Free speech, everything decent, under attack Kamal Mitra Chenoy, Feb 2, 2013India’s imperfect democracy got a little more flawed this week, and we all know the reasons. Democracy has come to mean protection of the organised minority, while those who dare to speak the truth are forced to run for cover
It is dangerous to make profound statements in these times, especially if they are imaginative and try to challenge dominant wisdom. You might think that being outspoken at literary meet, in this case the annual Jaipur Literary Festival, is reasonably safe. Professor Ashis Nandy clearly thought so and is paying the price.
Nandy is known for his more than four decades of support to the backward classes. In 1991 when the Mandal Commission came out with its report, he supported it, unlike the hordes of upper caste intellectuals even in a supposed egalitarian bastion like JNU who were in the opposition.
But there is a bitter irony in the current situation. The area of reservation, subsidies and weightage in matters of education, work and other facilities have not led to what the Mandal Commission had advocated and hoped. Tarun Tejpal, who spoke immediately before Nandy, raised the question of the oppressed classes and was pessimistic about the end of their oppression given the system of written and unwritten rules which govern society by an elite and for an elite.
Nandy reacted by going a step further. In a widely believed corrupt system he felt the backward classes were also being corrupt in order to survive. His presentation was full of irony and some satire. For example he said that West Bengal was a state without corruption because it had no backward classes. He, of course, meant the opposite. Anyone who is acquainted with Nandy’s corpus of writings would know that this was a sharp criticism of the Left and its performance in West Bengal. After all it would be absurd to state that there are no backward classes there.
The problems clearly arise from Nandy’s view of the egalitarian possibilities of corruption. This led him to argue that Dawood Ibrahim’s gang had a lot of Hindus and was therefore totally secular. Secularism does not mean that subordinates who are Hindu by following their Muslim gang leader become secular. It is not a dreaded gang’s religious mix but what it does for inter-religious and inter-caste wellbeing and amity that makes it secular.
Nandy then went on to cite OBC politicians like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Yadav and Dalit leader Mayawati to show that compared to the upper caste/ class leaders these leaders suffered from “a sense of desperation, utter desperation and insecurity.” Thus, “our corruption doesn’t look that corrupt, their corruption does.”
Now this is certainly a sweeping statement that needs more analysis and factual basis. It is made more problematic by his conclusion: “It is a fact that more of the corrupt come from the OBCs, and the Scheduled Castes and now increasingly Scheduled Tribes and as long as this is the case, Indian Republic will survive.”
This is a paradoxical statement. Since Nandy holds that the backward classes though corrupt are less so than the upper castes/classes and this is largely due to a ruling machinery that favours the traditional ruling classes over the backward classes, how could he arrive at this particular formulation? The poorer, less empowered backward classes are, according to him, necessary to save the Republic.
Who are the backward classes saving the Republic and how?
Nandy concedes that though the backward classes are corrupt, they do not have the network and class-biased rules which facilitate the rule by upper castes/ classes. Since he himself says this is the case, then how can this backward class formation displaces an entrenched upper caste ruling class and saves the Republic? It appears that Nandy is caught between two stools. On the one hand, he argues that “corruption in India…humanises our society.” But all studies of the poor show that they are victims and not beneficiaries of corruption.
The scale of corruption in welfare schemes for the poor is notorious. Rajiv Gandhi had famously stated that not much from each welfare Rupee actually reaches the poor. This is no less true now. Experiences with what was called NREGA — a rural employment scheme in recent years has shown that its performance has declined sharply. Further, the Indian political economy which has embraced neo-liberalism is just not concerned with the hopelessness of the poor and the backward.
Nandy’s humanity has led him to argue that corruption humanises society. But the reverse is true. It is the poor who pay a relatively higher proportion of taxes including indirect taxes on fuel, food etc. Since 1947, if Nandy had his way, the Indian polity and economy would have been near paradise. The power of the so-called corrupt backward classes to provide stability to the system, humanises it and secularises it.
This is precisely the kind of utopia that Dr BR Ambedkar warned against in the Constituent Assembly. Contrasting political equality with social and economic inequality, Ambedkar warned that this contradiction if not resolved could have very serious consequences for society and the Constitution itself.
The rise of insurgencies as well as social banditry (eg Phoolan Devi, Dadua and others) in various parts of the country is a clear consequence of what Dr Ambedkar had warned. Arguably banditry is also a form of corruption which should lead to equalisation and stability for the Republic, by his standards. Of course, he would not make such a formulation. But in the light of what he, an internationally renowned sociologist and a consistent supporter of the backward classes has stated as cited above, people may read him this way.
It is a denial of the promise of social justice and intellectual liberation to attack a thinker because you disagree with him. The Chairperson of the SC/ST Commission had called for Nandy’s arrest even before giving him a showcause notice, leave alone having a talk with him. Another Dalit leader called for Nandy’s arrest under the National Security Act. The political class jumped in. Hardly any of them spoke openly in his support. Of course, intellectuals from the backward classes like Kancha Iliah, Chandra Bhan Prasad, Tulsi Ram and others are notable exceptions. The upper caste intelligentsia also rallied in some measure but the majority chose to stay away from an issue that had enraged backward classes and their leaders.
It is basic to examine the foundational concepts of any theory and relate them to society. Nandy did not do that. And he could not in a brief speech. But his body of work clearly illustrates his commitment to the backward classes and to an egalitarian Republic. One may not agree with Nandy’s latest somewhat stray comments. But even reading those does not show him to be a bigoted upper caste/ class intellectual ignorant of the social reality of the poor and the depressed. Building on what Tarun Tejpal and Nandy said in Jaipur, will be a Herculean task. There can and should be any number of nuances because India is complex and diverse.
But philosophers and theorist must be given due space and latitude. To cite a famous incident during the Algerian war, a French minister urged President De Gaulle to arrest Jean Paul Sartre for opposing the war. De Gaulle, retorted: “One does not arrest Voltaire”. Intellectuals are critical for the development and plurality of India. In such an India, the Ashis Nandys should be cherished.
(The author is Professor in the School of International Studies, JNU)