The Gandhian way of Dalit discourse

The recent Ashis Nandy controversy has turned out to be an excellent case study to document the serious intellectual morass that exists in our society today in relation to social issues. It is sad that there were far too many intellectuals who while commenting about Nandy’s remarks, where he asserted that Dalits/Tribals/OBCs were the most corrupt of all, resorted to hijack the discussion away from his casteist and opionated comments that had no empirical basis. Instead of having a discussion around the charges that were laid on Nandy by people who called out Nandy on his ‘caste and corruption’ thesis, these intellectuals even tried steering the discussion in trying to find meaning in Nandy’s opionated and transparently casteist comments.

The fundamental charge that was made against Nandy was that he was being casteist. This casteist charge that Nandy’s supporters are denying is all too apparent if one can read the full comment that Nandy made (reproduced further down)  wherein he asserted that Dalits were the most corrupt while giving example of West Bengal which is apparently a clean state because no Dalit had ever come close to being in power. The other serious charge relates to that of an academician/intellectual like him talking through his hat; Nandy did not feel it necessary to indicate support for his wild assertion with any empirical study that would show Dalits/Tribals/OBCs to be the most corrupt of all.  The supporters of Nandy, instead of replying to these charges or have a discussion around Nandy’s key ‘caste and corruption’ thesis, came up with wide range of variety of responses completely unconnected to the discussion. In doing so, they unwittingly laid bare their hypocritical and deceitful nature given they are supposed to be intellectuals who are supposed to seek and understand truth. Sadly, this type of intellectual dishonesty is widely prevalent amongst “public intellectuals” and pervades the public discourse surrounding issues relating to the Dalits/Tribals/OBCs that impede any sort of serious reconciliation efforts.

One supporter tried to project as if Nandy had provided one of his “startlingly fresh insights” when it comes to the matter of corruption and tried to explain the protests as such

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. (Vinay Lal writing in The Outlook)

Another maintained that Nandy’s comments were made in an ironical manner. I had responded to Tripathi’s article here.

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. (Salil Tripathi writing in the Mint

Another said taken out of context and the meaning twisted beyond that he had made a nuanced and complex argument with the usage of irony

It is symptomatic of the times we live in, of the climate of political discourse that we have contributed to, that even relatively innocuous statements can get so easily misrepresented and twisted to convey a meaning that is diametrically opposite to what was said and meant.  (Harsh Sethi writing in the Outlook)

In my earlier article, I had highlighted what intellectuals were consistently and deliberately glossing over; that is, Nandy’s casteist bias. That article also showed the “nuanced argument” that Nandy made was utter bullcrap that flies in the face of academic rigour. In this article I will show that Nandy was only too keen to display his casteist bias.

But first, I must set the context of Nandy’s remarks to make it clear to the reader the obfuscations, half truths that Nandy’s cronies are resorting to by trying to project that Nandy was misunderstood and all of us had missed out on his insight regarding ‘caste and corruption’. The context is thus:

Briefly replying to the moderator’s queries on his ideas on utopia (conceptualized in part as lack of corruption in the panel discussion) he says any state with no corruption is most likely to be a despotic one and that he hopes that there exist some corruption in India because it humanizes our society. Nandy then goes on to say that the corruption by the Dalits (taking examples of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Yadav & Mayawati) & tribals (Madhu Koda) looks more corrupt than the corruption by the upper castes and the elite class. On the issue of corruption, Tejpal responds that perhaps Corruption is an equalizing force whereby the non-elite classes “using  their wit, their intelligence and their hunger and very often subverting the rules that certain classes made” have become successful in occupying the corridors hitherto frequented only by the elite class. Tejpal cites the example of Dhirubai Ambani in stating this.

In response, Nandy says:

Just a response to this part, very briefly, he’s not saying the most important part of the story which will shock you and it will be a very undignified and, how should I put it, almost vulgar statement on my part. It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBCs and the Scheduled Castes and now increasingly Scheduled Tribes and as long as this is the case, Indian republic will survive. And I give an example, one of the states with least amount of corruption is the state of West Bengal where when the CPM was there. And I want to propose to you, draw your attention to the fact that 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 in West Bengal. It is an absolutely clean state.

