The Ashis Nandy Controversy: Inside the Mind of One 'Intolerant' Dalit

 

Anoop Kumar

anoop fotuVaibhav Diwakar Ghadge, a post-graduate from TISS (Mumbai), got married on 20th January, 2013. Two days later, he left his village Kulakajai in Maharashtra's Satara district, along with his wife, to visit a nearby temple. On the way, the couple got waylaid and was brutally assaulted, robbed, molested and then thrown down the cliff, left to die. It was the bravery shown by his wife which could save their lives. Among the three perpetrators, the one who led this assault was Navnath Kapse, a close relative of local Congress MLA Jaykumar Gore.

Kapse was also one among the 12 caste-hindus who, on April 26, 2007, brutally murdered Madhukar, a Dalit, for daring to dig his own well, in his own field. Three years later all the murder accused, including Kapase, were acquitted by the Satara court for 'lack of evidence'. Vaibhav Ghadge, Madhukar's nephew who was then a teenager, was the complainant and the only eyewitness in that case.

The Ghadge family is the most educated one in the village, many among them are postgraduates and two, including Madhukar's own son, studied at TISS, Mumbai, one of the country's prestigious educational institutions.

Navnath Kapse has been arrested now but the police booked him only under the charges of robbing Vaibhav and his wife, refusing to invoke the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The reason, according to the investigating officer, as quoted by The Hindu, is, "The accused did not make any casteist remarks while committing the crime. How can we book them under the SC and ST (PoA) Act? The victims did not ask us to charge them under the Act". The victims dispute this claim, according to the same newspaper.

There is nothing unusual in this case. It is just one more case, typical of many such crimes against Dalits that keep happening in the country and with so much regularity across its length and breadth, that can very easily be regarded as illustrative of the single most important characteristic that defines pretty well an otherwise extremely diverse country.

Even the template for such violence against Dalits and its aftermath remains fixed across the country. You just need to change the names of the victims, the perpetrators and the place. A Dalit family using education as a tool for its upward mobility, showing a little sign of material prosperity, a little desire for being treated fairly with a little dignity, finds itself pitted against the entire set of caste-hindus who need little provocation to kill, burn, rape, members of the Dalit family, often in the most brutal way imaginable; and if they get a little more generous, they brutalize the entire Dalit basti/wada along with the one family.

And in many cases, it is one elaborate ritual. The ritual that at first involves just two individuals, or at worst two families, but on one given day it turns into a public spectacle of violence in which most of the caste-Hindus from the village, or group of villages, both men and women, participate.

Each one of them plays a role: some rape, some burn and loot, some brutalize the Dalit bodies by parading them naked, some kill them using the most barbaric methods available, the rest act as their cheerleaders; and then they leave those bodies behind as a chilling reminder to the other Dalits who survived. To keep their lives pure and dharmic, their acts of killing Dalits must be as dharmic.

[One such act took place in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra, recently, on New Year's eve, when three Dalit youth were hacked to death, their severed heads found arranged nicely around the body remains. One of them was in love with a caste-hindu girl]

But this template is incomplete without one very crucial element, without which violence against Dalits might have had gradually lost some of its regularity and barbarity in independent India by now. And that is the resolute refusal of non-dalits (that includes state apparatuses, judiciary manned by them and civil society), including even those who abhor such violence and want justice to prevail and perpetrators punished, to accept such crimes as caste crimes, motivated by caste hatred against Dalits.

So complete is this denial that even the most ghastly massacres that have taken place in the history of this country against Dalits have been declared devoid of any caste prejudice on the part of perpetrators by Indian courts and such judgments were duly legitimized by rest of the non-Dalit world.

~~

So the Khairlanji killings of September 2006 become strictly a land related violence for some; many (Marathi media, for a long time played this theme) even 'hinted' that sexual promiscuity of the Dalit woman (mother) from the Bhotmange family being the real and the only reason of her and her young daughter's torture, rape, stripping and being paraded naked before being murdered along with her two teenage sons, one of them visually impaired, by a mob of over 300 caste-hindu men and women.

While for the courts (both the sessions and high courts) such a ghastly crime as Khairlanji became just a case of revenge of a few individuals who were angry with the mother-daughter duo for testifying before police against them for assaulting another Dalit man from a neighbouring village. Both the courts categorically denied any caste angle and even sexual molestation of mother and daughter in their judgments and refused to invoke the SC/ST (PoA) Act, 1989, while handing down punishments to the culprits, total 8 of them, for assault and murder.

