Why we needn't stand in defence of Ashis Nandy

The arguments over sociologist Ashis Nandy's generalisation of Dalits and corruption at the Jaipur Literature Festival seem to have come to an end with the Supreme Court playing umpire and telling the police not to arrest the sociologist, while also telling Nandy to refrain from making any more statements on the matter.

 Why we neednt stand in defence of Ashis Nandy

Has Nandy got off the hook too easily? AFP

But has Nandy been let off too easy? There were many who came out all guns blazing in Nandy's support pointing to his work as a sociologist, to his works and to his attitude towards the Dalit community at large and the need for freedom of expression. What few have questioned, however, is whether Nandy for all his eminence and past experience, should make statements of the kind that could land anyone in jail and whether he deserves such a vociferous defence.

In a compelling argument in Outlook magazine, publisher of Navayana, S Anand, points out that since the controversy deals purely with what the sociologist said in Jaipur, the debate should centre around it and not around whether his past work (which the author debunks and how) helps the cause of the Dalit community.

Anand argues that contrary to Nandy's statement, corruption or lack of obedience of law by Dalits isn't actually the great equaliser it is portrayed to be because the final fruits of this corruption and law breaking only go up the caste hierarchy.

Thus we should welcome Nandy’s comments as a brazen public expression of the “common sense” racism that the privileged in urban India routinely articulate in private conversations. The privileged who casually dismiss the policy of reservation in education and jobs (rarely implemented in earnest), and who refuse to acknowledge that they have availed of unstated reservation for millennia owing to their exclusive monopoly in various fields, including corruption (even if understood, according to Nandy’s reductive definition, as petty bribe-taking). The privileged who refuse to see caste itself as corruption, as moral depredation.

Anand argues that Nandy's statements would be deemed racial in a nation like the US and he would likely be punished by being exiled from public view. In India he is instead held up as a champion for freedom of speech.

In a similar argument Dalit scholar K Satyanarayana is equally dismissive of the leeway given to Nandy in an interview published in the Business Standard and he argues that a few cases of corruption among Dalit leaders cannot be expanded to encompass the entire community.

Satyanarayana also points out that many an argument has been made about the Dalit community at large following the incident and they have been accused of being intolerant which he says ignores the damage done to the image of the community by his statements.

This whole discussion is actually stereotyping the Dalit community. One FIR [first-information report] was filed, and then [you start] saying the SC/ST Act is in some sense “a very draconian act”, and you [Dalits] are misusing that Act, and that Act itself is a kind of a serious problem. So, I don’t know what exactly they are saying. They’re actually opposing their own institutions of democracy. He cannot interpret [his comment] as pro-Dalit or anti-Dalit, he cannot decide that saying SCs and STs are corrupt people and creative people is a compliment. I don’t take it as a compliment.

Both writers make one valid point. Had anyone else made a similar statement in any other setting, he could be liable to face a case under the Prevention of Atrocities Act for making a comment against the Dalit community. Not because it went against set notions of propriety or constituted insensitive wit, but because it was downright wrong to accuse an entire community of corruption from a public forum. And it definitely doesn't help when the author has the eminence of Ashis Nandy.

After getting bail from the Supreme Court, Nandy said with a smile,"I will have to make my statements now outside India or within four walls." Perhaps it isn't all that bad a punishment to impose.

Updated Date: Feb 04, 2013 17:10:41 IST