The politics of intellectual streetfighting


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SEARCH for ‘Ashis Nandy’ on the Internet and you will find about 179,000 entries in about 0.14 seconds. Scroll down further and it won’t be long before the word ‘controversy’ starts flashing across your screen. The repetition of the word beckons another search and the combination of ‘Ashis Nandy’ and ‘controversy’ produces a further 36,300 entries. The search itself offers assurances, with entries referencing the ‘Ashis Nandy controversy’ and ‘the Ashis Nandy affair’. The repetition of the word is strangely alluring; it is also misleading given the volume of traffic, implying that there is more than one controversy. References to ‘the’ controversy though suggest that this is the one to top all others.

Readers familiar with Nandy and his work will know that his ability to divide opinion is one of the very few things critics agree upon. After all, controversy can appear in over 36,000 ways. Search a little deeper and one finds that there are many debates to choose from where Nandy is cast as the provocateur, the ultimate dissenter or as India’s most irreverent social scientist. Nandy’s comments on caste corruption in January 2013 at the Jaipur Literary Festival, his characterization of Narendra Modi, his comments on sati and criticisms of the Indian middle classes are all cases in point. This confrontational subject matter, along with what are often regarded as Nandy’s outrageous ideas and perspectives, establish him as a highly contested intellectual figure.

Nandy’s writings have always provoked, notably his scathing ‘anti-secular manifesto’ first detailed in Seminar in 1985. The article explores how the pursuit of the western secular ‘ideal’ defines Indian political culture and political identities. For Nandy, the pursuit of this ‘ideal’ produces a number of distortions. This is played out in competing definitions, adversarial national identities and, at times, violent claims to ‘Indianness’, leaving Nandy to question the cultural and psychological viability of the ideology of secularism in India.

The manifesto secured his position as one of India’s most passionately divisive, yet important contemporary thinkers. His persistent forewarning of the distortions secularism produces, well before the political events of the late 1990s and early 2000, remain as relevant today as they did when they first appeared. The consistency of Nandy’s critique, along with his analysis of Indian political culture and the formation of political identities, has seldom been afforded the consideration it deserves. Even within the Left, where a number of scholars have voiced their own lengthy attacks on secularism, Nandy’s distinctive ‘brand’ of anti-secularism produces intense reactions and defensive responses.


In the acrimonious debates on Indian secularism, where a ‘crisis’ of its own ensues, Nandy’s arguments can be overwhelming. First, to explore these distortions and effects on Indian political culture is akin to accepting that secularism falls short of fulfilling its ideological promise. A common defence is to find recourse in the unique and idiosyncratic features of Indian secularism and Indian modernity. Second, to question the political foundations of the independent Indian post-colonial state, values that are intimately connected to one’s own identity, is confronting. It invites us into an intellectual unravelling of sorts. Such a confronting invitation to question ourselves and our society is often silenced by Nandy’s dangerous brand of ‘anti-secularism’. As a political psychologist and social and political commentator in Indian public life for over forty years though, Nandy is compelled to enter into such murky waters. The invitation to ‘intellectually unravel’, to confront, unlearn and rethink, or ‘think differently’ is a consistent feature of his approach. It is also a distinctive feature of the politics of intellectual streetfighting that informs his work.

Nandy is referenced as one of the leading anti-secular voices in India. Such a title is riddled with complexities, including what the constitutive features of his anti-secularism actually are. Few have questioned how a modern post-colonial secular scholar like Nandy arrives at such a destination. After all such a counter-intuitive position is incongruous with the political vision of his generation. It can also be seen as class betrayal. How and why Nandy arrives at this anti-secular argument is overshadowed by his alleged anti-modernism, culturalism, and romanticism for a mythical pre-modern India. Here Nandy’s ‘critical’ defence of tradition comes up against post-colonial cultural politics. How the past informs the present is a recurrent feature of his work. It is an inescapable confrontation for a child of modern India looking for a language of social criticism. Thus Nandy’s provocations, in part, can be explained by the forced engagement one finds in his work with the politics of inherited knowledge systems, and the alternatives available to the critic outside of this.


Dipesh Chakrabarty rightly acknowledges Nandy’s sensitivity in addressing the role of India’s undesirable past. This includes working through the tensions and contradictions that Indian modernity presents for the critic. Few contemporary thinkers have undertaken such a task in such a self-conscious and self-reflexive manner. Usually their politics erupts in what they write about the past, along with their defences and denials. Nandy’s continuing ‘return’ to the past includes the past that survives in the present, not only within historical time but also according to the rhythms of psychic life. How the past survives in our individual and collective unconscious, and within our identities, must be taken into account. The role of the critic is to explore those aspects of our selves and societies that are privileged and rendered visible, as much as it is to work through the latent selves, or disavowed aspect of our selves. This takes place irrespective of whether it provokes an unpopular political response.


