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When the liberal spaces shrink - Tax exemption More equal Cultural terrorism

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 4.02.13
Ashis Nandy speaks at the Jaipur Literary Festival. ‘A tribal myself, I am fully in support of what Nandy said’

The uproar over what political psychologist Ashis Nandy said concerning tribals, other backward classes (OBCs) and Scheduled Castes being in the same league with other pedigreed Indians as far as corruption is concerned is uncalled for. We do not need to go too far to see the opulence with which Mayawati lives. But why point to Mayawati alone? In our own backyards we have tribal politicians and bureaucrats whose wealth ranking is equivalent to that of any of the rich Brahmins of this country. A tribal myself, I am fully in support of what Nandy said. Because we come from such obscurity and poverty, wealth in our hands does tend to stand out more than if it were in the hands of say the Tatas or the Ambanis or even some of the elite political class.

Firstly, we tribals are not circumspect about handling wealth. We flaunt it! Those of us living in Sixth Schedule areas do not even pay income tax or wealth tax so we get away with unaccounted for acquisitions. The fact of the matter is that all the money pushed in by the Centre to develop the so-called backward states of India’s Northeast actually leaks into private bank accounts of the political and bureaucratic class and their partners in crime, the business lobby.

In September last year, I was at a conference organised by the Institute of Post-colonial Studies, Melbourne, Australia. Nandy is closely associated with the institute. One of the themes discussed was how nation states treat their peripheries, to which I was asked to contribute. My counterpart from Australia, renowned sociologist Marcia Langton, an Aborigine, was asked to speak about Australia government’s policy towards them. The discussion happened at the State Library of Melbourne and was moderated by Justice North. All in the audience wanted to know if we tribals in India are as alienated and badly off as the Aborigines of Australia.

My own contention is that the tribes, or at least those residing in Northeast India, enjoy several advantages by virtue of the constitutional safeguards we have vide the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. STs enjoy 7.5 per cent job reservation in all government establishments and in educational institutions (medical and engineering colleges in particular). The SCs and the OBCs enjoy 15 per cent of the same benefits! Even the creamy layer in these categories continue to enjoy these perks which should justifiably accrue to those who have not had the privilege to access these benefits. To my mind, this is injustice perpetrated by the categories on their own people. The Aborigines, on the other hand, have only recently been given adequate resources for their development. But they have become so intellectually and socially impoverished by years of discrimination that they do not have the wherewithal to use those resources to their advantage. It is a pathetic situation really. And when I said we tribals exercise ownership over our own land and resources and government cannot even lay claim over the minerals beneath the ground, the Aussies were quite surprised.

Tax exemption

One of the great benefits that the STs enjoy is Income Tax exemption. That an IAS officer or a medical doctor or engineer earning as much as his/her non-scheduled, non-tribal counterparts is exempted from paying this tax or even from declaring his/her income annually is definitely an iniquitous arrangement. Tribal members of the political and business class and even government employed engineers and bureaucrats in the Sixth Schedule northeastern states have amassed wealth beyond any of their known sources of income. But they get away with corruption. Come elections and politicians worth crores of rupees declare their assets in a miserable few lakh rupees only when everyone around them knows how many prime properties they own within their own state and in the metros.

There is a sort of insouciance about wealth acquisition that triggers anger in a lot of other people around them. Today, children of tribal politicians and bureaucrats/technocrats send their children abroad for a simple under-graduate programme. The wealth they have earned is in direct proportion to the ramshackle public buildings and roads they construct which require annual repairs. And they get away because they are tribals!

More equal

So the sum and substance of this argument is that the corruption is a vice that is programmed into the moral DNA of every human being, in the same manner that other virtues are. The STs, SCs, OBCs are all humans. It is circumstantial that tribals live in the more remote areas of this universe but ironic that they are also owners of the earth’s resources. Most of the mineral-rich areas are in the lands occupied by indigenous peoples, another name for tribal groups. The divine must have thought that what they lack by way of other civilised accoutrements would be made up by their forest and mineral wealth. Alas! These resources are not accessible to all tribals/SCs OBCs equally. Some tribals are more equal than others by virtue of their political clout and overarching influence in policy making and policy decisions. So the former chief minister of Jharkhand, Madhu Koda, was able to amass about Rs 6,000 crore by granting illegal mining rights to favoured companies. He invested the money in tax havens across the universe. And Madhu Koda has been Ashis Nandy’s example of a corrupt tribal wherever he has spoken about class and caste inequalities.

Cultural terrorism

I do not think Nandy meant any disrespect for the depressed classes/castes/tribes. A socio-political analyst with several decades of research behind him would know better than make off-the-cuff remarks based on assumptions. I think liberal scholars like Nandy should be left alone and not hounded for a well-founded statement. Those interested in the science and sociology of corruption should visit the north eastern states to observe from close quarters how corruption had created societal cleavages and how some tribals have grown exponentially in affluence while others have dipped below the poverty line. This is what Delhi’s policy of pouring in development funds into the region without seeking an iota of accountability has perpetrated. It has allowed development funds to leak into a black hole that no one wants to visit. Currently, the states of Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura, are going to the polls and in the first two tribal states each MLA candidate is spending nothing less than Rs 2 crore. Where does this money come from if not from Delhi and the mining and timber mafia?

But we are talking here about free speech and how it is increasingly throttled by lumpens who have become the watchdogs for every spoken word. And I dare say the media has gone overboard in putting out such mindless objections upfront on breaking news. In this country we are now so paranoid about so many things that Kamal Haasan’s movie is banned in case some sensibilities are offended. Salman Rushdie continues to be a pariah. We are entering a totalitarian sphere where cultural and intellectual terrorism has encroached into our liberal spaces. Where is our right to free speech? If we do not like what is being said we can argue with words, not by using the might of the state. And shameless political opportunists have gleefully joined the bandwagon of the cultural terrorists. It is time to stand up and defend our rights to free speech and to show the hyper-sensitive guardians of the social order that we value our freedoms and will fiercely guard them at all costs.

(The writer can be contacted at