Misunderstanding Nandy

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SummaryHis remarks must be read along with his critique of modernity and the middle class

His remarks must be read along with his critique of modernity and the middle class

It is troubling that the public debate in the aftermath of the Jaipur Literature Festival is assuming a Dalits versus others dimension. That this is clearly not the case is obvious from the support Ashis Nandy has received from prominent intellectuals, including Chandra Bhan Prasad, Badri Narayan and Kancha Ilaiah. Had D.R. Nagaraj been around, he would have castigated this framing. In the last decade of his life, Nagaraj was one of Nandy’s closest friends. As he put it, “Nandy is at his best when he explores the comic, violent, wicked and absurd relationships that come into play in the lives of communities when they try to represent themselves as nation-states”.

The question we must ask is if Nandy is anti-Dalit, anti-tribal and anti-backward castes, as has been suggested. I have known Nandy for a quarter-century now, and in various capacities. He was supervisor of my doctoral dissertation and we went on to become colleagues and friends. Over the years, his support has been invaluable for my exploration of what are, in statist terms, the “backward castes”, including the Mewatis, Gujjars and Meenas. He has been particularly happy about a film Rahul Roy and I are making on the Mirasis, a Dalit community of largely illiterate bards/ musicians, but whose literary universes intimate linkages with Sanskrit, Farsi and Braj bhasha.

One way of being pro-Dalit is to support affirmative action. But there is a deeper way, which is to take the cultural inheritance of the Dalits and shudras seriously. Much of Nandy’s theorising rests upon an argument about history. Historical consciousness was exported from the West and has deeply affected non-Western cultures, he maintains. Hitherto these cultures lived with open-ended conceptions of the past articulated in their myths and epics. Millions still live outside “history” and have been described as ahistorical (read pre-historical, primitive and pre-scientific). History fears subjectivities, Nandy argues. The idea of history has led to new forms of exploitation and violence in our times, and the freezing of civilisational, cultural and national boundaries. Instead of history, he emphasises constructions that are more creative, ambiguous and arise from marginality and self-doubt.

He also argues that Nehruvian India, despite its brahminic patronising socialism along with a democratic polity and statist affirmative action, had released much creative energy at the bottom and peripheries of India. Nandy points out that

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