Do only 'upper castes' need to get over caste prejudice?

Last Updated: Thu, Jan 31, 2013 05:41 hrs

As the debate continues over the casteist nature of political critic Ashis Nandy's remarks at the Jaipur Literary Festival, I find I'm more disturbed by the public support for Nandy's ridiculous defence of his statement than the bizarre comment itself.

On Republic Day, according to a transcript made available by Outlook Magazine, Nandy said:

"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 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."

As an FIR was filed against him, and protesters gathered outside Diggi Palace, Nandy – flanked by some of the other members of that panel – clarified that what he had meant was that the upper castes had learnt to be corrupt in sophisticated ways that ensure their corruption is never called out. Using the term "privileged", as if to refer to the moneyed classes rather than caste-based ones, he drew a distinction between them and "Dalits, tribals and OBCs", who were too naive to camouflage their corrupt ways. This pitying of their inability to hide corruption was apparently his statement of "support for the marginal and oppressed", never mind the inherent logical fallacy in comparing a "class" and a "caste".

Even more strangely, a protester is reported to have challenged Nandy to name one corrupt figure from the SC or ST community. I find that especially funny in the context of the cases against former Telecom Minister A Raja and former UP Chief Minister Mayawati.

But leaving all that aside, I fine defence hugely problematic. First of all, it makes no sense to equate upper classes and upper castes. Secondly, is it not casteist for Nandy to say that the upper castes are cunning enough to get away with corruption? It's a sweeping, offensive statement, backed by no proof.  

Yet, no one appears to have a problem with that statement.

In fact, author and ideologue Kancha Ilaiah conjectured that Nandy had possibly missed out on saying "upper castes have always been corrupt". Ilaiah added, "Upper castes have built a corrupt society, in which Dalits, bahujans and tribals are entering now. I would have fought with Professor Nandy if he had said higher castes are honest and Dalits are corrupt. This is not the case here."

Even more inexplicably, he said, "Mayawati is a living icon of Dalits. I have never met her, but I have high regards for the courageous leader." Aside from building marble and bronze statues of herself all over the state, using public funds, Mayawati is most famous for revealing that her assets totalled Rs 111.26 crore. The disproportionate assets case against her was dismissed by the Delhi High Court.

This "living icon", enshrined in self-sculptures, was also among the first to call for Nandy's arrest. Though, Nandy, from his remarks, would likely have it that, say, Mamata Banerjee or Jayalalithaa was more likely to get away with corruption than Mayawati, on merit of caste.

Is it, then, perfectly acceptable to make derogatory remarks against the so-called upper castes? Is someone being casteist only when she or he targets OBCs, MBCs, SCs and STs? If Nandy had made a slighting remark against the 'upper castes', as he did in his clarification, I doubt there would have been such uproar.

Ilaiah, in his defence of Nandy, also said that, as far as he knew, Nandy wasn't against reservation.

Ironically, the man who makes a far more fitting icon for Dalits than Mayawati does, B R Ambedkar, was against reservation. Yet, the demand for reservation has only been increasing, despite a mandate in the Constitution that the figure should "reduce gradually". In the state of Tamil Nadu, reservation in educational institutions is 69 percent, which violates a 1991 Supreme Court judgment (Case of Indra Sawhney and others vs Union of India).

To condone remarks made against upper castes, while condemning those made against lower castes, is to validate a persecution complex. And it has become political – and academic – tradition to enable this persecution complex.

Either in pandering to vote banks, or in fanning unrest among castes, most political leaders have been against the identification of a "creamy layer" from among those who qualify for reserved seats in educational institutions.

If we're to really break down the caste structure that we so readily term an "evil", the destruction should be uniformed, as should our denunciation of anyone generalising on the basis of caste, irrespective of whether the upper or lower castes are being maligned.

A few years ago, the then-DMK-led government of Tamil Nadu went on a road-renaming spree, removing caste names from roads. Suddenly, 'G N Chetty Road', 'Tirumalai Pillai Road', 'Chinnaya Pillai Street' were wiped off the address book, replaced by 'G N Road', 'Tirumalai Road' and 'Chinnaya Street'. The exceptions are 'Doctor Nair Road' and 'Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Devar Salai'.

However, this didn't stop members of the Nadar community from staging a protest to voice their demand that the new terminal at the airport be named after Kamaraj, who is from that community.

A few months ago, there was a violent protest by Dravida Kazhagam party workers against an eatery called 'Brahmanaal Cafe', at Srirangam. They appear to have no problem with the ubiquitous 'Nadar Kadai' (Nadar Shops). In Chennai itself, there are numerous businesses bearing caste names, with branches across the state, and in some cases, country – like Naidu Hall, Nalli Chinnasamy Chetty, Vummidi Bangaru Chetty, and several Iyengar Bakeries. Will the bakeries be targeted next, then? And will the protest go unchecked?

In saying we need to wipe out caste prejudice, it is important acknowledge that this prejudice isn't held by upper castes alone. Yes, Nandy's first statement was offensive, and his credentials as a sociologist cannot possibly justify those claims. But his second was offensive too, and equally unjustifiable, and unless we recognise that, we cannot hope to be a society rid of caste chauvinism.

Read more from this author:

Vishwaroopam: It's time cinema stopped bowing down to bigots

Why does the idea of war excite us?

The Delhi rape victim's identity: Symbolism or voyeurism?

Honey Singh hungama: Why do we think with our vaginas?

The Delhi bus-rape: Why the reactions scare me

A year of gaffes: Why don't our politicians shut up?

The author is a writer based in Chennai.

She blogs at

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