*From the Ludic to the Ludicrous: The Affair of Ashis Nandy


The Jaipur Literary Festival is known to stir controversy.  So is Ashis Nandy, often celebrated as India’s most arresting and provocative thinker.  For well over three decades, Nandy has been in the business, shall we say, of unsettling received ideas, controverting the most established opinions, and deploying the tactics of a street fighter against institutionalized forms of knowledge.  He scandalized many in India who view themselves as progressive when, in the mid-1980s, he published ‘An Anti-Secularist Manifesto’, though it is no exaggeration to say that the substance of his critique of secularism has now become part of the new commonsense of informed scholarship. 


Appearing in this year’s edition of the Jaipur Literary Festival, one should have expected that Nandy would come up with one of his startlingly fresh insights –– more so when the discussion at a panel in which he was participating veered towards corruption, a matter which has greatly agitated the country, particularly its middle classes, since at least the time Anna Hazare launched his movement to deliver India from this menace.  The fact that Anna Hazare, however well intentioned he might be, is nearly clueless, and that the popular movement which he initiated generated, in intellectual terms, little more than platitudes made Nandy’s remarks seem all the more radical and even incomprehensible. 


Commencing his remarks with the critical observation that he was going to make a ‘vulgar statement’, Nandy added:  ‘It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBCs, the Scheduled Castes, and now increasingly the Scheduled Tribes.  And as long as this is the case, the Indian Republic will survive.’  Not surprisingly, the first line alone has been replayed in the media over and over again.  Nandy’s fellow panelist, the TV journalist Ashutosh, immediately pilloried him as a representative of ‘elitist India’, characterizing his remarks as ‘the most bizarre statement’ he had ever heard ‘in this country’.  Mayawati has called for Nandy’s arrest, and a FIR has been lodged against him under the Schedules Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.  In Patna, members of organizations of SCs and STs marched from the High Court to Dak Bungalow Square, where they burnt an effigy of Nandy.


It is, of course, a feature of our times that attentive reading of texts and the work of interpretation are seen as luxuries that can be ill afforded when the country is thirsting for ‘change’, ‘fast’ track courts, and the speedy resolution of complex social issues.  The dedicated do-good activist types, in particular, are generally without humor and find irony a hindrance to whatever noble cause they wish to espouse.  Nandy had not spoken in a vacuum:  preceding him as a speaker, Tehelka’s editor Tarun Tejpal had argued that ‘corruption’ should be recognized as a strategy by means of which the poor and the marginalized, operating in a hierarchical society with deeply encrusted forms of oppression, are able to enter into the public domain and do precisely what the upper castes have been doing for centuries, namely leveraging their power and privileges to advance their own interests.  The most eminent sociologist of the previous generation, the late M. N. Srinivas, would perhaps not have balked at the suggestion that this might be viewed as a form of what he called ‘Sanskritization’, the emulation of the upper castes by lower castes on a trajectory of upward social mobility.


It is these ideas with which Nandy was signifying his agreement, adding his own inimitable touch to the discussion.  Scholars have long been familiar with debates about text vs. context, and critics of Nandy might reasonably argue that he should have known that his remarks would be, as is commonly said, ‘taken out of context’.  Moreover, the most insistent Indian tradition of intellectual argumentation insists that one’s reasoning should anticipate, and account for, objections to one’s argument.  But, to understand Nandy, we can even do without the context:  not only was he showing self-reflexivity in prefacing his remarks with the observation that he was going to make a ‘vulgar statement’, he delivers a resounding defence of how the Dalits and the poor have mobilized electoral democracy with the suggestion that the resort to corruption by the OBCs, SCs, and STs ensures that ‘the Indian Republic will survive.’


We need not even enter into the other nuances of Nandy’s argument, such as the proposition that the corruption of the rich and powerful is largely invisible.  Having lagged behind for generations, the poor and the deprived will certainly have to be ‘more’ corrupt if they are to make inroads into India’s political system.  There are, however, more critical questions at stake here.  How did we come to have such fragile sensibilities? What kind of intellectual culture do we seek?  Should we be party to the epidemic of apologies that has swept the West and insist that Nandy take back everything he has said?  Nandy’s fellow Bengali, the writer Nirad Chaudhuri, dedicated his autobiography to the memory of the British Empire in India since Pax Britannica shaped ‘all that was good and living within us’.  Should we have insisted that Chaudhuri apologize to the nation for implicitly denigrating the nationalist movement? 


To enter into Nandy’s works is to encounter a mind that is not only deeply thoughtful but also forever engaged with the suppleness and play of ideas.  It is the ludic or playful element in Nandy’s work, which seldom leaves him satisfied with the certitudes of received intellectual opinion, that easily distinguishes him from his intellectual contemporaries.  The tragedy of if it is that, judging from the shallow and profoundly unreflective response to Nandy’s provocations, we have moved from the ludic to the ludicrous.

