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Ashis Nandy's Critics and India's Thriving Democracy

Indrajit Roy (indrajit.roy@qeh.ox.ac.uk) is at the Department of International Development, University of Oxford.

Ashis Nandy’s colleagues and well-wishers ought to have publicly questioned the caste-centered comments he made at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Instead, they have turned the issue into one of academic freedom, freedom of speech and the like. India’s self-styled progressives have to learn to treat dissenters with more respect. They may think of themselves as being champions of India’s marginalised. But if the marginalised do not agree with this assumption, they cannot be threatened that they will be “losing their friends”. This attitude that ‘the intellectual’ knows best has to be eschewed and replaced by one of greater humility. They have to stop attributing rationality and reasonableness to themselves and irrationality, emotion, passion and sentiment to the dissenting subalterns.

The ill-conceived and ill-founded remarks made by Ashis Nandy at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) and the subsequent exchanges between his critics and defenders have provided a good opportunity for influential ideologues, who are currently at the helm of moulding and shaping opinion in the public sphere, to introspect and ask what lessons have been learnt. Hopefully, they will not remain content with decrying the apparently diminishing space for dialogue, the so-called thought terrorism unleashed on the public sphere, the lack of nuanced understanding among the putative lumpens, and the soft targeting of the intellectuals. Rather, they should ask why is it that they and the ‘subalterns’ whose interests they claim to have defended all these years seem to be talking past each other. India’s progressives have two choices: either to ceaselessly lament the “descent of our politics into the ludicrous”, or to ask how they can honestly interpret their role in the transforming politics of contemporary India. While Nandy has apologised to those hurt by his remarks, he has desisted from withdrawing them altogether. His apologists have refused to even engage with his critics. While the former claim to be defending our democracy, it is the latter who are actually strengthening it.

We need to be asking some difficult questions: Why did Nandy's remarks meet with the response they did? Did he or his supporters do justice to those responses? Why were they so surprised at those responses? What does this episode tell us about our public sphere and about our public intellectuals? The answers, I believe, lie in two domains: first, their inability to appreciate the responsibility of the public intellectual; and second, their unwillingness to recognise as legitimate ‘subaltern’ voices who express fundamental disagreement with them. This article is not written to please: those demanding Nandy's arrest will find it tepid as I do not endorse these calls, while those defending him will not like the irreverence expressed for his age, experience and wisdom. That the subject of this piece is someone who has been subjected to charges of sedition by Narendra Modi’s government makes it all the more difficult to write this article.

Responsibility of the Public Intellectual

The episode has exposed the tragic hiatus that exists between India’s public intellectuals and the public sphere. Public intellectuals have to take responsibility for connecting with others in the public sphere and not merely mouth sharp witticisms that only those within a charmed circle of friends and students understand. If they are misunderstood, it is their responsibility to offer clarifications and ensure that they are as accessible as possible. Just colleagues vouching for the progressive credentials of public intellectuals will not suffice. It is unfortunate that a person of Nandy’s scholarship failed to appreciate the dynamism of the public sphere he has been documenting for the last four decades. In a rapidly democratising public sphere such as ours, it is becoming difficult for elites to erect comfortable intellectual barricades against those who they are not accustomed to interact with. Given the vast heterogeneity of the Indian population, democratisation means diversity. People with different social, economic, cultural and political backgrounds, ideologies, experiences and expectations are enthusiastically joining a public sphere whose existing ideologues speak a different language, both literally and metaphorically. People in this public sphere want to know what the so-called public intellectuals say, feel and think. More importantly they want to be part of the conversation. However, instead of engaging with them, the clarifications extended on behalf of Nandy have been patronising at best and dismissive at worst. Academic colleagues defending the dedication of the public intellectual to the cause of the subalterns, turning upon members of the public for their intolerance and inability to grasp sophisticated interpretations, only contribute to the imagery of a coterie tightly insulated from the very public whose world they claim to analyse and interpret. Throughout the televised debates on NDTV and CNN IBN, we heard academic colleagues talking about “knowing Ashis da’s work”, “what he really said was”, “he meant to say…”, “he comes to dine with us…”, etc. This heart-warming intimacy which was exhibited further strengthened the image of a well-guarded garden party where everyone knew everyone else and couldn’t be bothered to explain the import of Nandy's work to the apparently uninformed members of the public. The public intellectual is an important constituent of the public sphere who commands respect as a thought-leader and should therefore be more careful about what s/he says - as Chandrabhan Prasad reminded us early on in the debate and the Supreme Court also stressed upon it-, at least in a public forum. In this context Nandy clarified that JLF was an invited and by implication a private assembly, which is an unsustainable claim given the State Government’s provisioning of security at the event.

Reasonable Demands or Inchoate Cacophony?

A democratic public sphere functions on the premise of ontological equality of its constituents: that is to say, irrespective of differences in social class and economic position, everyone’s opinion counts and must be expressed, and taken seriously. Unfortunately, in the ensuing debates, the perfectly valid criticisms of Nandy’s remarks were met by dismissive tones about how the public sphere was being trivialised and how his critics were being intellectually lazy. TV anchors and newspapers referred-- sometimes in amusement, sometimes in alarm-- to the ‘clamour’ for his arrests and drew up images of mobs baying for his blood. The legitimate demand for the application of the law was unequivocally dismissed by the media as being unreasonable, and one that was made by self-serving attention-seekers, possessing low intellectual calibre. India was described as a “Hedgehog nation” and a “Republic of Hurt Sentiments” in the newspapers, with battle-lines drawn up between those who allow their emotions, passions and sentiments to overtake them and those who are supposedly more rational, reasonable and cerebral. These were inaccurate characterisations. Nandy’s critics were asking him, as reasonable --albeit angry-- individuals, for evidence to substantiate his caste-specific remarks. He admitted that he had none, and was making a general observation.

