Jaipur, Jan. 27: An FIR against social scientist Ashis Nandy for alleged defamatory remarks on Dalits and tribals has brought to the fore a growing trend of "thought terrorism" that treats nuanced opinion as heresy liable to be crushed with a heavy hand.
The remarks by Nandy, a widely respected sociologist known for his nuanced positions and reluctance to play to the gallery just to be part of "acceptable voices", were made at the Jaipur Literature Festival yesterday.
Not all responded with demands for extreme remedies. Kancha Ilaiah, an influential Dalit commentator who has written extensively against the Hindu caste system, said Nandy had "made a very bad statement with good intentions".
Ilaiah explained in detail why he disagreed with Nandy but added that the sociologist should not be arrested ' a voice that stood out from the clamour for immediate detention.
The uproar, fuelled by political parties and pressure groups, has inflamed the atmosphere of intolerance less than a week after a film was banned in Tamil Nadu for fear of hurting religious sentiments even though the censor board had cleared it. A high court judge watched Kamal Haasan's Vishwaroopam yesterday and is expected to deliver his ruling tomorrow.
Nandy's remark had come during a session titled "Republic of Ideas", where his fellow participants were the author Patrick French, scholar Richard Sorabjee and journalists Tarun Tejpal and Ashutosh. Writer and historian Urvashi Butalia was the moderator.
Speaking of inequality in Indian society, Nandy said there were only four level playing fields where discrimination based on caste or religion did not interfere: sports, entertainment, crime and politics. Tejpal added a fifth: corruption.
Tejpal reasoned that for India's most deprived populations, barred from accessing the country's resources, the only way out was through subversion of the law, maybe through a bribe.
Nandy said that this was the reason the most corrupt were the most deprived. He said he would name the sections that were most corrupt: "The OBCs, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes."
Nandy also referred to Bengal, suggesting that the erstwhile Left government was one of the least corrupt because the downtrodden castes could not come to power.
He added: "If people like me or Richard Sorabjee want to be corrupt, I shall possibly send his son to Harvard giving him a fellowship and he can send my daughter to Oxford. No one will think it to be corruption. Indeed, it will look like supporting talent.
"But when Dalits, tribals and the OBCs are corrupt, it looks very corrupt indeed. However, this second corruption equalises. It gives them access to their entitlements. And so, as long as this equation persists, I have hope for the Republic."
While Ashutosh immediately said he disagreed with Nandy, parts of the hundreds-strong audience exploded. Two angry women said Nandy's statement was biased.
Nandy sat smiling on the stage. But the protests grew through the day. Protesters gathered at the venue as the day's events were drawing to a close, shouting "Ashis Nandy murdabad".
Rajpal Meena of the Rajasthan SC/ST Manch lodged an FIR against Nandy and festival producer Sanjoy Roy under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and an Indian Penal Code section dealing with criminal intimidation. If the case is pursued and the accused found guilty, punishment can range from six months to seven years in jail, or a fine or both.
Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati described Nandy's remarks as "reflective of a casteist mindset", demanded an apology and asked the Rajasthan government to immediately put Nandy in jail. A private complaint was filed in a Nashik police station, too.
Later yesterday, Nandy told reporters: "This is not what I meant or what I wanted to say. I endorsed the statement of Tarun Tejpal, editor of Tehelka, that corruption in India is an equalising force. I do believe that a zero-corruption society in India will be a despotic society."
He added: "I hope this will be the end of the matter. I am sorry if some have misunderstood me, though there was no reason to do so. As should be clear from this statement, there was neither any intention nor any attempt to hurt any community. If anyone is genuinely hurt, even if through misunderstanding, I am sorry about that, too."
He left the festival although he was to address more sessions.
The People's Union For Civil Liberties condemned the lodging of the FIR saying Nandy had not made a casteist remark and had only suggested that no section of society was free of the corrupt.
"Now that he has apologised and regretted what he said, the matter should be closed," said its general secretary, Kavita Srivastav.
Festival producer Roy raised a pertinent point, wondering if one or two sentences should be allowed to overshadow half-a-century of work analysing the complex problems of the underprivileged.
"The entire episode is thought terrorism. Does 10-odd people protesting make them the representative of an entire community?" Roy told The Telegraph. "Look at Nandy's work for 50 years on minorities. Does all of it change in 10 seconds?"
Most of the protesters were from the Meena Mahasabha, an organisation of the Scheduled Tribe Meenas, and were led by Dausa MP Kirori Lal Meena. The Jats, who are OBCs, joined the protests.
Roy said the programme tapes and required papers had been given to the police.
Ilaiah, the commentator, said: "Ashis Nandy has made a very bad statement with good intentions. Bad because it created the impression that the OBCs, SCs and the STs are corrupt and only corruption makes them what they are today.
"In using the word 'corruption', he is wrong because the word cannot be used in relation to people who have been oppressed and exploited for 3,000 years. What he has not said is that the upper castes of India were living through corrupt means for the last 3,000 years. Ashis owes an intellectual responsibility towards SCs, STs and OBCs."
Referring to Nandy's Bengal example, Ilaiah said: "There was no SC/ST in powerful positions because the reservation policy had not been implemented. So, who is corrupt, the government or the SCs and STs?"
Ilaiah added: "However, I won't agree that he should be arrested."
The festival organisers have also received a magistrate's notice over the presence of an author who had read out copied passages from Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses last year.
A remark by adman Prasoon Joshi that Hindu deity "Krishna is the biggest eve teaser" too has caused an uproar.
"How can we take precautions? Do we tell them what to say and what not to say at the fest? We live in a democratic country," Roy said.
Writer Devdutt Patnaik called it the signs of an intolerant society. "What you say and what is heard by people are different," Patnaik said.