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The upper cut
There are fears that Ashis Nandy's remarks about dalits may have exacerbated caste schisms at a politically inopportune time.
It is ironic that a liberal thinker like Ashis Nandy should end up antagonising the very social groups whose empowerment he sought to defend through the corruption matrix. Misunderstood or misquoted, his formulation linking OBCs, Dalits and Scheduled Tribes to corruption resonates badly at a time when the issue is a top-of-the-mind concern of post-Anna India.
Nandy is famous in academic circles for making provocative, often outrageous remarks. But his progressive leanings have never been in doubt. Consequently, his intentions were probably well-meaning when he posited corruption as a social equalizer. Unfortunately, he ended up conjuring pejorative images associated with the lower castes: a Mayawati decked out in a humongous garland of thousand rupee notes around her neck;a Madhu Koda accused of salting away thousands of crores in bribes;or an A Raja who set the ball rolling for Anna's heady anticorruption movement with the 2G scam.
Dalit intellectuals and activists are outraged. More importantly, they are pained that it should have been someone like Nandy who has boxed the community back in age-old prejudices.
Says D Shyam Babu, Dalit academic and senior fellow with the Centre for Policy Research, "Given our historical baggage, it's only natural for old fears to come rushing back. Dalits are wondering whether calling them corrupt means they will have to go and live outside the village again as an unclean, untouchable community? It's going too far to demand that (Nandy) be sent to jail but I can't buy into the idea that tolerance is a blank cheque. We all have our points of sensitivity and a respected academic like Nandy should have known that. "
Dalit writer Chandrabhan Prasad agrees. "Nowhere in the world can corruption be seen as a social equaliser and no Dalit would be proud to say that he is corrupt, " he fumes. "I don't know why a big intellectual like Ashis Nandy is giving the community a new stigma to deal with. "
Prasad, in fact, is under fire from his own community for signing a petition in defence of Nandy. He admits that at a Dalit gathering in Agra soon after the petition was circulated, he was asked to explain his action. "I do believe that differences over his views can't be settled in a police station or a court of law. But I wish Ashis Nandy had gracefully admitted that he made a mistake and not gone on television to defend himself. He is pushing a strange model of development for Dalits, " says Prasad.
Coming at a time when corruption is a major national concern, Nandy's attempt to give a sociological spin to the issue has given a handle to the Hindu rightwing.
"I don't understand these arguments that corruption is secular or that corruption is a social equaliser. Can corruption be anything other than wrong?" mocks BJP leader Arun Jaitley.
The Nandy controversy has hit Dalit intellectuals hard. According to Jawaharlal Lal Nehru University professor Kamal Mitra Chenoy, some of his Dalit colleagues in the university have gone underground and switched off their cell phones. They are studiously avoiding TV discussions and newspaper commentaries as they wait for the storm to die down. They don't want to be caught in the crossfire of the debate that's raging.
The reaction in JNU, considered the nerve centre of liberal thought, is interesting. Most student groups have criticised Nandy's remarks as casteist and offensive to Dalit sensibilities. The only group that hasn't is the rightwing Youth for Equality that was at the forefront of the anti-reservation stir in 2006 which pitted upper caste students against those from the OBC and Dalit communities. "There is no question that remarks such the ones made by Nandy give a fillip to anti-Dalit forces, " Chenoy points out.
It could, of course, and most likely will be, a storm in a teacup. A few weeks from now, Nandy's ill-formulated, unfortunate comments will be forgotten. But there are fears that the remarks may have exacerbated caste schisms at an inopportune time.
It has happened when Hindutva's most prominent face, Narendra Modi, is pitching for a national leadership role under the stewardship of the upper caste-dominated RSS. And now that the BJP has sacrificed its former party president Nitin Gadkari at the altar of its anti-corruption plank, its more rabid affiliates could well seize on the current controversy to mount an insidious campaign to consolidate its upper caste vote bank, particularly in UP where BSP leader Mayawati is a major rival.
Nandy could not have foreseen the political consequences of a debate more suited to seminar rooms than public platforms like the Jaipur Literary Festival. As Prasad says in a wry tone: "Intellectuals are cut off from ground realities and have little understanding of politics. Politicians understand politics much better than academics. " But there is one lesson both need to learn and that is to get a grip on the sound byte culture to avoid being caught in the crosshairs of future controversies.
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