Theories of Oppression and another Dialogue of Cultures: Ashis Nandy

This is the text of the Ambedkar Memorial lecture delivered by ASHIS NANDY at the India International Centre on 14 April 2012, under the auspices of Ambedkar University, Delhi.

It was published in Economic and Political Weekly, July 28, 2010

Every generation likes to believe that it is living in momentous times, witnessing the death of one world and the birth of another, negotiating what pre-war Bengali writers used to grandly call yugasandhikshana, the moment when two epochs meet. This generation of Indians too believes that it is seeing such changes and even participating in them. Perhaps they are. However, I shall argue here that, along with transitions in society and politics to which they like to stand witness, there are transitions in cultures of knowledge and states of awareness of which they may be gloriously innocent. And they perhaps try to protect that innocence. The categories we deploy to construe our world images are parts of our innermost self and to disown them is to disown parts of ourselves and jeopardise our self-esteem. Even when we struggle to shed these categories, they survive like phantom limbs do in some amputees. Or perhaps they survive the way one of Freud’s three universal fantasies, the one about immortality, does. When you imagine yourself dead, you are still there, fully alive, looking at yourself as dead.

Yet, with passage of time, the emancipatory ideas of one generation are always hollowed out through overuse and misuse, and become for the next generation poisoned gifts, sanctioning new forms of violence and oppression. Human beings, given long enough time, adequate opportunities and a culture of impunity can turn any theory of liberation into its reverse.

Such poisoned gifts continue to play a key role in public life and in academic social sciences. Few talk of social Darwinism these days, but many cannot give up its sanitised versions in a whole range of social-evolutionary epithets. The ideas of developed and underdeveloped, advanced and backward, progressive and conservative, modern and traditional, historical and ahistorical, are all infected with the crude Darwinism that came to us not only through thinkers like Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), at one time a well known name in the Indian academe, but also through some of the more distinguished Left-Hegelians talking incessantly of historical stages and historical compulsions, stages of economic growth and development.

Elsewhere I have shown how evolutionary principles began to be applied to even human life cycle and early education and how, by the late eighteenth century, childhood had lost its intrinsic sanctity and the child had become, almost by definition, an inferior, underdeveloped version of the adult who had to be guided, sternly and coercively, towards productive adulthood and ‘normal’, ‘healthy’ citizenship.[1] Later, the metaphor of life cycle was applied to entire societies and civilisations so successfully that even a humanist like Albert Schweitzer could not resist saying, ‘The African is my brother, but a younger brother.’ I supply here a rough sketch of the overall environment in which the social sciences grew and how our theories of violence and oppression carry the burden of their origins.


Let me start at the beginning. By the nineteenth century, the Enlightenment values had already made deep inroads into the middle-class cultures of Europe and had begun to shape the continent’s intellectual climate. Human beings were no longer toys of fate or playthings of gods. At the same time, simple domination, exploitation and the marauding style of colonialism, which Spain and Portugal pioneered in South America in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was no longer acceptable. Self-interest had become more legitimate with the entry of industrial capitalism in the scene, but one had to give weighty reasons for one’s greed and violence; Christianization of the pagans and the absence of soul in the American Indians and Africans were not enough. To kill, rape or rob, you had to invoke more secular causes like nationalism and sciences like biology, eugenics and anthropology. It was a bit like the English who even when they pick pockets, George Bernard Shaw once said, do so on principle.

In this ambience, Europe spawned a whole range of social and political theories, which included a number of brand-new theories of secular salvation. Along with new disciplines like sociology and political science and strands of radical thought—from anarchism to Christian socialism to communism—these theories of secular salvation reshaped existing social knowledge not only in the West but also entered the colonised societies through new educational initiatives and universities. Gradually, the likes of Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), Robert Owen (1771–1858), John Austin (1790–1859) James Mill (1773–1836), John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876), Karl Marx (1818-83), John Ruskin (1819–1900), Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), William Morris (1834–1896) William James (1842–1910), Pyotr Kropotkin (1842-1921), Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) entered important pockets of urban middle-class awareness as lasting influences in the world being brought within civilisation.

