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The Limits of Shock And Awe: Nandy, Dalits & corruption

by Praful Bidwai, 8 February 2013

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If psychologist Ashis Nandy had planned to ignite a potentially ugly controversy at the Jaipur Literary Festival, he couldn’t have done better than by insinuating intimate links between corruption and Dalits, Adivasis and Other Backward Classes. After warning that he was about to make a “very undignified” and “almost vulgar” statement, “which will shock you”, Nandy said: “It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBCs and the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and now increasingly Scheduled Tribes (STs) and as long as this is the case, [the] Indian republic will survive.”

Nandy’s comment, broadcast by the media without giving its full context, instantly provoked a strident demand for his arrest under the SCs and STs (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989. He clarified that he meant no offence to Dalits or OBCs and has espoused their cause for a lifetime. Many Bahujan/Dalit writers like Kancha Ilaiah and Chandra Bhan Prasad defended him, and numerous intellectuals protested against muzzling his right to free speech.

I too signed that petition. Dragging Nandy to court would have been a shame—not only because he’s a tall public intellectual, but also because he has consistently questioned upper-caste morality and supported marginalised groups. He obviously didn’t intend to denigrate such groups. But taken literally, his statement admits of this very interpretation. The Supreme Court has since stayed Nandy’s arrest, but reprimanded him for making “irresponsible” remarks that could hurt people, and for saying things that “you don’t intend”.

What did Nandy in fact say? During a panel discussion, available on YouTube, he said: “The only country which I know is close to zero corruption is Singapore, and that’s not part of my concept of utopia…” He drew parallels between Singapore and West Bengal under Communist rule, and said that “in the last 100 years, nobody from the OBCs… the SCs and the STs have come anywhere near power in West Bengal. It is an absolutely clean state…I do wish that there remains some degree of corruption in India because … it humanises our society.”
Nandy contended that the upper castes flourish by using privileged networks and contacts, and by doing one another favours, including securing admissions and fellowships for their children at reputed universities. “Ms Mayawati doesn’t have that privilege. She probably has only relatives whose ambition was to be a nurse 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 100 petrol pumps, and that is very conspicuous, very corrupt indeed. Our corruption doesn’t look that corrupt, their corruption does.”
Nandy described criminal gangs as “perfectly egalitarian”: Dawood Ibrahim’s “gang had a lot of Hindus…totally secular.” He also said people like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Prasad had to “claw” their way to power, but remain “insecure”. “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 … with the right connections because you have none... [T]he only unrecognised billionaire in India today, in dollar terms, is [former Jharkhand Chief Minister] Madhu Koda. He’s a tribal and … a very insecure, unhappy, tense person.”
Later, in an interview with Barkha Dutt, Nandy also defended corruption as “a safety valve” which favours the poor and will make for a better republic: “Corruption is about equality and redistributive justice.” He also claimed that empirical proof of his contention that most of India’s corrupt people are “OBCs, SCs and now increasingly the STs” could be found in surveys of ticketless travellers and “urchins” who sell cinema tickets “in the black”.
Several propositions are made here. One, the upper-caste elite’s attitude to corruption is deeply hypocritical: it’s itself steeped in nepotism, but takes a self-righteously moralistic stand and blames the subaltern classes for corruption. Two, corruption gives agency and power to underprivileged groups, and acts an equaliser and instrument of “redistributive justice” in a society with unequal opportunities. Subalterns need corruption to survive in the system and manipulate its rules.

Nandy’s third proposition is that all forms of corruption—from the petty variety like ticketless travel, to multi-billion-dollar scams in land, industry, telecom, etc—are essentially or morally equal. And fourth, corruption has burgeoned among OBCs, Dalits and Adivasis both in proportion to their rising social and political power and because corruption has grown in society in general. Societies free of corruption are precisely those in which subordinate groups remain powerless; such societies are therefore undesirable.

