THE date was Jan 26 and the venue was Jaipur’s Diggi Palace. The occasion was the Jaipur Literature Festival, which since its inception a few years ago has become India’s homage to the written word, to the glitterati of the literary world, to the cosmopolitanism of emerging India.
At a panel discussion entitled ‘The republic of ideas’, noted Indian intellectual and sociologist Ashis Nandy made a statement that was to land him and the festival in a quagmire of allegations and indictments. His controversial words came in the context of discussing corruption in India, and he asserted that politicians from the backward castes in India are not as adept as the wealthy in masking their corruption. When challenged by a fellow discussant Nandy went on to emphasise: “It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBCs [Other Backward Classes] and the Scheduled Castes and now increasingly the Scheduled Tribes.”
Under Indian law, members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are granted affirmative action to amend the historical discrimination they have faced and continue to confront. In numerical terms, they make up about 24 per cent of the Indian population (per 2001 census numbers) and over the years various sets of legislation have been put into place ensuring their representation in politics, government institutions and other state functions. As is the case with most historically discriminated against groups, however, their representation in these cadres still remains low and their struggles for uplift arduous.
At a venue such as the Jaipur Literature Festival, few such members were present at all. However, the ubiquitous television cameras of contemporary South Asia were in attendance and it was not long before several politicians from the Scheduled Castes/Tribes learned of Nandy’s comments. Within a few hours, denunciations and demands for apologies flew and Nandy had to be scuttled away from Jaipur to New Delhi. Overnight, complaints against him were lodged with the police and the festival organisers. A few days later, the Indian Supreme Court took up the case in response to a petition filed by Nandy asking for the court’s protection. After a hearing, a stay was issued on the order for his arrest until further investigation.
The dynamics of discrimination in India’s caste system and the success of legal measures is one lens with which to view controversy over Professor Nandy’s remarks. In its aftermath, Indian free speech advocates have found themselves in the cumbersome position of either trying to contextualise Nandy’s statements by reminding people that his life’s work has always championed the rights of the discriminated or denouncing his remarks while also upholding the freedom of allowing them to be made. Their agenda is both necessary and urgent; in a diverse country such as India, the argument for free speech must be robust enough to withstand the state onslaught that would wield the pragmatics of security, safety and peace to grab increasingly more power and impose more and more silence.
There is, however, another dimension to the Nandy controversy that goes beyond free speech and the particularities of caste, and bears relevance to Pakistan. This dynamic relates to the class of intellectual elite Nandy represents and that India had put on show for the world at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Like its much smaller Pakistani parallel across the border, this class bears a genuine fear of the populism of the masses — of the hordes at the gates of festivals whose easily offended feelings result in riots and end up muzzling artistic expression.
If this is kept in mind, Nandy’s comments were perhaps not a slip in substance, but a slip of situation, where an intellectual who felt surrounded by a cosy cohort of ‘people like us’ spoke what many of his class and stature may believe in private but would be smart enough to not admit in public.
This is then not a question of tolerance but of which class claims cultural production and whether it can publicly sport a disdain for those who are believed to be beyond its discourse, relegated to being subjects of artistic or intellectual discourse, but rarely — if ever — its producers.
This is not a new conundrum as for a long time, and perhaps forever, art has been the arena of the elite, fuelled by the leisure afforded via affluence and untouched by the mundane, creativity-crushing vagaries of meals, rents and bills.
Changing this dynamic requires not simply enforcing public peace, ensuring freedom against censorship and providing equal protection to all those living in a diverse polity but also opening up the limits of who produces art, literary or visual, to those whose voices are muzzled by their lack of means. In India, as the Nandy controversy reveals, some of these battles are under way, with constituencies aware of the need for protecting both speech and minority rights. This suggests that the road to artistic inclusion, where literary festivals are no longer the arena of the elite, may begin to be forged.
In Pakistan, the battle has not yet begun. In a country where artistic production carries the weight of a constricting public sphere marred by violence and where self-censorship often equates survival, the stray play or fashion show or literary festival does not yet dare to aim for any sort of class egalitarianism. The strictures of this straitjacket are tightened still further when one response to that elitism — to a creative class dominated by those blessed by wealth and privilege — has been a virulent mass religiosity that denounces all cultural production as lacking in value and worthy of excoriation if not complete destruction.
In India, the Nandy saga has initiated a public debate about the limits of tolerance, freedom of speech and the prejudices of caste. In Pakistan, with bans here and there and blasphemy cases at every corner, the debate cannot yet even begin.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.