It was the high noon of modern colonialism. There was in Europe and in the two newly-white continents, a heady mix of the self-righteous certitudes of the Protestant ethics confidently driving industrial capitalism to new heights and the self-confidence of the explorers and the circumnavigators of the earth who discovered for Europe new worlds, old civilisations, and old civilisations that by common consent could be turned into new worlds. It was a time when well-intentioned, important thinkers in the Northern hemisphere could not but think of the good of the entire world as their noblesse oblige. Dutifully, many of them proposed universal theories of oppression and human liberation. Unfortunately, almost all of them knew nothing about the non-European world. Fortunately, this did not cramp their style.

If you force me to name this culture of the social sciences, I shall call it a regime of narcissism. (Despite my efforts, it is becoming in some of my recent writings a nosological term, a diagnostic category.) A common feature of these human sciences was their eroticised investment in themselves and in the cultural zone where they were born and the extent to which they struggled to confine non-European knowledge systems within hermeneutically sealed academic vaults, open to only anthropologists and historians. For the rest of the knowledge industry, these alien knowledge systems became either ethnic curios, things we collect when we travel on a small budget to other countries to widen our minds, or unknown but feared bacterial strains that might infect the newfound scientific purity of social thought and practices or force our favourite grand theories to rethink their categories and epistemologies.

I do not want to spend time on this part of the story though. Thanks to a number of scholars it is better known today. I want to speak about how, when some of the pioneers in social sciences were claiming modestly that their theories and methods were timeless and trans-territorial, their diverse and competing ventures began to show some common results.

First, it became a general tendency in scholarly circles to translate geographical space into chronological time—to see distant countries outside Europe and North America not as culturally, ecologically and socially different, as their forefathers did, but as an earlier stage of history, as in fact an earlier phase of the history of Europe. While the earlier generations in Europe had seen China and India as ancient civilisations that were exotic, rich, intriguing and unique, now they began to see these countries as having impressive if feudal pasts but trapped, in recent centuries, in decadent, dissolute, primitive social and religious practices and waiting to be engineered into something more contemporary by the young, vigorous, advanced European civilisation.[2] Colonialism had become a pedagogical exercise.[3]

Second, in a related development, there emerged after the first flush of enthusiasm for social Darwinism, subtler social-evolutionary theories of history, modernisation, state-formation, nation-building and, later, education, child rearing and economic development. Whatever else these theories did or did not, they began, with immense enthusiasm and efficiency, to steamroll, flatten and secularise the diverse visions of a desirable society in African and Asian societies into a single monolithic vision. And this new shared vision increasingly began to look like contemporary West Europe and North America.

Today, this process has reached its apogee. One billion Chinese and one billion Indians seem to have internalised the project and eagerly bought into this utopia. Mimicking Oscar Wilde, one might say that the good Chinese and the good Indian, if they have lived a virtuous life, have now started going not to heaven but to New York.

Third, gradually over the last hundred and fifty years, the marginalised and dominated of the world, too, have been acquiring an increasingly homogenised look in scholarly work, irrespective of their social location and cultural features. Ethnographic accounts of them, of course, vary in details, but they tend not to vary in political-economic and ethical thrusts. In public imagination and in policy circles, the situation has been worse. Sometimes to underscore the depth of the suffering of a community, all dignity is sucked out of the community’s culture and lifestyle. The assumption is that the more gruesome the detail, the more serious is the criticism of the oppression. After a point, descriptions lifted from one part of the world in the nineteenth century are almost indistinguishable from descriptions from another part of the world in the twentieth century. Indeed, this commonality cuts across the political and ideological boundaries of the theories deployed to interpret the plight of the victims.

