ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Freedom of Expression and the Life of the Dalit Mind

Under what conditions does freedom of expression enable the dalit to live a life of the mind? Does the foregrounding of the body and the elevation of bodily expression – whether it is in spectacular consumption or corruption – really help the dalit struggle for dignity and emancipation? This intervention into the debate which started after Ashis Nandy’s controversial comments regarding corruption and dalits made at the Jaipur Literature Festival seeks to critique the very epistemological and ontological foundations on which Nandy’s assertions were based and whose defence provided an opportunity for the elites to repeat the rituals of humiliation and subjugation of the dalits.

The recent events in the socio-cultural life of India have had a compounded impact on freedom of expression. These events particularly relating to dalit issues have forced a section of the “socially vigilant and politically correct” elite to jump into the debate on freedom of expression. The urgency and intensity in their response has to be understood in terms of the invocation of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 against one of country’s leading public intellectuals – Ashis Nandy. What upset these petitioners most was the use of the 1989 Act against Nandy. This deployment invoked a range of reactions against this Act. Thus some of them went to the extent of calling it a “draconian Act”. In such a reading of the Act, what was being suggested seems to be this – the power of legal expression has a suffocating impact on the power of intellectual expression. However, it is necessary to put the entire debate around the Act into a proper perspective.

Let me make an initial submission where I would like to argue that it would be unfair to evaluate this Act as “draconian” particularly in relation to an individual case. Individualising legal expression is problematic as it tends to gloss over the collective relevance of this particular Act. On the contrary, the relevance of the power of legal expression as an interim arrangement has to be understood in terms of the failure of intellectual power to tame the “recalcitrant caste of mind” (my expression) which has a deep contempt for the transformative power of mind. Second, although the outer expression of this Act looks punitive, its inner dimension has a moral significance. That is to say, it has resulted from the need to minimise the collective sufferings of dalits. However, since the concrete articulation of this expression lies with the individual from its reference groups, the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes (SCs/STs), on moral grounds, it gives the members of these groups a kind of discretionary power to make moral judgments and leave positivistic judgments to the respective judiciary, while availing of this legal intervention.

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