He has championed the rights of India’s lower castes and tribal groups for the better part of half a century, he said, but is now being accused of making remarks that some have cast as “anti-Dalit,” a reference to India’s lower castes, formerly known as “untouchables.”
Speaking last week at the Jaipur Literature Festival, an annual gathering of writers, thinkers and commentators, Mr. Nandy acknowledged that what he was about to say was “undignified” and “vulgar,” but then said, “It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the Other Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes, and increasingly the Scheduled Tribes. And as long as this is the case, the Indian republic will survive.”
(For our readers outside India, the Indian government classifies some of its citizens according to socioeconomic status, grouping them under the labels Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.)
His comments followed those of the journalist and editor Tarun Tejpal, who characterized corruption in India as a “class equalizer.” Mr. Nandy’s statement was instantly picked up by television news channels, often in an abbreviated form, and many portrayed his words as a slur against lower castes.
“Ashis Nandy says OBC, SC, ST most corrupt,” the Press Trust of India reported.
After his comments were publicized, small demonstrations broke out in Jaipur, and a complaint against Mr. Nandy was filed with the police under a law that aims to prevent and punish crimes and atrocities committed against Scheduled Castes and Tribes.
India Ink spoke Mr. Nandy about the recent furor, the correlation between caste and corruption, and the state of free speech in India, at his New Delhi apartment on Tuesday as the 75-year-old waited to receive a warrant from the police for questioning.
Q.The current controversy arose as a result of a statement you made where you suggest that most of India’s corrupt belong to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. What did you mean when you said that?
A.That’s not what I wanted to say. That can’t be empirically supported, because there’s no real survey.
The point I was trying to make was this: if you remove all corruption from society, that’s good. But that will take decades. In the interim period, those who are on the brink of desperation, those who have been deprived of access to power for centuries, deserve to get a share of the loot. Their corruption is a sign of their empowerment and the growth of the Indian republic. In fact, it should be encouraged.
Q.Why do you believe that corruption should be encouraged among some parts of the population?
A.As a society, we are pushing some communities to the brink of desperation. And the Maoist movement substantiates what the desperate can do. It is in effect a tribal movement. It wouldn’t last five days if the tribals didn’t support it. I don’t think 90 percent know what Mao read or said or did. Everybody knows that; it’s an open secret.
That level of desperation comes when you’re absolutely cornered. I don’t want them to be absolutely cornered. So let them also get a part of the loot.
Q.So you see corruption as a tool for social mobility?
A.Corruption is a socially equalizing force. People who are in desperate situations probably need, if not desperate remedies, some kind of a short-term intervention. It is the only means through which some of them can make money of the kind that others do.
Q.But can’t it be argued that corruption, by anyone, creates a rot in the system that ultimately adversely impacts everyone who is a part of it?
A.I am saying that if corruption exists, the marginalized should get their fair share of it.
I believe that their corruption is less harmful than the corruption of the super rich. Corruption of the rich and powerful is based on greed; corruption of the weaker section arises out of desperation.
We should look at their corruption as a byproduct of a very iniquitous system. We should see it with some degree of leniency. It’s a bit like the urban riots in the United States, many of which are started by the colored. There is an implicit, unstated consensus in the United States that their past and their sufferings in the past have made them especially prone to anger and a sense of humiliation and that they are reacting to that. And so there is no retaliatory violence in opposition to the riots of the black.
Q.Just to go back to your original statement, do you believe that the major share of corruption comes from lower castes?
A.That statement was quoted completely out of context. In fact, I later found out that the first half and the last part of my statement was left out.
What I was saying was that corruption of those who are in the domain of desperation is usually conspicuous and open – that it seems as if more and more corruption is coming from the dalits, adivasis and other backward castes – whereas the corruption of the rich and sophisticated and powerful is a subtler affair, which doesn’t show.
Q.Why is that the case?
A.It is the styles of corruption that set apart the two forms of corruption. Dalits and other weaker sections don’t have the style, the sophistication to hide their corruption. They don’t have nephews or nieces in first-world countries where they can buy houses in others’ names and hide the money. They don’t have the capacity to invest it; they don’t have the right kind of connections.
Q.Can you give some examples of these two types of corruption and how they appear?
A.Even in the middle class, I can arrange for a fellowship for someone’s son at an American university and he can arrange for my daughter’s doctoral fellowship at one of the English universities, but that would not look like corruption or nepotism. That would look like promotion of education.
But where corruption is by the tribals and dalits, who cannot absorb that kind of money, their corruption looks bloody blatant.
Mayawati is a good example. Many chief ministers have probably made 10 times the money she has, but it looks like she is the most corrupt. You sometimes get those, even among the backward, who are brilliantly corrupt. Madhu Koda, for instance, [the former chief minister of Jharkhand] who was a dollar billionaire, was unrecognized as such. Of course he was eventually caught. Nonetheless, on the whole, corruption by the disprivileged looks crude, vulgar and somehow more conspicuous that the corruption of the sophisticated.
Q.What is your response to the reaction to your statement, and the rush to file police complaints?
A.I find it silly, somewhat comical. This has happened with M.F. Hussain, with Taslima Nasrin, with Salman Rushdie, and now it is happening with me.
The legal system has been one of the major means of harassing intellectuals, artists, filmmakers and others. In India’s judicial system, because of the long delays and costs involved, taking someone to court has itself become a punitive measure.
Narendra Modi has filed a suit against me, accusing me of fomenting communal hatred, based on an article I wrote in 2008 on communalization of the Gujarati middle class.
[The Supreme Court has restrained the government from arresting Mr. Nandy. “Let him live in peace,” Justice Altamas Kabir reportedly said. “There are worst things happening in this country. If a journalist cannot write then who else will?”]
Q.You were speaking at an event called the “Republic of Ideas.” Do you think your right to free speech has been attacked?
A.The first thing is, this was not a public meeting or a political rally. This was a meeting of delegates, writers and intellectuals. Naturally, I was off guard. Otherwise I would have weighed my words more. I was not giving witness in a witness stand that I would have to weigh my words.
Part of the problem is that the media is TRP [Television Rating Point, a measure of viewers] crazy. For TRPs, I’m told, you can kill your mother. So I’m not surprised that citizens’ rights get the short shrift.
Q.You have issued a clarification to your statement. Do you think this issue is now being politicized?
A.This issue became politicized because it is an election year. The event was in Rajasthan, which is going to polls soon. Everyone wants to show who is a better fighter for the rights of the lower castes.
So free speech or no free speech, no government will come out to defend my rights because they will not like their support base to be disturbed. They don’t want to be seen as weaklings who caved, or did not act.