Ethnographers may not agree, but whether they are Dalits of India in the twenty-first century or the working class huddling in the gin alleys of industrialising Britain, be they the fishing communities in southern India resisting the encroachment of trawlers today or the Maoris fighting colonisation in New Zealand, the victims of structural or institutionalised violence and exploitation have gradually acquired the same look. The victims have been prised out of their cultural context to be given a new two-dimensional identity—they are poor and they are oppressed. The theories that speak for them and want to have a monopoly on their welfare are usually aggressively global. They have no time or patience for the lifestyles of individual communities, which in any case they—the theories—consider secondary.

Fourth, while the oppressed and the poor remain a social category, a potentially revolutionary formation or a rebellious mob, and as such have agency only potentially—that is, after adequate conscientisation or old-fashioned mobilisation—the oppressors have agency here and now, on the basis of the historical role they have to played as innovative entrepreneurs, as a social sector having better scientific and technical knowledge and, above all, as self-aware citizens, liberated intellectuals, vanguard of the proletariat or simply as awakened, informed citizenry who have already brought about nothing less than a successful bourgeois revolution.

More recently, the legitimation of this agency has become subtler and more difficult to combat. Dominance is increasingly dependent on categories, not on institutional forces. In knowledge societies, dominance does not look like dominance if one can partition off one’s professional self and subject it to the existing knowledge hierarchy, while ranting all the while against social hierarchy. George Bernard Shaw’s aphorism that all professions are a conspiracy against the laity may have become stale but the idea of disabling professions of Ivan Illich has acquired a sharper edge.[4]

Fifth, the psychological climate I am trying to capture was founded on what was seen as the triumph of reason. The Enlightenment had the whole of the eighteenth century to seep into the European and North American societies. The social theories the nineteen-century Europe and North America spawned during the transition from the culture of slavery to the culture of colonialism broke with the traditions that drew their values from multiple sources, such as transcendental or divine injunctions, compassion, empathy, aesthetics and reason. The new theories drew their values almost exclusively from reason. The psychoanalytically minded might say rationalisation or intellectualisation became now the preferred ego-defence.

Despite the dangers of marginalising compassion and empathy as sources of values, the emphasis on reason as the primary or only source of values can have some virtues. I can imagine that in societies that had maintained cultural continuities over centuries, reason must have appeared to many a new, liberating and healthy vantage ground for social criticism. Understandably, African and Asian intellectuals and social reformers took to the change like fish to water. In India, the powerful Brahminic tradition found the change especially attractive. More so in Bengal, where the British Empire was founded and the colonial capital was located.

In Bengal, the obsession with epistemic issues— some might call it logic-chopping—of the dominant school of philosophy, navya nyaya, could easily adapt to the demands of the new enchantment with reason, to blunt the powerful social criticisms and egalitarian movements that had surfaced in medieval times. The Brahminic literati of the region kept itself busy for more than a century doing so.[5] Navya naya might have originated at Mithila, but the Bengali upper castes had made it their own. Enlightenment, I dare say, began its career in India on the wrong foot; almost by default, it established a powerful, social alliance with the existing social stratarchy. So did the colonial political economy. Medievalism, following the European usage, became a dirty word in India, too, even though it was arguably the golden age of India’s cultural and social creativity.[6]

Alas, the violence of the twentieth century has quite conclusively shown that reason in both of its popular forms—as instrumental reason and as scientific rationality—can be an excellent sanction for genocide and dominance. Indeed, by using Rudolph J. Rummel’s data on genocide, one can easily show that at least twenty times as many people have been liquidated in the name of reason and science in the last century than in the name of religious fanaticism.[7]

Sixth, as new dichotomies were set up in the nineteenth century to describe the journey from the past to the future, say, from tradition to modernity or underdevelopment to development, one end of the dichotomies was pluralised, not the other. This perhaps was nothing terribly new or strange. At the beginning of Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy says: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ And in the modern clinical disciplines, we know, one can be ill in myriad ways but healthy in usually one way. In psychiatry, psychoanalysis and clinical psychology, one can be insane in a variety of interesting ways and sane within a much smaller, more boring range of options.

