As an engineering student in Pilani in the mid 1980s, I attended my share of college festivals in Delhi. Among Delhi students, the festival stars were largely those from St Stephen’s. They had a way with words, a superficial cleverness that worked well in debate, which along with quizzes, theatre and JAM were the main sources of entertainment at these gatherings. In my memory, the festivals meld into each other, but an incident stands apart, of a festival dissolving in panic when word got around that a Khalsa College student had gained entry. The festival stars, the same ones who would always find words for or against the motion for debate, had fled not from the reality of a particular student, but the reputation that preceded him. Their fear had little to do with reality, and a lot to do with their minds.
I was reminded of the incident when I watched the entire video of the controversial discussion featuring Ashis Nandy on stage at the recent Jaipur Literature Festival. An online petition in Nandy’s support later claimed, ‘While Nandy’s deliberately ironic remark on corruption in the OBC and SC/ST political elites as a form of equality may not be to the liking of all, we have no doubt that it was meant to question the upper caste-middle class notions of morality rather than denigrate marginalised and subaltern groups.’
Nandy was clearly playing with ideas, the debate was on the utopian promise of a corruption-free society, and he was suggesting that some amount of corruption actually humanises a society, a corruption-free utopia would be tyranny. But taken up with himself, he got carried away, egged on by Tarun Tejpal’s specious claim that corruption was an equalising force for those who did not belong to the elite (as if the vast majority of those without means could even think of manipulating a system gamed by corruption). He made a distinction between ‘their’ corruption rendered blatant by historical circumstances and ‘our’ far more sophisticated modes of bending the rules. ‘They’ lack finesse, he later clarified to a television channel. I wonder if those who framed the petition ever thought of how ‘they’ would perceive such a claim, how patronising and dismissive Nandy’s argument was, even allowing for his much-vaunted irony, if not for his inability to tell the difference between fact and assertion.
The online petition went on to state, ‘In a country where intellectual freedoms are shrinking every day, the right of thinkers like Ashis Nandy to argue and articulate unconventional views must be protected at all costs.’ Of course, I didn’t sign it. Not because I believed, as I did, that the level of intellect on display was fit for the debates I had seen at college festivals, not because I felt that some kind of justice was being served by a critic of modernity being forced to take refuge in Enlightenment values, but because I felt the petition was a cop out. What if Nandy’s remarks had indeed been meant to be taken at face value, what if they had been made by someone who was not a ‘thinker’ like Nandy? Should not the right for anyone, not just Nandy, to argue and articulate unconventional views be protected?
Basharat Peer has vividly described what followed after the debate:
And that was what brought Kirori Lal Meena, a lower-caste member of Parliament with a formidable constituency in the state of Rajasthan, to the writers’ lounge at Diggi Palace. Meena’s supporters were already agitating outside the festival gates. Meena sat cross-legged on a bench, his hands interlocked and his body language stiff and unrelenting. He demanded that Nandy be produced. He was accompanied by police officers, who took seats around him, their faces tense. The festival organisers moved about frantically, speaking to Meena in polite, supplicating voices, urging some sort of reconciliation. He seemed keen on legal action against Nandy.
A few minutes later, Nandy appeared. He was sombre. He faced Meena and spoke slowly, explaining his comments, insisting that his remarks weren’t a casteist slur. Namita Gokhale, a co-director of the festival, appeared with a tea tray, offering the first cup to the enraged politician.
Meena seemed to demand a written explanation. Nandy began to write. One of the sheets of paper was torn as he wrote. He copied his explanation onto another sheet. I stood by his shoulder, watching him slowly pen his words. Nandy repeated his earlier arguments about the entrenched social networks of the elites facilitating their corruption and added: ‘But when Dalits, tribals and OBCs are corrupt, it looks very corrupt indeed.
However, this second corruption equalises. It gives them access to their entitlements. And so, as long as this equation persists, I have hope for the Republic.
I hope this will be the end of the matter. I am sorry if some have misunderstood me. Though there was no reason to do so. As should be clear from this statement, there was neither any intention nor any attempt to hurt any community. If anyone is genuinely hurt, even if through misunderstanding, I am sorry about that, too.’
Last year the controversy at JLF was over Rushdie, this year it was Nandy’s turn. Last year some unknown local Muslim leader from Jaipur obtained his 15 minutes of fame, this year it was Kirori Lal Meena. Last year it was a handful waving placards, this year it was one man, however powerful, threatening legal action. Last year Rushdie was barred, this year Nandy cut a sorry supplicant figure, and this apparently because the JLF organisers give an undertaking every year to the local police that they would not permit hurt to ‘the sentiments of any community or religion during the literary festival.’ They might as well have gone ahead and said they did not intend to offend anyone, anywhere, on any count.
