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Thursday, 31 January 2013

Scissors and scared scholars : Imagine the toll on India’s intellectual life if scholars don’t say the unspeakable because it isn’t worth the trouble

Scissors and scared scholars

Imagine the toll on India’s intellectual life if scholars don’t say
the unspeakable because it isn’t worth the trouble

Salil Tripathi

     WED, JAN 30 2013. 04 39 PM IST

Updated: Wed, Jan 30 2013. 04 56 PM IST

In a country suffering from a chronic irony deficiency, it was no
surprise that academic Ashis Nandy’s glib remark about corruption and
caste, made at the just-concluded Jaipur Literature Festival, morphed
into a gargantuan controversy, as though he had risen on a pulpit
calling for a caste war in India. Assuming the intimate setting of a
literature festival as something similar to the lawns of the India
International Centre in Delhi—he was after all chatting with people he
likely thinks of as friends, publisher Urvashi Butalia, journalists
Tarun Tejpal and Ashutosh, and British writers Patrick French and
Richard Sorabji—Nandy said, probably ironically, that some of India’s
most disadvantaged groups were the most corrupt. He, of course, didn’t
mean that quite so literally: Later he clarified that the corrupt from
the so-called lower castes are more likely to get caught, unlike the
corrupt among the elite, who have the means to cover their tracks.

Headline-seeking politicians such as Mayawati were quick to demand
that Nandy be jailed, without explaining why, as if holding a
controversial view was a criminal offence. The Rajasthan unit of the
People’s Union for Civil Liberties had to issue a statement clarifying
that Nandy was not advocating hate—as though that wasn’t evident. And
Rajasthan’s finest, who seem to have nothing more important to do,
opened a formal inquiry. Novelist and poet Jeet Thayil, who read
publicly from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses at last year’s
festival (for which he, three other writers and the festival
organizers continue to face possible charges), and who was awarded the
DSC Prize this year, wrote this week how the Rajasthan Police deputed
a “minder” for Thayil throughout the festival, presumably to act in
case Thayil says something. Seeing him go from session to session
listening to other authors, the officer asked Thayil: “Is this what
you do? You talk all day about books?” Yes, Thayil said, and adds: “He
said nothing more, but his expression of disbelief mixed with pity
told me everything I needed to know.”

Clearly, modern India is not the place for irony or satire, where
Jonathan Swift could have written his A Modest Proposal, in which he
suggested that the Irish poor should lift themselves out of poverty by
selling their children as food to the rich. (The essay actually mocked
the rich and the callous Irish policy of 1720s). Nor could Oscar Wilde
have survived in contemporary India for his 1891 essay, where he
provoked by saying that the poor weren’t grateful, but were
“discontented, disobedient and rebellious”. His point: to highlight
the absurdity of the ruling class. Whether Nandy intended irony is now
almost moot: the horses have left the barn; his supporters are
presenting tortuous defence on Nandy’s behalf to his critics who want
him to atone for his words, and who can’t tell apart real selves from
“possible or retrieved selves”; and on TV networks, where each of his
pauses and each nuance is being scrutinized, as if Nandy is suggesting
that India rewrite the Constitution and disenfranchise the socially
disadvantaged groups, or something similarly diabolical. Such is the
pathetic state we have reached, by continuing to bow to every thekedar
of a vote bank who wants “respect” for his group. And respect, in this
lexicon, means to say nothing that he or she thinks of as even mildly

This is now an epidemic, and it goes beyond academia. Even after the
movie Vishwaroopam was certified by the Central Board of Film
Certification, the Tamil Nadu government sought to ban it, asking
film-maker Kamal Hassan to edit his film again by clipping a large
chunk because some Muslim groups remain dissatisfied and have said
that the film is offensive to them. (Nobody is forcing those groups to
see the film, but their whole point is in preventing others from
seeing it). The Madras high court lifted the stay on the film, but its
opponents say they will go to the Supreme Court.

Then, there is the case of Sujata Patil, a police officer in Mumbai
who wrote a poem critical of Muslim demonstrators at Azad Maidan in
August last year. The poem is hardly a work of art, and as a serving
officer, Patil should appear impartial, even though her anger is
understandable. And by publishing her poem—albeit in an in-house
journal—she may have violated service norms. The journal’s editors
have apologized. But surely police officers don’t live in isolated
ivory towers; they are part of the society in which there was
justified, near-unanimous revulsion over the way the protesters
acted—damaging a national monument and allegedly molesting women
police officers. Patil’s poem would have carried some weight had the
state done nothing. In each such case, the state empowers the
offended, undermining free expression.

Kowtowing has costs—people will begin to watch their words, swallowing
their real feelings. Imagine the toll on what remains of India’s
intellectual life if scholars don’t say the unspeakable because it
isn’t worth the trouble.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome
at To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go

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