However, in political and social knowledge and in applied philosophy, such asymmetry can have serious implications. If we have a rich phenomenology of underdevelopment but sparse work on varieties of development or if we have a wide range of work on threats to national security but only a unitary concept of national security, it obviously does something to our public imagination. A few have worked hard to correct these asymmetries, mostly without any noticeable impact. Ideas have their own life spans that are tough to curtail or extend. In the last five decades I have seen how transient and fragile have been attempts to pluralise the concept of development. I have seen concepts like rural development, micro-development, alternative development, eco-development, ethno-development, indigenous development, inclusive development and sustainable development enter the social sciences with much fanfare and, then, ingloriously fall on the wayside. Only one development has survived—Development with a capital D. More recently, in a country claiming to be the birthplace of Gandhi, the definition of national security has steadily become narrower as the threats to national security have multiplied and become richer in descriptive content, limiting the range of our public imagination and our policy options. No wonder, our first response to all terrorism has become statist counter-terrorism.


I do not dismiss the efforts or the sacrifices of those studying or fighting human suffering and exploitation and making sense of them. I myself work predominantly on the nastier side of life. But I do believe that we have hollowed out the lives and lifestyles of those who live under regimes of dominance and exploitation.

I am not concerned here with those who have used social knowledge to justify slavery, colonialism, imperial wars, child labour, indentured labour and genocide. I am concerned with the minds of those who deploy the dominant theories of oppression and human liberation. I am disturbed that Frederick Engels justified the colonial conquest of Algeria by France because, he felt, ‘The conquest of Algeria is an important and fortunate fact for the progress of civilisation.’[8] I am disappointed that Karl Marx, who crossed the boundary of his ideology to congratulate Abraham Lincoln when he abolished slavery, never extended the same favour to the countries in the Southern hemisphere. When it came to India he argued that, however exploitative and gory British colonialism, it would still manage to pull this unwilling country, screaming and kicking, into the modern world. His brain child, the noted economist Joan Robinson, who lovingly brought up two generations of Indian students on his ideas of radical politics and economics, put it more bluntly. The only thing worse than being colonised, she used to insist, was not being colonised.

I believe that most dominant theories of oppression and human liberation bequeathed to us have drawn legitimacy from three sources: the Baconian idea of scientific rationality, the social-evolutionary ideas of historical compulsions and historical stages, and the Left-Hegelian idea of state. The three together have been the core myths of our times, which refuse to die even at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Together the triad have fashioned a dangerous political-psychological contradiction that frames our intellectual life and defines our ideas of the progressive, the radical and the developed or advanced: On the one hand, there has been an expansion of democratic awareness, on the other, there is a new technocracy claiming intellectual and political leadership on the ground that it understands the technicalities of exploitation and dominance better than the actual victims and has, therefore, the right to be the voice of the people. The targeted beneficiaries have become a new laity, either as disposable, lowly, foot soldiers of reform or canon-fodders of revolution or as passive spectators of their own liberation.

The well-educated, urban middle classes in this part of the world, who like to fight the structures of oppression around them, have been brought up on these ideas. They resented the ruthlessness of the colonial state and the reality of exploitation, but not the categories and the worldview that sanctioned the ruthlessness and the exploitation. They have borrowed their categories from the imperium of knowledge, to contain the deficit in their self-esteem, and have ended up fighting imperialism from within its own worldview.

This is as true of those we call the Right as of those we call the Left. Damodar Vinayak Savarkar (1883-1966), freedom fighter and the father of Hindu nationalism, hated Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi for his lack of scholarship, unscientific mind and, of all things, absence of familiarity with modern European political theory.[9] It never struck Savarkar that others may have thought Gandhi a path-breaking politician for exactly the same reasons—because he was an outsider unimpressed by the authority of university-based knowledge systems, especially modern science, and European concepts of statecraft and radical politics. (If you read Savarkar with genuine empathy and not like a police sub-inspector writing a first information report, you will find that, except for a few peripheral concepts here and there, there is almost nothing Indian about his ideas of state, nation and nationality. They are charmingly antique, borrowed from nineteenth-century Europe. In his writings, his hostility to the Muslims overlies his savage criticism of the Hindus as a non-martial, non-masculine, unorganised, fractious people who will only be a true nationality in the future. And you do not have to be an empathetic reader to discover Savarkar’s not-so-secret admiration for Muslims and Christians for being more martial and for being better human material for running a modern state. This ambivalence towards the Muslims and the Christians persists in most texts of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh too.) Savarkar did believe that the Europeans had earned the right to read the Vedas and the Upanishads, not the Indians. Indians, he felt, were at a historical stage when they should read, as shudras, only western textbooks of science and technology.[10]

