Update:Added: the audio of Sanjoy Roy’s remarks to me, just below the transcript of an extract from the event in question, and before the JLF statement.
Just as many of us thought this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival would go off without controversy, the furore over Ashis Nandy’s remarks on Dalits and corruption (in the course of a discussion titled ‘Republic of Ideas,’ on Republic Day) broke out. I wasn’t at that event, but I did hear about it from several people who were, and the consensus was that a remark that at most could be considered not quite politically correct had been reproduced without context and then blown out of all proportion in search of eyeballs and controversy. Others said, rather vehemently, that Mr Nandy was… foolish and tactless. TV channels have played only small snippets, but the organisers have—finally!—put the video online on the festival’s YouTube channel. Watch for yourself, and form your own opinion.
I’d urge you to listen to the whole thing, but here, courtesy the Jaipur Literature Festival, is a transcript of the relevant part of the conversation (I’ve corrected a few typos):
(33:04) Urvashi Bhatalia: Ashis-da, your comments now on the ideas that have been discussed here: equality, the changeability, the need for change, the dreams of the founding fathers and mothers. Um, and on utopia generally, I mean what have you been writing about utopia? You want to tell us a little bit?
(33:29) Asish Nandy: Well let me first clear two things, I think you heard when you said that I’m a philosopher. I’m a philosopher only in the sense that philosophy can come from texts but it can also come from slums. So I’m talking about the second kind of philosophy and I do hope that I will convey some idea of it today. First of all I do endorse the view which has come, that a realized or successful utopia is the other name for terror. In Soviet Union they used to put dissenters in mental asylums after the psychiatrists have diagnosed them as mentally ill because anybody who dissents in a utopia is naturally insane. Normally, we should diagnose them as insane so utopias can be dangerous and visions can be also dangerous but on the other hand no collectivity, and for that matter no individual, can live without visions. A good life requires vision. But such visions must also have a touch of the imperfect. And unless you are sensitive to that, I think it will be very dangerous to mount a kind of informed movement, which strives for perfection. In the context of our discussion, if I may point that the only country which I know is close to zero corruption is Singapore and that’s not part of my concept of utopia, it can be very much a part of my concept of dystopia. I do wish that there remains some degree of corruption in India because I would also suggest that it humanises our society. Indian society, Indian republic if you would like to call it like that here, is that it has left only four sectors of the society where your true talents are recognised, your true capabilities and skills are acknowledged. Rightly or wrongly, that’s a different thing but at least they’re acknowledged, people think they only work for that. In other words, no considerations of caste, religion, sect enter your considerations. And these four sectors are: spectator sports, which is a very small sector because sports heroes are not that many. Two: entertainment industry, which is a very slippery category because contrary to our belief at least four-fifths of all Bombay films for instance fail in the box office, so it’s a very risky business. Actually all four sectors are risky but it is perhaps the most risky business. Third is crime, our criminal gangs are perfectly egalitarian. Do not forget that Dawood Ibrahim’s gang had a lot of Hindus in it. Totally secular. And finally politics. You fight it out in politics and make it. All this talk of dynasty is an illusion created by the middle classes. Mrs. Gandhi did not become prime minister of India when Nehru was living. There was a large and very noticeable gap between her ascent to the throne and Nehru’s demise. She fought her way up. She was seen as a very meek, very unskillful, politically naïve woman. And therefore the syndicate chose her. She knew that in Indian politics that you should not project yourself as either too intelligent or too shrewd or too clever or even too political and that helped her. She clawed her way to power and so have each one of the names which have come up whether it is Mulayam Singh Yadav or Laloo Prasad Yadav. In addition, in the case of Laloo Prasad and Mulayam Singh, and people like them, exactly because of the reasons you give, there is a sense of desperation, utter desperation and insecurity. Even if you make through corruption millions of rupees, you suspect that you will not be able to get away using the machinery of law or cleverly manipulating your investments in the right way with the right connections because you have none. If I may point out to you that to the best of my knowledge the only unrecognised billionaire in India today, in dollar terms, is Madhu Koda. Madhu Koda. He’s a tribal and I can assure you that Mr. Koda must have been a very insecure, unhappy, tense person. And in this kind of situation, the only people you can trust are your own relatives. Your son, your daughter, your nephew or your own cousins, where you can use them for keeping your money, keeping your political secrets or trusting them to remain loyal to you. And if you fit your experiences within this model, you will recognise, why this insecurity is there because politics looks a very impersonal/contractual work to a large part of Indians. They are new to politics. And your family members do not have the capacity to absorb the additional money in more clever, intelligent way. If I do a good turn to Richard Sorabji, he can return the favour by accommodating my nephew at Oxford, if it were in the United States, it would be a substantial fellowship. Ms Mayawati doesn’t have that privilege. She probably has only relatives whose ambition was to be a nurse earlier or run a petrol pump. If she has to oblige somebody or have somebody in the family absorb the money, she will probably have to take the bribe of having hundred petrol pumps and that is very conspicuous, very corrupt indeed. Our corruption doesn’t look that corrupt, their corruption does.
