Thus Spake Ashis Nandy

The media wasn't guilty of sound-bite journalism in reporting Nandy's statement. So what's with the hand-wringing?

WrittenBy:Indrajit Hazra
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Last Saturday, noted social scientist Ashis Nandy told an audience of wit-collectors at the Jaipur Literature Festival the following: “This will be an almost vulgar statement on my part. It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBCs and the Scheduled Castes and now increasingly Scheduled Tribes. And as long as this is the case, Indian Republic will survive”. Almost all sections of the media who covered Nandy’s remarks headlined the news as “OBCs, SCs and STs most corrupt: Ashis Nandy”. Which is what the man had said.

Most of the reports went on to state that Nandy had made his comments in the context of a panel discussion in which fellow panellist, author-journalist Tarun Tejpal had stated about corruption being “the great equaliser” in this country. Some reports quoted Nandy: “It will be an almost vulgar statement on my part. It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBCs and the Scheduled Castes and now increasingly Scheduled Tribes. And as long as this is the case, Indian Republic will survive”. Which is, again, what he had said.

And yet, apart from the nonces unsurprisingly appalled by Nandy’s casteist statement, there has been a voluble defence of Nandy by castigating the media guilty of being soaked in its “sound bite” culture. While being critical of what Nandy had said, fellow social scientist at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Yogendra Yadav, writing in The Indian Express (‘Call it censorship, not social justice’, January 28, 2013) helpfully deconstructed (with some transcription errors) what Nandy had meant to say but hadn’t because of an “unusual way with words”:
“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 equalization by compensating for historical injustice.] As long as this [compensatory mechanism] exists, I still have hope for our republic.” I will suppose, Yadav would have headlined the news in a more nuanced manner too, perhaps something on the lines of ‘OBCs, SCs and STs [disproportionately denounced as] corrupt: Ashis Nandy’.

I don’t know any journalist or media hack – however nuanced and sensitised she may be to subtle, complex notions – who would have headlined the story as anything other than ‘OBCs, SCs and STs most corrupt: Ashis Nandy’ or variations along this line. And once again, that’s because this is what Nandy had said. For the context, background and Nandy’s intellectual track record as a champion of the marginalised, there were some reports and subsequently opinion pieces and television panellists holding forth. But the fact remains: how else would have the media stated what Nandy had stated if it wasn’t the fact that he had said “OBCs, SCs and STs most corrupt”?

Would it have mattered if along with a news report describing what Nandy had said at Jaipur there was an accompanying piece such as that of Yadav providing background, explaining the nuance in Nandy’s statement? (They came later, but the proverbial bird – going by the reactions the “pure” statement was generating minutes after being aired – had already flown.) And there is a strong argument for Nandy’s statement to be taken at face value considering we are ready to take the statements of others – perhaps not necessarily as nuanced of mind, perhaps not armed with a helpfully contrapuntal back story, and perhaps not with so many admirers in the media – at face value. So why such logical as well as rhetorical contortions from so many, when it comes to Nandy’s utterances at the Diggi Palace?

Partly because many of us wanted to get him “off the hook” by denying that he had said that “Dalits, OBCs, SCs and STs were most corrupt”. Something that Nandy, in subsequent interviews, himself doesn’t seem to care for, considering he continues to maintain that what he said was correct and he is well within his rights – legally and intellectually to say that – and be challenged through argument (as only some have till now) for holding such a view.

In January 2005, at a conference on ‘Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce’, the then president of Harvard University Lawrence Summers spoke to the audience about why women may be under-represented in tenured positions at universities and research institutions in science and technology. Like Nandy at Jaipur, Summers also prefaced his “thesis” with a warning that he was being provocative. “So my best guess, to provoke you, of what’s behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people’s legitimate family desires and employers’ current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialisation and continuing discrimination.”

The red rag of “there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude…” – essentially that there may be less availability of women with the requisite aptitude at the high-end of science and technology research and studies – was there for all to see. Summers was branded as being sexist, throwing unsubstantiated data at the crowd to firm up his anti-women theory, and had to subsequently step down as Harvard University president.

That Summers had lined his statements with the following sentence – “I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them” – meant little. Nandy, on the other hand, has said (before as well as after this latest fandango) that he is thrilled that backward sections of 21st century India have been empowered to push their snouts along with those traditionally upper classes/castes feeding off corruption from the trough.

It is a thrill that I can understand – a slow-simmer (and, therefore, more effective) version of the Jacobins ransacking the homes of the aristocrats in Revolutionary France. (It becomes less of a thrill, however, if one walks down this argumentative part to explain sexual violence being wrested out of “upper class/caste” exploitation and used as another “equaliser” among men from all rungs and classes of society.) Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta had even trotted out the names of A Raja and Mayawati (Dalits), Madhu Koda and Shibu Soren (STs), Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav (OBCs), cash-for-votes sting accused Faggan Singh Kulaste, Ashok Argal and Mahavir Singh Bhagora (SC/STs), cash-for-parliament queries accused Narendra Kushwaha and Raja Ram Pal (OBCs) and Lalchandra Kol (Dalit), linking them with having entered the traditional domain of upper-caste chors such as Sukh Ram, Jayalalithaa and Suresh Kalmadi in a December 2011 article (‘National interest: the caste of corruption’). But he had played it safer than Nandy by raising the correlation of caste and corruption through rhetorical queries. “Is there a caste or communal link to corruption and crime? Or, are your chances of being involved (and getting caught) in corruption cases higher as you go down the caste ladder? Nobody in his right mind would say yes to either of these”, Gupta had written in the opening paragraph of his article.

Ashis Nandy, somebody in his right mind, has indeed said yes to both of Gupta’s old questions. He did say it and there is no point for members in the liberal media trying to couch it even if they are doing it “for Ashis-da’s good”. The question that others -perhaps including those in the media – could well do is to argue a case, as empirically as possible, to tell the rest of us whether Nandy is right or wrong. A majority of Indians are from the backward classes. Do they or do they not indulge in and/or practise corruption? Maybe they don’t. Maybe they do. And this will be irrespective of what Ashis Nandy thinks on the matter.

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Image: Sanjana Agarwal


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