India's Carnival of Values at the Jaipur Literature Festival

Scandals at the Jaipur Literature Festival: barometers for social change? What the Dalai Lama, Glenlivet whisky, and the growing significance of caste politics  tell us about Indian politics and society.

by Faisal Devji


A major sponsor of the Jaipur Literature Festival, the Tata Corporation’s motto for this year’s event was the cringe-making “Carnival of Values.” When I first saw them emblazoned on banners in Jaipur, I thought these words represented the price that had to be paid for the festival’s remarkably open and diverse gathering. But I soon came to realize how accurate the motto in fact was, with the JLF’s hugely mediatised popularity turning it, unfortunately, into the site of a political carnival. And as in a carnival, the controversies for which the festival is coming to be known are distributed randomly, as if by a kind of raffle. Last year, of course, it was Salman Rushdie who won the draw. And this year, despite the presence of formidable competitors like the Dalai Lama (whom I saw outside the authors’ lounge flanked by giant cut-out bottles of Glenlivet whisky, another JLF sponsor), it was a far more original writer, the Indian “political psychologist” Ashis Nandy, whose comments on “low” caste corruption are still the subject of acrimonious debate in his country.

True to form, Rushdie tried to claim the raffle prize, a poisoned chalice engraved with the words “free expression”, when he was banned from attending the Kolkata Book Fair shortly afterwards. But like a remaindered copy of his autobiography, Sir Salman was quickly relegated to the bargain basement of Indian interest, despite his friends making hysterical statements in the press about Kolkata losing its status as the “cultural capital of Asia”. Such exaggerated and even untruthful statements also serve as examples of India’s carnival of values, in which controversies are produced on demand, as part of the very publicity machine that makes events like the JLF possible. The media-generated controversy over some not very credible threats to Rushdie’s safety last year had been one in which religious belief was set against free expression in the most hackneyed way possible, one I had described then as having little to do with the realities of Indian society. This year’s scandal, however, has taken a different turn, with religion no longer the subject of controversy. What does this mean?


Joker in the pack

A famously maverick thinker, Nandy’s offence was to claim that “low” castes were at the forefront of corruption in India, or, in a later explication of his statement, at least the most visible, because untrained in its practices. And that this indicated their entry into the country’s mainstream, thus ensuring the republic’s survival by holding off the authoritarian desire for a completely clean or purified society, of the kind that many of India’s middle class campaigners against corruption feel. Words like “clean” are heavily loaded, signifying “upper” caste attempts to distinguish themselves from those lower in the hierarchy, which may be why Nandy went on to refer to communist-ruled Bengal as a “clean” state, because it had excluded Dalits and other oppressed groups from its government. Nandy’s words immediately gave rise to a countrywide controversy, with cases lodged against him for breaching anti-caste legislation, and a vociferous defence mounted by his liberal and leftist supporters, which resulted, as was only right, in the staying of legal action against him.

Nandy has been ill served by his supporters, many of whom have repeated the same, purely legalistic verities about freedom of expression they utter on all such occasions, thus refusing to take the changing realities of Indian society seriously. These include new forms of violence against Dalits, of the kind covered by the prevention of atrocities act that Nandy was charged under. For having escaped the traditional bonds of servitude to “upper” castes, it appears as if some of these groups can now be eliminated altogether by exclusion as much as murder, rather than merely being punished or humiliated to keep them in their place. But a number of Nandy’s defenders seem to think that a formally universal attitude is “fair”, and so make a fetish of balancing or evenly distributing their opprobrium at “intolerance” between different caste and religious groups, despite the enormous differences of power, wealth, number and status among them. This is a good liberal attitude, but one that should stand condemned in the eyes of those on the left, given Marx’s severe criticism of such an abstract and “bourgeois” form of equality.

