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Ashish Nandy’s Statement: Casteism Or Misunderstanding?

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By Abhinita Mohanty:

The comments of Prof. Nandy which he recently stated can be summed up or summarized around certain themes. He clearly said that SC/ST/OBCs are most corrupt since their way of practicing corruption is very different and quite explicit (visible) than those among the upper castes who have through practice and connection acquired the sophistication to conceal and manipulate the very process of corruption and make it look implicit (invisible) and sometimes positive. He also remarked that this ‘visible’ form of corruption actually helps democracy by giving these marginalized section a sense of power and can be justified. It acts as a ‘class equalizer’ and saves democracy.



The only controversial remark in it is the allegation that most corrupt comes from the lower castes. The remarks made though do not indicate the casteist slur; it is based on certain lose empirical data and seemingly a lack of credulity. Corruption affects all. The whole process of corruption do not emanate from caste and ethnic identities rather comes from the situation in which person finds herself and also as a result of legal loopholes that allows the perpetrators to escape with impunity. The statement made is confusing in a sense as the message it wanted to convey is not what it conveys. It seems what he wished to convey a linkage that corruption has with the ‘deprivation of access to power’; or to say that the urge to indulge in it comes from a desire to gain power. But this, if it is really the case, is less a matter of caste than a matter of class. The upper castes who are economically poor or downtrodden may also display this attitude. The poor upper caste can also show a similar anxiety for upward mobility. So it can be considered as more a matter of class and one’s consciousness about his or her position in the overall hierarchy.

As some critics have also; argued among other things, that he used the wrong language for the right opinion. Now coming to the issue of criticism of the remarks as casteist, or the accusation is in fact faulty. The statements made above do not actually intended to be anti casteist per se, rather there his own attempt to locate corruption in India today. He alleged the lower castes to be corrupt but tried to give it a positive connotation with the justification that they have got the right to be corrupt since it is the only way towards their emancipation.

The opportunity to be corrupt depends on one’s access to power and contacts. The backward castes that have at least some of these resources can use corruption to rise up but not the lower caste person on the street. The ‘class equalizer’ concept here does not fit in; rather it creates a class of elite among the backward castes. It cannot equalize caste. The poor notwithstanding their caste background will never benefit from corruption and diversion of resources. It creates more hierarchies and inequality which is not congenial to democracy. Prof. Nandy has also in his statement also has classified the ‘visible’ corruption (which according to him is confined to lower castes) as ‘good’. Kancha Ilaiah comments that, “does not this statement romanticize corruption”? It does in a sense by asserting that everything is legal to achieve mobility by long marginalized communities. This also shows the defects in our democracy. But that corruption in any form will aggravate these defects is not analysed.

Corruption cannot be attributed to particular castes although it cannot be denied that the question of caste has relevance in the way the whole process is organised. The people in power-who mostly comes from upper or dominant castes- always show favoritism towards their kin and their own groups or the individuals who fawn over them. Many times this situation also creates barriers to mobility. As Kancha Ilaiah states, “power among the upper castes of India is like the thread in a garland. It connects to the other quite coherently”. Thus, corruption tends to operate within a certain network mostly dominated by the upper castes. The low castes may play a very small role in the whole process. In this sense it can be said that the assumption that most SCs/OBCs are corrupt is imprecise.

He also makes a distinction between types of corruption in the form of its visibility to the public. In a way it also depicts the various ways in which it is cleverly concealed to the outside. The ways in which graft is done indirectly is by giving someone scholarship, a position in a university, in terms of shares, etc. Ashis Nandy gave some of these examples in his talk. But statement that lower castes do corruption more openly is again debatable. The ways of doing will vary according to the situation one is in and also his/her degree of shrewdness; an attribute that has no connection to ascriptive identities. Perceiving the lower castes as novice and incapable of such tactics cannot be over emphasized. The noveau riche among the upper echelons may also be considered as novice in this system. So, his statements only indicate that SCs/STs/OBCs are not only corrupt but also lack a manipulative streak to do corruption discreetly. The intelligentsia’s views about the backward classes is still confined to the simple, novice exploited group who have to keep aside their ethics to survive; it not only ignore the elite among these groups but also assigns stereotyped views.

Lastly, I must say that I was since beginning; against the arrest of Prof. Nandy which seemed so possible then. It’s not just about his right of free speech as a whole his comments having nothing quite derogatory or caste based hatred. In many different occasions also he has supported the downtrodden. A democracy which is intolerant to diverse democracy can at best be termed as ‘pseudo democracy’. Curtailing or discouraging intellectual debates can only take us to a time when even there will be intimidation regarding participation in any debate at all. Ideas need to the countered with better ideas, instead of threat and legal actions. Intellectuals in India and the civil society anyone who disagrees to this comments must replace these problematic ideas with more pragmatic solutions.

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