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    South Asia
     Feb 25, '13


SPEAKING FREELY
Caste and corruption in modern India
By Niladri Ranjan Ray

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

The memory of oppressed people is one thing that cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch below the surface. - Howard Zinn [1]
Controversy surrounding remarks on caste made by renowned sociologist Ashis Nandy in January drew public ire, particularly from the Dalits (former untouchables) and Adivasis (indigenous peoples) [2] of India.

"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. And as long as this is the



case, the Indian republic will survive," [3] Nandy said during a panel discussion on the "Republic of Ideas" at the Jaipur Literary Festival.

Nandy has tried since to empirically justify his "fact", citing the Indian state of West Bengal as an example of clean states. In his words, "in the last 100 years, nobody from the OBCs, the backward classes and the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes have come anywhere near power".

Through his comments, Nandy has linked corruption with caste identity. The nuanced argument has since prompted Dalit political leaders of India to call for legal action against him. However, defending freedom of speech, the Indian media accused Dalit-Adivasi politicians of going overboard in their response [4] to Nandy's remarks.

This ignores the media's own angry response after some politico-spiritual leaders were caught on tape making sexist remarks. [5]

Of course, there is hardly any justification to call for Nandy's arrest under a serious Act, which can put anyone behind bars for up to 10 years. Taken out of context, his remark ostensibly falls into the category of blatant casteism. Given Nandy's past record, particularly his efforts to speak up for the rights of the marginalized and deprived sections of society, his remark, even if meant to be casteist, needs to be treated with flexibility. It would be a great injustice if Nandy was to face prosecution.

Everyone seems to have missed the point. Nobody wonders why some groups are so easily offended and branded intolerant by the rest. The Dalits-Adivasis, as well as women of all castes, belong to the vulnerable sections of Indian society and are justifiably more vocal in protests. The intolerance derives from hundreds of years of silently endured oppression.

In other words, in a complex society where several tensions related to gender, caste and religious identities prevail, a hard-line approach to any notion may appear a double-aged sword.

Sweeping approval for freedom of speech may work favorably for some groups on certain occasions but may backfire for another. Any freedom needs to be redefined in the light of serving social justice to the weak and vulnerable sections.

The Delhi gang-rape affair has shown why verbal attacks on women can be attributed to the existence of a patriarchal hegemony and the prejudices borne out of it. Patriarchy cannot be uncloaked without understanding the politics behind marginalization and disempowerment of certain groups. Left without power, any group becomes weak and vulnerable.

Patriarchal hegemony itself is a shrewd strategy. It is necessary to manufacture public consent so in selective cases it could appear that the hegemony is being practiced by default. Through the construction of male/female, masculine/effeminate, master/slave and authority/obedience binary oppositions, patriarchy, therefore, renders its authority over the female body and mind depicting it as a natural phenomenon or something biologically determined.

The moment male authority is established, it is expected that the female response comes with obedience. Such binary thoughts also give birth to the power structure of "dominance hierarchy" in relation to caste identity.

Michel Foucault seeks to explain all social relations in the language of power, domination and subordination. Foucault maintains that punitive power is dispersed throughout the social system, it is literally everywhere. He believes in the ubiquity of power. [6]

The process of subjugation, determined by the exercising power at various levels, has always targeted the weak and vulnerable sections of society, alienating them as separate entities meant to be under control. First, you are disempowered, and then you are a victim of power. Such continuous dislocations of power equilibria contribute to the formation of hierarchy structures which prevail till further disruptions.

Casteism as a crude mechanism of Social Darwinism haunts the male members of dominant castes, forcing them to be obsessed with what Friedrich Nietzsche would have loved to call Der Wille zur Macht [7]. Casteism, being another product of patriarchy and power, is a customarily perpetuated and evolutionary polarization between oppressor and the oppressed. Caste atrocity and gender oppression are both sides of the same coin; the two forms of offenses intersect with each other across space and time.

Emulation by the misconceived 'other'
Nandy clarified that his comment was in response to another panelist, Tarun Tejpal's observation of corruption as an equalizing force.

It is unlikely that most of the Dalits-Adivasis, still living at the bottom level of the ladder of caste-class continuum, can afford to find basic means to engage in corruption to breach the continuum and achieve equality. [8] Not all power relations can be seen through the lens of "Vulgar Marxism". That most of the Dalit-Adivasi people do not get equal access to the equalizing force mentioned by Tejpal and Nandy remains an undisputed fact. So why did Tejpal and Nandy have such a misconception?