Bhotmanges were the most educated family in the village, their teenage daughter being a topper in class XII.

However, it took four more Maharashtrian Dalit lives, killed by police during protests, for this 'justice' to be realized. Angry over the state administration's attempts to cover up and the local police's brazenly biased approach, the entire Maharashtra witnessed a huge protest movement by Dalits that turned violent at many places; it was only this movement which could eventually force the state government to initiate some measures towards securing 'justice'.

And it took relentless efforts of the local Dalit media and intense lobbying by Dalit activists, for the first article to appear in the national media about the Khairlanji massacre, on 29th October 2006, exactly a month after the incident. It appeared in The Times of India and was written by its special correspondent Sabrina Buckwalter, an American citizen, but at a great personal cost.

That one, eleven hundred words, simple piece of journalistic reporting about a brutal crime in India's major English newspaper made sure Buckwalter could never come back to India again. Within a few months of her article on Khairlanji she was forced to leave the country as the Indian government refused to renew her visa despite all her efforts. She writes here and here at atrocitynews.com* about her travails as the first journalist from mainstream Indian media to cover the Khairlanji massacre and how she still has hopes to return to a place she calls home:

"Visa is not a right, it is a privilege. And it's that fact that reminds me that there is no right or law that I have on my side to help me return to India ... while an Indian visa is a privilege for me, I hope that democracy and the freedom of speech is a right that I will get to exercise in India once again. In the meantime I am actively pursuing lobbying the government to grant me a visa to return to a place I call home."

Yes you read it right. It is all about the freedom of speech of Sabrina Buckwalter, and of Dalits too. It doesn't require one to be the 'finest' intellectual of the country to understand that the atrocities on Dalits are ultimately about their freedom of speech, the freedom to say NO to any indignity being meted out by the caste society.

~~

In the meanwhile, Khairlanji has become a 'model village', being recognized as such under the Mahatma Gandhi Tanta Mukti Gaon Mohim ('Dispute-free Village Program') in 2010, under a scheme run by Maharashtra state government for being 'dispute free', and for settling all its disputes 'amicably'. The village panchayat received a cash award of Rs 1 lakh and recognition by the United Nations itself.

A village that has 177 families, one less than in September 2006 - including a couple of families from the Dalit and Muslim communities, the rest being from the dominant castes - has now become an 'absolutely clean village' as Prof Ashis Nandy might say.

Therefore it is hardly surprising that the Police Investigating Officer, from the home district of Maharashtra's Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, could not find anything casteist in the murderous assault on a newly-wed Dalit couple, the husband being a lone witness to the main accused murdering his uncle for daring to own a well, the first Dalit in the village trying to do so, a sign of prosperity in a highly drought- prone area.

To be treated as a caste-crime, to prove that the perpetrator was motivated by caste hatred against his Dalit victim, the Satara police believes, Kapse needed to utter 'casteist' remarks while assaulting the couple, and since it took place at a secluded place on 22nd January 2013, the perpetrator also needed to acknowledge it on his own before the police. Navnath Kapse might be a hardened criminal but he is not at an idiot for sure.

However there are a few more things for us to ponder over. What constitute casteist remarks? Do casteist remarks mean only abuses one can hurl on Dalits by taking their caste names explicitly?

Can a crime against Dalits be viewed as caste-crime only when the perpetrators justify it by openly stating that they had committed it, motivated by caste-hatred or can there be other indicators too?

Why is it that, if you care to notice, Dalits have to talk every time about brutal violence against them to prove that casteism exists, caste-discrimination against Dalits exists? And why I am doing the same, talking about the dead bodies of Dalit men and women, even to enter into a debate regarding the Freedom of Speech of India's 'finest' intellectual Prof Ashis Nandy, acting precisely as a 'broker of victimhood', the kind that Suddhabrata Sengupta, a much celebrated blogger and easily India's second 'finest' intellectual, warned us all about in the course of the very same debate?

~~

"Welcome to The Buck Stops Here, how did it happen that one of India's most respected social scientist, known for his liberal views, his outspoken positions and his fearless individualism but also for never ever having a casteist bone in his body, today stand accused by some of having made a casteist comment at the Jaipur Literature Festival. What is the larger message behind this controversy?" Barkha Dutt says, introducing Prof Ashis Nandy and the controversy around his remarks on caste and corruption, on January 28th, at NDTV.

