Feb 6: The question of casteism still remains

February 5, 2013



Contrary to what Nandy’s defenders would have us believe, his corruption remark reinforces negative stereotypes about Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes


The controversy around Ashis Nandy’s casual remarks at the Jaipur Literature Festival did not address a number of important questions of public concern. The frenzied ‘Save Nandy’ campaign that followed has actually foreclosed any productive discussion. His supporters have been trying to explain and contextualise Professor Nandy’s flippant remarks through references to his scholarship and eminent status.

Sankaran Krishna seeks to locate Mr. Nandy’s words in the wake of his earlier scholarship and criticisms (The Hindu, January 31). Such an approach is irrelevant to what Mr. Nandy said at the JLF. Harsh Sethi (The Hindu, January 28), Yogendra Yadav (Indian Express, January 28), Lawrence Liang (Economic Times, January 30) and several others have argued that Mr. Nandy’s statements should not be read as casteist. What is pertinent is that both Mr. Nandy and his defenders invoke ‘SC, ST and OBCs’ in a manner that reinforces a stereotypical image of these communities as “intolerant” and “undemocratic.” Shiv Visvanathan writes, “Dalits and OBCs are treated as sacred cows” (Firspost, Jan. 28).


The other standard mode of response has been to combine the banning of Kamal Haasan’s film Vishwaroopam, the Rushdie affair and other state censorship issues with Mr. Nandy’s “freedom of speech” to conclude that Indian society is becoming intolerant and undemocratic. Manu Joseph writes in the New York Times ( Jan. 30) that India is “a paradise for those who take offence.” That Mr. Nandy named the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the Other Backward Classes, a large population of the marginalised protected by special laws, as the most corrupt, is totally ignored.

There has been absolutely no attempt to seriously examine the significance of the SC/ST Act and its provisions given that we live in a society with rampant caste discrimination. Madhu Kishwar tweeted on January 28: “Wonder why no one discussing the draconian provisions in SC/ST Act under which Ashis Nandy being booked. Only focusing on Nandy, not the law.” It was no less than a call for the scrapping of this important 1989 Act, which was a result of decades of lobbying by the Dalit movement. Its repeal has been, for long, the demand of the Shiv Sena, the Pattali Makkal Katchi, the Samajawadi Party and such like. Swapan Dasgupta echoes this view saying the Act is “absurd, inflexible, draconian” (The Pioneer, Feb. 3). Antara Dev Sen says that “the more socially disadvantaged you are as an identity group, the more laws you may have at your disposal to attack” (Asian Age, Feb. 2). Liang argues that filing a case is “a lumpen strategy of the
right” that all minorities have adopted.

Even if it is not the only option, is it so wrong for Dalits to file a case? No one thought it necessary to examine the validity of Mr. Nandy’s “provocative” claims. The irony is that in the name of freedom of expression, liberal and rightwing intellectuals have come together in actually suppressing all debate on Mr. Nandy’s objectionable comment that the OBC, SC and ST people are “the most corrupt.”

The effect has been to deflect all attention from his bizarre statements (dubbed as “nuanced utterances”). The question of whether Mr. Nandy’s remarks in fact constitute casteist speech was never given serious attention. Mr. Nandy himself clarified his position many times but never unconditionally withdrew his comments. He reiterated the view that the SC, ST and OBCs are indeed most corrupt (in the sense of they forming a majority of the population) in very clear terms on an NDTV show ( Jan. 28 interview to Barkha Dutt).

In the case of the socially stigmatised and marginalised people, references of any broad-brush kind only reinforce stereotypes of these people. Imagine a white intellectual in the United States, irrespective of the nature and stature of his previous body of work, saying that Blacks and Hispanics in the U.S. are the most corrupt. What would be the repercussions?

