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- A truth that one can neither spit nor swallow

The ongoing fracas around Ashis Nandy’s statements about caste and corruption at the Jaipur Literature Festival on January 26, 2013, is disturbing for reasons that go deeper than the threat to the freedom of speech in India today.

Nandy, invariably “Ashisda” to his colleagues and friends, is fond of saying that one may be careless about choosing one’s friends, but one must be careful in choosing one’s enemies. In the 45 years of his illustrious career as a clinical psychologist, political sociologist and public intellectual, Ashisda has acquired scores of friends and legions of admirers, but alas a few enemies as well. Many of these he has not really picked, but rather they are people who happen to have felt irritated by his propensity to speak uncomfortable truths and refuse the euphemisms and denials dictated by political correctness. Whether it is around issues of communalism and secularism, or censorship and free speech, or nationalism and secession, those involved in Indian public life know that if anyone is going to risk speaking the truth, it will be Ashis Nandy. So far, he has not disappointed, even at some cost to his own popularity, or indeed his safety.

In Jaipur, at a session titled “Republic of Ideas” — which featured such distinguished panelists as the feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia, the Oxford philosopher Richard Sorabji and the writer Patrick French — Ashisda proposed, albeit in a provocative way, that if corruption is one of the spoils of social status and political power, then as backward sections of society begin to claim their share of power, they too partake in corruption. We may read this as a sign of increased mobility and more equitable access for those who hitherto have been excluded, or we may be alarmed by the growing catchment area of corruption, which now enfolds even the once-marginal groups like Dalits and tribals.

In the first instance, Nandy himself took the former view, arguing that to be excluded and marginalized is not simply to be denied basic rights, but to be left out of all modes of furthering one’s self-interest — right or wrong, good or bad, legal or unlawful — that are available to individuals and groups in a fast-growing society. To genuinely participate in the life of the nation, the oppressed need to enjoy not only the default advantages of citizenship, but also the perks afforded by the full complement of big and small kinds of graft, cronyism, nepotism, favouritism and incentives — in short, corruption. Such a scenario seems, at last, to be unfolding in India: after centuries of outsiderhood, lower castes have a foot in the door. If privilege is no longer the monopoly of upper castes, neither is corruption. For Nandy, this is not only the case, but — in a perverse way — a good thing too.

We all know that saying as much has nearly landed Ashisda in jail. As I write, the Jaipur police are questioning him at his residence in New Delhi, following on both public outcry and formal complaints against him, in Rajasthan and elsewhere. One of India’s greatest living thinkers, who has written about some of the most sensitive fault-lines in our society with insight and compassion for over four decades, and supported countless social movements with his ideas and words, finds himself accused of hurting the self-esteem of the weak and the disenfranchized. The peculiarity of this situation bears some reflection. On the one hand, it could be argued that it is common knowledge that crime, corruption and venality are not restricted to any class, caste, religion or gender — a quick look at the scams that have surfaced just within this administration of the United Progressive Alliance government, since 2009, would bear out a minimal claim of this order.

On the other hand, we could say that corruption is to be condemned no matter who practises it, or why, or whether it is a new skill or an old habit for the practitioner. Just because you come late to the table does not mean you get to over-eat. An analogous logic is at work in the debates around carbon emissions and climate change, or nuclear power. Developing countries argue that the developed countries have been polluting the world, or arming it, with all the dreadful consequences of these acts, for years; now, when others want to do the same, suddenly it becomes environmentally unsustainable or existentially dangerous. Where were these objections when the West was ruining the planet unchecked? The answer is that it does not matter any more about equalizing the hierarchy between developed and developing countries: if the earth has to survive, we all have to agree to limit consumption universally from this very moment onwards, regardless of the scores we first wanted to settle between the haves and the have-nots.

A third position is that even if we agree that corruption is a bad thing; and even if we grant that new entrants to power, prestige and prosperity in Indian society after globalization are indeed fast becoming as corrupt as thoroughly entrenched elites, it is not okay to call out these groups — the nouveau corrupt, you might say. This is partly because they are no worse than their upper-caste, upper-class predecessors in the game, and partly because their status in the emerging order being uncertain, their self-respect and self-confidence are still fragile. In other words, part of giving the most backward sections a chance is also to be willing to look the other way if and when they begin to misuse power exactly as others have done before them. After being systematically excluded throughout history, why should they be held to a higher standard?

Sometimes, the arts succeed in portraying truths that are harder to formulate in the idiom of social science — and this is true not just in India, but in many other cultures that are at once diverse, unequal and conflicted. For example, novels, films and television shows about, say, the Muslim underworld in Mumbai or the drug-trade among African-Americans in Baltimore or gang violence among juveniles in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, do speak to terrible problems of a sectarian, racial or class character. However, we are not likely to blame them for insulting Muslims, blacks or gun-toting children, because we understand both that the scenarios of social catastrophe portrayed in such works are real, and that there are complex sociological and historical factors because of which they have arisen at a given place and time.

If anything, such portrayals, done properly, show the connection between extreme economic or social vulnerability and the resort to extreme measures of crime, violence and corruption; humanize the victims-turned-perpetrators, and most importantly, indict the entire political structure for degrading citizens — powerful and powerless alike — into beasts. It may be that without the language of affect at its disposal to complicate, deepen and soften the harsh realities of inequality and injustice, social science cannot effectively enter these horrible worlds in the way that a literary or cinematic imagination can.

In all events, at the JLF Ashisda spoke telegraphically and bluntly — in fact, according to many, in an incendiary way — about an issue in our society that is contentious at so many different levels. We have not made up our minds about whether to acknowledge it, how to address it, and what means to use in which to speak about it across differences of identity and ideology. After 65 years of communal and sectarian strife, we may be getting a bit better at talking about our problems in the realm of religion and politics; we have yet to achieve that level of trust and comfort in talking about caste.

But it seems that rather than shooting the messenger, we need to figure out the appropriate means to be honest, about ourselves and with ourselves, and about others and with others, when it comes to assessing the degree to which corruption is eating into the bowels of our republic, with no caste or community left untouched in some primordial state of political innocence and moral purity.