The buck actually stops where Barkha Dutt tells us that besides his fine accomplishments, Prof Nandy is also known for NEVER EVER having a casteist bone. When she utters those two words quite forcefully, with much emphatic tone, shaking both her hands vigorously up and down (the only time she appears a bit agitated in otherwise a very cool and composed performance), you know there is no point in watching this 'debate' as the 'upper' castes, especially their elite class, are not yet ready to interrogate themselves on the possibilities of harbouring caste prejudices, and moreover, are as usual too eager to certify each other of being 'caste-free' individuals.

Giving a certificate to Prof Nandy is not enough, you need to look into the larger design behind this 'controversy' -- Barkha Dutt thus frames the debate in such a way that it is clear, right at the beginning, that even Dalits and many others, who are victims of caste prejudices, would not be allowed to interrogate upper castes either. Prof Nandy (with no casteist bone) VS the people who are politicizing the issue, artistes and thinkers VS politicians, Prof Nandy's 'casteist' remarks VS growing culture of intolerance. The message is loud and clear. Time to switch off the TV!

And this is the second most important characteristic that defines pretty well an otherwise extremely diverse country, the template of which is also fixed. This was also the first lie on which the republic, the one Prof Ashis Nandy wants to save, was founded on.

The foundation of this lie was probably laid on 20th November 1948, the moment untouchability was declared 'abolished' (Article 17 of Indian Constitution) and the Indian constituent assembly hall, completely dominated by 'upper' caste hindus, resonated with the chants hailing Mahatma Gandhi. It is said that this was the only article in the Constitution which was adopted with the cries of "Mahatma Gandhi ki jai."

It is also said that Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, as soon as the Article 17 was adopted and untouchability declared 'abolished', silently moved out of the hall, perhaps too overwhelmed by the occasion and its significance for his community.

Perhaps he was also aware of the trade-off being made at that moment, between the all powerful 'upper' castes and the completely powerless untouchables, of whom he was the lone warrior-protector in that hall, where they agreed to abolish untouchability, provide reservations but in return gifted themselves with the claims of being, from then onwards, above caste, above caste discrimination. In the process they also deprived anti-caste movements led by Dalits and other 'lower' castes of any credit (which I feel was much needed to provide the validity of their claims), by chanting the name of Gandhi, a fellow 'upper' caste individual.

Our school text books, until 'critical pedagogy' took roots via NCERT, are one proof of such a trade-off.

Caste from that day onwards became a past for almost every 'upper' caste (that now indicates a few non-upper caste dominant castes too, apart from the traditional 'upper castes, as regional allies, a part of the national ruling elite) person in this country and they are all free from any caste prejudice. They are now the nation. Their interests are not caste interests anymore but have become 'national interests' and whatever is against their interest has to be invariably against the country too. And any enquiry on their caste privileges becomes an attack on some lofty principles which they suddenly seem to hold too dear like merit, freedom of speech, academic autonomy, culture of tolerance etc.

In their narrative now caste is something which has only to do with the Dalits and other 'lower' castes and 'upper' castes, if at all they appear in this narrative, they appear only as victims. Victims of caste based reservations, victims of vote bank politics, being punished for something that their forefathers did hundreds of years ago. So deep rooted and pervasive are these feelings among 'upper' castes that many more too get convinced by these easily.

The only rupture in this 'upper' caste narrative comes from the mutilated, dead bodies of Dalits.

~~

So absolute is this denial by 'upper' castes of their having any agency on caste, caste discrimination, caste violence that each of the state, non-state structures and institutions (media, academia, judiciary, state apparatuses, civil society) monopolized by them have made heavy investment in selling this narrative not only inside the country but outside too.

And therefore it was hardly surprising that the two court cases (one in IIT Delhi and other one in Vardhman Mahavir Medical College, Delhi, on caste discrimination against SC, ST students) that I have been witness to while working with Dalit and Adivasi students, got dismissed immediately in Delhi High Court. In both the cases, the Judges simply refused to believe that casteism exists in these educational institutions. One of the judges went a little ahead and expressed the belief that casteism could not exist in Delhi itself!

