Ashis Nandy has been called, rather, accused of being, many things—sociologist, historian, political theorist, public intellectual, philosopher, psychoanalyst, leftist, centrist, right wing, Dalit, Christian, Brahmanical, casteist (he describes himself, more poetically, as an intellectual street fighter and reason buster)—but ‘politically correct’ has never been one of them.
This time, Nandy’s political incorrectness has cost him more than before. As in the past, he has been attacked by politicians and the popular media for presenting his analysis of social phenomena—for doing his job well. The response of the Indian intelligentsia to Nandy’s threatened arrest by the right wing government of Gujarat in 2008 was markedly different from the response now. The difference this time, of course, is that Nandy has not offended the right people. He is seen to have betrayed the marginalized. This time, he has been unfashionably politically incorrect. The similarity between the two episodes is the ‘freedom of speech’ brigade, which has dutifully stood by Nandy. But I shall turn to them later.
Nandy’s abandoning of political correctness, perhaps the second-most malignant epidemic of the modern age after ‘bullshit’, is not just an act of impudence or foolhardiness. Sympathetic students and avid readers of Nandy’s writing have often been heard asking, “but why does he have to say these things in this manner; why does he make jokes like this?” It is as though we have assumed that Nandy’s ideas can be repackaged into a politically appropriate, academically gratifying, sanitized format, preferably footnotable. (Many have actually succeeded in achieving that—and rendering him redundant in the process).
At a time when academics presume that their role is to perpetuate more and more politically correct research (“score one more for the underdogest of the underdog”), Nandy’s work, while challenging old dogmas and hierarchies, cannot be recast into a bite-size snack. There is no ‘Understand Nandy in 3 Simple Steps’…or even 5. Perhaps this is why he has been critiqued almost equally by ideologues of all hues. For example, his brilliant essay on humiliation baffled many. What could he possibly mean when he argues that for humiliation to occur, both the perpetrator and the humiliated need to share the same symbolic world. Humiliation cannot be completed unless this cognitive circuit is complete and another’s categories are violently imposed upon one. A potent identity marker, humiliation can have “creative possibilities”; it can “crystalize new forms of political awareness”. “He makes these statements, and then we have to unpack them for days,” one of my bright students once said of him. But this is a far cry from inane questions such as: Is he justifying humiliation? Is he blaming the humiliated? Is he forgiving the perpetrator? Nandy does not give us new and improved answers; he compels us to question our own questions.
The reactions to Nandy’s exposition on corruption (which has strangely been relegated to the status of ‘remarks’) betray once again the intellectual laziness that pervades society. At the crudest level, Nandy’s words were taken out of context. No surprises here. Blame the media: 24×7 news bites, running the same half-sentence over and over again, uproar, more reruns of the sentence fragment. You get the picture. And indeed, there were people who are either just waiting to pick a fight, be offended, outraged, protest… a familiar routine. Some shook their head in dismay and said this was a reflection of the attitudes of a casteist society. Brinda Karat called him elitist and Mayawati and the rest wanted him arrested. No one paused even to hear the end of the sentence that began, “It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBCs and the Scheduled Castes, and increasingly the Scheduled Tribes….” This was met with a collective chant of ‘FOUL’. “And as long as this is the case,” Nandy had continued, with his characteristic aphorismic charm, “the Indian Republic will survive.” Of course, Nandy’s point was that the discourse of corruption victimizes the marginalized, while the elite get away with it. He was making the argument that the elite have subtle age-old mechanisms of manipulating power, which the marginalized lack. His use of West Bengal as an example of the least corrupt state but also the state that has kept the SCs/ST and OBCs from getting close to power makes that amply clear.
Of course, this was not all he intended to say. When Nandy said that his co-panelist, the eminent philosopher Richard Sorabji, can be corrupt in more subtle ways, by offering scholarships and jobs to kith and kin, he was not simply saying that corruption is everywhere. Nor was he merely stating that the elite get away with it. He was asking us to rethink the category of corruption. Why do certain things not look like corruption? “We congratulate ourselves for promoting talent,” Nandy said of the ‘corruption’ that the elite may engage in. Before we jump in and claim to have solved the paradox by categorizing this as hypocrisy, let us pause to think what Nandy could have been saying. Do we even have a theory of corruption? Or are we blindly waving around a baton against it. It will not do to only say, “corruption is everywhere, let’s strike it, or strike against it,” depending on our chosen mode of ‘participation’ in politics. We have recently seen how that did not turn out too well for the Anna Hazare movement.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing here is the defense that Nandy’s compatriots, students and fellow social scientists have offered: freedom of speech. Indeed, as our society becomes more and more intolerant, there is a need to hold on tight to our right and ability to express dissent. But that is hardly the end of our task. Far from it. Neither is it enough merely to assert that Nandy’s heart is in the right place. (Indeed it is.) Can our intellectual response to a sophisticated argument, and the furor it created, be: “But he has always spoken for the marginalized”? Is this the only validation an intellectual work needs: that it should speak for the marginalized? If this is the only stipulation for scholarly work, we may as well be lobotomized.
It is no surprise that, where multiple academic and scholarly careers have been built primarily on polished bleeding-heart stories, a ‘gadfly’s’ annoying and persistent demand that we be intellectually honest and willing to challenge the very categories of our analysis has not always been welcomed. His work, even if presented as “paradoxes, aphorisms, ironies, jokes and riddles” strikes at the very foundation of the business of knowledge production. Nandy’s analysis reveals not just the vacuity of the concept of corruption, but also the intellectual indolence that we all revel in. Nandy has often been called a gadfly. Ironically, this reminds me of another friendly neighbourhood gadfly, Socrates, who was asked to drink hemlock for ‘corrupting’ the youth.
Dr Meera Ashar is a researcher at the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.
This post first appeared on Kafila on 30 January 2013.