We must speak up for Ashis Nandy

Like every controversy that happens in India, the recent one concerning Ashis Nandy’s comment about SC/ST/OBC corruption came to me a day late. Immediately after scanning a few news websites and watching Indian TV channels, I posted this on my Twitter:

And this on my Facebook timeline:

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Immediately after my post, I had an online conversation with my friend on my FB TL. I am uploading, along with the screenshots, the FB comment thread. My friend had very pertinently asked why Nandy’s comment should not be construed as hate speech. Here is the conversation:

ME: If there ever was any doubt about the idiocy of most Indians, the JLF has proved it once again. We have pawned our thinking ability. Frist Ashis Nandy was targeted by Modi and now by Dalit/ST/OBC leaders.

FRIEND: I came to know about Nandy’s comment from this link (http://www.thehindu.com/arts/books/fir-filed-against-ashis-nandy/article4347883.ece?homepage=true). If this is what he said that’s a super BS comment by him and I don’t see any reason why he should not be condemned!!

ME: My point is not if it’s right or wrong. or if it can be statistically proven. My point is the culture of intolerance that is rampant in India. The space of debate has shrunk so much that all one can think of is physically harm or file an FIR, forgetting completely Nandy’s overall career trajectory. When he speaks in favor of SC/ST/OBC, they are very happy. When he is critical of them, he is up in arms. What sort of engagement with ‘ideas’ is that? If one is not happy with his comment, let one debate and find out the truth. Why should police be the first option? Modi’s targeting of him was equally vicious. I have observed how the space for dissent has completely shrunk in India over the years. The easy option is to go after the person and intimidate. I don’t want India to be reduced to a complete police state. That’s all I am saying.

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FRIEND: If the FIR should be lodged is a different question. But is there any qualitative difference between Varun Gandhi’s infamous hate speech and what Nandy has said? Would you say the same thing if this comment was made by Mohan Bhagabat? My point is that are you trying to see things differently because Nandy has an intellectual-academician background?

ME:  Not at all! Though i am all in favor or free speech, I will still make a distinction between free speech and hate speech. Would Nandy’s comment count as hate speech? Would Varun Gandhi’s comment count as free speech? I think the apparent tone of their comments say it all. Without being very academic about these distinctions, it’s still important to be mindful of these distinctions. Doesn’t matter who makes the comment: Bhagwat or Owaisi, or Modi.

ME: Also, what’s Nandy’s career trajectory? We know he hasn’t made a career on the basis of hate as many others have done. His intent couldn’t have been to hurt a particular community.

FRIEND:  What you are saying is very subjective. Somebody may find Varun as a free speech!! At least I find Nandy’s comment as a sophisticated hate speech. This tone (the one implicit in Nandy) against low castes (they are corrupt) and Muslims (they are violent) by “bhadroloks” is very familiar to me!! I have heard it from so called sophisticated, educated people. And does it really matter what one’s trajectory is? Does a one time murderer gets a different treatment than what a professional murderer gets from legal institutions?

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ME: I think we are using extreme analogies here. When Varun says, ‘Musalmano ka sar kaat dalo’, we know what he means. Only in an extreme society that can be thought of as free speech. When Nandy says, now-a-days, most of the corruption is done by the SC/ST/OBC, he has a point because of the prominence of lower-caste and community leaders in politics post-80s. We have to look only to UP, Bihar, and Tamil Nadu in last 20 yrs to understand what he is saying. By that we don’t mean the upper-castes have stopped corruption. All he is saying: if you have political empowerment, there is bound to be corruption. If you have more money in the hands of lower-caste leaders, they will be corrupt. He is not saying all SC/ST/OBC are corrupt. I guess he is not that stupid to make a generalized comment. Whatever i have read of Nandy, he is not your ordinary bhadralok. He is more nuanced. If Nandy’s words can be compared to a murder, that will be an extreme analogy.

ME: And here is Nandy’s comment and I believe him: “I don’t apologise at all because I hold it very close to my heart. I was, in fact, supporting the cause of those who are marginalised and those who are in minority and those who are oppressed. I have spent all my life supporting their causes and will continue doing it.”

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[Rajasthan PUCL has, in fact, issued a statement in support of Nandy and denied that it was a hate speech. You can read that here.]

That there has been erosion in the space for dissent and debate in India is pretty well known. Actor Manoj Bajpayee says as much in his tweet:

There are also speculations that Nandy must have been misquoted by the media, always out to sensationalize statements. Shoma Chaudhury, Editor, Tehelka, and Barkha Dutt, NDTV, tweeted to suggest as much:

Ashis Nandy himself clarifies in the press conference that he was misquoted:

While one can continue to debate if Nandy was misquoted or quoted out of context (which in all probability could be the case as we are yet to see the complete recording of his conversation at the Festival), the most disturbing part was the way he was immediately targeted by the very people whose cause he has championed all his life. Without any debate and asking him to clarify his statement, an FIR was lodged against him under the SC/ST Act.

