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What Nandy said can't be justified as freedom of speech: K Satyanarayana

Interview with Dalit scholar & activist

Ravichandran Chakkiliyan 

K Satyanarayana, Dalit scholar, activist and associate professor in the Department of Cultural Studies, English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, tells Ravichandran Chakkiliyan of why he feels betrayed by Ashis Nandy

How do you see Ashis Nandy’s comments at the [JLF] against [SCs], [STs] and other backward classes [OBCs]? What is your view on the debate across the country? I’d like to thank for giving me this space because we don’t have NDTV or CNN-IBN or the newspaper world. First, I’m really upset at the way this whole discussion is taking place. I am not upset so much about Nandy’s comments, but at the way that Dalits as a community, including myself, are implicated in this discussion. First, as “corrupt” people, then as who are “intolerant”, then as who have “no sense of humour”. To give you some details, one of Nandy’s friends said SCs, STs and are treated as sacred cows in this country. I am asking now: is Nandy a sacred cow?

Dalits have been criticised, Dalits have been stereotyped and Dalits are at the receiving end of many things. So, they have not been sacred cows. They have not even been able to reply in a strong manner to the campaign. We don’t have many to write, you don’t have the media to voice their concerns. So, they are not sacred cows, they have never been sacred cows. But is Nandy a sacred cow? Is he above criticism? Are our intellectuals above any criticism? Is Nandy infallible?

The whole discussion is arranged to defend Nandy. Just because he is an eminent sociologist, an eminent intellectual, will you justify whatever he has said? Will you not go into details of what exactly he said? Will you not go into the response of the communities that are at the receiving end? I am really puzzled by the number of commentators, mainly his friends, and the TV commentators, trying to explain his argument, trying to justify [it] in the process, saying he actually made pro-Dalit comments. [Whether] they’re pro-Dalit comments or anti-Dalit comments, that’s debatable. But you’re actually foreclosing any debate by saying he is misunderstood. And what are they invoking?

They are really invoking the biography of Nandy to defend his remarks, saying he has been a supporter of reservations; he has been working on Dalits; he has written so much in favour of Dalits and I have not seen whatever he has written about Dalits. And his position, his writings, are open to different kinds of interpretations...

In this context, to invoke his biography and his own writings, saying they are idiosyncratic, they are known for humour, wit and so on and so forth — this cannot justify what happened at JLF. You have to go into the merits of that [what he said at JLF], and just saying because he is known for his unconventional views, which may not be liked by others [does not justify his comments].

Nandy has his corporate media; Nandy has a solidarity blog; Nandy has his solidarity petition and a whole lot of things. In this whole discussion, I did not see the Dalit view emerging very strongly. And nobody is thinking about what Dalits are actually thinking about it. It is only Dalits who are feeling strongly that Nandy’s statements are highly objectionable, even if he says corruption leads to democracy and Dalits are the most creative and good at corruption [in emulating the upper castes].

So, this is his argument. is his model. But we don’t have to emulate that. We don’t have to accept that view. And our has to be taken into consideration. I mean, he is making a comment specifying [that] SCs, STs and are the most corrupt people and they are creative people [in emulation], and that leads to democracy. We don’t want this kind of characterisation. What Nandy has said in Jaipur cannot be justified on the grounds of freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech versus censorship — are these the only two things?

By invoking [the bogey of] censorship, by saying these people are hooligans, that they are very intolerant and that they’re undemocratic, you’re actually not allowing a debate. In fact, most of the Dalit scholars and Dalit activists did not speak up because they are really intimidated. Because the kind of picture you gave is that whoever says something about Dalits, Dalits are going to come and break your head, or file a case under the SC/ST Act. You have been debating on Dalits; they’ve not done this at any time.

So, why are you reproducing this image of the Dalit, as the most intolerant people in this country? And you’re not addressing what Nandy is saying. This is my first point: where is he “hounded”? This language of [Nandy] being “hounded”, he is “harassed” — by whom? You’re implying — by Dalits. So, did they harass him? Did they hound him?

This is producing a discourse where you’re criminalising Dalits, this entire discourse [is about that]. It is a controversy created by him, in an elite festival. The opposition also came from the people on the stage and elsewhere, and not from Dalits. Then, it became a public controversy. So, this is your own controversy.

But finally, you want to use this to make Nandy a great intellectual, and a hero by doing all this, and in the process, the damage done to the Dalit community is very, very serious...

This view was reproduced again and again, again and again. Already we’re a stigmatised community, already we’re seen as the most corrupt people. And that’s the public view on this. So, we have high visibility, as he himself noted. And in his own, new way of talking of corruption as leading to democracy and Dalits as being “creative” people, you’re doing greater damage than anyone else.

How do you see the way Dalits are being portrayed in the discussions? Some have tried to portray them, as you say, as “intolerant” and “hooligans”… [The discussion refers to] “the intolerant chorus of outrage” of SCs, STs and OBCs. That is how the discussion goes. And “easily offended” people. These are people who are “easily offended”. So, these people who have been taking this offense and violence of all kinds for centuries, they are seen as “easily offended” people. Whereas the people of the other communities are not easily offended.

These are people who are called “brokers of victimhood”: this is a reference to the Dalit politicians and Dalit leaders. The “brokers of victimhood” and “footsoldiers of identity politics”; and people who are making “political capital” [out of this issue]; people who are “craving for publicity” and so on...

This whole discussion is actually stereotyping the Dalit community. One FIR [first-information report] was filed, and then [you start] saying the SC/ST Act is in some sense “a very draconian act”, and you [Dalits] are misusing that Act, and that Act itself is a kind of a serious problem. So, I don’t know what exactly they are saying. They’re actually opposing their own institutions of democracy. He cannot interpret [his comment] as pro-Dalit or anti-Dalit, he cannot decide that saying SCs and STs are corrupt people and creative people is a compliment. I don’t take it as a compliment.

This is an edited version of an interview by and is reproduced with its permission. The video recording of the interview was transcribed by Kuffir and published in Roundtable India

First Published: Sun, February 03 2013. 00:30 IST