What is more, by a clever displacement it was argued that Mr. Nandy actually was the victim of an intolerant culture and authoritarian politics. He is seen as ‘hounded’ and ‘harassed’. It has been argued that the response to Mr. Nandy is ‘intolerant outrage’ and ‘competitive outrage’. From whom? Clearly, the Dalit-Bahujans. When Shuddhabrata Sengupta (Kafila.org, January 30) wickedly refers to “the foot soldiers of identity politics” and “brokers of victimhood,” he is referring not just to one or two individuals, but tarnishing entire communities. These are sweeping statements that depict the SCs, STs, OBCs as people who have no ‘commitment’ to careful listening, who, unlike the ‘upper castes,’ are easily offended, crave for false publicity and organise stage-managed protests.

An editorial in The Hindu (“From Footnote to FIR,” Jan. 30) notes that “in a country where there is a flourishing outrage industry — helped by a slew of laws that takes the feelings of easily offended individuals very seriously — there is a great deal of publicity and even political capital to be acquired in claiming that sentiments are hurt.” The rhetorical strategy is to refer to Indians in general but the specific context is the protest by certain SC, ST and OBC groups. The running theme of the Nandy defence team is that the public (especially the marginalised) has neither skills of reasoning nor a sense of humour to appreciate Mr. Nandy’s words in context. In fact, the campaign to produce Mr. Nandy as a victim as well as a great man constructs SC, ST and OBCs as fools and criminals.

‘Lumpen strategy’

Mr. Nandy’s defenders may have the right to be delusional and believe that his comments are pro-Dalit, pro-Adivasi and pro-OBC, and that such comments should not therefore attract the SC/ST Act. But to call taking recourse to a legal remedy ‘a lumpen strategy’ and to term the SC/ST Act ‘draconian’ — as some have done — is to casually undermine what is in fact an extremely important legislation. This is a special law designed to protect the dignity, life and property of the SC/ST people.

The dispute between the SC/STs and Ashis Nandy is one about dignity and respect. The state is not directly in the picture. A section of the marginalised, and the National Commission for the Scheduled Castes, invoked the SC/ST Act. Many others have objected to Mr. Nandy’s views on other grounds. But how does asking for the application of a special law amount to censorship and violation of freedom of expression? True, this Act imposes limits on speech that humiliates and discriminates against the Dalits and Adivasis. The new scholarship on humiliation and caste, by the likes of Gopal Guru, elaborates on and illustrates this point.

Mr. Nandy first clarified that the view that the SC, ST and OBCs are the most corrupt is a normative view, and not an empirical one. Despite this, he later claimed on NDTV that ticketless travellers in trains and black-ticket sellers in cinema halls would inevitably be SC, ST, and OBC, and they are in a majority.

Not pro-Dalit

This theory of false agency and emulation of the upper castes (in matters of corruption) is highly objectionable and offensive and it cannot be passed off as a ‘pro-Dalit’ statement. Madhu Koda, for all his skills at corruption, is not the role model of the marginalised. The corruption of some of the elite among the disadvantaged is as dangerous and oppressive as that of the upper caste elites. In fact, Mr. Nandy’s theory reinforces the commonsensical view of the oppressed castes as corrupt. The assumption that only physical violence and atrocities attract the SC/ST Act is wrong. Any generalisation that produces a stereotype could be objected to both on moral and legal grounds. There are divergent views among SC, ST, and OBC commentators on how to deal with Mr. Nandy’s remarks and theory of corruption (such loose talk is turned into a theory). But no one claimed that Mr. Nandy’s speech is excellent and ironic. No Dalits have come out to support

The public intellectual, Chandra Bhan Prasad, asked Dalits to forgive Mr. Nandy hoping he would unconditionally withdraw his statements. Some activists and politicians filed cases under the SC/ST Act. What is wrong with this? How can anyone take objection to one’s right to seek legal remedy under an Act that provides minimum protection to the deprived in this country? How can anyone prescribe only ‘a verbal or intellectual redress’ for these offensive and derogatory remarks?

In this vitiated context, one can only take some solace in the words of the Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Altamas Kabir, which said on February 1: “He [Nandy] can’t continue making statements like this. Whatever may be your intent, you can’t go on making statements.” When staying his arrest, the bench noted, “We are not at all happy”. Nor are SCs, STs and OBCs.

(The author teaches at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, and is the author of No Alphabet in Sight: New Dalit Writing from South India)