Print edition : March 08, 2013

Ashis Nandy. His remarks at the Jaipur Literature Festival that the most corrupt came from among the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the Other Backward Classes became controversial. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Ashis Nandy offers a supreme example of how attitudes generated by one’s position in the caste system do not change.

ONE of the fortes of Ashis Nandy’s social presentations is said to be irony. It is, therefore, ironical that the sociologist chose to make his assertion at the Jaipur Literature Festival that most of the corrupt came from the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and the Scheduled Castes (S.C.) and now increasingly the Scheduled Tribes (S.T.) on January 26, 2013, India’s 64th Republic Day. To leave no doubt about his intent and thrust, he juxtaposed this with the example of West Bengal, which, according to him, has the least amount of corruption because the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the Backward Classes (B.C.) have not come anywhere near power and, therefore, is an absolutely clean State. A number of articles have appeared since then, most of them to say that he did not mean what he said and to portray him as a champion or partisan of the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the B.Cs. He himself claimed that what he had said was strongly in favour of them. A relatively small number of articles portray him as a person sharing an anti-Dalit, anti-B.C., anti-women, world view.

Whatever be his real socio-psychological identity, what matters is whether he has committed a crime or not. Section 3(1) (x) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, or the POA Act, states that if a non-S.C., non-S.T. person “intentionally insults… with intent to humiliate a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe in any place within public view”, it is punishable with imprisonment of not less than six months but extending up to five years and a fine. Ashis Nandy’s statement was made in the widest public view, telecast on many television channels and printed in many newspapers and in many languages. To call whole groups of communities corrupt and to say that they constitute most of the corrupt in the country is obviously an insult to the S.Cs and the S.Ts under the POA Act, and also against the B.Cs under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code.

Victims of corruption

To understand the enormity of the insult and its factual untruthfulness, it must be remembered that indisputably the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the B.Cs have been the major victims of corruption. Corruption can be divided into two types. One is the traditional type of corruption automatically generated by the caste system, with “untouchability”, or the “Indian caste system” (ICS). The other type of corruption is the modern monetised financial corruption.

The diabolical “ICS” denied the S.Cs the right to own land and confined them to agrestic slavery and serfdom; today they are confined to agricultural labour and other labour such as manual scavenging and casual and unorganised labour in urban areas. The S.Ts were pushed back steadily from their own territories as agricultural civilisation advanced, and were relegated to inhospitable and remote plateaus and forests. The beginning of this process is illustrated by the Mahabharata episode of Khandava Dahana, or the burning of the Khandava forest. They have been steadily deprived of their lands. When they were pulled out of their tribal fastnesses to supplement the labour of the S.Cs in periods of rapid agricultural expansion, as in the 19th century for the reclamation of the Char lands in Bengal, they were reduced to conditions similar to that of the S.Cs. Both were denied access to education.

An ancient illustration of this, from the Mahabharata again, is the episode of the deprivation of Ekalavya, the most meritorious of archers, of his thumb by Dronacharya. Ekalavya is the ancient prototype of today’s S.Cs and S.Ts. Our civilisation and culture have many grand and noble features, but they are marred by the Dronacharya syndrome in relation to the S.Cs and the S.Ts and the Dusshasana syndrome in relation to women.

The B.Cs were confined to traditional occupations that provided manufactured products or primary non-agricultural products or services to the “upper” castes, particularly to the upper-caste elites, on terms grossly adverse and unfair to the former through “ICS”-related subsystems such as the notorious jajmani system. The “ICS”, along with its operational mechanisms, was a means of transferring the products of the labour of the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the B.Cs to the country’s elite drawn from the upper castes. The value of such illegitimate corrupt transfer through the centuries would amount to crores and crores of rupees.

This process continues even today. This can be seen from every indicator of development and non-development and welfare and ill-fare.