 It should be apparent to anyone who can read and understand English that Nandy was only continuing to further make his point wrt Dalits & tribals and not building upon the point Tejpal had made about the non-elite classes. Nandy was speaking about castes while Tejpal was speaking about classes as you can understand from a reading of the comments above. Also if you look at the examples of personalities quoted, Nandy quotes Dalits (taking examples of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Yadav & Mayawati) & tribals (Madhu Koda) while Tejpal’s example is that of Dhirubhai Ambani who as a member of the non elite class was earlier filling petrol in a pump in Doha. So, Nandy and Tejpal were speaking about two sets of people when Nandy throws in his two cents worth of opinion about Dalits being the most corrupt of them all and then anecdotally puts forth that the lack of corruption in West Bengal is due to Dalits never ever have come close to power in that state.

One has to only read through the above mentioned transcript to understand that all these intellectuals who put forth various explanations in Nandy’s defence were only trying to spin the facts in a manner to make everyone think that they might have missed out on some crucial discussions that was not picked by the TV media which then would have proceeded to whip up the casteist controversy . There can be only one reason that explains this flurry of intellectuals coming to Nandy’s defense. I shall hint at the reason using an anecdote by the man himself

If I do a good turn to Richard Sorabji, he can return the favour by accommodating my nephew at Oxford, if it were in the United States, it would be a substantial fellowship.

This being the sad state of affairs, such intellectuals are not fit to be trusted with the responsible task of dealing with public issues truthfully. A list of such people is easily accessed at http://ashisnandysolidarity.blogspot.in/ . An intellectual is supposed to be honest to himself first; his devotion should be to seek and highlight the truth and not obfuscate, misrepresent in an attempt to mislead people for personal benefits. It also shows that those who are supposedly pro Dalit are the very ones who have no empathy with the Dalit cause and are only interested in milking the cause for what it is worth, just as was the case with Gandhi who was only interested in two things when it came to the cause of  eradicating Untouchability a) paying lip service as well as b) raise funds for the same.  I have written about in one of my earlier posts here that highlights how Ambedkar has exposed Gandhi for the damage Gandhi did to the Dalit cause.

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What Gandhi & Congress have done to the Dalits

You would be mistaken if you thought politician’s paying lip service to a cause and furthermore allowing misappropriation and misuse of monies collected from the public for the cause is a recent phenomenon. This phenomenon has been in play for almost nine decades now and the person who presided over one of the earliest such cases is considered as this country’s foremost freedom fighter, respected father figure and a champion of the “depressed classes” who coined the term Harijan (or children of God) to refer to these Untouchables /Dalits/Oppressed classes/Depressed classes. Yes, the person in question is none other than M.K Gandhi. Dr. B.R Ambedkar, a morally upright, intelligent and a tireless worker for the cause of the upliftment of the oppressed classes has accused Gandhi of precisely these above mentioned charges as regards to cause of the Untouchables espoused by Gandhi.

Writing in his book, ‘What Congress & Gandhi have done to the Untouchables’, Dr. Ambedkar squarely indicts Gandhi, who had projected himself as a savior of the depressed classes and the Congress Party that he represented on counts of a) insincerity to the cause of Untouchables as well as b) misuse & misappropriation of public money collected towards working for the upliftment of depressed classes.

Ambedkar drives home the first point by bringing out the various public statements as well as writings of Gandhi in which he made clear the imperative of eradicating Untouchability to the extent of even linking it to the attainment and preservation of Swaraj or self-rule. Removal of Untouchability was one of the five pre-conditions insisted by Gandhi to attain Swaraj in addition to Hindu-Muslim unity, Universal adoption of hand-spun and hand-woven khadi, absolute non-violence & complete non-cooperation.

Ambedkar provides concrete evidence as to how Gandhi’s actions towards this cause came woefully short of the grand display of concerns for the amelioration of the condition of the depressed classes.  He poses several uncomfortable questions for Gandhi which highlighted the gap between the lip service paid to the cause of eradicating Untouchability and concrete actions towards that goal:

“In 1921, Mr. Gandhi collected 1 crore and 35 lakhs of rupees for the Tilak Swaraj Fund. Mr. Gandhi insisted that there was no possibility of winning Swaraj unless Untouchability was removed. Why did he not protest when only a paltry sum of Rs. 43,000 was given to the cause of the Untouchables?

“In 1922 there was drawn up the Bardoli Programme of constructive work. Uplift of the Untouchables was an, important item in, it. A Committee was appointed to work out the details. The Committee never functioned and it was dissolved and the uplift of the Untouchables as an item in the constructive programme was dropped. Only Rs. 800 were allotted to the Committee for working expenses.”

“Why did not Mr. Gandhi support Swami Shradhanand who was fighting with the Congress Working Committee for large funds being assigned to the Committee? Why did not Mr. Gandhi protest against the dissolution of the Committee? Why did not Mr. Gandhi appoint another Committee? Why did he allow the work for the Untouchables to drop out as though it was of no importance?”

