In defence of Ashis Nandy / Stir against Ashis Nandy exposes laziness of elite anti-casteism / Of caste, corruption and the Indian chatterati… / A skirmish in Jaipur

[ Daily News and Analysis, 28 Jan 2013 ; Millenium Post, 31 Jan 2013 ; Echo of India, 8 Feb 2013 ; Jansatta, 4 Feb 2013 (translated in Hindi) ; Frontier (web) 18 Feb 2013 ]

Whatever else it is, this is not a good time to be Ashis Nandy. In this age of ether when spoken words travel faster than sound leaving comprehension behind, it is not surprising that some ‘casteist’ words of Ashis Nandy, spoken by him at a literary festival, have been taken up by the chatterati. Token anti-casteism like token anti-communalism is one of the easiest paths to salvation for the elite chatterati. But even in the month of Magh, the Kumbho mela is too plebian for the comfort of such folk. No wonder, so many have chosen to sanctimoniously pounce on his statement, as a Plan B.

It is important to note what Ashis Nandy has not said. He did not say that people from the OBC, SC and ST communities are most corrupt. What has Ashis Nandy said then? “Most of the people who are doing corruption are people from OBC, SC and ST communities and as long as it remains Indian republic will survive.” The difference between most of the corrupt and corrupt-most is crucial. An audience whose interaction with the OBC, SC and ST communities is limited mostly to house-maids and drivers made sure that his comment did not go unchallenged. Later, he also tried to clarify that corruption from these communities are more likely to get caught, due to absence of mechanisms of saving themselves, unlike the upper castes.

At the most banal level, there is no way for the statement to be statistically untrue. ‘Most of the people who are doing corruption are people from OBC, SC and ST communities’ because most people who live in the Indian Union are from OBC, SC and ST communities. Together they form a stupendous majority of the population. That they also form a majority of the corrupt is only natural, unless corruption flows along caste lines. The problem with looking at corruption in this way is that it does not unpack this thing ‘corruption’ into the myriad forms it takes – and that matters. Limiting us only to economic corruption, by form I do not only mean the quantum of corruption but also the method of execution. Given that corruption is something that all communities indulge in, asking who does what how is important.

But there is also the public life of corruption, its most talked about form being corruption in public life. In that elite congregation in Jaipur and their kith and kin beyond it, if one were to ask for the names of 2 most corrupt politicians, Madhu Koda, A Raja, Mayawati, Laloo Prasad Yadav will jostle for space in their lists. That people from OBC/SC/ST communities are over-represented in the imaginary of this ‘public’ along with its pronouncements of wanting to see beyond caste needs some reflection. The charge of corruption is looked upon as a non-casteist charge and by bringing it up, prejudices and animosities, which may otherwise have casteist origins, can be sanctified and presented in public discourse. The devil, then, is not in the commissions but in the omissions. This brings us to the question of ‘visible’ corruption.

‘Visible’ corruption, the eye-ball grabbing variety, is visible mostly due to a crude job in covering up tracks. The visibility is due to getting caught. A clandestine political group escapes persecution by building a networked system of subterranean safe-houses. Caste groups with pre-existing socio-political hegemony have a long experience in building safe-houses so as to channelize their corruption into ‘internal channels’ rather than public-private ones. So much so that some such forms of corruption are not considered as such and do not need to be clandestine any more. Systems of aggrandizement are built into the system so that corruption happens even on auto-pilot. Just like old money begets new money. Older and much-maligned extractive capital becomes today’s fashionable finance capital. All this requires time. OBC/SC/ST communities, by and large, have not had the time to develop the art of reducing corruption to making the papers correctly. They do not have a well entrenched system of trustworthy accomplices who are well grounded in this management science. Upper castes elites have. They are its fathers. For example, they make green-laws and mangle them to their benefit. But the corrupt that this ‘public’ sees are squatters and ‘encroachers’ who pollute. The irony of the fact that all this corruption-talk happened in an event sponsored by a giant real-estate company should not be lost. But then, there is no corruption in corporate-sponsored, free-flowing red wine. It is only the water in the milk from the neighbourhood milkman that is corruption.

In the subcontinent, few opportunities exist for someone to undo the lack of caste or economic privilege at birth. Aspirations and accomplishments are pre-determined by a legal framework that does not acknowledge realities of the past or the present. The few viable ways to negotiate this disadvantage happen to be extra-legal. We love to call this corruption. Indeed, in the absence of this conduit, things would be even more skewed than they are.

Some anti-reservationists are jumping at joy at what Ashis Nandy has said. This is both tragic and comic at the same time – how the same lazy understanding gives rise to joy and uproar in different quarters. They shout – in anger and mirth – united by the pre-judging lens through which they view what he said.

His words on West Bengal being ‘clean’ has also been twisted out of meaning. Given how commonly the relatively ‘corruption-free’ politics is touted as some kind of virtue attributable to either the Bengalis as a people or the bhadralok political culture spanning the communists and the congressites, Ashis Nandy tried to drive a hole into that too.

If Ashis Nandy had said, most corrupt come from the forward castes, there would not be any furore. That is because, in the Indian Union, the potency of implicating hegemonic groups has been defanged by the enthusiastic appropriation of the mantle of fashionable anti-casteism by the very same groups. Which is why the persecution of the Kabir Kala Manch does not attract the ‘freedom of speech’ wallahs who also double up as ‘anti-casteism’ wallahs, as and when required. The reaction to Ashis Nandy’s statement exposes the laziness of elite anti-casteism. If condemnation is the best response we have, it is sad indeed. The essence of what said was that ‘visible’ corruption is rare in West Bengal because in this state, the political empowerment of SC/ST/OBC communities has not happened. This means that a political sphere which is dominated mostly by the upper castes will mostly have the long-entrenched kind of well-lubricated and ‘clean paperwork’ corruption, systems that these groups have developed over long periods in power. This is the mystery behind West Bengal’s apparent cleanliness. Thus he says that West Bengal appears cleans because the nature of its corruption bears imprints of long-entrenched elites and not new rising groups. To take this argument, albeit a roundabout one, to simply mean that West Bengal is actually non-corrupt and the upper castes who have long been in power in West Bengal as the reason behind some real lack of corruption, shows that we do not want to engage with arguments and understandings that are even a little complex.

Finally, it is the limitation of the non-printed form that when one speaks, words like ‘clean’, ‘corrupt’ or anything which one may be using in multiple meanings cannot be put in quotes like I just did..One has to understand grimaces and what not. I do not think that Ashis Nandy is best suited for the sound-byte medium, for the way he speaks and has always spoken. All that was said was in response to something said to Tarun Tejpal is important – that is the context. In the sound-byte and one-liner world, things acquire lives of their own after the words have been spoken. They acquire meanings based on the filters each one of us have in our heads. Ashis Nandy’s style is highly vulnerable to this. He is not an ‘academic’ academic. For decades, he has been an activist-intellectual for the underside, a champion of exiled sensibilities, a public speaker for what many publicly deny and privately acknowledge and I thank him for that.

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Filed under Acedemia, Bengal, Caste, Class, Culture, Elite, India, Knowledge, Media

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