Examples of this are the high proportion of the S.Cs among agricultural labourers, the low proportion of S.C-landowning cultivators, the wide disparities in literacy and education at every level between the S.Cs and the S.Ts on the one side and the socially advanced castes (SACs), that is, the non-S.C., non-S.T., non-B.C. castes, on the other. The disparities widen steadily at each higher level of education; in infant mortality, child mortality, malnutrition, anaemia and maternal mortality, where the S.Cs and the S.Ts are at one end and the SACs at the other; and in the denial/stifling of access, through direct and indirect means, for the S.Cs and the S.Ts to modern professions and higher positions in the public sector as well as in the burgeoning private corporate sector. In all these, the B.Cs stand between the S.Cs and the S.Ts at one extreme and the SACs at the other; they are usually closer to the former than to the latter.

There are plenty of data and evidence on these and other aspects that bring out the continuing exploitation of the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the B.Cs and the resultant corrupt facilitation of accrual of assets and advantages by the elite (not the common generality) of the SACs. This is the basic corruption in India of which the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the B.Cs, including the B.Cs of religious minorities, particularly B.C. Muslims who are converts from the oppressed classes of India as Swami Vivekananda pointed out, were and are the victims.

In the more modern sense of monetised or financial corruption, the perpetrators again are mainly individuals who are non-S.C., non-S.T. and non-B.C. This is not to attribute to common people belonging to these communities the vice of corruption. Many of them also share the plight of the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the B.Cs on account of corruption, although their suffering does not match the agony of the latter from the continuing traditional, institutional corruption and modern, crass financial corruption.

If the amount involved in cases of corruption in India post-Independence, running into hundreds and thousands of crores of rupees, is considered, the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the B.Cs are nowhere in the picture. A few individuals among them who have imbibed the culture of corruption from the upper-caste elite do not make any difference to the fact that the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the B.Cs are the least corrupt in India.

Nandy’s trivialisation

Ashis Nandy trivialises the thirst of the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the B.Cs, including the B.Cs of the minority communities, to achieve equality with the SACs by claiming that he is making a pro-Dalit statement by wanting them to share the loot and become the equals of SACs in corruption. This is not the equality they seek. The S.Cs seek equality in land ownership through universal land ownership; freedom from agricultural servitude, bonded labour and child labour; equalisation in education at every level, humanly habitable conditions, facilities and connectivities in their miserable bastis; equality in access to health and medical services to reduce their below sub-Saharan levels of infant, child and maternal mortalities and malnutrition; equality with the SACs in every parameter of development and welfare; and freedom from “untouchability” and atrocities. Economic liberation and educational equality at every level and social dignity are what they seek and strive for against heavy odds.

This is also true of the S.Ts. In their case, insofar as land is concerned, they seek an end to the haemorrhage of their landholdings and the nibbling away of their territory. With appropriate modifications, these are also the aspirations of the B.Cs, including the B.Cs of minority communities, especially the B.Cs among Muslims. They are, in fact, trying to fulfil the constitutional objective of equality and, in particular, social equality, that is, equality in all parameters with the SACs for those who have been oppressed and deprived by the traditional social system. They do not aspire for equality in corruption, which is the form of equality that Ashis Nandy envisages for them. In fact, their goal is to create a new culture in which corruption in any form cannot have any place. In all my interactions with them for more than six decades, I have been emphasising that they should, while seeking their material development and empowerment, simultaneously repudiate the old corrupt culture and create a new culture of equality, human sensitivity, integrity—both financial and intellectual—and spirit of service.

Three shields

(a) “Climate of Intolerance” argument—the S.C. the S.T. and the B.C. are victims, not perpetrators of intolerance.

The apologists of Ashis Nandy’s Republic Day utterance seek to provide three shields for him. One is to portray him as a victim of a climate of intolerance. This is another example of irony, a figure of speech in which Ashis Nandy is said to revel. It is the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the B.Cs who are the victims of intolerance when they seek to secure their due place in society and economy.