“Mr. Gandhi has gone on fast many a time to achieve a variety of objects which are dear to him. Why has Mr. Gandhi nut fasted even once for the sake of the Untouchables?”

“Mr. Gandhi declared that he would fast if the Guruvayur temple was not thrown open to the Untouchables by the Zamorin. The temple has not been thrown open. Why did not Mr. Gandhi go on fast?”

“If Mr. Gandhi is the real friend of the Untouchables, why did he not leave it to the Untouchables to decide whether political safeguards were the best means for their protection? Why did he go to the length of making a pact with the Muslims in order to isolate and defeat the Untouchables? Why did Mr. Gandhi declare a fast unto death the object of which was to deprive the Untouchables of the benefit of the Communal Award by this extreme form of coercion?”

“After having accepted the Poona Pact why did not Mr. Gandhi keep up the gentleman’s agreement and instruct the Congress High Command to include representatives of the Untouchables in, the Congress Cabinets?”

On the second point wrt misuse and misappropriation of public funds in the form of Rs. 1.3 crore collected for Tilak Swaraj fund, he lists down the itemized breakup of the grants totaling Rs. 49.5 lakhs that were voted by the Congress in 1921, 1922 and 1923 and says

“The reader may not get a precise idea of the management or mismanagement of public funds by the Congress from this itemized account of expenditure. Was this expenditure regulated by any principle? Was it distributed according to the needs of the Provinces?”

He further provides a breakup of the Rs. 49.5 lakhs by provinces to which these funds were distributed and highlights the following:

“There was not only no principle, there was shameful favouritism in the distribution of the fund. Out of the total of Rs. 49.5 lakhs which was distributed in the three years, Gujrath— Mr. Gandhi’s province—got Rs. 26.25 lakhs while the rest of India got Rs. 28 lakhs. This means that a population numbering 29.5 lakhs got Rs. 26.25 lakhs while the rest of India numbering about 23 crores got Rs. 23 lakhs!”

Dr. Ambedkar brings out the lack of control of the funds vis a vis its purpose of use as well as to whom it was granted by listing down cases of “Moneys allotted but kept at the disposal of individuals without appropriating them to any specified purpose” and “Moneys allotted without Appropriation to any purpose without naming the guarantee” totaling Rs. 1.68 lakhs and Rs. 24 lakhs (totaling one fifth of the money collected) and provides a telling commentary about the state of affairs regarding the use of the huge public monies collected

“It is not known whether these huge sums kept at the disposal of the named payees were accounted for or who received the formidable amounts made payable to the nameless payees. Even if there were satisfactory answers to these questions there can be no doubt that a worse case of frenzied finance of extravagance and waste, it would be very difficult to find. It is a sad episode marked by a reckless plunder committed by the predatory leaders of the Congress of public money for nursing their own constituencies without any qualms of conscience.”

“It is unnecessary to pursue the story of the organised and systematic loot by Congressmen of the balance of 1 crore and 30 lakhs which was spent in subsequent years. It is enough to say that never was there such an organised loot of public money.”

A third and final point that emerges after a reading of the above evidence furnished by Dr. Ambedkar and the public utterances of Gandhi as regards to the utilization of the Tilak Swaraj Memorial Fund potentially opens up queries whether at all the funds donated for specific causes were being used as such. For instance, by Gandhi’s own admission at a speech on 8 Feb 1927 in Pachora when responding to the queries he received about the utilisation of the Tilak Swaraj Fund, Gandhi while inviting the curious to study the audit accounts published by the All-India Congress Committee said:

“Every pie had been properly accounted for. Did they distrust the honesty of the treasurers like Seth Revashanker Jagjivan Zaveri and Seth Jamnalal Bajaj? The fact was that some people had given their contributions specially earmarked for certain purposes and they were being spent for them. For example, Seth Revashankerbhai had himself given Rs. 40,000 for educational purposes in Kathiawar. A gentleman in Bombay had given two to three lakhs for the removal of untouchability and they were being properly used.”

This means that of the Rs. 2-3 lakhs of the contribution to the Tilak Swaraj fund made by one person alone towards the upliftment of the depressed classes was still being used after 6 years! No doubt there would have been monies donated to the Untouchability cause by others as well; but what’s telling is the rate at which one person’s money was still being used (only 1/4th of his donation had been used till 1923; 3 years before Gandhi’s statement in 1927).

The aforementioned three points say a lot about the huge gap between Gandhi’s words and actions when it came to the crucial question of eradicating Untouchability without which Gandhi’s idea of Swaraj was inconceivable by his own insistence.