Just as they had done in the Rushdie controversy last year, many of Nandy’s friends speak in the name of an imaginary Indian state when they claim to embody this neutral and universal position, distributing blame “fairly” on all those who are unable to transcend their partisan viewpoints. Their vision of the state is imaginary because, as a result of lengthy struggles for representation by groups like Dalits, the Indian constitution has explicitly set aside the formal equality of liberalism by instituting the largest system of reservations or affirmative action in the world. By ignoring this reality the partisans of universality are in fact eliminating the particular reality of Indian society. In fact the truly liberal way of considering Indian society was characteristic of colonial rule, with the British claiming precisely to be the neutral arbiters of an irredeemably particularistic India. And in adopting this view, or at least trying to identify with such a state, the defenders of free expression join ranks with Indian protest movements more generally, including their enemies on the right, all of which mix anti-state feeling with the desire for a more efficient and effective, not to say authoritarian state.

Anyone who is at all familiar with Nandy’s work will realize the irony of this situation, since he has been inveighing against the desire for a strong state and a society defined entirely by legal contract for decades now. Indeed those among his supporters who blame the state, and political parties more generally, for abandoning a neutral and universal stance in tolerating or encouraging threats to free expression, do more than betray Nandy’s own thought. By in effect accusing the politicians who did not come to Nandy’s support of “pandering” to or “pampering” constituencies seen as “vote banks”, they take on the narrative, if not the exact terminology of the far right. With its fear of all kinds of caste or religious particularity, after all, it is the right that has always been at the forefront in advocating a purely formal or uniform equality for all Indians, something that gives liberalism a distinctive history in India. Maybe it is the “cynical” politicians, then, who recognize Indian particularities better than the defenders of free expression, whose utopian and universalizing urges Nandy had condemned in Jaipur.


House of cards

The controversy over Ashis Nandy’s remarks is the second one to erupt over the issue of caste and free expression, the first occurring last year and having to do with a historical cartoon of the Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar in a school textbook. In it Ambedkar, who was responsible for the assembly in charge of drafting the Indian constitution, was depicted perched on a snail representing the slow-moving constituent assembly, with Nehru, the Brahmin prime minister, brandishing a whip behind his back in front of a large crowd. Whatever the cartoonist’s intention, and despite the absence of Dalit outrage when it was originally published, this image conjured up the classic scene of caste violence and degradation, with a Dalit whipped by a Brahmin for shirking his work before an appreciative crowd. It would be like including a cartoon about the lynching of an African-American in a US textbook without commenting on its depiction of racial violence.  

At the time it was jokingly said in some quarters that Ambedkar had become “untouchable” in a new way, like his great rival M.K. Gandhi no longer accessible to criticism. It was also said that Dalits were joining India’s political mainstream by taking offence in the way Hindu, and especially Muslim groups generally do. Indeed by comparing Ambedkar to their prophet, Dalit activists referred to the global Muslim outcry over caricatures of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper a few years earlier. And it is no accident that last year’s equally “Muslim” controversy over Rushdie at the JLF was followed up this year with a “Dalit” one over Nandy. Now it is true that Dalits and Muslims are increasingly being compared to one another, for instance in a government report named after its leader, Justice Rajinder Sachar, which demonstrated that the two groups suffered from similar rates of poverty and exclusion. But the structural similarity between most Muslims and Dalits has not so far led to any common struggle, despite fears of such an alliance that go back a century among those who would preserve the “upper” caste domination of Indian society—Hindu or Muslim.   

The relationship between Dalits and Muslims does not all go in one direction, as the latter are increasingly attempting to follow the former’s example by demanding quotas in employment and education for themselves, by invoking their caste rather than religious identities. Important about the alternation of caste and religious community in the debate over free expression, however, is the fact that it dissolves the carefully constructed partitions that Indian liberals place between these forms of particularity, which can only be transcended and made intelligible by the formal universality of the law. For if Muslim “fanaticism” and Dalit “sensitivity”, to say nothing of Hindu “sentiment” are open to one another, then they are not, after all, locked into their individual forms of particularity, to be understood only by those who speak in the name of an imaginary state. And it is because of this possibility that liberals lurch, nonsensically, from insisting upon the particularities of caste and religion on the one hand, to proclaiming their negation on the other, by attributing offended sentiments to the most “rational” kind of political cynicism.