There will be the usual litany from JLF camp followers, part of the large industry around books that feeds off JLF (‘our’ corruption is indeed more sophisticated) who will write in to protest, but this really is not about JLF, it is about the intellectual life of this country. Last year Samanth Subramanian objected to my accusing the JLF organisers of cowardice and instead suggested I should have focused on the police or the government. Obviously he had not even bothered to read the article in question, but surely it must now be apparent that the defence of liberal values does not lie with the police or the government in this country. The fear that made the St Stephen’s students flee the college festival is the same fear that afflicts those who pretend to speak for liberal values today.
Days after the Jaipur Festival, an art gallery in Bangalore withdrew a few objectionable paintings to let the rest of the show go on. This was done at the suggestion of the police after the gallery received threats on the phone. This was a decision much in keeping with the compromises the JLF organisers have made. A few days later, three girls were forced to stop singing in Kashmir because its Grand Mufti termed the practice unIslamic. In Tamil Nadu, Kamal Haasan gave in to his Muslim critics and made changes to his movie Viswaroopam. In each of these cases, as in Jaipur, the police or the authorities were happy to arrange a compromise, register a few cases, and let tempers calm down as liberalism retreated further.
Thinkers can’t speak their minds, painters can’t paint, singers can’t sing, and it seems all we can do is sign petitions regretting that intellectual freedoms are shrinking. Much as Nandy would like to talk about the traditional tolerance of this country and Amartya Sen claim that there is a long history to intellectual debate in this country, the fact is only a select few were part of this history. To use Nandy’s terminology, ‘they’ were always kept out. This is not a liberal country, it has never been. We have a liberal Constitution, and that is largely the product of the vision of two men, BR Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru. This vision, even if Nehru tried to seek solace in a romanticised version of Indian history and Ambedkar in an idealisation of early Buddhism, owes its inspiration largely to Enlightenment values. Both men were educated in the West, and Ambedkar in particular was indebted to John Dewey.
The liberal values articulated by these men found ample space in our Constitution, but they have very shallow roots in the illiberal polity of this country, which rewards those who can articulate grievances in terms of groups and communities. A handful of placard wavers can stand in for all Muslims, a Kirori Lal can speak for all OBCs, SCs and STs. In contrast, all any worthwhile liberal can do is speak for himself, and it seems that in the interest of letting a festival go on, a gallery survive, we are ready to compromise on this and find intellectual justification for doing so.
Recently Pratap Bhanu Mehta, writing in The Indian Express, attempted to articulate a liberal manifesto. Somewhere along the way he made the startling claim that ‘Liberals will defend political secularism and not compromise on basic ideas of individual freedom, equality, dignity. But they have no stake in polarising cultural wars. Like the best moments in the nationalist movement, they believe that tradition can be transcended without making all its animating impulses despicable.’ By his definition Ambedkar does not qualify, but leave that aside. What must a liberal do, if, as is the case today, individual freedom is being compromised as a result of cultural wars? Mehta’s wishy-washiness, also evident in his willingness to search for hope in Narendra Modi, is in keeping with the liberal malaise. It is a sign of cowardice in the face of difficult battles.
The failure to defend Nandy without tying ourselves in knots claiming that what he said ‘was meant to question the upper caste-middle class notions of morality’ is to realise that as liberals we are not just losing the battle, we are not even fighting it. What else can explain our silence when a Supreme Court bench consisting of Chief Justice Altamas Kabir and Justices AR Dave and Vikramjit Sen notes in a hearing on the Nandy case that ‘Every citizen has right to free speech but not at the cost of others. We are not at all happy with the way the statement was made. Why do you make such a statement in the first place?’
To accept this is to sacrifice the very idea that is at stake here. The counterpoint was made forcefully a hundred and fifty years ago by John Stuart Mill: “Strange it is that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme’, not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case. Strange that they should imagine that they are not assuming infallibility when they acknowledge that there should be free discussion on all subjects which can possibly be doubtful, but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be questioned because it is so certain, that is, because they are certain that it is certain.”
(Note: An earlier version of the copy stated that an an art gallery in Delhi agreed to a compromise with a handful of women from the Durga Vahini, the RSS’s women’s wing, and withdrew a few objectionable paintings to let the rest of the show go on. This was actually one example where the gallery stood up to the Durga Vahini and none of the paintings on display were withdrawn.)