When the S.Cs, through their hard labour and savings —most usually without the help of reservation as most of them are pre-matriculates—move away from their traditional enslaving occupations of agricultural servitude or scavenging to non-stigmatised and relatively free, though not high, occupations like fish-trading or construction labour and masonry, the houses of whole communities are reduced to ashes, and their hard-earned moveable property is destroyed and looted on some pretext or the other. The incidents at Gohana in Haryana in 2005 and at Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu in 2012 are examples of this.

A whole village of tribal people was destroyed, their wells defiled, their fields laid to waste and their women raped in Vachati in Tamil Nadu in 1992. In Bihar this year, Dalit students who took up residence in the Ambedkar hostel to secure education and reclaim their forebear Ekalavya’s thumb were harassed and attacked by upper-caste students in the nearby Saidpur hostel who said, “You are Harijans. You have no right to read and write. Your work is to mend shoes and chappals. We will keep you as servants in our houses.”

India’s intellectuals, mostly drawn from the SACs, call them corrupt when they, at last, are able to enter the services of the state to a limited extent. The opinion openly expressed by Ashis Nandy is often privately expressed by a number of others belonging to the SACs. Their intellectual violence is of a piece with the physical violence meted out to Dalits in the past and in the present in all parts of the country.

Ashis Nandy is a supreme example of how attitudes in Indians generated by one’s position in the caste system do not change even with change of religion, say to Christianity, as in this case. Ashis Nandy’s case shows that the perspicacious observation of J.H. Hutton, the Census Commissioner of 1931, that “caste was in the air” in India and “neither the followers of Islam nor of Christianity could escape the infection of caste; even the change of religion does not destroy the caste system …” continues to be true.

(b) “Freedom of speech” argument—POA Act, a reasonable restriction under Article 19(2).

The second shield is that of freedom of speech and expression. Article 19(a), which enshrines this important freedom, is subject to clause (2) of Article 19 empowering the state to make any law which imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of this right in the interest of inter alia the security of the state, public order, decency or morality or in relation to defamation or incitement for an offence. To call the main victims of traditional and modern forms of corruption themselves corrupt is an offence against decency and morality and collectively defames three-fourths of the people of India. Further, an utterance like this emanating from a person held in high esteem by society would incite lesser mortals to hurl similar false and immoral insults at the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the B.Cs. The POA Act is a law which inter alia places a reasonable restriction on the freedom of speech and expression to protect the S.Cs and the S.Ts from being insulted.

(c) “Nandy, a Dalits’ friend” argument.

The third shield is to portray Ashis Nandy as a friend of Dalits at heart. If so, one can only exclaim with Shakespeare: “Et tu Brute?” ( Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene I). By collectively attributing corruption maximally to the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the B.Cs, he has condemned most Indians and thus India as a whole. One can only lament with Mark Antony: “O, what a fall was there, my countrymen! Then I, and you, and all us fell down” ( Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene III).

The rule of law and its implications

As a democracy, we are under the rule of law. One of the basic tenets of the rule of law is that “Be thou however high, the law is always higher than you”. Naturally, the law must take its own course. To draw an analogy from the current prominent discourse, if a man is accused of rape, it is of no avail to show him as a god-fearing man or as a good man or as a man of charity. However good he might otherwise be, what matters is whether he has in fact committed rape or not. The women of India and their organisations have rightly demanded an end to all impunities in relation to women. This applies to the S.Cs, the S.Ts and the B.Cs. There should not be any impunity anywhere, however high or otherwise good a person accused of a criminal offence might be. A crime by anyone under the law is a crime. Its consequences can only be the same for all if proved by investigations and due process of law before the appropriate trial court and courts of appeal.

TV debaters and other intellectuals rightly complain that Indian laws are honoured more in the breach than in the observance. It is appropriate that they do not contribute to reducing the POA Act, a minimal shield for the most vulnerable people of India, into a paper tiger.

P.S. Krishnan is a former Secretary to the Government of India and has been in the field of social justice for more than six decades.