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.

I remember reflecting about his outburst. As usual, he was overstating the case, but he did have a point that all of us overlook. We use double standards in thinking about corruption. An educated, media-consuming Indian tends to think of a Mayawati and Mulayam Singh as "corrupt", but somehow upper caste politicians with equally dubious records escape this image. Narayan Dutt Tiwari can brazenly flout all social norms, legal obligations and even the orders of the courts, and yet appear a sagely statesman, but a whiff of a perfectly normal relationship can cost Uma Bharati her political career. Ashisda was to extend that argument and say that the dispossessed classes can compensate for their historic disadvantage by claiming their share in corruption. This was one path to distributive justice and equality.

This is exactly what Nandy appears to have said in Jaipur. His co-panelist, Tarun Tejpal, had said that corruption is a great equaliser. Ashisda endorsed Tejpal and said "It will be an undignified and vulgar statement but the fact is that most of the corrupt come from the OBCs, Scheduled Castes and now increasingly the Scheduled Tribes. As long as this exists, I still have hope for our republic." If you read the first sentence by itself, it appears false, offensive and casteist. But if you read it in the context of what he has been arguing for long, you reach a completely different meaning. Allowing for the fact that this was a spontaneous response to a question, you could rephrase what he said to get the point he was making: "It [may appear to be an] undignified and vulgar statement but the fact is that [those who get caught and are publicly denounced by the media as] corrupt come [disproportionately] from the OBCs, Scheduled Castes and now increasingly the Scheduled Tribes. [Thus corruption serves a larger, though unintended, function of equalisation by compensating for historical injustice.] As long as this [compensatory mechanism] exists I still have hope for our republic." This is roughly what his clarification also says.

You may not agree with him; I certainly don't. The point about corruption serving the end of compensatory justice is akin to Dalit intellectual Chandra Bhan Prasad's position that English and capitalism will come to the rescue of Dalits. Such arguments are factually incorrect and flawed in reasoning. But to say that Nandy's position is anti-SC/ST/OBC, or worse, that it is a casteist slur on disadvantaged communities, is a dreadful misreading of his position. If anything, his is an overstated defence of the socially disadvantaged communities. You could say that he asked for it, that his statement lent itself to this misreading. But only if you believe that there should be no space for irony in public life, if you agree with the contemporary media practice of picking one sentence out of a complex argument and turning it into a public statement for mass consumption.

Sadly, this is happening in the name of Dalit, adivasi and OBCs. Those who have suffered from social censorship for centuries now seek to wield the same instrument. There is a demand for purging public life of irony, wit, satire and humour the classic weapons of the weak in the name of social justice. This is what makes this case so tragic. The real tragedy is not that one of our finest scholars is caught in a case of mistaken identity of an argument. The real tragedy is that the leaders and friends of the Dalit-bahujan movement find it difficult to distinguish between their friends and foes, between what works for and what works against them. This, Nandy would say, is the real curse of social marginality.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, where Ashis Nandy is senior honorary fellow

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