A Paradise for Those Who Take Offense By MANU JOSEPH January 30, 2013
JAIPUR, INDIA — One of India’s favorite spectator sports is “taking offense.” People go about their lives, brushing their teeth, ironing their shirts, waiting for the bus. Then some man somewhere says something ordinary and a community erupts in what looks like joy even though they say they are offended. They go in a carnival procession to some place to announce that they are offended, often laughing and waving to the television cameras. Politicians express their deep hurt at what the man has said and demand swift action from other politicians. The police file criminal charges against the offender, and the offender then begins to say he has been misquoted, possibly by himself.
But the carnival does not wish to die down early. That was what the crowd outside the Jaipur Literature Festival was about last Saturday evening. Men were cheering, laughing and screaming as a television journalist was reporting their claim that they had been insulted by a speaker at the festival.
A few hours before, an amiable billionaire stood on the fringes of a huge audience and listened to a serious debate on the topic “Freedom of Speech and Expression.” A hilarious thought must have crossed his mind, for he chuckled, fell silent, and then said to me: “What freedom of speech? Now a masked man should rise from the audience, and tearing his mask he must reveal himself as Salman Rushdie. This debate will end right now, and everybody can go home.”
Last year, Mr. Rushdie, whose novel “The Satanic Verses” was met with protests and death threats from those who said it insulted the Prophet Muhammad, was forced to cancel his appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival after some Muslim groups said they would be offended by his presence and the government of Rajasthan, the state whose capital is Jaipur, said it could not guarantee his safety.
But what the amiable billionaire and I did not realize was that a festival session that morning had already set in motion a chain of events that would remind everyone, once again, that India encourages discussions of free speech but not free speech itself.
In a session titled “Republic of Ideas,” one of the panel members, the sociologist Ashis Nandy, said something that only fellow Indians would immediately understand.
“It will be an undignified and vulgar statement, but the fact is that most of the corrupt come from the O.B.C., the S.C.’s and now increasingly S.T.’s,” he said, referring to “other backward classes,” “scheduled castes” and “scheduled tribes.” “As long as this is the case,” he said, “the Indian republic will survive.”
What he meant was that most of India’s corrupt are from the historically disadvantaged groups officially called the backward castes. From a purely statistical point of view, this is an unremarkable statement given that the castes he had mentioned together constitute a majority of the Indian population. So it should not come as a surprise that “most of the corrupt” would hail from most of the nation.
But then most of India’s heart surgeons do not hail from the backward castes, and that is where the substance of Mr. Nandy’s message emerged: In an unequal society, corruption provides opportunity for those who do not have the means to progress easily otherwise.
Politicians from the backward castes wasted no time in calling for Mr. Nandy’s arrest. Among the first was Mayawati, the first female Dalit to serve as a chief minister in India, who is currently facing serious corruption charges. If there were canned laughter in real life, this country would resound with deafening guffaws.
Meanwhile, Mr. Nandy’s face soon assumed the look of a man who knew he was in serious trouble. In a courtyard outside the authors’ lounge, he gave several interviews to television cameras, often telling anchors who were grilling him from studios in New Delhi that he had been researching and writing about the backward castes “before you were even born.” Since then, the police have invoked the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against him as well as a charge of criminal intimidation.
Among those who expressed shock at Mr. Nandy’s comment were liberals attending the festival, whose conversations hinged on the evident distinction between upper-caste corruption, which involves the talent to open Swiss bank accounts and perform sophisticated forms of brokering, and backward-caste corruption, which is amateurish and carries a greater risk of being exposed. A popular young writer who did not wish to be identified told me, “I know a Dalit politician in Chennai who asks people to donate gold to him — along with the receipts.”
Even as Mr. Nandy was struggling to put out fires, the release of a Tamil-language film starring one of India’s most popular stars was blocked in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and elsewhere by Muslim groups whose members had not seen the film but claimed that it hurt their religious feelings.
India is a paradise for those who take offense because the first reaction of the state is to appease those who claim to have been offended. The law itself favors those who claim to be offended. And the police, who are so often reluctant to press charges against politicians accused of murder or men accused of rape are quick to arrive at the doorsteps of intellectuals, movie stars and other public figures who have allegedly offended people by words, actions or photographs. The fact is that India’s intellectual elite is one of the few oppressed castes left in the country today.
Manu Joseph is editor of the Indian newsweekly Open and author of the novel “The Illicit Happiness of Other People.”