A Conversation With: Sociologist Ashis Nandy


Niharika Mandhana in the NYT’s India Ink:

Ashis Nandy, an eminent Indian sociologist and political analyst, now finds himself in what he described as an “astonishing and ironic position,” in an interview Tuesday.

He has championed the rights of India’s lower castes and tribal groups for the better part of half a century, he said, but is now being accused of making remarks that some have cast as “anti-Dalit,” a reference to India’s lower castes, formerly known as “untouchables.”

Speaking last week at the Jaipur Literature Festival, an annual  gathering of writers, thinkers and commentators, Mr. Nandy acknowledged that what he was about to say was “undignified” and “vulgar,” but then said, “It is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the Other Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes, and increasingly the Scheduled Tribes. And as long as this is the case, the Indian republic will survive.”

(For our readers outside India, the Indian government classifies some of its citizens according to socioeconomic status, grouping them under the labels Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.)

His comments followed those of the journalist and editor Tarun Tejpal, who characterized corruption in India as a “class equalizer.”  Mr. Nandy’s statement was instantly picked up by television news channels, often in an abbreviated form, and many portrayed his words as a slur against lower castes.

“Ashis Nandy says OBC, SC, ST most corrupt,” the Press Trust of India reported.

After his comments were publicized, small demonstrations broke out in Jaipur, and a complaint against Mr. Nandy was filed with the police under a law that aims to prevent and punish crimes and atrocities committed against Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

India Ink spoke Mr. Nandy about the recent furor, the correlation between caste and corruption, and the state of free speech in India, at his New Delhi apartment on Tuesday as the 75-year-old waited to receive a warrant from the police for questioning.

Q. The current controversy arose as a result of a statement you made where you suggest that most of India’s corrupt belong to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. What did you mean when you said that?
A. That’s not what I wanted to say. That can’t be empirically supported, because there’s no real survey.

The point I was trying to make was this: if you remove all corruption from society, that’s good. But that will take decades. In the interim period, those who are on the brink of desperation, those who have been deprived of access to power for centuries, deserve to get a share of the loot. Their corruption is a sign of their empowerment and the growth of the Indian republic. In fact, it should be encouraged.


(Here, in Outlook India, you can find a transcript of his comments and a video of the session.)