ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Nandy Controversy

What can we learn, as citizens and social scientists, from this raging debate?

Over the fortnight since Ashis Nandy spoke in the Jaipur Literature Festival on 26 January 2013, his remarks on corruption and its use by the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) continue to be the subject of intense controversy and have come to divide progressive sections as well as the academic community. Much has been written and debated on the intent and meaning of what Nandy said, his right to say what he did and whether it was derogatory towards dalits, tribals and OBCs. The video and text of the entire discussion where these comments were made are now easily accessible and despite this the diametrically opposite readings of his intent and content remain. This is particularly regrettable since public debates should ideally help us find ways of dealing with our differences.

One reason why the issue has become so divisive is the manner in which it was presented, which set the terms in which Nandy’s statements, both at the session and later in clarification, were seen. This was the screaming “breaking news” mode adopted by IBN7, one of whose senior journalists was a part of the panel where Nandy made his remarks and who objected to Nandy’s remarks right then and there. Subsequently, the channel made “Ashis Nandy Had Denigrated Dalits” as its main news for the next few hours, which was soon picked up by others. For two days after the event no one, other than those who had been present at that particular session, had seen or heard of more than that one, disembodied, sentence. All the initial political furore, the taking of sides, the filing of police complaints under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and the defence of Nandy were based on that “breaking news”. We cannot view this entire “controversy” separate from the way it was created through the working of a, by now, well-known “standard operating procedure” of television journalism. Irrespective of the intent and content of what Nandy said, that we tend to take our positions based on such vitiated journalism is a serious matter particularly since it is now becoming a disturbing pattern of our public discourse. After all, Nandy has publicly argued a similar position at least twice (including very broadly in the EPW, see “Theories of Oppression and Another Dialogue of Cultures”, 28 July 2012) in the recent past with no opposition or protest. It is this which underlines the role of “breaking news” and disembodied “sound bytes” in fanning anger and discord.

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