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Millennium Post

Watch your words, we are Indians!

Social scientist and psychologist Ashis Nandy is in trouble again. By suggesting that the backward castes, Dalits and Adivasis tend to be more corrupt than other communities, he has predictably stirred a hornet’s nest with the Dalit czarina, Mayawati, calling for his arrest under the SC/ST Act.

While it is for the legal system to determine whether the Act can be used in the context of a scholarly appraisal when its original purpose is to shield the vulnerable groups against vilification and intimidation by their social and political opponents, what is ironical is that Nandy should face the ire of the backward castes and Dalits only a few years after a similar call for his incarceration was issued by the Narendra Modi government for criticising the Gujarati middle class.

Considering the upper caste orientation of this particular group, it is worth noting that the sociologist has earned thedistinction of provoking the two ends of the social spectrum.

His criticism of the Gujarati middle class was not about monetary corruption, but
corruption of the mind.

According to him, the middle class remains ‘mired in inane versions of communalism and parochialism’ because ‘it has found in militant religious nationalism a new self-respect and a new virtual identity as a martial community, the way the Bengali babus, the Maharashtrian Brahmins and Kashmiri Muslims in different times have sought salvation in violence’.

While staying the summons issued to Nandy by the Gujarat police, the Supreme Court referred to the growing intolerance of a free expression of views. In the present case, too, it is possible to discern a similar knee-jerk response to criticism which fails to differentiate between an assessment based detailed study, and the politically and socially-motivated ones which are far removed from the groves of academe.

In the case of the former genre of criticism, perhaps the best comment was made by Atal Behari Vajpayee when he said, after a research institute was vandalised where James W Laine had worked on his controversial biography of Shivaji, that the answer to the scholar’s book was to write another book. It is possible to say in the same vein that the answer to Nandy’s charge is to disprove it with the help of statistics and an analysis of the social scene with its centuries-old bias against the lower castes rather than to clamp the critic in jail.
 
Such a peremptory step may suggest that an amalgam of inferiority complex and revenge against the former social oppressors has been the guiding factor. In any event, it will not be an effective rebuttal of the charge if the available figures substantiate what has been said.

Unfortunately, the present case, or the one relating to Gujarat, are not the only instances to show that freedom of expression is under threat. Whether it was Laine’s biography of Shivaji, or A K Ramanujan’s interpretation of the Ramayan, which was withdrawn from the Delhi university, or Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey,
which was delisted by Bombay university, or the protests which made Salman Rushdie stay away from the Jaipur literary festival last year, or the reluctance to let Taslima Nasreen live in Kolkata, the signs are clear – that it is the prejudiced rabble-rousers who hold the upper hand while the government is scared of them.

The reason for the latter’s pusillanimity is evidently political. Since the rabble-rousers represent identifiable social segments, the parties are wary of offending them for fear of losing votes. It has never been clear to what extent the troublemakers truly reflect the sentiments of those for whom they claim to be speaking. In all probability, they are a minority while the silent majority prefers to hold their tongue.

But, the governments, whether at the centre or in the states, are afraid either to confront or ignore the storm-troopers since they feel it is better to play safe. The fallout, however, is that the fanatics become even bolder at the sign of the government’s retreat.

Yet, as the increasing activism of the urban middle class against corruption or the gang rape of a woman in Delhi show, a time is approaching when the government’s patent unwillingness to stand up for free speech will become politically counter-productive for it.

The government will then have to choose between the social groups, which are sensitive to criticism, and the new activists who resent the stifling of opinion-makers.

The choice will not be easy since both can prove to be politically influential and also vocal on television channels. In the midst of a rousing debate, what will be needed is an articulate presentation of the case for letting a ‘hundred schools of thought contend’, to quote Mao Zedong.

The prerequisite of material and moral progress is an open society where a writer or a painter or a social scientist is not afraid of being blacklisted or exiled or jailed for what he writes or paints or says. (IPA)
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