What followed was an ‘apology’, which is now being held up as evidence of his magnanimity. Even a cursory reading of this apology of an apology puts the onus onto those who misunderstood him: people who, he clarifies, had “no reason to do so”. He has apologised only for the ‘hurt’ he has caused, not for the remarks themselves, which were baseless and speculative. He says he did not mean to hurt anyone, and that if people are “genuinely hurt”, he is sorry. More than hurt, people were angry -- a psycho-sociologist like him should know the difference-- over the confident and, as one of his disciples admits, pompous declaration of what he believed to be a fact. Not only did he assert that most of the corrupt came from the other backward castes (OBCs), scheduled castes (SCs) and Scheduled tribes (STs), he also endorsed the argument that their corruption was an “equalising force”. When his detractors asked him for evidence, he and his coterie closed ranks, and characterised the perfectly reasonable demands for evidence as noise being made by a bunch of politically motivated unintelligent rowdies: a fashion guru clubbed these rowdies with those perpetrating cultural dadagiri. When asked by the New York Times about his response to the reactions, he called them “silly, somewhat comical” . The demand for an explanation was quickly brushed aside by the mainstream intelligentsia, media and other elites and branded as no more than cacophonic. That these were real people --and I don’t mean the likes of Rajpal Meena, PL Punia, Ramvilas Paswan and Mayawati, but those who comprised the ‘crowd’ outside the JLF and the plaintiffs in Chhatisgarh, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh-- did not seem to matter. Was there one snippet, one story, or one quote from that ‘crowd’ offered by the media? Even a random query as to why were they there was not asked to the best of my knowledge. Relative to the outpouring of support for Nandy, very few of those critical voices from the blogosphere --increasingly celebrated as the motor of democratisation-- have found a place in either the English-language newspapers,with the significant exception of K. Satyanarayana's article in The Hindu, or in the electronic media.

The confident assertion that most of the corrupt came from specific castes did not sound jarring to the liberal ears of India’s English-speaking intelligentsia, but subsequent protests did. This selective reaction reveals the extent to which they remain alienated from the world of the ‘subaltern’ communities in India. Of course, one could argue that they were after all being good liberals in doing this, but that is another debate! Nonetheless, a more opportune response from Nandy would have been to withdraw his speculative claims and to apologise not only to those he thinks he has hurt but to the entire nation for introducing a caste-centred dimension to a socio-political phenomenon. Akeel Bilgrami counters the demand for statistics as “comically pedantic”. To me, the question is not about providing statistical evidence, but about introducing an entirely inappropriate way of thinking. How is it that the question of caste and of OBCs/ SCs/ STs becoming more prominent in politics figures only during a conversation on corruption? The wider question for our public intellectuals is why are these groups only recognised and named as perpetrators of corruption, crime and violence. The specious argument that this is due to their numerical preponderance falls flat when one recalls the discussions led by the very same intellectuals after the ghastly rape in Delhi last month discussions that focused on the theme of ‘rape’ rather than the caste of the raped (OBC) and the rapists (at least five of six have Savarna names). That SC/ST/OBC women are raped with impunity in the countryside on account of their caste did not once enter the conversations on this topic. While caste was strictly kept out of the purview of discussions on rape, Nandy’s current comments have made it appear to be a seamless part of the growing corruption story. Different discursive registers are being used, and it is these double standards that are frustrating and shocking.

Nandy being pro or anti-reservation is not of as much consequence as the fact that he has sought to confirm stereotypes about individuals who on account of their caste affiliations are not thought fit by societal elites to hold positions of authority. Nandy’s colleagues and well-wishers ought to have publicly questioned the caste-centered approach he took on this issue. Instead, they have turned the issue into one of academic freedom, freedom of speech and the like. India’s self-styled progressives have to learn to treat dissenters with more respect. They may think of themselves as being champions of India’s marginalised. But if the latter do not agree with this assumption, they cannot be threatened that they will be “losing their friends”. This attitude that ‘the intellectual’ knows best has to be eschewed and replaced by one of greater humility. They have to stop attributing rationality and reasonableness to themselves and irrationality, emotion, passion and sentiment to the dissenting subalterns. The attitude that a rational ‘we’ are in conflict with an irrational ‘them’ only perpetuates, as Gopal Guru has reminded us through his incisive writings, an ontological hierarchy which places ‘us’ on a pedestal and ‘them’ way below.

Hope for the Republic

Much has been made by Nandi’s apologists of his stature. Indeed, because of his stature, he should have been more responsible in asserting his views. As a matter of fact it is not clear how the so-called corruption among the subaltern groups is an “equalising force”, but that is another argument. Growing corruption will only create vested interests among the elites of all castes, classes and communities in sustaining a rotten system. It is to the credit of the democratisation of India’s public sphere that some elitist generalisations and flippant remarks no longer go unchallenged by the ‘subalterns’ on whose behalf they are made. In ensuring that these remarks do not go unchecked, Nandy’s critics have performed a stellar service in reinforcing substantive democracy in India.

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