Perhaps it is time to take the language of offence seriously instead of seeing it only through the universality of an imagined state. In India this language derives from colonial times, and is largely about “hurt feelings” and similar, unexpectedly delicate sentiments. While the liberal defenders of free expression routinely condemn this language as hypocritical when it is not fanatical, what interests me is how its rhetoric of sensitivity sets religious and caste conflict within a context of intimacy and betrayal. Gandhi had noted early in the last century, for example, that caste Hindu objections to cow slaughter, described as something that hurt their feelings, were directed exclusively against Muslims. Neither the British nor even Indian Christian, to say nothing of Dalit consumers of beef were blamed for it. Rather than dismissing such hurt feelings as cynical, Gandhi recognized that they defined religious violence as the betrayal of a pre-existing, or at least possible intimacy between these religious groups, one given a name by the commonplace call for Hindu-Muslim brotherhood. In other words it was the presumption or perhaps even the perverse desire for intimacy that informed religious hatred.

Recognizing how different this situation was from, say, the European language of hatred, depending as this did on the denial of intimacy, Gandhi’s project of communal harmony aimed at purifying the perverse desire for brotherhood he saw in the rhetoric of Hindu as well as Muslim betrayal. For such a desire, he thought, was only possible in a society whose relations had not yet been subordinated to the law of contract—itself an impossible desire. Gandhi’s political enemy, M.A. Jinnah, who would go on to found Pakistan, also recognized the presumption of intimacy in the vocabulary of betrayal that informed religious hatred in India. But his way of dealing with it was to break the bond of brotherhood that Gandhi would foster, partitioning hearts as well as hearths, and finally the country itself, to make for a purely contractual set of relations between Hindus and Muslims, and thus the possibility of their friendship in future. Nandy, it is clear, has always followed Gandhi’s view on the matter, flirting, as some see it, with the language of hatred and violence for presumably “therapeutic” reasons. But his liberal supporters take the side of another of Gandhi’s enemies, the right-wing ideologue V.D. Savarkar, one of whose former acolytes assassinated the Mahatma precisely because he rejected egalitarian formalism and “pandered” to minorities. Indeed the Indian right has always been the greatest champion of a “pure” liberalism in this deeply unequal society.

As in so many other things, Ambedkar was on Jinnah’s side on this matter, despite being severely critical of his politics. For unlike the liberals, he did not call for a merely formal equality and insisted, much like Pakistan’s founder, on the legal acknowledgement of social difference. What, then, does the gradual and still incomplete adoption by Dalit activists of the primarily Hindu as well as Muslim language of intimacy and betrayal indicate? Placed as it is alongside the contractual imperative of the law, in both its caste and religious usage, this language may portend an uneasy shifting between the two major categories of Indian identity, neither of which can be reduced to the other. It also indicates the changing character and growing importance of caste politics, which allows its representatives to inhabit new social and indeed existential spaces from which they have hitherto been excluded. Rather than simply joining an existing and, in the liberal view, dysfunctional narrative of victimization and offence, the entry of caste into a well-established religious debate about free expression might have the potential to transform it and Indian politics in general.

[Editor's note: This essay is featured in the Winter/Spring 2013 issue of Current Intelligence.]


About the Author: Faisal Devji is Reader in Indian History and Director of the Asian Studies Centre at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University.


About Thesigers: Thesiger & Company (‘Thesigers’) is a London-based research and advisory firm, providing a wide range of services to clients whose interests and activities demand in-depth knowledge of emerging and frontier markets. Current Intelligence is Thesigers’ quarterly bulletin of current affairs.

Company registered in England and Wales. Company registration number: 7234402.

VAT number: GB 135658985

Email: | Web:

© THESIGER & COMPANY LIMITED (‘THESIGERS’) 2010-2012. All rights reserved. No reproduction of this essay is authorized without prior permission of the publisher. Permission to republish in whole or in part will be considered on a case-by-case basis, and may require payment of a licensing fee.