Saturday, February 2, 2013

Kashmir Times: Angshukanta Chakraborty--When mayhem is the message

When mayhem is the message 

TRP-Driven media distorted Ashis Nandy's words
By Angshukanta Chakraborty

Exactly when those of us who attended the just-concluded Jaipur Literature Festival were heaving a sigh of relief, and were, in fact, celebrating the point that deliverance from "tamasha" and re-immersion in the old-fashioned literary world had been, as it were, the foremost achievement of the Litfest, we were caught off guard in the dire straits of the Ashis Nandy controversy. Nandy's words, when nipped from their bookending sentences and broadcasted on a continuous loop, reminded me of Marshal McLuhan's best remembered saying, 'the medium is the message'. However, adapted to our current times of telegenic public sphere, the idea coined by that revered Canadian prophet of communication theory can easily be repackaged as 'the mayhem is the message.' The medium, clearly, is pure mayhem.

Anyone who was present at the session, titled 'Republic of Ideas' and having fellow panelists such as Tarun Tejpal and Shoma Chaudhary of Tehelka, along with moderator Urvashi Butalia, Ashutosh of IBN7 and Nandy himself, could only be baffled at the turn of events that emanated from the rather heartening, and perhaps a trifle provocative, albeit intentionally so, discussion that took place. The thread of 'corruption as a leveling force' started when Tejpal, and not Nandy, first came up with the suggestion and commented that in a country like India, where entrenched systems of self-aggrandizement are well in place for those with the means, mostly along caste lines, corruption could also be seen as a method of subversion by the poor and the historically disenfranchised, so as to gain access to the very entitlements that are guaranteed by the Constitution. Nandy, who has throughout his long and illustrious academic career as a social psychologist championed the cause of the 'others' within India - whether religious minorities, SC/ST and OBCs, or the rural and urban poor - took up the idea and elaborated that corruption was indicative of a social churn and a republic at work, because corruption need not be the domain of the elites only.

Then came the bit that caused the entire furore. Nandy went on to declare, sounding the prior caveat that it might sound rather "vulgar" to the general ears that are more used to hearing unequivocal and uncomplicated paeans to the national ideals of secularism and anti-casteism, that most of the corrupt in India happen to be SCs, STs and the OBCs, but as long as that is the case, he still had hope in the republic. Thereafter, Nandy explained his admittedly gauchely formulated words to the fidgeting and fretting audience, by saying that the corruption of the SC/STs and the OBCs are visible because they have not yet developed the mechanisms of effective social camouflage, which the elites are adept at, of course. Such mechanisms of hiding and masking self-serving systems turn deep-rooted corruption into accepted techniques of socialization and social engineering. Because the Dalits, the OBCs and other historically disenfranchised lack the finesse, their corruption remains crude and visible to the general eye. Their bonds and affiliations still tend to be dynastic or familial, instead of global or transnational class patterns, which keep the status quo of contemporary capital flows intact. When the marginalised start subverting the system by using the very tools of the system, we call it corruption. What does this say of the media, and the news anchors on the TV channels that kept playing that one line uttered by Nandy in a ceaseless circuit of imposed malice and malignity on one of the tireless champions of the disenfranchised in India? Did they even know where Ashis Nandy worked, leave alone what he taught? Had anyone bothered to even cast a casual glance at his oeuvre of scholarly and popular works, just the bibliography of course, available on Wikipedia? What kind of an irresponsible media pounces on the crumbs of a stimulating and fearless intellectual debate [taking place at a platform such as Jaipur Literature Festival, which, in any case, was attempting to return to its thinking roots after last year's elaborate fiasco] and tosses it over, denuded of the context, to the boiling matrix of the Indian public sphere at large?

It can be equally said of Nandy that he, too, behaved irresponsibly by falling back on the banalities of empirical evidence. "Most of the SC/STs and OBCs are corrupt" sits extremely well with gems like the following, all backed up by enough statistical data and market surveys, of course - "most of the working women tend to drink and smoke"; "most of the college-going girls have premarital sex"; "most of the terrorists are Muslims"; "most of the AIDS patients in the 1980s were homosexuals"; "most of the musicians are drug addicts" - the list can go on.

That Nandy, in a charged moment of displaying his marvelous rhetorical flourish, and unable to resist yet another feat of showcasing some intellectual calisthenics, imagined the podium in Diggi Palace's Char Bagh to be an extension of his office in Delhi's Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (the hallowed CSDS), or, perchance, that of his own drawing room, or the seminar halls of India Habitat Centre, where this remark would have met with characteristic applause - is cause for concern too. This means that the venerated sociologist had momentarily forgotten the enormous consequences of a slip of tongue in a mass culture as volatile as ours, in an age of (mis)communication as instantaneous and as fabricated as ours.

But the real culprit is the TV media, which, as it is obvious now, was waiting breathlessly for its 'breaking news' from Jaipur Litfest. Without so much of a line out of place, the TRPs would not have been served. The perfunctory interview with Will Dalrymple, in which the author talked about the international literary critics and sociologists, and the battalion of writers, who had come to speak at the festival, was not titillating enough. Jeet Thayil looked subdued and without a straw of controversy this time, like reading from a banned book again, although his winning the DSC South Asian Literature Prize for Narcopolis went unreported in the only Indian English news channel that I happened to get on my hotel room television there. Thank goodness for Ashis Nandy then, that all the festival had to say and reflect upon could once again be transmogrified into pure cacophony and one more doctored controversy, much to the relief of our 24X7 media.
—(IPA Service) Sunday February 3, 2013

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