The repeated reference to Nandy’s controversial status arguably captures very little. While it firmly establishes Nandy as a confronting and provocative figure, ‘controversy’ conceals the significance of his opus as a political psychologist and public intellectual. The spectacle of public outrage can become the norm, especially in the world’s largest democracy where public debates are littered with controversies. Part of our peripheral vision, ‘controversy’ becomes an empty signifier that can work to conceal, rather than reveal the issues at hand.

The intensity of emotion that follows controversy – outrage, horror and fascination – prevents a deeper engagement with the method (or rather a defiant and idiosyncratic method) found in Nandy’s work. His self-representation as both a political psychologist and intellectual street-fighter have much to reveal of Nandy’s rejection of accepted rules of academic engagement and exchange. As a political psychologist, his work remains highly critical of the master’s inherited tools of demystification and interpretation. As an intellectual streetfighter, aligned with ‘slum politics’, the role of the critic is to challenge the acceptable rules of dissent. The psychology of politics and the politics of psychology continue to frame the dialogue between Nandy’s own divided self. It also provides a key to understanding the consistency and continuity in his arguments across the diverse range of topics his work covers.

Nandy appears to be a non-player, a contrarian figure who resists playing by the established rules of the game. It would, however, be a misrepresentation to dismiss Nandy as a non-player who outright rejects all academic protocols and rules of engagement. For, if we dig below the surface, Nandy’s disruptions are explorations into alternative meanings, hidden selves, and multiple ways of being. How best to locate the open-ended perspectives and ‘time travels’ in his work, remains a cause of anxiety. So too is the role of psychoanalysis in Nandy’s work. This aspect of his work and how it defines his method remains curiously under-theorized. My own interest in Nandy’s work has been driven by wanting to look beyond the controversy, in wanting to offer a reading of his method and, in turn, his politics. In doing so, I am not interested in ‘locating’ his work or in making Nandy fit into existing schools of thought in order to offer a correct reading of his arguments or his significance. If disciplinary fidelity or even inter-disciplinarity is a measure of scholarly acumen, then Nandy’s defiance as a non-player and the ambivalence he evokes continues to disturb.


The deceptive simplicity of Nandy’s writings, unburdened by the weight of epistemic abstraction, is also a source of territorial anxiety and debate. Nandy’s self-characterization as both ‘intellectual streetfighter’ and ‘political psychologist’ adds to this, running the risk of trivializing the wider significance of his contributions. Whether the intellectual streetfighter functions as a latent shadow self or a secret self to the political psychologist or vice versa, both self-descriptions reveal the politics at play. Both inform his approach to knowledge and critique. For instance, the reflexivity of his writings on the politics of dissent is often eclipsed by his position as the ultimate dissenting enfant terrible within Indian academia. Much of this tension can be explained by Nandy’s critical encounter with political psychology. While the combat of ‘intellectual streetfighting’ may absolve Nandy of adhering to academic protocols, this is received critically within the field of Indian political psychology where scholarship is measurable in self-referential ways. His ‘outsider status’ carries over into the field of academic psychology where he is similarly perceived as a dissident figure. This is as much due to the historical trajectory of the field in India and the different schools of thought that have dominated its development.


In the 1970s Nandy trained as a clinical psychologist, with an emphasis on Freudian depth psychology. Like the dissident Freud before him, Nandy’s interest in psychoanalysis is informed by the radical possibilities of the ‘analytic attitude’. Savagely applied, psycho-analysis becomes a radical analytical tool to explore ‘possible and retrievable selves.’ Indeed it is the dynamism and ambivalence of internal processes (internal to the self and within culture) that continues to churn at the heart of his social and political criticism. Nandy’s sensitivity to the politics of knowledge is evidenced in his own analysis of the arrival of psychoanalysis in India. Consistent with his approach there is more than one story to tell.

There is a double legacy that defines the history of psychoanalysis in India. The arrival of psychoanalysis in India was marked by its dual possibilities – as a colonial technique of socialization and a disruptive tool for social critique. As a colonial tool of social engineering and domination, psychoanalysis arrived in India on the coat-tails of imperialist urges to re-code the colonized subject in the image of the ideal European man. Although an available tool of social engineering utilized by colonial elites, psychoanalysis was equally used as a tool of demystification and social criticism. This part of the story is detailed at length in Nandy’s work, and in particular his essay on the first Indian psychoanalyst, Girindrasekhar Bose.