Conformity can never be as dangerous as tamed, defanged, predictable dissent, for such dissent allows dominance to turn into hegemony. At the same time, being transparent and predictable to the powers regnant, such dissent allows itself to be monitored, scrutinised, co-opted and efficiently managed, with minimal use of force. It can even become an ornament and a testimonial to a system and an endorsement of its democratic credentials. What we are trying to do to the dispossessed and the marginalised in our midst—to the tribals, the Dalits and the predominantly artisan atishudras who include a large proportion of Muslims—is exactly what the western intellectual establishment has sought to do to us. This is the core psychodynamics of intellectual imperialism in our times.[11]


I propose that one of the first tasks of social knowledge in India today is to return agency to the communities at the receiving end of the system. We can do so only if we take seriously the various cultural modes of self expression of these communities. Democracy can be, I admit, a slow-moving, inept, obtuse tool in the case of small communities. But it still remains a powerful enabling device for those not pushed to the margin of desperation. I believe that those we call the oppressed and the poor can take care of themselves in a truly open system. I am suggesting that it is in our self-interest that we shed this imperial obligation as representatives of the coming knowledge society, as pace-setters in a globalised political economy or as vanguards of the proletariat. (This plea is also directed at those who stand on the other side of the ideological barrier, the ultra-Hindus who populate the ranks of the Hindu nationalists and have now fragmented into small urban sects of censorship-freaks, united by the arrogant belief that their gods and goddesses cannot protect them; they have to protect the gods and goddesses. Naturally they are even more protective towards the Dalits and the Adivasis, whom they see as vulnerable and naive, forever susceptible to the seductive charms of a whole range of conspirators, from evangelists to Maoists.) It is necessary to shed this baggage for our own psychological health and ethical well-being. When we grant dignity to others, we grant dignity to ourselves, however preachy this might sound.

To grant this dignity to those whom we are not used to grant it, we must learn to enter the cultural space they occupy. Education need not be only pedagogy or teaching; it also includes proactive learning. The ability to learn is biologically given and is not even species-specific. In this instance, it means opening a dialogue with the oppressed and cornered cultures in India first and, then—only then—with other countries and civilisations we have to treat as our equals. Such an internal dialogue will give us an opportunity to learn by expanding our moral horizon and allow us to transcend the narrow cosmopolitanism foisted on us by the nineteenth-century European ideas of civilisation and kultur. What I am saying is not well-packaged ethnocentrism. It is an admission that when oppression is community-based, resistance has to be so, too.

Dialogue of civilisations and cultures has become a fashionable and ubiquitous intellectual pastime these days. These dialogues have tried to bring into conversation peoples, countries, and communities in conflict when normal statecraft fails to make them talk to each other. But what about dialogue among cultures within the same nation-state, when they cannot talk to each other, because they live within a nation-state as different ‘countries’? I think the Dalit and the tribal communities of India now constitute two formations of cultures about which most other Indians know little and believe that they need to know nothing. A dialogue with them should be able to humanise our polity and make it a richer, more informed democracy.