The Dalit students of IIT Delhi got a little lucky later as their appeal in the Supreme Court went to the bench that included Justice K. G. Balakrishnan, Chief Justice of India, a Dalit, who not only accepted their plea but also rebuked the IIT Administration for arguing that it was free of caste-virus by quoting cases of caste discrimination in other premier educational institutions, including the much reported ones from AIIMS, New Delhi, which he said was just a 'few kilometers away from IIT Delhi'.

In the second case, it was the ingenuity displayed by the 'upper' caste lawyer that could provide some relief to the students who, after getting the case dismissed on the very first day, suggested to the students to file a fresh petition without mentioning anything about caste discrimination and only highlighting the problems arising out of their being from a weak 'socio-economic' background. According to him, any mention of caste turns most of the judges hostile. Acting on it, the students won the case and the court directed the college administration to take ample measures for the benefit of students coming from 'weak socio-economic' background.

Though in both the cases the Dalit and Adivasi students got some relief, they were denied justice ultimately. Even Justice Balakrishnan, who acknowledged caste-discrimination as a fact during the hearings, came out with a judgment that only 'recommended' IIT Delhi to take adequate measures for the benefit of the aggrieved students.

No one was found guilty. There was no punishment.

~~

In the face of such absolute denial about caste and caste discrimination, the only way left for us to prove that caste exists, that caste discrimination exists or to initiate even a dialogue on caste, is to keep parading dead bodies of Dalits and recounting the horrific ways in which they were killed. There is no other option. There is no other way available to explore casteism in this country. Dead bodies are our only proof and the only available site of dialogue on caste.

There is no other way to interrogate the casteism embedded in the state institutions either. It took us several videos on suicides of Dalit students from premier educational institutions to even get some acknowledgement that these institutions, completely monopolized by 'upper' castes since inception, might carry some casteist prejudices and discriminate against Dalit students.

Disproportionately large number of suicides by Dalit students in higher education, especially in technical and professional institutions, was something some of us were always aware of but never knew how to approach it, given the whole 'upper' caste dominant narrative around reservations and merit.

Some of us were scared that talking about our students' suicides would give a shot in the arm to this narrative and a chance for 'upper' castes to cite these suicides as one more proof of incapability and incompetence of Dalit students who enter into these institutions through reservations but are not able to cope up with the 'rigorous' and 'meritorious' environment.

We were also scared that bringing out these stories might affect our students too, trying to somehow succeed in the most hostile environments, given the fact that we have no mechanism, no help available to counter any such fallout. So it took us one whole year (and some carefully cultivated contacts in the media) to bring out the first video on the suicide of Balmukund Bharti, a final year medical student from All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi.

So you see, for us, even talking about our young boys and girls' dead bodies is not that easy in this country!

It is now over an year since these videos are out and they have received some media attention (from print, nothing from TV) but I have yet to come across a single word being said, being written by our finest intellectuals, academicians, opinion makers and members of civil society who otherwise are so vociferous in their support to the exploited across the world. Not even from those 'pro-dalit' left liberals who remain ever concerned on atrocities happening in rural areas and are considered 'experts' articulating on Dalit pains. Probably it is much easier to talk about Bharat than about India, about structures and institutions they themselves are part of.

The only responses I got was many emails and phone calls from random 'upper' caste research scholars interested in making our pains and our dead bodies as their research topics for their M.Phils and Phds in foreign universities and an 'upper' caste NRI professor wanting to turn this into a multi-million project. All of them were either completely ignored or politely refused.

~~

But the story doesn't even end here. There is always a danger of getting dismissed very easily while recounting our pains, talking about caste, talking about caste discrimination, talking about caste-prejudices, as 'brokers of victimhood' and when we don't (talk about them), our articulations are dismissed as merely identity politics and we are accused of ignoring the 'larger realities' of Dalits, ignoring the 'real issues' confronted by our community.

Even our dead bodies can be played against us, the way Sagarika Ghose, Deputy Editor of CNN IBN, did it and did it so beautifully. On her programme, Face the Nation, on January 31, 2013, to debate on the controversy around Prof Ashis Nandy, Ghose, rather than interrogating Prof Nandy and debating on his remarks, chose to interrogate the whole Dalit community and its leaders instead.