It appears that the freedom of speech in India is a matter of numbers. Since intellectuals, unless affiliated to a political party or community, cannot muster the numbers who can take to the street and speak up in her/his support, they will continue to be the targets for their ideas. The Indian intolerance to debate is closely linked to the intolerance of ‘ideas.’ A literature festival is not a place to launch into a statistical slugfest. As a mark of tolerance, we could hear his ideas and ask him sharp questions. Yet, this attempt to shut out anything that is not favorable to us is symptomatic of the larger crisis of tolerance in India.

In September, 2011, I was in Hyderabad for attending a conference on Islam and to conduct some research work. I stayed in Hyderabad Central University Guest House and made some new friends who are studying there. One of my friends informed me about a lecture in the university that was supposed to be delivered by a prominent dalit academic-turned-activist who teaches in Maulana Azad Urdu University and directs the newly established Center for study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy.

There came a moment in his lecture, when he started making blanket statements about the upper-caste community in India. Next came a condemnation of Hindi as a language. While the status of Hindi as a national language has been endlessly debated (one can cite the famous correspondence between Gandhi and Tagore in this regard throughout the first half of the 20th century), this particular academic’s point was that all regional languages, including Hindi, has always been oppressive for the dalits. Instead, he urged the dalits to banish all regional languages and take up English because of its potential to contribute to upward mobility. Another noted dalit activist, Chandra Bhan Prasad, has always spoken along the same line.

When one of the Hindi-speaking students protested against the controversial comments of the speaker, a group of dalit students got up to manhandle the student. To my amazement, I didn’t see the speaker making any attempt to stop the aggressive students. Thankfully, the protesting student left the auditorium soon after.

During the conference on Islam, I noticed similar hardened stances in some cases. This time, the tone was much more suppressed. I heard more critical comments about the seminar outside than inside the auditorium. One possible reason could have been the lack of numbers. In the same campus, a month back Teesta Setalvad’s lecture was disrupted by a right-wing student organization.

We are aware of this but still I find it worth repeating it to ourselves. A healthy society cannot be built on the basis of competitive grudges. In a highly segmented Indian society, each of the community is engaged in a game of touch-me-not. Each one is busy proving how it is superior to the other communities. When someone like Ashis Nandy demolishes the myth of honesty and integrity and the moral certitudes, the communities engage in a lynch-mob mentality, dispensing justice on the instant.

The space for dissent and debate is shrinking because it is difficult to maintain it. It needs constant self-scrutiny and questioning some of the certainties of our belief that we hold so dear to ourselves. If each of the communities in India continues to engage in competitive superiority, any questioning becomes an act of blasphemy. Consequently, the distinction between free speech and hate speech is deliberately blurred.

My friend very rightly said that the distinction between free speech and hate speech is very subjective. Yet, for me, one way of determining the intent would be to situate a person’s comment in the context of her/his life’s work. As a test, we might ask some of these questions: What has been the concerned person’s career trajectory? Have they made a career out of hate? Have they spent a lifetime advocating the cause of the poor and marginalized? What is the supposed motive behind the statement? Is the person trying to gain political mileage by making these comments?

Once we ask some of these questions, I am sure we will be able to make a distinction between a Varun Gandhi and an Ashis Nandy. If we still can’t, it’s time to put our thinking cap on and introspect. And not run to the police station to file the next FIR.

4 thoughts on “We must speak up for Ashis Nandy

  1. I loved this post and thank you for speaking up for Nandy. I have also been extremely concerned about the accelerated pace at which the space for critique is diminishing in India. Like many others who may not be well-versed with Nandy’s work I too was taken aback by his comment, both by its content and by the fact that it was coming from a respected public intellectual like Nandy. Your piece really helped me clarify my concerns. I am also happy that you got the chance to distinguish between free speech and hate speech. Hate speech has become an all-encompassing term for slotting critique and dissenting voices in India.

  2. Succinctly written and hitting the nail on the head… its not the question of dalit community being enraged at Nandy’s remarks… its about, like you put it well – the ‘touch-me-not’ attitude being witnessed across and the victim in the whole game being the space for debate and open discussion …. in the whole process i feel we just strengthen our caste/class/religious etc. identities and everyone speaking for or against has to be measured only through the lens of his/her ascribed identity…

    and its a scary thought because one sees that people are being politically correct without, while carrying (perhaps more strengthened) prejudices within..

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