All dialogues have to cross borders—cultural, political and, above all, psychological. Usually these borders are thought of as international or civilisational borders. When we cross these borders, we are supposed to get a new, deeper, more empathetic understanding of the other ways of looking at the world and at ourselves. There is an implicit assumption in this proposal, particularly when it involves crossing the borders within us: Others are never entirely strangers. They are also templates of the temptations and possibilities within us. We are what we are because we are shaped by the seductive pulls of these templates. A dialogue breaks stereotypes more easily than it erases these partly alien fragments of our self, operating as anti-selves and rejected selves. Both our creativity and destructiveness depend upon how we grapple with these inner vectors. It is thus that a dialogue sharpens and widens our awareness of what we are and what we are capable of. Only when we are in dialogue can we claim to have opened India to the other India where the Dalits and the tribals live.

Sixty years after formal decolonisation, small sections of the post-World War II democracies are at last showing some signs of offering resistance to the obscenity of speaking on behalf of the oppressed and the exploited. Some of the victims, too, are now obstinately refusing to fit into the model of a one-dimensional life as the ‘the poor and the exploited,’ perpetually dependent on experts and ideologues who have become their voices and guides to a better future. These victims are claiming the right to imagine and write their own future.

Pity and sympathy, after a point, can be degrading and vulgar. Instead of shedding copious tears for the poverty and the exploitation of the Dalits and Adivasis, the time has come to celebrate their self-affirmation and the enormous diversity of cultural, ecological, artistic, technological and intellectual riches they, as communities, have nurtured over the millennia. I refuse to believe that in these communities grandparents do not tell stories to their grandchildren and mothers do not sing lullabies to their babies. I refuse to believe that, outside the reach of sloganeering and propaganda, they do not have mythic heroes and myths of origin, their own and that of the world. There are impressive ethnographic works on the healing traditions, technological knowledge and agronomic practices of some of these communities. Now there is even some interest in their distinctive cuisines and there has been some serious interest in their artistic traditions. All this can be a reasonable vantage ground to launch a search for different worldviews and different visions of the future. I am tempted to adopt the plea of the Zapatistas that one of their finest thinkers, Gustavo Esteva articulates: the challenge today is nothing less than ‘to host the otherness of others.’ We have been terribly busy all these years hosting the sameness of others.

Dialogue of cultures can acquire new depth if it engages communities and cultures at the receiving end of the system and reaffirms their right to intellectual—yes, intellectual, not only social—dignity. The oppressed do have their own, often-implicit theories of oppression and have no obligation to be guided by our ideas of the scientific, the rational and the dignified. They have every right to be historically, economically and politically incorrect.


Notes and references:

[1] Ashis Nandy, ‘Reconstructing Childhood: A Critique of the Ideology of Adulthood’, in Ashis Nandy, Traditions, Tyranny and Utopias: Essays in the Politics of Awareness (New Delhi: Oford University Press, 1987), pp. 56-76.

[2] Actually, feudalism, one of the few technical terms in the discipline of history, itself became a handy, elastic term for the character assassination of any cultural product or social order that was non-European and unpopular among the new converts to modernity. I might even pre-empt my critics by calling this argument of mine uncompromisingly feudal.

[3] I am presently reading a ms in which four young academics, talking of Australia, a former colonial society that has refused to confront the full implications of that past, say,  ‘Bentham’s ideas were especially popular in Australian educational practices, even more so than in Britain, with their focus on categorization and ordering students according to their progress.’ Rob Garbutt, Erika Kerruish, Baden Offord, Kirste Pavlovic and Adele Wessell, ‘The Necessary Other: Inside Enlightenment Australia’, unpublished ms, 2011, p. 16.

[4] Ivan Illich et al, Ideas in Progress: Disabling Professions (London: Marion Boyars, 1987). See also Ivan Illich, Medical Nemesis (London: Calder and Marion Boyars, 1974).