To be fair, one must acknowledge Nandy’s provocative style and use of irony, paradox, satire and shocking metaphors. Many of his insights, or what he calls “facts”, cannot be empirically tested. He is a maverick, a master of aphorisms calculated to shake people out of their complacent premises. Even taking all this into account, his overall argument is flawed. Regrettably, he got carried away—something a distinguished intellectual shouldn’t do.

To start with, however, his first proposition in unassailable. The elite is indeed hypocritical. It sets the rules of the system, which is itself unjust and corrupt. It’s just that the upper castes’ corruption is often invisible and routed through complex pathways, such as gigantic arms deals, money-laundering operations and land scams that are made to look respectable and are harder to unearth.

However, the other three propositions lack both validity and nuance, and reek of paternalism. The fact that the poor have to pay bribes in the form of high tuition charges or huge capitation fees to get their children admitted to good schools or colleges, while the rich don’t, is not a sign of equality or redistributive justice, but of unequal access to education. Such groups acquire real agency only when their access to quality public services is enhanced through, for example, affirmative action.

The Big Corruption phenomenon that bleeds this society and economy—including realty scandals, underselling of natural resources from minerals to telecom spectrum, enormous subsidies to the already under-taxed rich, under- and over-invoicing of imports and exports, and countless policy-driven bribery cases and industrial sweetheart deals—by and large remains an upper-caste monopoly. The elite exploits privilege and access to power to extract rent and super-profits.

Dalits and Adivasis are victims, not beneficiaries, of Big Corruption, and have lost their land and livelihoods under its sway. The recent growth of Dalit capitalism, celebrated by people like Chandra Bhan Prasad, is no antidote to Big Corruption; it only mimics it on a smaller scale. It has made no difference to caste discrimination, which remains systemic and pervasive, or to the lot of the vast majority of Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs. Noted scholar-activist Anand Teltumbde, who happens to be a Dalit, has made a devastating critique of Dalit capitalism (Economic and Political Weekly, Jan 19).

It is absurd to equate the bribes that the poor are forced to pay to the police to set up vegetable and food stalls, ply rickshaws or build temporary hovels, with Big Corruption involving telecom scams, predatory projects like POSCO, Jindal Steel or Vedanta, building shopping malls masquerading as new airports, well-planned tax dodges, and other ways of looting thousands of crores from the exchequer. Travelling without a ticket or blackmarketing cinema tickets is not Big Corruption.

Nandy is equally wrong about criminal gangs being “perfectly egalitarian” or “secular”. Gangs are by definition inegalitarian, authoritarian entities, totally dominated by the boss. Dawood’s “secular” gang was allegedly involved in large-scale communal killings in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts. True, subaltern groups such as Phoolan Devi’s gang sometimes take to banditry partly to avenge upper-caste oppression. But banditry, like corruption, can never be a long-term solution to casteism.

Casteism can only be combated through radical social reform and substantive empowerment of the oppressed and underprivileged castes through land reforms, affirmative action, reservations for the historically dispossessed, comprehensive provision of public services including food, nutrition, employment and healthcare, and social security measures such as old-age and widow pensions.

Despite his undoubted sympathy for the underdog, Nandy has never addressed these issues. He remains content to deal with the identities of marginality and explore how small sections of the underprivileged—and they are always small, even minuscule—sometimes successfully “beat the system” by using individual-centred means like corruption.

These can never be translated into collective forms of empowerment. Even electoral successes haven’t helped marginalised groups alter the political balance of power fundamentally, leave alone break casteism’s hold over society, particularly the seats of power and privilege. Caste and oppressive social hierarchies in gender, class and community still remain the bane of Indian society.

The basic flaw lies in Nandy’s rejection of modernity and the radical, democratic, emancipatory notion of equality deriving from it, which Ambedkar espoused. Instead, Nandy embraces tradition, including customs, memories, myths, knowledge systems and religious beliefs, as the key to empowering the underprivileged. By adding corruption to these, he has retreated further from the emancipatory agenda. —end—