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Let us defend everybody’s right to free speech, even Ashis Nandy’s

by Ania Loomba, 1 February 2013

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Akeel Bilgrami is outraged at the way Nandy was portrayed on the Communalism Watch [a SACW sister site] but his own remarks betray a clubbiness that is the hallmark of many of Nandy’s defenders.

He says that "should be absolutely clear to anybody who knows Nandy and has read his work, that he was being misinterpreted in this controversy around his remarks at the Jaipur festival." He offers a very twisted analogy in Nandy’s defense, one that is worth quoting at length: "You also say that he produced no statistical evidence for the fact that corruption charges are more frequently made against OBCs and SC/STs persons than others. This is a comically pedantic demand. If I were to say in public in New York that far more criminal charges are made against African-Americans than whites with a view to suggesting that this was due to a bias of perception that ignores entrenched criminal activity by whites (think of the fact that no wall street person responsible for the financial crash has yet had criminal charges brought against him), just as Nandy was doing when he made his claim at the Jaipur festival, I would feel no great scruple to present statistical evidence. it is something that all people aware of the injustices of the societies they live in (here in new york on the matter of race, there in India in the matter of caste) would take for granted. No one would demand statistics of me here in New York were I to have made that remark in public, except those who were racialist and defensive about these distorted perceptions of African-Americans that make them the constant target of criminal charges in this racist society. And Nandy was assuming that others who were aware of the injustices of a casteist society and not defensive about such distorted perception of OBCs and SC/ST persons in such a society, would allow him that latitude in reporting the facts, without having to produce statistics. And I think you should worry, therefore, if my analogy is a good one, that your sort of demand for statistics is only be made in New York by racists who are defensive. I am not for a moment insinuating that you are a casteist who is defensive about the distorted perception of OBCs and SC/STs in a casteist society."

But Nandy did not say that certain groups are "reported" to be more corrupt by the police or the state. He said, repeatedly that they they ARE more corrupt. "The state of least corruption is West Bengal. In the last 100 years, nobody from the backward classes and the SC and ST groups have come anywhere near power in West Bengal. It is an absolutely clean state." Professor Bilgrami, I don’t know which New York you live in, but at least in the Philadelphia in which I live, I could not get away with saying that African Americans are more criminal, or more corrupt and as evidence say that a state which is free of crime is one in which there are no African Americans. For that is the right analogy in the context of Nandy’s remarks.

Bilgrami begins, like some of Nandy’s other defenders, talking about a knowledge of Nandy personally and of his work. Some of them ask all those who believe in free speech to believe in Nandy’s credentials, often citing how long they have known him personally, and referring to his work as if its politics were self-evident and established. A petition mounted in his defense asks us to agree that

"Over the years Ashis Nandy has affirmed the rights of marginalized groups and communities to assert and express themselves in their unique ways. His own method has been to illuminate through anecdote, aphorism and irony. …While Nandy’s deliberately ironic remark on corruption in the OBC and SC/ST political elites as a form of equality may not be to the liking of all, we have no doubt that it was meant to question the upper caste-middle class notions of morality rather than denigrate marginalized and subaltern groups."

I agree with none of this. If one listen to the video of the event, it is clear that Nandy is hardly "ironic" —he says that the OBCs and SCs and STs are more corrupt, and that is why West Bengal is "an absolutely clean state" because it hasn’t let anyone from these groups become part of the government. Nor are his remarks "meant to question the upper caste-middle class notions of morality." If his view that corruption is a good thing is meant to question "an upper caste and upper class view of morality" the implication is, then, that lower classes and castes have no problems with corruption. That makes the matter worse, not better.

Of course, we may disagree on the import of Nandy’s remarks. My point is that his devotees insist that we must agree that he has a " track-record of half a century of innovative, offbeat, ethical and insightful scholarship" as one of his CSDS colleagues wrote to me. His track record, some would argue, is very problematic on the grounds of his insights into gender, into the nature of Indian pasts, and his self-proclaimed understanding of the Indian psyche.

So if we mount a defense of him, we will have to think carefully how we articulate it. The person who asked me to sign the petition was angry at my response questioning the terms in which it was couched and wrote, "Despite all his murderous statements Bal Thakeray was never touched during his lifetime, nor has Modi been arrested for the violence in Gujarat. In such a context Ashis has become an easy target and the accusation that he is casteist is not just laughable but is an example of the media inflected lynch mob mentality that has overcome India." The accusation is not "laughable" at least not if you don’t belong to a particular club. The point is to defend free speech, but also to decide on its parameters. We obviously feel outraged at the speeches made by Modi and Thackeray and other right wing hate mongers. But the fact that they are not prosecuted is not the basis for a defense of Nandy. So I raise it as a serious concern for all those on the left: debate and define what we want and do not count on a chummy agreement about those we defend.

I believe that Nandy should not be jailed for his remarks. As Amardeep Singh has written, "The issue is the confusion about what constitutes prosecutable speech in India. Two months ago a young woman was arrested because she complained on Facebook about the Bandh in Mumbai following Bal Thackeray’s death... It never ends... I want to sign a petition to get India to reform its "offensive speech" codes on a national basis so this doesn’t happen every three weeks." Nandy ended his remarks at the JLF by saying that he thinks of himself as the “psychologist to the country.” This is not the time to comment on his understanding of psychology, but he’s out of touch with his patient. More seriously, the clubbiness of some of Nandy’s defenders betrays the same arrogance that he does.