Ashis Nandy: Media Marionette?

It’s not irrational political groups, but sections of the media which helped build up the Ashis Nandy drama at JLF.

Ashis Nandy

What’s Jaipur Lit Fest without some controversy? Last year we had Rushdie not being allowed to attend. This year, Ashis Nandy took centre-stage. While everyone was going blue in the face over what Nandy said/didn’t say/meant to say – the Newslaundry team was privy to the sideshows which added fuel to the Nandy controversy fire. And we aren’t talking about the inner workings of the rabid political groups which are ever ready to jump into the fray while crying “foul”.

First off, in case you’re the one person who still doesn’t know the details, what was the controversy about? On Republic Day, JLF was holding its panel discussion called the Republic Of Ideas with Ashis Nandy, Tarun Tejpal, Patrick French, Ashutosh and Richard Sorabji. The moderator was Urvashi Butalia. The problems arose when Nandy told Sorabji that if he wanted to be corrupt he could send Sorabji’s son to Harvard and Sorabji could return the favour by sending Nandy’s daughter to Oxford. And while it would be a form of corruption, it could easily be swept under the carpet as “support of talent”. It was Tejpal who said that corruption was a great class-equaliser. Nandy only agreed with Tejpal and made the (it seems now) mistake of saying that, “In India, the most corrupt people are the OBCs, SCs and STs”. As The Hindu paraphrased, Nandy said, “the corruptions of the poor or those who have newly broken through the glass ceiling, on the other hand, are often more noticeable because they are more conspicuous”. Ashutosh took much umbrage at this statement and said that this was “a classic case of the elite that perceive the downtrodden as the oppressors”.

In case you want to watch the entire talk, here’s the link from the JLF site.

That Nandy was in fact saying that when tribals, dalits and OBCs are corrupt, it’s far more circumspect and conspicuous obviously escaped Ashutosh. It is awfully loud during the panel discussions, maybe Nandy wasn’t audible enough for Ashutosh. Anyway, what good is being at JLF if not to indulge in some fire and brimstone?

In an attempt to explain himself, Nandy also said, “If I do a good turn to Richard Sorabji, he can return the favour by accommodating my nephew at Oxford, if it were in the United States, it would be a substantial fellowship. Miss Mayawati doesn’t have that privilege. She probably has only relatives whose ambition was to…run a petrol pump. If she has to oblige somebody or have somebody in the family absorb the money, she will probably have to take the bribe of having hundred petrol pumps and that is very conspicuous, very corrupt indeed. Our corruption doesn’t look that corrupt, their corruption does.”

Leaving aside that Ashutosh’s ire was misplaced, what was happening on the sidelines was far more interesting. It was like watching a play within a play. The Newslaundry team and some others were standing outside the hallowed portals of the Author’s Lounge, when we noticed a tall burly man guided into the Lounge surrounded by a group of men who looked like they’d walked straight off the sets of Gangs of Wasseypur – accompanied by a bevy of smiling decorated policemen.

There was much babble and rabble-rousing – more from the cops than the thugs – who were too busy ogling at Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar who we were interviewing at the time. The thugs also kept themselves busy taking pictures of themselves against the JLF banners.

The said burly gentlemen, who we were informed was the Dalit MP from Dausa, Kirorilal Meena, was then escorted out of JLF by beatifically smiling policemen. Who, when we spoke to them, told us most succinctly and with a beaming smile that we would read about it in the newspapers the next day.

The poor dears obviously had no concept of television news channels. Which was when the next tamasha outside the Author’s Lounge began. Within 30 minutes Headlines Today had set up their cameras at the same spot. Nandy was put in a hot seat, obviously as part of some panel. And standing over him with a watchful eye and keen ear was Tehelka’s Shoma Chaudhury, alternately whispering instructions and soothing words into his ear. Given the fact that Tarun Tejpal set the caste-ist ball rolling in the panel, I suppose it’s only fair that she should have been there to give solace to Nandy.

As for the hordes of Dalit protesters outside Diggi Palace who were supposedly asking for Nandy’s head as reported by many a paper and news channel? Well, we walked past them and stopped for a while and peered at them. There were five in total, holding up printouts on A-4 sheets. But there were at least 20 cops surrounding them and laughing and chattering away, they even smiled sweetly at us when they saw us standing next to them trying to catch a peek of the marauding forces – and I spotted at least 2 cops from the bevy who’d escorted the cosseted MP into and out of the Author’s Lounge.

But when I turned on the telly at the hotel, it seemed like I’d been at a different JLF. One with protesters rushing into the venue – sadly they’d got the Rahul Dravid fanboys confused for Ashis Nandy haters – and hordes of people baying for elitist blood outside Diggi.

But I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, why kill a good story by mentioning facts.

Why didn’t the media question why the cops seemed so pleased to provide Meena with a royal escort in and out of the venue? Or bother actually counting the number of protesters outside Diggi – after all, they could have done so on one hand? Only the media gods know this. Could it be because most of the media contingent sitting at the venue were books’ page editors, so they didn’t know any better? After all, one of them from a mainline newspaper did ask me whether Binayak Sen and his wife were an “author couple” because she was doing a special on “author couples” and didn’t want to speak to non-author couples. Another supposedly interviewed Jeet Thayil without knowing either his book or his name. So fact-checking was obviously not their forté.

And while most of the media played up the mirage of protesters, Meena and his ilk are more than prospering. Safe in the knowledge that even if they are wrong in asking for an apology from Nandy, sections of the media will provide them with the PR spin they need to show that they are backed by millions of aggrieved Indians.

How naïve were we to think that being a dry weekend, things would get boring at the JLF!

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Image: Swarnabha Banerjee


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