Tarun Tejpal: Urvashi, can I add something to what Ashis-da just said. You know on this corruption issue, I just want to put this corruption issue in a different kind of light along the lines of what Ashis-da just said. I just want to throw a thought amongst all of you, which I’ve said earlier on also, perhaps, I’m saying perhaps corruption in a country like India is also a great class equaliser. And I’m going to try and explain that to you. It’s not all bad, it’s probably a great class equaliser. I’m saying suppose in an extremely class-ridden society like India where somebody who works in my house, my driver or my cook, what chance do his children have in the way India is constructed today versus my children where for the last fifty years in many senses the class that has ruled India, the elite, the privileged, my class of people, have built a set of rules that makes things easy for them and makes things lucrative for them. I mean all the rules that are laid down, let me give you the dumbest rule of them all, that English is the kind of dominant, hierarchial language. You know almost everyone who exercises power in India in some sense has an advantage if he comes from an English speaking background, a clear advantage over everybody else. In a situation like this if you come from the wrong side of the tracks of which roughly a billion people in this country would, what chance do you have of breaking through to get your hands on the spoils of life and on the spoils of a country? I’d say almost nothing. What do people like that do? People like that subvert the rules; these are not God’s rules, these are man made rules. God’s rules are you shall not kill anybody, you shall not rape anybody, you shall not oppress anybody. Those maybe God’s rules. Men’s rules are rules of examinations, taxations, privileges. I’m saying what chance do you have if you come from the wrong side of the tracks where I would say roughly a billion people of this country do, of breaking into and getting your hands on the resources available to the 200 million. I’d say a lot of these people do that by subverting the system which is what we call corruption, which are these man-made rules. I’ll give you one the greatest examples of this which will easily strike a chord with most of you. There’s a man called Dhirubai Ambani. If he had not known how to subvert the rules; all the rules that he subverted today are now law. At that time they were not, at the time he was subverting them they were not, he would have still been filling petrol in a pump in Doha. And that’s how I’m saying, today you see all across the landscape in Delhi and Bombay, people coming from nowhere, from the wrong side of the tracks not having the privilege of elite education, of elite backgrounds, of admission to elite clubs, but breaking through on the basis of their wit, their intelligence and their hunger and very often subverting the rules that certain classes made.
AshisNandy: Just a response to this part, very briefly, he’s not saying the most important part of the story which will shock you and it will be a very undignified and, how should I put it, 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. And I give an example, one of the states with least amount of corruption is the state of West Bengal where when the CPM was there. And I want to propose to you, draw your attention to the fact that in the last 100 years nobody from the OBCs, the backward classes and the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes have come anywhere near power in West Bengal. It is an absolutely clean state.
[Sorry, I've been unable to put the recording online, but will try again later.]
Sanjoy Roy on Ashis Nandy
While we were talking, he got a phone call, which he then told me was good news: they could leave the city. (He and several other members of the organising team had been told earlier that they could not.)
He also sent me this statement from the festival:
This is a transcript of sociologist and scholar Ashis Nandy’s statement at the session titled Republic of Ideas at JLF. While discussing different aspects of India, Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal had suggested that maybe one way of looking at corruption is that it is a sort of equalising force in society as power structures are always created by the elite to keep the status quo in their favour and the poor can break through these glass ceilings created by the elite only by bending and subverting the system. Tejpal went on to give Dhirubhai Ambani as an example; that if he had not bent and subverted the system, he might have remained a petrol pump attendant.
Ashis Nandy picked up on this thread of argument and said he agreed with Tarun that corruption was a way of creating social mobility. He said the corruptions of the rich get noticed less because the rich have learnt to be sophisticated — and gave an imagined example of how he and another speaker Richard Sorabjee could be corrupt and nepotistic in ways that no one would catch on. The corruptions of the poor or those who have newly broken through the glass ceiling, on the other hand, are often more noticeable because they are more conspicuous. This, Ashis, argued was because they do not have the sophisticated mechanisms of the rich to hide their money. They only trust their families to be loyal so park their money only with close relatives — which again makes their corruption more visible. But, Ashis continued, according to him all of this was fine and part of a necessary social churn because this was the only way that the poor could break free from centuries of being downtrodden and access the power and entitlements that should be theirs by right. Another speaker had earlier criticised dynastic politics but Ashis explained that even that was part of social churn as Mulayam Yadav and the entire Yadav community that are seen as mainstream now were part of the historically oppressed classes barely 20 years ago. He explained how important it is for dalits and backward classes to break through centuries of oppression and access power and money so that society can become more equal. He spoke of the desperation they feel.
Ashis then went on to say that though what he was going to say would sound vulgar, he felt it may even be a fact that the SC\STs and OBCs were among the most corrupt today, BUT (and it is important to note this) he said he felt if this was true, and as long as the percentage of the poor or oppressed classes was more corrupt than the elite, he felt the Republic of India was safe because the necessary social churn was taking place. He went on to give the example of Bengal, where according to him, 40 years of Left rule had meant it was comparatively less corrupt but at the same time it meant no Dalits or OBCs had been able to even come close to accessing power and the social hierarchy was frozen with only the upper castes having a grip on power.
The statement that is being interpreted as offensive therefore has been taken wrongly out of context. It was part of a larger argument Ashis was making that corruption should not be read in narrow terms and sometimes can be an important social mechanism to correct the wrongs of history. In his reading the social churn is more important to India’s health just now than a perfect corruption-free society.
Ashis is a scholar who has always been pro-dalit and -backwards, and all his writing over the past 30 years would be proof of this.