She begins her show with, "Who is the greater enemy of the SCs, STs, OBCs: an intellectual like Ashis Nandy who simply put forward his own theories about society and corruption, or those who actually brutally kill Dalits (reference is to the brutal murders of 3 Dalit youth in Ahmednagar) or amass fortunes in the name of Dalits (reference is to Mayawati and her 'corruption'), that is our debate tonight."

Just before the start of her programme, Ghose tweets, "Will upper castes who killed/mutilated Dalit youth in Maharashtra be brought to justice or are cops too busy with Ashis Nandy?"

So atrocities against us can also be used to silence us while getting acknowledged, they can also be used to cover up any anxieties of 'upper' castes getting interrogated on harbouring caste prejudices and also to display 'upper' caste hurt over perceived curbing of their freedom of speech and expression.

~~

And Prof Ashis Nandy, this is our first charge against you for which I wish you stand trial under the SC/ST Atrocity Act.

I accuse you, as the country's finest intellectual, most respected social scientist and public intellectual, of being guilty of raising generations of 'upper' castes who are fully oblivious of and completely insensitive to the discrimination, prejudices and atrocities faced by over 20 percent of Indian population on a daily basis.

You failed to teach your children, your students about the horrors of caste and you let them believe that all this is now past and their surnames do not matter anymore, their privileges do not matter anymore. You allowed many 'upper' castes to use Muslims to make their own religion, based on far brutal caste hierarchy, appear as more tolerant and progressive. You, as the country's finest intellectual, even allowed reservations to become an automatic justification of every 'upper' caste individual's claim to being meritorious.

But worse, you allowed 'upper' caste people, like Barkha Dutt and Suddhabrata Sengupta, to believe that you never ever could have a casteist bone and neither do they. And therein lies your biggest failure as a social scientist.

I am sure, the social scientist in you will agree with me.

Dear Barkha Dutt, just some time back, during the Radia Tapes incident, you were under heavy criticism and all of your journalistic credibility was at stake; and then you told the entire country how you feel targeted because of your gender, for being a woman. I agreed with you and your 'upper' caste woman colleague Shoma Chaudhury (senior editor at Tehelka Magazine), who supported you and called the entire episode as "a misogynistic, medieval witch hunt" in The New York Times.

I was witness to all those abuses that used to get hurled at you on twitter, on facebook pages, in comment sections of news articles; I was also witness to how other journalists, all males, who were also caught talking with Niira Radia, were getting it all easy while all your credibility was being crucified by one and all. I understood your pain.

Being a part of the Dalit movement, trying to fight casteist prejudices, counting and recounting our pains in this country, has made me a little sensitive to the pains of others as well as to realize that, as a male, I can always have a sexist/misogynist bone and I can NEVER EVER give a certificate to other males for not having one, his long 'reputation' notwithstanding.

To be continued.

~~

In the second part of my article, I will try to write on whatever sense I could make out of Prof Ashis Nandy's remarks at the Jaipur Literature Festival, including his discourse on caste and corruption, articulations from his defenders and the 'upper' caste anxieties on SC/ST(POA) Act, 1989.

Jai Bhim!

~~

Notes


* www.atrocitynews.com, a website formed in October 2006by a group of Ambedkarite Buddhists, as an immediate response to the Khairlanji massacre and its non-reporting by mainstream media, with an objective 'to bring to notice in public, the inhuman actions done by many, noticed by few', did marvelous job of painstakingly bringing out the facts about Khairlanji out in open for the entire world.

A gift of 'western modernity' and determination of Dalits to use it in their favour paid some dividends as this group and the website became the only link between Bhotmange family of Khairlanji and all those who cared, including Sabrina Buckwalter,  that it received some justice. After 7 years the website is a treasure house of all 'the inhuman actions done by many across the country, noticed by few'.

~~

Please also read recent articles on the same issue:

Ashis Nandy's comment: A Need to Think and Re-think!: by Jyotsna Siddharth 

The Emperor Has No Clothes: by Dr. N. Sukumar 

"Is Ashis Nandy a sacred cow?" by Dalit Camera: Through Un-Touchable Eyes 

"I am not for Ashis Nandy's arrest, I want to expose him" by Dalit Camera: Through Un-Touchable Eyes 

Nandy's militia of liberals: by Parakh Chouhan 

When Protests Become Intolerant: by Dr. N. Sukumar

~~~

 Anoop Kumar's email id is: anoopkheri(at)gmail(dot)com

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