[5] I am aware of the creative and critical use of the traditions of navya nyaya by scholars such as  Bimal Krishna Matilal in recent times. But that use can have its own hazards, as Matilal’s own work shows. If one pushes the compatibility between Indian neo-logical thought and the Enlightenment values and European modernity too far, the former becomes perfectly superfluous for those not specializing in the history of Indian philosophy. At the same time, it certifies the Enlightenment values and European modernity as new markers of an old stratarchy. That is exactly what happened, first in undivided Bengal and then in West Bengal. It is probably the one state in India where, despite a thirty-four year-long, uninterrupted rule by Marxist regime, a Dalit or an Adivasi cannot probably enter even the imagination of Bengalis as a future chief minister of the state. In fact, the Leninist theoretical apparatus itself has dutifully endorsed the political and intellectual style associated with the Bengali Bhadralok. Bengal can only take pride that it produced the subcontinent’s first minister of law, Jogendranath Mandal (1904-68) who, like India’s first minister of law, Bhimrao Ambedkar, was a Hindu Dalit. But he had to go Pakistan to be so. He took his oath of office a few days before Ambedkar did.

[6] Both Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) believed that the clues to India’s cultural unity lay not in the Vedas and the Upanishads but in the multi-religious, cross-cultural, vernacular traditions of the medieval saints, mystics, poets, composers, itinerant philosophers and social reformers. But that is not the official position either of the Indian state or of a majority of India’s historians and social scientists.

[7] Rudolph J. Rummel, Death by Government: Genocide and Mass Murder in the Twentieth Century (Rutgers, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1994). See also

[8] Frederick Engels, quoted in Bill Tabb, ‘Marx Versus Marxism’, in Ward Churchill, Marxism and Native Americans (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press), pp. 159-76, see p. 1.

[9] Dhananjay Keer, Veer Savarkar (Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1950), p. 530. For more detailed discussion of this part of the story, see Ashis Nandy, The Demonic and the Seductive in Religious Nationalism: Vinayak Savarkar and the Rites of Exorcism in Secularizing South Asia, University of Heidelberg, Virtual Jaspers Centre,

[10] V.D. Savarkar, Echoes from Andamans (Bombay: Veer Savarkar Prakashan, 1984), p. 5.

[11] See in this context the brilliant work of D.R. Nagaraj, The Flaming Feet and Other Essays: The Dalit Movement in India (Ranikhet, India: Permanent Black, 2010).

11 thoughts on “Theories of Oppression and another Dialogue of Cultures: Ashis Nandy”

  1. The text of this lecture was first published by EPW last year, 28 July 2012—Kafila does not even mention this. Is Kafila just a postman who erases the “From” address? S Anand in his essay in Outlook makes a reference to this very essay, which is why it is being resurrected here I guess, and examines how and why Nandy has not engaged with anti-caste thinkers such as Phule, Ambedkar etc. “Last year, Nandy delivered the Ambedkar University Delhi’s annual lecture on April 14, Ambedkar’s birth anniversary (published in EPW, July 28, 2012). The topic was ‘Theories of Oppression and Another Dialogue of Cultures’. I had hoped the very topic would give Nandy an opportunity to engage with radical anti-caste thought in India. But he disappointingly stuck to familiar ground.”

    Now other than calling Anand names (a brahmin-dalit or something like that), I have not seen a fruitful engagement with the points he makes on this forum…

    Ulaga Tamzihan


  2. Oh Ulaga Tamizhan, Ulaga Tamizhan. How you deaden our senses with your relentless rants. So, wearily – but we are relentless too – some clarifications – a) we published this here because there has been a debate on Kafila about this piece, and several comments have referred to it, and yes, UT, there is a whole universe outside S Anand, your sole source of all knowledge and wisdom.
    b) We are well aware that it was published in EPW – again because perversely, we read EPW – and not through the only permitted route of discovering knowledge – a link to it on S Anand’s piece. Also, 2 comments that referred to this piece, gave the EPW link already. The omission to the EPW reference here, however, was inadvertent and has been corrected.
    c) We consider S Anand’s “intellectual” engagement with Nandy to be even more wearyingly shallow and predictable (in that sense, S Anand has never disappointed us) than the “familiar ground” that Nandy stuck to that so disappointed him.
    If Nandy’s arguments are indeed so familiar to him, perhaps we could have expected some nuance in his accusations of casteism against Nandy? But then, any nuance in S Anand’s thinking would indeed have been surprising and entirely unfamiliar!


