, “It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBCs and the Scheduled Castes, and increasingly the Scheduled Tribes….” This was met with a collective chant of ‘FOUL’. “And as long as this is the case,” Nandy had continued, with his characteristic aphorismic charm, “the Indian Republic will survive.” Of course, Nandy’s point was that the discourse of corruption victimizes the marginalized, while the elite get away with it. He was making the argument that the elite have subtle age-old mechanisms of manipulating power, which the marginalized lack. His use of West Bengal as an example of the least corrupt state but also the state that has kept the SCs/ST and OBCs from getting close to power makes that amply clear.

Of course, this was not all he intended to say. When Nandy said that his co-panelist, the eminent philosopher Richard Sorabji, and he can be corrupt in more subtle ways, by offering scholarships and jobs to kith and kin, he was not simply saying that corruption is everywhere. Nor was he merely stating that the elite get away with it. He was asking us to rethink the category of corruption. Why do certain things not look like corruption? “We congratulate ourselves for promoting talent,” Nandy said of the ‘corruption’ that the elite may engage in. Before we jump in and claim to have solved the paradox by categorizing this as hypocrisy, let us pause to think what Nandy could have been saying. Do we even have a theory of corruption? Or are we blindly waving around a baton against it. It will not do to only say, “corruption is everywhere, let’s strike it, or strike against it,” depending on our chosen mode of ‘participation’ in politics. We have recently seen how that did not turn out too well for the Anna Hazare movement.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing here is the defense that Nandy’s compatriots, students and fellow social scientists have offered: freedom of speech. Indeed, as our society becomes more and more intolerant, there is a need to hold on tight to our right and ability to express dissent. But that is hardly the end of our task. Far from it. Neither is it enough merely to assert that Nandy’s heart is in the right place. (Indeed it is.) Can our intellectual response to a sophisticated argument, and the furor it created, be: “But he has always spoken for the marginalized”? Is this the only validation an intellectual work needs: that it should speak for the marginalized? If this is the only stipulation for scholarly work, we may as well be lobotomized.

It is no surprise that, where multiple academic and scholarly careers have been built primarily on polished bleeding-heart stories, a ‘gadfly’s’ annoying and persistent demand that we be intellectually honest and willing to challenge the very categories of our analysis has not always been welcomed. His work, even if presented as “paradoxes, aphorisms, ironies, jokes and riddles” strikes at the very foundation of the business of knowledge production.  Nandy’s analysis reveals not just the vacuity of the concept of corruption, but also the intellectual indolence that we all revel in. Nandy has often been called a gadfly. Ironically, this reminds me of another friendly neighbourhood gadfly, Socrates, who was asked to drink hemlock for ‘corrupting’ the youth.

Meera Ashar teaches at the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University and can be contacted at meera.ashar@anu.edu.au

10 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2013 7:14 PM

    Our obsession with a politically correct stance on the issue in order to appear saintly is alarming. Among all these so called egalitarian saints who are busy lampooning Mr. Nandy, there are many who did not even know about his credentials a day before his statement. An over-excited journo on Star-ABP news channel announces his allegiance to CSDS as Director only to be corrected on the prime time. No one can question Mr.Nandy’s credential as one of the most gifted Sociologist and psycho-analyst of India. It would be better if we actually start discussing about this caste question instead of choking our voice abusing him for being a upper caste beast dancing to the tunes which the media plays. Ashish Nandy has put his finger to the most sensitive chord of the emerging Indian elite who is busy forgetting Caste in the quest of an urban identity. It might feel good to break out from the claustrophobic realm of caste, but we simply can not afford to dismiss any meaningful discussion about this. The longer we keep on doing so, the farther this Urban – rural divide would grow. We should better grow up and start looking at things which lie beyond Jantar Mantar, Anna and India TV. There is a thing called academics, there is a thing called research, there is a thing called books and there are people who are called intellectuals. We should better start giving them their own space instead of infringing every public platform of discussions like the one at Jaipur with our urban mind-set and the media centric outlook

  2. Ramesh Narendrarai Desai permalink
    January 30, 2013 8:57 PM

    Intellectual freedom available in a modern, liberal, mature democracy will also be available to us. In the meanwhile let us strive to deserve before desiring. Authorities too, in the meanwhile need to use legal provisions with due discretion. On our part, we need to make the less mature sections of society, maturer. It is a sicietal task, not governmental.

  3. 4thaugust1932 permalink
    January 30, 2013 9:08 PM

    90% of corrupt money ($2 trillion) is with FORWARD CASTE people and 10 of them also evaded $100 billion to Banks in India. Their population in India is less than 15%.

