If maverick psychologist-social critic Ashis Nandy had planned to ignite a controversy at the Jaipur Literary Festival, he couldn't have done better than by drawing intimate links between corruption and Dalits, Adivasis and Other Backward Classes (OBC).
After warning he would make a "very undignified" and "almost vulgar" statement, Nandy said: "…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 provoked a demand for his arrest under the SCs and STs (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. He clarified that he meant no offence to Dalits or OBCs and has consistently espoused their cause. Some Bahujan/Dalit writers 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 shameful. A tall public intellectual, he has long supported marginalised groups. He didn't intend to denigrate them, but his statement can be read otherwise.
What did Nandy in fact say? He drew parallels between "close-to-zero-corruption", authoritarian Singapore and Communist-ruled "absolutely clean" West Bengal, where the OBCs, SCs and STs haven't come "anywhere near power… I do wish that there remains some degree of corruption in India because … it humanises our society."
Nandy contended the upper castes flourish by using privileged networks to secure fellowships for their children at reputed universities.
But Dalit leader "Mayawati doesn't have that privilege. She probably has only relatives whose ambition was to … run a petrol pump. If she has to oblige somebody… she will probably have to take the bribe of having 100 petrol pumps, and that is very conspicuous…. Our corruption doesn't look that corrupt, their corruption does."
Nandy termed criminal gangs "perfectly egalitarian" and Dawood Ibrahim's outfit "totally secular." He also said people like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Laloo Prasad had to "claw" their way to power. But even they can't "get away [by] or cleverly manipulating [their] investments … with the right connections because [they] have none..."
Later, Nandy also defended corruption as "a safety valve" for the poor: "Corruption is about equality and redistributive justice." He also claimed that his main contention would be proved through surveys of ticketless travellers and “urchins” who blackmarket cinema tickets.
Several propositions are made here. One, the upper-caste elite is deeply hypocritical about corruption: it's steeped in nepotism, but blames subalterns for corruption. Two, corruption gives agency and power to the underprivileged, and acts as an equaliser and tool of "redistributive justice." Subalterns need corruption to manipulate the system's rules.
Three, all forms of corruption -- from ticketless travel, to multi-billion-dollar scams -- are morally equal. And four, corruption has burgeoned among subalterns in proportion to their rising social and political power. In corruption-free societies, they remain powerless.
To be fair, Nandy has a provocative style and uses irony, satire and shocking metaphors. He's a master of aphorisms calculated to shake complacent assumptions. Even taking this into account, his argument is flawed. He got carried away.
To start with, his first proposition in unassailable. The elite is indeed hypocritical. It sets the rules of the system, itself unjust and corrupt. Yet, own its corruption is often invisible, being routed through complex hard-to-unearth pathways into arms deals, money-laundering and land scams.
However, the other three propositions lack validity and are paternalistic. That the poor pay bribes in the form of high tuition or capitation fees to get their children admitted to good schools is no sign of redistributive justice, but of unequal access to education.
Such groups acquire real agency only when their access to quality public services is enhanced. Affirmative action can do this.
Big Corruption -- including underselling of natural resources, enormous subsidies to the already under-taxed rich, predatory projects like POSCO or Vedanta, and countless policy-driven scandals -- largely remains an upper-caste monopoly which extracts rent.
Dalits and Adivasis are victims of Big Corruption, and lose their land and livelihoods to it. Dalit capitalism is no antidote to Big Corruption; it only mimics it. It has made no difference to systemic, pervasive caste discrimination, or to the lot of the vast majority of Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs.
It's absurd to equate Big Corruption with ticketless travel, or with 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.
Nandy is equally wrong about criminal gangs being "perfectly egalitarian" or "secular." Gangs are by definition authoritarian, and 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 underprivileged castes through land reforms, affirmative action, comprehensive provision of public services, including food, nutrition, healthcare and employment, and social security measures like 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 minuscule -- sometimes successfully "beat the system" through individual-centred corruption.
Such corruption can never translate into collective empowerment. Even electoral successes haven't helped India's marginalised groups alter the political balance of power fundamentally, leave alone break casteism's hold. 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, 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.
The writer is an eminent Indian columnist.