  3. I for one don’t agree much the said Anand’s understanding of Periyar whom he invokes happily here. He was booed out of Tamilnadu for being critical of Periyar and periarists… That’s a different matter. But NM you again say “shallow”, “predictable” etc but adduce no evidence of if ever and where Nandy has engaged with Ambedkar or other such radical anti-caste thinkers in India. When Nandy wrote of Sati did he read Pandita Ramabai? When he lectures on Theories of Oppression, why no engagement with Indian theorsists of oppression? You just throw words around, as if you are flailing your arms… the Nandy article was being discussed on Kafila only after the recent Jaipur tamasha… It was not posted here soon after his lecture; in fact it was invoked in the Outlook article before being raised here…
    Still, besides listing points like a b c etc, do address the issue as to why Nandy does not engage with some thinkers… one asks since people here as such experts on Nandy.
    Ulaga Tamzihan


    1. Oh dear, am I getting addicted to these exchanges with you, dear dear UT? I fear so. You are so very easy to expose, I guess that’s the addictive factor..
      So – the two comments by two different people on two separate posts that referred to and gave the link to this piece of Nandy’s appeared on Feb 3rd and Feb 4th. S Anand’s article appeared in Outlook on Feb 11th. Oh, oh oh – can it be…is it possible… does S Anand get his ideas and references from kafila? Oh no. We have a lot to answer for.
      I hold that it is extremely shallow to insist that unless someone has explicitly cited exactly some specific writers that you decide must be cited, then you will not engage with the arguments they make, and worse, will call them names. Clearly, as you yourself point out, S Anand’s mere reading of Periyar hasn’t helped his understanding deepen in any way.
      Let’s be clear here – we recognize the tactic very well – if you dont read the authors S A cites, you’re casteist. If you’re not born Dalit and you read them and engage with them, you’re casteist anyway (with the permanent exception of SA himself).
      UT – this is a) shallow b) shallow and c) shallow.


  4. Do indulge me one last comment on this, please. You say Outlook published this on 11 Feb—which means in the “future”? Surely, you must be kidding me. So I checked. The article by the aforesaid person appeared on last Saturday, that is, on 2 Feb—your link appeared on 3 Feb, AFTER. Today is 7 Feb. And 11 Feb is the “issue date”, it looks like. Just be a little patient, and reasonable, before going “oh dear” again… Exposed, eh?
    UT—alas I sound like a union territory!


    1. Exposed, alas. I did indeed, it turns out, just take a hasty peek at date on top without realizing we’re not there (Feb 11th) yet
      Of course, if SA’s article appeared on 2nd Feb, as you have now discovered, then everything you say is proved – Kafila readers eagerly read every word SA writes, rush with their links to Kafila, then we hastily post whatever SA is reading (as long as it’s not any of the key thinkers nobody but himself reads). You’ve caught us out. That’s how Kafila works.
      And of course this conclusively proves Ashis Nandy is casteist, and we need not engage with the actual ideas the man expresses – by all means let’s play detective-detective around entirely unrelated issues and give SA some more free publicity.


  5. “one can easily show that at least twenty times as many people have been liquidated in the name of reason and science in the last century than in the name of religious fanaticism” – Lol
    Is seems Ashish Nandy has a new definition for reason and Science.


  6. “one can easily show that at least twenty times as many people have been liquidated in the name of reason and science in the last century than in the name of religious fanaticism” –
    I think Ashish Nandy should realise that “Reason” and “Science” is not responsible for liquidation of people just because the liquidator claimed it is in it’s name.


  7. Ashish Nandy should realise that it is Science and Technology that changes society. There is no Dalit or Tribal Science. There is just one Science and how ever you try to differentiate communities, if given equal opportunities, all Societies will be similarly “modernised”.


  8. We lobby Obama Administration to Direct New Delhi Regime To Create An Independent Nation For 300 Million India’s Untouchables As Per US Congress Resolution 139 and 4th August 1932 Round Table Conference Resolution(Communal Award).


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