Ashis Nandy’s Predicament and Ours

Shuddhabrata Sengupta is associated with Raqs Media Collective/Sarai-CSDS, Delhi. He can be reached at shuddha68@gmail.com.

For the past few days I have been preoccupied in one part of my mind in dealing with two reasons for anguish. The first reason has to do with the profound sense of disappointment and anger with which I heard Prof. Ashis Nandy, a man I consider to be a great teacher, friend and in possession of one of the finest minds of our time, commit himself in public to a flippant and vulgar position when speaking of the relationship between caste and corruption at the Jaipur Literary Festival.

Ashis Nandy, receiving the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize in 2007. (image: Mohan Trivedi/Wiki)

Ashis Nandy, receiving the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize in 2007. (image: Mohan Trivedi/Wiki)

I was saddened because Prof. Nandy’s statements do a great disservice to the suppleness and ethical integrity of his thinking, and represent one of those sadly paradoxical situations where an intellectual can become their own worst adversary. I am unambiguously critical of the Nandy who chooses to be pompously opinionated and misinformed at a forum like the Jaipur Literary Festival or while riding the hot-air currents of television especially because I remain a partisan of the Nandy who can be (when he chooses to be) one of the most thoughtful and insightful witnesses to our time in his writing.

The second reason for my anger has to do with the knee jerk reactions that have followed this episode, calling for Nandy’s prosecution and imprisonment, that come laden either with a disturbing sense of authoritarian rectitude emanating from the foot soldiers of identity politics and brokers of victimhood or with a degree of schaudenfraude from intellectual charlatans.

In all honesty, I cannot deny that Nandy’s remarks at the Jaipur Literary Festival reflect a profound lapse of judgement. As a person who claims to be a student of psychology among other things, I would urge Prof. Nandy, out of the solidarity and respect that I have for him to do some honest introspection and think about the conscious and unconscious habits of thought and affect that so speedily bring an invocation of caste, even when it is not immediately relevant, to the lips of our intellectuals. Corruption is a question of an unregulated access to power, or, a measure of the way in which the absence of a sustainable wage makes it necessary for millions of ordinary people to pursue informal economies and ways of life outside of or on the fringes of legality. A meditation on neither of these two polar phenomena necessarily requires us to weigh in on the caste identities of those who corrupt, or are corrupted by the ordinary operations of power and the economy in our society.

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