Social Identity

Casteism and corruption: Beyond political correctness

  • Blog Post Date 12 April, 2013
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Pranab Bardhan

University of California, Berkeley

Sociologist Ashis Nandy’s recent remark that most corrupt people belong to lower castes drew a lot of flak. In this column, Pranab Bardhan shares his views on what he considers to be the two substantive issues coming out of this controversy – Freedom of expression, and the corruptibility of historically disadvantaged groups.

Ashis Nandy has been a friend since my teenage days, so I was intrigued when recently some North Indian political leaders started baying for the arrest of this decent and humane scholar for his allegedly casteist remarks on corruption, until the Supreme Court mercifully intervened quickly to stop such nonsense. I want to discuss two of the substantive issues arising from this controversy.

But before that let me also state that I have found the remarks reportedly made by Nandy at the Jaipur Literary gathering slightly convoluted in their strenuously contrarian position, and his subsequent ‘clarifications’ did not help. Some of his reported statements, like that about West Bengal, ruled for 100 years by upper-caste leaders, being relatively un-corrupt under CPM, is not merely subject to obvious misinterpretation about the implied honesty of upper-caste leaders, but is also generally false. West Bengal mid-level government functionaries, mostly upper-caste, have been no less corrupt than those in many other states. What is true is that the leaders at the very top in the more than three decades’ rule in West Bengal by the Communist parties have been, with some exceptions, relatively clean (though some of their relatives have not always been so), but that is by and large the case with Communist leaders in other parts of India as well, for reasons having to do with a history of party discipline, not their caste composition. But a careless statement by a public intellectual on the spur of the moment, while not uncommon and sometimes regrettable, is one thing and accusation of violation of an Act meant to prevent atrocities against minorities is absurdly another.

Freedom of expression – Constitution not all that liberal

The first substantive issue is, of course, one of freedom of expression. I believe Nandy should have every right to say what he has reportedly said, even if I were to disagree with him. It is, of course, ironical that such liberal thoughts in his defence are usually associated with ideas flowing out of Western Enlightenment, which Nandy (along with his post-modern followers) had spent a lifetime of scholarship in deprecating. The liberals in India are, no doubt, aware that our Constitution (in upholding which the Supreme Court in its verdict has reminded Nandy that liberty should not be taken as a licence in public speeches) is not highly liberal on the question of freedom of expression. There are serious restrictions on free speech on grounds related to state security, public order, decency, morality etc. Any hoodlum belonging to some fanatic fringe can threaten about the potential ‘offence’ caused to his group, and even the faint possibility of the resultant disruption of ‘public order’ can get any book, film or art exhibition banned by the authorities. In recent years such acts of hostage-taking of our cowardly governments (both at the Centre and the states) have become an epidemic. In Indian democracy group tyranny regularly tramples upon individual rights. In the name of preserving inter-community and inter-caste peace we are now used to tolerating such tyranny, and the hoodlums thus win the day.

Corruptibility of historically disadvantaged groups

The other substantive issue is that of corruptibility of our historically disadvantaged low-caste and tribal groups. Even if people belonging to different groups have similar inherent propensities for honesty or dishonesty, different groups face different constraints, opportunities and pressures, and the ‘equilibrium’ outcomes may be different.

In the United States suppose a white scholar notes the statistical fact that in crimes in metropolitan cities the incidence of involvement by blacks is larger than their demographic proportion in the population. Is he being necessarily racist? There is, of course, the institutional racism as a result of which the police and judicial authorities discriminate against blacks. But there are also socio-economic reasons like lack of opportunities and decent education and employment that drive many blacks to crime.

Similarly, in India there may be socio-economic reasons why in many cases the social minorities may be found to be involved in or supporting ‘corrupt’ activities, sometimes even more than the upper castes. Let me discuss two such reasons:

(a) One has to do with social networks (a point which I think Nandy was trying to make). The upper castes having been in positions of power and privilege for centuries have well-developed and well-oiled networks which their members can utilise in fixing problems or getting jobs and contracts for their relatives and friends. By and large the lower castes lack such lucrative and powerful networks. Under the circumstances, it is quite possible that an upwardly mobile lower-caste person may try to use money as a substitute for (the missing) network in getting things done. The latter will be called corruption, but the upper-caste use of connections instead of money for similar objectives is often not described as corruption. Is it ‘casteist’ to point this out? Lack of network may also mean that corrupt low-caste people get caught more often than equally dishonest but more protected upper-caste people.

(b) For social groups long subject to humiliation, it may be quite understandable that dignity politics often trump good governance. So it is often seen that a low-caste leader widely known as corrupt gets elected by his fellow caste members, election after election, because these leaders in other ways have uplifted the self-esteem and dignity of whole groups of people. The leaders’ corruption may even be looked upon with an indulgent eye: all these years the upper castes have looted public money, maybe it is now ‘our turn’. Such symbolic group self-assertion in politics is quite prevalent in north India, where the rise of the historically subordinate groups is relatively recent. (In south India where self-respect movements are much older, good governance on the part of the low-caste leaders is more often in demand.)

In a survey of politician corruption in 102 legislative jurisdictions in Uttar Pradesh, where caste-based polarisation in voting behaviour increased between 1980 and 1996, Banerjee and Pande1 show a decline in the quality (in terms of competence and honesty) of the politicians who win. They find clear evidence of a trade-off between caste loyalty and quality of politicians.

Since stating these structural reasons in some way involves going beyond what Nandy has said, am I being even more ‘offensive’? Some of Nandy’s defenders have pleaded for him saying that he cannot be casteist, for after all he supports reservations for lower castes. Since I am not myself an unambiguous supporter of those reservations (I am for more substantial redistribution to the poor, but not necessarily through reservations), I do not have even that fig-leaf.


  1. See A. Banerjee and R. Pande, “Parochial Politics: Ethnic Preferences and Politician Corruption”, Kennedy School Working Paper, Harvard, 2009
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