(Also published in Outlook magazine, at http://www.outlookindia.com, 29 January 2013,

as “From the Ludic to the Ludicrous”)


10 thoughts on “*From the Ludic to the Ludicrous: The Affair of Ashis Nandy

  1. Salil Tripathi gave me this link to your article in response to my article http://anupknair.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/a-modest-proposal-on-raising-awareness-about-chronic-irony-misunderstanding-disorder/. He said it would do me some good. It did do me quite some good. It made me realise that there is a lot of intellectual dishonesty amongst writers. Contrary to what everyone is suggesting about Nandy making a “complex argument”; his argument about Dalits’ corruption being an equalising force is pretty straightforward; one has to be extremely daft not to realise that argument. But while trying to come in defence of Nandy’s controversial remark about Dalits being the most corrupt (which was a follow up statement to his “complex argument” ideated along with Tarun Tejpal during the course of the panel discussion), writers such as yourself, Salil Tripathi, Nilanjana Roy and many others have attempted to conveniently hide Nandy’s supporting statement for Dalits being the most corrupt by taking the example of West Bengal under the Communist rule. Why this fudging of facts, half disclosures and the dishonesty? If you want to stand up for Nandy’s right to free speech then do so by all means but do not do the man an injustice by trying to hide what the man in question himself had taken pains to express. For all I care Nandy is entitled to have his casteist opinion; but to do so in the guise of being an intellectual without giving any iota of evidence shows the standard of public intellectuals in this country. You may read my first post on this subject explaining the same; it has been designed to do intellectuals “a world of good”. http://anupknair.wordpress.com/2013/01/27/the-masquerade-of-the-finest-intellectuals-at-jaipur-lit-fest/


    • I don’t know what Salil Tripathi or Nilanjana Roy’s opinions are on this matter as I haven’t read them. What do I know is that I don’t
      find your remarks even remotely persuasive, or even interesting, since all you’ve done is given a string of
      opinions with which we are all expected to go along — among them, the purported fact of Nandy’s “intellectual dishonesty”,
      or that he is “casteist”. Enough has been written on the question of “evidence” for what Nandy said; if you’re
      still asking for “evidence”, then plainly you haven’t understood the gist of his remarks. I don’t recall, moreover, that
      I had said anything about Nandy’s example of West Bengal under CPM rule, so this would appear to be another
      instance of intellectual sloppiness on your part. I think it would be instructive to attempt
      to distinguish between positions that, on careless reading, seem to be very much alike.
      Intellectual sloppiness, by the way, is a lesser charge than intellectual
      dishonesty, which I think should only be advanced when one is absolutely certain of one’s own ethical and
      political position. Nothing you have said suggests to me that you ought to have such kind of confidence.


  2. Pingback: The Gandian way of Dalit discourse | Endless, Nameless

  3. You picked up the wrong end of the stick. I wasn’t referring to Nandy’s intellectual disgonesty but that of yours. You should definitely point me the empirical evidence that exists in favour of Nandy’s thesis on ‘caste and corruption’. As regards the charge of intellectual sloppiness, perhaps I should point to you that you have had a tough time understanding a comment that I posted on your blog with clear references that would make it clear to anyone who can understand the English language. Anyway I have written about people like you in my latest post. http://anupknair.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/the-gandian-way-of-dalit-discourse/


  4. Pingback: *The Provocations of Ashis Nandy « Lal Salaam: A Blog by Vinay Lal

  5. I think the liberals are too eager to appear to be showing an understanding of Ashis Nandy’s thoughts and too eager to provide hail mary passes on his behalf when none was asked for. Nandy is entitled to his opinions as is anyone else. Also this was just a snarky/playful off-the-cuff comment from Ashis therefore not requiring serious criticism or rebuttal. But I did find his choice of subject for playfulness a bit odd. As a public intellectual surely he knows that he has an obligation to be understood clearly by the public without causing a needless outcry. While there is no doubt that Anna Hazare’s movement is a superficial made-for-TV type of demagoguery, one cannot deny that the movement evoked an emotional response from the masses who clearly identify with the problem of pervasive corruption as a reality they face everyday. Ashis’ flippant comment mocks the genuine feelings of the masses which I find offensive. I would dare say Ashis’ comment just shows the difference between a mass leader (real or false) and a public intellectual who can only preach from his ivory tower but is a lone voice in the wilderness and knows this well. It even smacks of attention-seeking. Would Gandhi have denigrated real sentiments of masses by trying to appear a smart alec in his comments ? But my real objection is to the use of the playful/snarky phrase “And as long as this is the case, the Indian Republic will survive” – Why so much cynicism for the Indian “Republic” ? Despite all the flaws that the Indian polity clearly has today there have been many positive changes since independence, and much to hope for.


    • My suggestion is that the ludic element features prominently in Nandy’s work is not only being taken too literally by
      the writer, but, it appears to me, has not been understood. When I speak of Nandy’s playfulness, I am by no means
      arguing that we should take his remarks less seriously than we do the writings of others, or that Nandy is prone to make
      off-the-cuff and flippant remarks and may, therefore, be safely ignored. The ludic element points, rather, to other considerations,
      such as the free association of ideas, being counter-intuitive and intuitive at the same time. The distinction that
      the philosopher of religion James Carse has made between ‘finite’ and ‘infinite’ games is pertinent here. Where I do
      agree with the writer is that as a public intellectual, Nandy has a greater obligation to appear responsible than do other scholars who do
      not care to communicate with the wider public at all.


  6. Nandy is, as your own colleague in the UCLA history department Sanjay Subrahmanyam has said, India’s only colonial thinker!


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