Millennium Post

Pushing limits of shock

If psychologist Ashis Nandy had planned to ignite a potentially ugly controversy at the Jaipur Literary Festival, he couldn’t have done better than by insinuating intimate links between corruption and Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs. After warning that he was about to make a ‘very undignified’ and ‘almost vulgar’ statement, ‘which will shock you’, Nandy said, ‘It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBCs and the SCs and now increasingly STs and as long as this is the case, [the] Indian republic will survive.’

Nandy’s comment, broadcast by the media without giving its full context, instantly provoked a strident demand for his arrest under the SCs and STs (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989. He clarified that he meant no offence to Dalits or OBCs and has espoused their cause for a lifetime. Many Bahujan/Dalit writers like Kancha Ilaiah and Chandra Bhan Prasad defended him, and numerous intellectuals protested against muzzling his right to free speech.

I too signed that petition. Dragging Nandy to court would have been a shame – not only because he’s a tall public intellectual, but also because he has consistently questioned upper-caste morality and supported marginalised groups. He obviously didn’t intend to denigrate such groups. But taken literally, his statement admits of this very interpretation. The Supreme Court has since stayed Nandy’s arrest, but reprimanded him for making ‘irresponsible’ remarks that could hurt people, and for saying things that ‘you don’t intend’.

What did Nandy in fact say? During a panel discussion he said, ‘The only country which I know is close to zero corruption is Singapore, and that’s not part of my concept of utopia…’ He drew parallels between Singapore and West Bengal under Communist rule, and said that ‘in the last 100 years, nobody from the OBCs… the SCs and the STs have come anywhere near power in West Bengal. It is an absolutely clean state… I do wish that there remains some degree of corruption in India because… it humanises our society.’

Nandy contended that the upper castes flourish by using privileged networks and contacts, and by doing one another favours, including securing admissions and fellowships for their children at reputed universities. ‘Mayawati doesn’t have that privilege. She probably has only relatives whose ambition was to be a nurse or run a petrol pump. If she has to oblige somebody or have somebody in the family absorb the money, she will probably have to take the bribe of having 100 petrol pumps, and that is very conspicuous, very corrupt indeed. Our corruption doesn’t look that corrupt, their corruption does.’

Nandy described criminal gangs as ‘perfectly egalitarian’, Dawood Ibrahim’s ‘gang had a lot of Hindus… totally secular.’ He also said people like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Prasad had to ‘claw’ their way to power, but remain ‘insecure’. ‘Even if you make through corruption millions of rupees, you suspect that you will not be able to get away using the machinery of law or cleverly manipulating your investments … with the right connections because you have none... [T]he only unrecognised billionaire in India today, in dollar terms, is [former Jharkhand chief minister] Madhu Koda. He’s a tribal and … a very insecure, unhappy, tense person.’   

Later, in an interview with Barkha Dutt, Nandy also defended corruption as ‘a safety valve’ which favours the poor and will make for a better republic, ‘Corruption is about equality and redistributive justice.’ He also claimed that empirical proof of his contention that most of India’s corrupt people are ‘OBCs, SCs and now increasingly the STs’ could be found in surveys of ticketless travellers and ‘urchins’ who sell cinema tickets ‘in the black’.

Several propositions are made here. One, the upper-caste elite’s attitude to corruption is deeply hypocritical: it’s itself steeped in nepotism, but takes a self-righteously moralistic stand and blames the subaltern classes for corruption. Two, corruption gives agency and power to underprivileged groups, and acts an equaliser and instrument of ‘redistributive justice’ in a society with unequal opportunities. Subalterns need corruption to survive in the system and manipulate its rules.

Nandy’s third proposition is that all forms of corruption –from the petty variety like ticketless travel, to multi-billion-dollar scams in land, telecom, etc – are essentially or morally equal. And fourth, corruption has burgeoned among OBCs, Dalits and Adivasis both in proportion to their rising social and political power and because corruption has grown in society in general. Societies free of corruption are precisely those in which subordinate groups remain powerless; such societies are therefore undesirable.

To be fair, one must acknowledge Nandy’s provocative style and use of irony, paradox, satire and shocking metaphors. Many of his insights, or what he calls ‘facts’, cannot be empirically tested. He is a maverick, a master of aphorisms calculated to shake people out of their complacent premises. Even taking all this into account, his overall argument is flawed. Regrettably, he got carried away – something a distinguished intellectual shouldn’t do. (IPA)
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