Primarily the Indian elite perceive the Dalit-Adivasi folks as the "other" in a collective sense. On one occasion, Nandy himself argued that "the 3,000-year-old tribal civilization of India", now on the verge of extinction because of state repression, "has traditionally constituted the most significant other - simultaneously an alter-ego, a disowned self and a possibility - for the better known, more transparent, dominant self of India." [9]

This alienation necessarily results in a portrayal of the "other" as people so dumb and numb that they themselves can hardly decide what is good for them. Such hypotheses are initially shrouded in empathetic overtures expressing solidarity. But feelings of paternal benevolence soon overshadow it. Unchallenged, the elite often go a step further, making propositions on behalf of the "other".

European colonizers once applied such a rationale, known as the civilizing mission, to legitimize encroachment. For better governance, they devised an assimilation process aimed at turning the colonized people into obedient subjects.

The assimilation aimed to strengthen the colonial paternal structures and serve the interests of imperial patriarchs, preoccupied with an exaggerated sense of being masculine, tied to the tasks of struggle and conquest, and of course racially superior to the "other". Once the colonized folks became vocal about their equal rights as subjects, anxieties appeared in the minds of colonizers. They were not ready to accept the colonized "other" as equals.

Just as how patriarchy, having no gender, is often practiced and promoted by women themselves, who register their subjectivities through the patriarchal institutions and inadvertently consolidate the paternal structures from which those institutions are formed, Dalits-Adivasis, by emulating the dominant castes' cultural way of life, are forwarding a phenomenon called "Sanskritization".[10]

Introducing social mobility, however, produces new tensions in the mainstream. It threatens to weaken the foundation of the patriarchy by diluting the purity of twice-born identity in the process of assimilation. Thus the patriarch of a general caste family feels threatened if a Sanskritized Dalit/Adivasi boy confronts his masculinity by asking for his daughter's hand.

An assimilation where the weaker needs to emulate the stronger does not necessarily equalize the sharing of power between the dominant and the subservient. As long as the weaker sections' agencies remain contingent upon the authority of stronger sections, paternal benevolence is showered.

Once the subservient makes efforts to do away with hierarchy, the dominant starts applying dissimilation by alienating the disobedient "other". In the eyes of the dominant, the "other" always remains "other", which essentially falls into the category of inferior people not entitled to equal power.

The authority to exercise power after all remains in the grip of those groups that control access to power. Those who control access to power can disempower others. The empowered groups patronize patriarchy as they receive that authority from it. The effects of such authority are counterbalanced when the weak and vulnerable sections together try to acquire command over existing political discourses through revolt and defiance.

Power itself is autonomous and impersonal. Any subject constituted by power becomes part of the mechanisms of power. A subjugated identity group can produce power and be subject to subjugation through the exercise of such power simultaneously. Their defiance as part of an effective strategy can be of some help for it produces counter-power. And truly, "power abdicates", observes Martin Buber, "only under the stress of counter-power". [11]

The Dalit-Adivasi response to Ashis Nandy's remark may look like overreaction and intolerance, but such response needs to be placed within the discursive framework of understanding patriarchal domination and the resistance to it.

Notes:
1. Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, New York, 1980, p. 435.
2. A transcript from the session DVD
3. The word Dalits stands for the formerly outcaste and oppressed population, belonging to the lowest social and ritual class, of India. The Government of India recognizes them as Scheduled Castes. The word Adivasis means the aboriginal tribal population officially recognized as Scheduled Tribes by the Government.
4. Political response refers to the call for legal action against Nandy by the Dalit political leaders. See Dalit corruption remark: Ashis Nandy faces political backlash, apologises, Zee News, January, 2013
5. Why Asaram Bapu, Mohan Bhagwat need to shut their mouths One India New, January 8, 2013.
6. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume One: An Introduction, London, 1979, pp. 93 - 94. Also see, Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Trans. Alan Sheridan, New York, 1977.
7. In English it is "The Will to Power," a doctrine which according to Nietzsche focuses on a man's experience of growing empowerment by overcoming obstacles in relation to the state of his lack of power. Both his agreements and disagreements are part of his desire to be powerful. See, Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, Trans. Walter Kaufman and R J Hollingdale, New York, 1967.
8. Caste identity, however, shows more rigidity than that of class. See, Gunner Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, New York, 1944, p. 675.
9. Ashis Nandy, "The Pasts of All Possible Futures: A Foreward", in Re-imagining India and Other Essays, New Delhi, 2010, p. xi.
10. M N Srinivas notices upward mobility in the socio-cultural ranking of caste identity and the emulation of Brahmanical way of life by the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. See, M N Srinivas, Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India, Oxford, 1952.
11. Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia, New York, 1950, p. 104.


Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

Niladri Ranjan Ray is currently a research fellow pursuing PhD in the Department of History of Jadavpur University.

(Copyright 2013 Niladri Ranjan Ray).





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