Nandy’s own unorthodox appropriation of psychoanalysis and the perspectives this generates challenge the boundaries of critical psychology. The creative and disruptive potential of the ‘non-player’, or the ‘political psychologist as non-player’, is another reminder of the ongoing need to critically confront and challenge the limits of disciplinary knowledge. It is in this reading of psychoanalysis, as a dissenting and disruptive tool, that Nandy’s approach can be found. Consistent with Nandy’s modus operandi of dissent, psychoanalysis in his work does not follow a prescriptive reading of Freudian depth psychology, or follow the intellectual pathways of dissenting Freudian schools of thought. This too, perhaps, explains why the psychoanalytic focus of his thinking remains misunderstood.

Not recognized in usual academic tropes, Nandy’s de-professionalized approach to psychoanalytic theory is not always recognized as ‘proper’ psychoanalysis. Rather, it is a mode of revolt, nonetheless consistently executed, across his theorizations of self-hood and society. It is a warning against the dangers of closing ourselves off from an ‘analytical attitude’ that keeps a vital internal dialogue alive. This sheds some light on Nandy’s intellectual sensitivity for the positioning of external and internal boundaries – the boundaries between culture and psyche. This also extends to his sensitivity for theorizing the complexities of human identities, his attentiveness to the inclusions and exclusions operating in power relations and within processes of identification.

Nandy consistently warns against the dangers of standardization and homogenization, whether talking about our inability to critique the middle classes or the visibility of the politics of caste corruption. Is it the role of the public intellectual to interrogate meanings and assumptions that are so widely accepted as the norm, that they are taken for granted? Such a task, as I have repeatedly argued, is confronting, for it requires a self-critical and self-reflexive capacity ‘to play with one’s past as part of one’s self.’ Here the invitation to walk down the pathway of intellectual unravelling begins. Here is also where Nandy’s political project takes effect – in rupturing established dominant meanings and defences, and regenerating meaning by reclaiming the pluralism within human experience and within Indian democratic culture.


Politics for Nandy is an engagement with the differences within human subjectivity and within selfhood. This includes questioning how the subject is formed, how the boundaries of selfhood are constituted through cultural and political processes, concepts of agency and resistance, and processes of identification. Politics for Nandy is also an engagement with pluralism within Indian democracy and Indian culture. The voice of the radical democrat is thus not necessarily inconsistent with these psychoanalytic themes and methods that Nandy demonstrates.

Nandy’s work invites us into a mode of cultural criticism that provides a space for reflexivity and self-reflexivity. Confronting and painful as this may be, it is a journey into the self, a journey that questions the cultural politics of selfhood. It is a journey into how the past survives in the present, not only according to historical time but within the dynamism of psychic life. Nandy’s work is an open invitation into processes of unravelling, confrontation and working through that mirror the psychotherapeutic journey of rupturing and regenerating human subjectivity. In doing so, it is also an open invitation to journey into Nandy’s alternatives, including other expressions of self and ‘Indianness’ that exist as our doubles, even if these are latent within ourselves, our culture and our societies.

The survival of the democratic imagination and the democratic art of the possible are not empty euphemisms here. Nandy’s passionate defence of Indian democracy, and of people’s right to multiple visions of what India is or can hope to be, remains ever present in the work of this anti-disciplinary thinker.


To label Nandy as controversial is to diminish the importance of this complex and polemical Indian thinker. The label also diminishes the politics that inform his identity as political psychologist and intellectual streetfighter. In inviting readers to consider the method invoked by such a beguiling intellectual figure, and how the modern secular Indian thinker arrives at such confronting destinations, I want to dim the flashing lights of controversy in favour of a different engagement with Nandy’s work.

Like the flashing neon lights of a 24-hour metropolis where lights entice with dizzying excitement, after a certain period of time their impact fades. The spectacle, like the spectacle of controversy, becomes the norm. The lights remain as luminous as ever yet dulled by the banality of repetition. In the highly sensitive climate of public debate, more than ever, Nandy’s is a voice that continues to divide. It would be a real threat to democracy, if in the marketplace of ideas and public debate, the role of the critic were merely to reaffirm what is already known and comfortable for us to hear. Surely that would truly mark the death of intellectual streetfighting.


* Christine Deftereos is the author of Ashis Nandy and The Cultural Politics of Selfhood. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2013.