Nandy Controversy – Not isolated but part of a worrying pattern

by Ritwik on January 27, 2013

Were Ashis Nandy’s comments justified? Clearly not. His statement was loose, sweeping and unfortunate. But isn’t freedom of speech precisely the freedom to say what others consider stupid or objectionable? Clearly the idea of FREEDOM of speech is not restricted to saying only what is palatable to the other.

My right to free speech is precisely my right to question you, object to your views and state what I think, without fear of suppression or physical retribution.

But is the State and its organs like political parties at all interested in upholding this constitutional principle? The recent incidents of banning Kamal Hassan’s film Vishwaroopam by some states and the hounding of political psychologist Ashish Nandy are part of a pattern where the “sentiments” of one or the other community are “hurt” by artists, intellectuals and common citizens. Let’s consider some examples:

– Preventing Salman Rushdie from speaking at last year’s Jaipur Literature Festival

– Banning of Prakash Jha’s film Aarakshan [the ban was subsequently revoked by the Supreme Court]

– Vetting of Da Vinci Code by “representatives” of the Christian faith

– Hounding MF Hussian by registering hundreds of cases against him in various parts of the country

– Jailing of a professor in Bengal for forwarding an SMS which lampooned the CM

– Registration of FIRs against a young girl in Maharashtra for an “objectionable” Facebook status about Bal Thackeray

No group or identity [whether Hindus, Muslims, Dalits, Christians, OBCs etc etc] seem to be immune from this widespread malady of ultra sensitive sentiments, injury to which results in threats of violence, rioting and strikes. Repeatedly we see the sight of the police and political parties bowing down to such narrow interests and failing to uphold the right to free speech.

Nandy and Gadkari – A study in contrast

Things become even more ridiculous when we consider that Nitin Gadkari’s public statements threatening government servants have so far resulted in … precisely nothing.  Here is a former national president of the main opposition party, publicly threatening Income Tax officials that if they investigate his wrongdoings, they will have to face retribution when his party comes to power. There seems to be no imminent threat to Mr Gadkari’s liberty. In contrast, an academic’s loose comments have attracted non-bailable provisions of the law!

Legal Hopscotch

We have enacted laws such as Domestic Violence Prevention Act, SC/ST (atrocities) prevention act and others under which non-bailable warrants can be issued for the most trivial occurances which can be spun as “offences”. Even more worryingly, these acts upturn the principles of natural justice by waiving the right of the accused to be presumed innocent until proven guilty – various provisions in these acts, ipso facto, assume the guilt of the accused and the burden of proof is transferred to the accused to prove his/her innocence. This dangerous pattern can also be seen in other legislation such as AFSPA, UAPA etc.

Next, the implementation of these laws remains extremely patchy, uneven and selective. Since Ashis Nandy is famous and well-connected, the investigating officer in this case has conveniently proceeded on leave and Nandy has safely made his way to Delhi. Somebody less prominent would be muzzled much more harshly.

Role of Civil Society

But what about the role of intellectuals? Too often we witness deafening silence from prominent intellectuals when the sentiments hurt are those of what are considered weaker sections of society [eg: dalits, scheduled tribes, OBCs, muslims, women]

Those who are genuinely concerned about the receding space for free expression in this country, will have to reflect upon their own role in letting things get to this stage,  every time they have chosen to remain silent because the “offender” is high-caste/male/upper class/right-wing and the “offended” are low-caste/female/minority/tribal.


An engaging read. Your post touches upon developments/events in the public sphere that have intrigued me for long. It is about why some “not so relevant or objectionable” comments (eg-Karnad’s remark about Tagore) evoke such hue and cry coupled with a complete lack of any intellectual engagement whatsoever while others which are perverse, highly absurd and dangerous for societal peace and welfare (Gadkari’s recent remark being one of them) fail to generate any widespread criticism. There could be several reasons for the same and I would appreciate if you would throw some light on the same in your future blog posts.

by Sukhvinder Shahi on January 28, 2013 at 1:04 am. #

Shrinking spaces for free expression. Great observation.

by Rohan on January 28, 2013 at 7:52 am. #

To speak freely and responsibly is a balance it seems most people find impossible to strike. In the context of what Nandy said, Sanjoy Roy went one better when he said the sociologist was ‘hurt’ when people chose to ignore five decades of work he had done ‘for’ the downtrodden, just because of one remark.
I understand some people are loose cannons, and they cannot help but say some things, but more appalling than such offence is the condescension

by Mohd Salman on January 28, 2013 at 9:29 am. #

Small point of correction, the JU prof was put behind bars for forwarding a cartoon over email. And he was booked under the charge of “outraging didi’s modesty” which as you know is another one of those offences that can get you arrested without the provision of bail.

And just to add to your point, we display a rather selective show of outrage. For example, only a handful of intellectuals will groan if Naipaul said something sexist but if Rushdie says something politically incorrect it makes it to front page news and even Arnab Goswami has an opinion about it.

by Hardika on January 28, 2013 at 11:42 am. #

Well-written, and extremely relevant questions asked, as usual. I don’t know why I thought it would be longer, but as you have gone into these issues before I feel I get why this is a short, to-the-point meditation on the issue. Had no idea about Gadkari’s statements! (stopped reading the papers, sadly) The impunity enjoyed by the powerful who misbehave is almost fantastical. Only the other day I was wondering what happened to the unpaid Kingfisher employees. Not one peep out of the BJP or even any of the Left parties about his complete immunity from punishment, apart from the airlines being shut down.

by Laboni Bhattacharya on January 28, 2013 at 5:03 pm. #

@Sukhvinder – yes will come around to that sometime. thanks for drawing my attention to it.

@ Rohan – we see it all around us.

@ Salman – the condescension is an almost universal phenomenon when we see our English speaking elite talk about ‘the rest’. Behold the condescension in Nandy’s hamfisted defence of himself – corruption by the underclasses is good as that is an equalizer. So the underclasses can “equalize” only through moral degeneration!

@Hardika – the Naipaul/Rushdie contrast needs to analyzed in terms of which interest group they have ‘offended’. Offending women is more ‘palatable’ to our chatterati than offending certain minorities or weaker sections, it seems.

@Laboni – yes, most of the issues raised in this post are ones that have occupied my attention for some time and multiple posts have been devoted to them.
You raise a great point about the lack of legal ramifications for running an airline to the ground through reckless spending and bad business practices. And even the restriction on operations is temporary – we often hear that Kingfisher shall soon be resuming services.

by Ritwik on January 28, 2013 at 10:59 pm. #

I wonder if this is correlated with the current stage of development. Also, it would be interesting to note at what point did this slide down actually start.

by Aaditya on January 29, 2013 at 5:58 am. #

Ritwik, as you mentioned, this showcases a worrying trend.

But is it just me, or “people” have become particularly prone to being offended off late. Be it the movie or the sociologist, why are people so ready to hold the society ransom for their personal angst.

Is it fueled by their knowledge about others knowing/debating the truth, or the inability of the weak state to maintain a basic law and order situation.

by Manuhar on January 31, 2013 at 1:31 pm. #

@Manuhar – I think it is directly correlated with the world-wide rise of identity based politics, coupled with a weak state which has political managers posing as political leaders at the top.

by Ritwik Agrawal on February 3, 2013 at 2:53 am. #

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