Call it censorship, not social justice

Here lies Ashis Nandy, who died of a bad joke". This would be the most appropriate epitaph for Nandy, insisted my colleague and sinologist, late Giri Deshingkar, in his rare moment of black humour. The reference, of course, was to Nandy's unusual way with words. Over the last four decades, Ashis Nandy has presented his insights through some very powerful symbols. He loves paradoxes and uses aphorisms, ironies and riddles to surprise his readers. Very often, he can substitute an argument with an anecdote or a stunning statistic or a joke which runs the risk Deshingkar was alluding to. It is not for nothing that he is referred to as a gadfly. Nandy does not offer easy-to-digest formulations; he makes demands on his reader, he provokes them to think, he stings.

Nandy's is not my preferred mode of reasoning. I have had difficulties with comprehending it and his use of stylised facts. But I cannot recall a single occasion where disagreement with him has not left me humbled and richer at the same time. Generations of students of Indian society have grappled with Nandy and learnt to take a fresh look at the world they thought they knew. This unusual yet powerful mode of presenting his original insights is what makes him one of the few global icons of social sciences that India has. More importantly, this is what has enabled him to challenge the settled orthodoxies of our time, take giant leaps of imagination and put first signposts in the vast fields of human ignorance, even as the rest of the social science is preparing for its first landing.

This is precisely what has landed him in this tragi-comic situation in Jaipur. I think I was privy to one of the first iterations of the argument that Ashisda presented at the literary festival. This happened a few years ago, when Bangaru Laxman, the then president of the BJP, was caught taking a bribe on camera. There were also widespread allegations of corruption against Mayawati and Lalu Yadav. Listening to some middle class outpouring of disgust at "these leaders", Ashisda flew into rage. Why are only politicians like Laxman, Mayawati or Lalu trapped in such scams, he asked. Then he proceeded to answer his own question. Upper caste, urban, English-speaking leaders and bureaucrats have innumerable ways of indulging in the worst forms of corruption and yet appearing clean. They have a wide social network to absorb their ill-gotten wealth. They don't need to resort to risky methods like taking cash, they can simply indicate, for example, that the education for their nephew studying in the US be subsidised. His simple point was that while the old, upper caste elite and the new elite emerging from the hitherto marginal communities were both corrupt, our system is such that the former go scot-free and the latter get caught and are scorned.

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