    * IGI Airport scam = $32 billion(FC)
    * Coal Mining Scam = $213 billion(FC)
    * Karnataka Wakf Board Land Scam = $39 billion(FC)
    * Andhra Pradesh land scam = $20 billion(FC)
    * Service Tax and Central Excise Duty fraud = $3.82 billion(FC)
    * Gujarat PSU financial irregularities = $3.39 billion(FC) fdes
    * Maharashtra stamp duty scam = $126 million(FC)
    * Highway scam = $13.97 million(FC)
    * Ministry of External Affairs gift scam = $100,000(FC)fde
    * Himachal Pradesh pulse scam = $200,000/month(FC)
    * Flying Club fraud = $38 million(FC)
    * Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association scam = $10 million (MC)
    * Punjab paddy scam = $3.59 million(FC)
    * Arvind Joshi and Tinu Joshi = $50 million(FC)
    * Uttar Pradesh seed scam = $9.98 million(FC)
    * Obsolete French Fighter Jets = $11 billion(FC)
    * NHRM = $2 billion(BC)
    * Goa mining scam = $700 million(FC)
    * Noida Corporation farm land scandal = $40 million(SC)
    * Bellary mines scandal = $3.2 billion(FC)
    * BL Kashyap EPFO Scam = $118 million(FC)
    * Hasan Ali Khan = $8 billion(MC)
    * ISRO-Devas = $300 million(FC)
    * Cash-for-votes = $715,000(FC)
    * 2G spectrum scam/Radia Tapes = $6.9 billion(BC)
    * Adarsh Housing Society(FC)
    * Commonwealth Games = $15.5 billion(FC)
    * LIC Housing Loan scam = $200 million(FC)
    * Belekeri port = $12 billion(FC)
    * Lavasa = $80 million(FC)
    * Uttar Pradesh Food Grain = $44 billion(BC)
    * APIIIC = $2 billion(FC)
    * IPL Cricket = $8 billion(FC)
    * Madhu Koda = $800 million(SC)
    * UIDAI = $1 billion(FC)
    * Vasundhara Raje land scam = $4.4 billion(FC)
    * Satyam = $1 billion(FC)
    * Scorpene Deal = $10 million(FC)
    * Oil-for-food programme (Natwar Singh) = $10 billion(FC)
    * Gegong Apang PDS = $200 million(ST)
    * Taj corridor = $44 million(SC)
    * Ketan Parekh = $200 million(FC)
    * Barak Missile = $200 million(FC)
    * Calcutta Stock Exchange = $2 million(FC)
    * Cobbler scam = $214 million(FC)
    * Sukh Ram = $5 million(FC)
    * SNC Lavalin = $10 million(FC)
    * Advani Hawala = $18 million(FC)
    * Bihar fodder = $211 million(BC)
    * C R Bhansali = $200 million(FC)
    * Pickle bribes = $20,000(FC)
    * Telgi scam = $4.46 billion(MC)
    * JMM bribes = $59,000(FC)
    * Sugar import = $130 miillion(MC)
    * Harshad Mehta = $800 million(FC)
    * Indian Bank = $260 million(FC)
    * Bofors = $400 million(FC)
    * HDW commissions = $4 million(FC)
    * Antulay = $6 million(FC)
    * Nagarwala = $1 million(FC)
    * Haridas Mundhra = $10 million(FC)
    * Kuo oil scandal = $440,000(FC)
    * Teja loans = $5 million(FC)
    * BHU = $100,000(FC)
    * Jeep scandal = $160,000(FC)

  4. January 31, 2013 9:29 AM

    “Of course, Nandy’s point was that the discourse of corruption victimizes the marginalized, while the elite get away with it.
    He was making the argument that the elite have subtle age-old mechanisms of manipulating power, which the marginalized lack. His use of West Bengal as an example of the least corrupt state but also the state that has kept the SCs/ST and OBCs from getting close to power makes that amply clear.”

    What he says here is all except the upper castes are corrupt and by removing the corrupt castes from power WB attained this towering achievement of corruption free society. It is a simple statement. Things you deduce from that statement really make me admire your imagination.

  5. January 31, 2013 6:35 PM

    keeping aside the “political incorrectness” or innocence so to say, the intellectual credentials and much precious “freedom of speech”, in all intellectual honesty if the statement along with the end sentence is rightfully understood in its true sense, it literally means that the deprived class has only corruption as a means of coming to power in the present times which goes on to mean that they lack any potential and their corruption is needed as a survival mechanism for not only themselves but also of the “great republic” called India…while the blunt people may have read between lines and taken it as outright casteist statement(overtly), the underlying fact remains that most of the corrupt in the current UPA-2 govt.(coal scams, 2G scams, Commonwealth games, Adarsh etc.) are people who are inherently corrupt, cant be classified on the basis of caste for a common-sensical logic that corruption along with the quintessential socio-economic and political phenomena is most directly related to the personal attributes and ethics of people who can happen to be from any caste group…..on the face of it the the most privileged have more often the tendencies of abusing their power and indulging in corruption simply because of the lack of struggle and easy achievements….in his “great psychoanalysis” Asish Nandy conveniently draws a generalized conclusion while ignoring the crucial psychological tenets of individual differences based on nature/nurture debate….

  6. Samarth permalink
    January 31, 2013 6:50 PM

    I fear a time when all free thinkers of our country will be in exile.

  7. Maya permalink
    February 1, 2013 1:32 AM

    Brilliant and insightful piece. Questions that had been bothering me but that I couldn’t quite articulate. Thank you, Meera Ashar.

  8. Anurag Sethi permalink
    February 1, 2013 11:17 AM

    ‘freedom of speech’ brigade ?! What a patronizing characterization. As if that isn’t the issue here.

  9. Munnabhai permalink
    May 16, 2013 2:36 AM

    Kalmadi is a Brahmin, Sharad Pawar is a Kshatriya Maratha, Yeddy is an upper caste lingayat, Railway minister Gupta is upper caste Bania, Law Minister Kumar is an upper caste Punjabi, Manmohan Singh is upper caste Sikh, Mulayam/Lalu Yadavs are OBCs, Raja/Mayawati are SCs, Deskmukh is upper caste Maratha, Air Marshal Tyagi is upper caste Brahmin, Sahara chief Subrata Roy is upper caste, Kingfisher chief Vijay Mallya is upper caste Brahmin, Mamta Banerji is upper caste, Raja Bhaiyya is upper caste Kshatriya ..etc…
    But the upper caste Pritiesh Nandy can still lie shamelessly and blame the victims rather than the perperators, such is the hypocracy of these racist thinkers.

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