Even after author and sociologist Ashis Nandi was hurriedly whisked away from Diggi Palace in Jaipur, the venue of the Jaipur Literary Festival, controversy continued to rage over a comment made by him on Saturday during a panel discussion at the meet. The sociologist during a discussion had said that dalits, tribals and other backward classes are more linked to corruption. His comment not only attracted negative reactions from the audience, but the author was booked under the SC/ST Act, amdist rising protests from many quarters. Police have asked for videos of the discussion. Nandy later issued a statement saying that his comment is being misconstrued and that he and another speaker Tarun Tejpal were talking about how corruption in India is a great equalising force, ‘but when dalits, tribals and OBCs are corrupt, they look very corrupt indeed’. But the explanation, such as it is, has failed to soothe ruffled feathers.
And it is not difficult to understand why. India is a land of many religions, regions, castes and sects. And so when one from the seemingly priviledged class makes an on-the-surface disparaging statement about a class that, whatever its position today, has suffered years of abuse, it is easy to miss the wit, or the veiled good feeling of the statement, if any. Any metaphor to talk about the corrupt practices of upper class (in this case benefit in the form of getting help in admitting one’s child in Oxford or Harward) is totally lost and all that remains is a deep sense of anger and resentment at a class that has not only refused to give it its due for years, but a representative of which now makes such a sweeping critisim of it.
There’s no denying that a handful of people in every class, caste or community are corrupt. It is also possible that Nandi’s intention was to draw attention to how the priviledged class get away more easily. But there is a time for tongue-in-cheek comments and this was not the time. A good speakers is one who knows his audience and can put forth his views in a way that they can be best understand. This does not necessarily have to be speaking what is politically correct but making an effective communication. Ashis Nandi could possibly have made this statement in a drinks party with people from the same socio-economic background as his own and gotten away without hurting anyone’s sentiments.
But better choice of words is expected from a speaker like him while addressing a mixed crowd at a public event. Indian politicians, intellectuals and leaders however, seem to be alike in losing their skills of speech. If recently it was Akbaruddin Owaisi who created a stir with his hate speech aimed at a certain religious community recently, it is now Nandi who has stirred trouble. And it is worse when someone in position loses his afinity for words, because their words can create extreme mischief in a society as diverse as India.