Misunderstanding Nandy Shail Mayaram : Feb 04 2013
His remarks must be read along with his critique of modernity and the middle classIt is troubling that the public debate in the aftermath of the Jaipur Literature Festival is assuming a Dalits versus others dimension. That this is clearly not the case is obvious from the support Ashis Nandy has received from prominent intellectuals, including Chandra Bhan Prasad, Badri Narayan and Kancha Ilaiah. Had D.R. Nagaraj been around, he would have castigated this framing. In the last decade of his life, Nagaraj was one of Nandy's closest friends. As he put it, "Nandy is at his best when he explores the comic, violent, wicked and absurd relationships that come into play in the lives of communities when they try to represent themselves as nation-states".
The question we must ask is if Nandy is anti-Dalit, anti-tribal and anti-backward castes, as has been suggested. I have known Nandy for a quarter-century now, and in various capacities. He was supervisor of my doctoral dissertation and we went on to become colleagues and friends. Over the years, his support has been invaluable for my exploration of what are, in statist terms, the "backward castes", including the Mewatis, Gujjars and Meenas. He has been particularly happy about a film Rahul Roy and I are making on the Mirasis, a Dalit community of largely illiterate bards/ musicians, but whose literary universes intimate linkages with Sanskrit, Farsi and Braj bhasha.
One way of being pro-Dalit is to support affirmative action. But there is a deeper way, which is to take the cultural inheritance of the Dalits and shudras seriously. Much of Nandy's theorising rests upon an argument about history. Historical consciousness was exported from the West and has deeply affected non-Western cultures, he maintains. Hitherto these cultures lived with open-ended conceptions of the past articulated in their myths and epics. Millions still live outside "history" and have been described as ahistorical (read pre-historical, primitive and pre-scientific). History fears subjectivities, Nandy argues. The idea of history has led to new forms of exploitation and violence in our times, and the freezing of civilisational, cultural and national boundaries. Instead of history, he emphasises constructions that are more creative, ambiguous and arise from marginality and self-doubt.
He also argues that Nehruvian India, despite its brahminic patronising socialism along with a democratic polity and statist affirmative action, had released much creative energy at the bottom and peripheries of India. Nandy points out that Dalits have a rich repertoire of cultures and memories manifest in their knowledge systems, technologies, gods and goddesses. "They comprise another set of analytic categories, forms of ingenuity and creativity, a robust imaginary that includes the record of their suffering and humiliation, their constructions of the past, even what might be called the 'algorithms' of their resistance." Unknowingly, these explore a dialogue of cultures within India. Nandy views the mythic as constitutive of personhood, forming a bridge between literature and life, and refers to epic cultures of the global South that have maintained some continuity with their past. He suggests that Southern intellectuals must develop a critique of ideology itself and refers to Nagaraj's politics of acknowledgement that the diverse, rich cultures of Dalit communities possessed both self-esteem and dignity, which centuries of structural violence and humiliation had not deprived them of. But they must move beyond self-pity. Nandy affirms Prithvi Datta, who points out that in these essays, Nagaraj moves from an identity politics to a civilisational politics, and from a politics of rage towards a politics of affirmation. Nagaraj sees Gandhi as a radical descendant of the great radical saints Basava and Allama, while Ambedkar represents the militant, socialist, Western method and the idea of equality.
Personally, I do not agree with Nandy's thesis on corruption as redistributive justice. But his statement must be read in the context of his larger work and his critique of modernity and the middle class. Modernity, in his view, is responsible for a technocide, which has made Indian artisans, most of whom are Dalits, its victims.
The debate on Nandy's remarks post-JLF posits individual rights against community. This distorts the life's work of a theorist who has viewed the subcontinent as comprising communities whose lifeworlds have been marked by creativity and cultures of faith, despite their being imbricated in structures of violence.
The writer is senior fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi