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How a caste reference in his 2009 book has come back to haunt Kancha Ilaiah

Dalit activist and scholar gets threats for a chapter from his book he wrote in 2009.

india Updated: Oct 16, 2017 15:40 IST
Nikhita Venugopal
Nikhita Venugopal
GRIST Media
Kancha Ilaiah,Dalits,Brahmins
Activist and scholar Kancha Ilaiah speaks at the Jaipur Literature Festival on January 28, 2013.(M Zhao/ HT file photo)

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd knows what it’s like to be attacked for his words. But when the Dalit activist and writer started to receive threats because of a chapter from his 2009 book, Post-Hindu India, he was shocked. Why was he being abused and intimidated over a seven-year-old text?

An outspoken advocate for marginalised and minority communities, Ilaiah, 65, has been criticised often for his opinion on Brahmin and ‘upper caste’ privilege. Brahmin associations protested when Ilaiah, in a speech at Vijayawada last year, questioned the productive role of the community. But from Ilaiah’s perspective, the “violent reaction” he has got over the last month is unlike anything he’s experienced in his decades-long career.

The current controversy started when a chapter from Post-Hindu India was republished as a booklet translated from English to Telugu. The chapter, titled “Samajika Smugglurlu Komatollu” (Vysyas: Social Smugglers) got the attention of the Arya Vysya community. Their reaction was swift and they quickly denounced his words as derogatory and insulting.

“They started, quite unexpectedly, a massive campaign against me in the early hours of September 10th,” Ilaiah said in an interview with Hindustan Times. Anonymous people threatened and abused him in a continuous stream of phone calls. Ilaiah was told that his tongue would be cut out. Protesters gathered outside his home in Tarnaka in Hyderabad, circulated petitions and burned his photograph and effigy. They wanted an apology, his arrest and a ban on the book in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Politicians stepped in to stoke the fury. Telugu Desam Party Rajya Sabha MP T.G. Venkatesh, who is a leader of the Arya Vysya community, suggested a change in the country’s law so Ilaiah could be publicly hanged. TDP Lok Sabha MP Maganthi Venkateswara Rao said earlier this month that Ilaiah should have his legs broken.

On September 23, a few days after Venkatesh’s speech, Ilaiah was travelling with a relative when a mob chased and attacked his car at Parakal in Bhupalpally. Ilaiah said his driver managed to get away and went straight to a police station. Ilaiah has since registered cases with the police because of threats from Arya Vysya groups and politicians.

Ilaiah began to fear for his life. The attack forced him into a self-imposed house arrest from September 24 to October 4, he said, with police officers monitoring his residence or travel in the event of a threat. On the day he ended his house arrest, Ilaiah retired from his position as director of the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad.

His words, though several years old, are now earning condemnation from both the Arya Vysya community as well as the BJP, whose spokesman reportedly called Ilaiah a “mentally deranged hate-monger.” Two police cases were registered against Ilaiah on October 11 and 12. In Hyderabad, a 22-year-old Scheduled Caste student alleged that Ilaiah had targeted Hindu communities, particularly the Vysya caste, and in the Prakasam district, a woman filed an FIR against Ilaiah for promoting “social unrest and enmity,” according to reports.

Ilaiah said there was another attempt to storm his home on October 8, when Vysya members staged a sit-in outside his residence. Supporters of Ilaiah also gathered to back the author, but police intervened and thwarted any possible violence, he added.

Ilaiah, who has met Telangana’s director general of police Anurag Sharma, told Hindustan Times that the police were reviewing his situation, but as of October 14 he did not have full-time protection. When travelling within the city, the police told Ilaiah they would oversee his movements.

“This is a scary situation. Why are they doing this? Are they after my life or what?” he said.

The danger to Ilaiah and the infringement of his freedom of expression were the subject of Arizona Congressman Trent Franks’ remarks on October 12 at the U.S. House of Representatives. Calling Ilaiah a “modern day Dr Ambedkar,” he noted that “the United States and the entire global community is and should be deeply concerned about the threat to the life of Professor Kancha Ilaiah… Our trusted ally and friend, India, is better than this.”

On October 13, the Supreme Court dismissed the Arya Vysya petitiont to ban Ilaiah’s book, saying it would violate the writer’s freedom of expression.

“This is a great relief to all researchers, novelists and thinkers,” Ilaiah said.

Members of the Arya Vysa community protest against Kancha Ilaiah’s book in Hyderabad. (Uday Kumar/ Facebook)

Controversial label

It was Ilaiah’s labelling of Vysyas (Komatollu) as “social smugglers,” a term he coined in the book Post-Hindu India, that sparked outrage among those communities.

“This is a book I wrote when we miserably failed to get anything positive for reservation in the private sector,” he said.

The book, described as a “critique of Brahminism and the caste system in India,” includes research on several communities under titles such as “Unpaid Teachers” and “Spiritual Fascists.” It discusses the Dalit-Bahujans as the country’s “productive” masses and the seemingly “anti-production and anti-scientific ethic” that Brahminical Hinduism has adopted.

“[Ilaiah] has said… the intelligence of the country, the skill of this country is with those who have laboured all their lives” said V Geetha, a feminist historian who has worked on caste and labour issues.

“Social smuggling” differs from the typical definition of the word “smuggling,” meaning to take goods across country borders illegally, he notes in the book. Instead, it refers to economic exploitation within the social borders of India’s caste system-- one that fails to reinvest in oppressed communities, such as Dalits, Adivasis and Other Backward Classes.

Ilaiah wrote on the subject last month to clarify “social smuggling”, and he says he still doesn’t understand how an academic title could create this level of anger. “I didn’t expect this kind of violent reaction,” he said.

“The Arya Vysya community has contributed to the nation’s exchequer by paying huge taxes. We are always ahead in charity, whether it’s running an educational institution or rendering social service,” said Jayanthi Venkateswarlu, president of Andhra Pradesh Arya Vysya Mahasabha, last month.

VV Sanyasi Rao, a former vice-president of the Andhra Pradesh Arya Vysya Mahasabha, echoed those sentiments to HT. “What is his intention of writing his books?” he said. “In India, I’m sorry to tell you, the most philanthropic people are Arya Vysya.”

When asked about the outraged reaction to the booklet, Sanyasi Rao said, “If you don’t object to wrong things, you’re also wrong.”

“When something is going on, if we don’t go against the wrong thing, [then] I’m not a Vysya, I’m not a Hindu.”

Standing by Ilaiah

Ilaiah has received support from organisations and communities he has championed for years. On Twitter, the hashtag #SupportKanchaIlaiah is being used to defend the writer and denounce the actions of the Arya Vysya groups.

“There is a threat to intellectualism, there’s no doubt,” Ilaiah said. With death threats against him, the murders of writers and activists like M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh were not far from people’s minds. Some considered the attacks to be another example of intolerance towards free thinkers and intellectuals that’s being fostered in India’s current political environment.

“This tide of hounding the intellectuals to their brutal death is becoming a new normal,” the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) said in a statement. “Intellectuals in the country have been at the mercy of hoodlums and fanatics of all hue and color, while the state is a mere bystander.”

Though Ilaiah has always been a provocative speaker and writer--he was once censured by Osmania University over an article he wrote--it has usually led to public debate, not the threat of physical harm, V Geetha said.

“This is a climate where I can claim that my feelings are hurt and I can do what I like,” she said.

Advocate for the downtrodden

Ilaiah was born in Papaiahpet, Warangal district, now in Telangana. A member of the Other Backward Class community, Ilaiah earned a Ph.D. for his work that was later published as a book, God as Political Philosopher: Buddha’s Challenge to Brahminism. He later worked as an associate professor at Osmania University, and retired from that position in 2012.

In Why I Am Not a Hindu, Ilaiah’s 1996 book on the socioeconomic and cultural differences between Dalit Bahujans and Hindus, instead of using terms like “lower caste” and “Harijans” to refer to Other Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes, he defines the term Dalit Bahujan: “[P]eople and castes who form the exploited and suppressed majority,” he writes.

YB Satyanarayana, director for the Centre for Dalit Studies, told HT that for thousands of years, oppressed communities were in no position to question the hierarchical caste system. As a professor, Satyanarayana recalled instances in class where he would hear whisperings behind his back because of his caste. “They call our names with contempt,” he said. “Seventy years of independence and we’re still like this.”

Satyanarayana believes that more and more Dalits are able to speak out because of Ilaiah’s work. “He’s a great historian and political science professor.” But the fury against the author is worrying to his friends and followers. “We’re pained by these recent happenings,” Satyanarayana said.

One of Ilaiah’s most widely-known proposals is the call to introduce the English language in all schools and college. Learning English, he believes, would empower poorer communities by offering access to greater job opportunities. He famously added “Shepherd” to his name and encouraged Dalit-Bahujans to follow his lead in order to add a level of respect and international understanding to their occupations.

Ilaiah has become well-known in rural areas and government institutions, where he is frequently recognized by school students, said Prof. Sunkari Satyam, an assistant professor at the Council for Social Development. “How many hundreds of years do you expect us to fight for it? It is the mind-set of the upper class that should change,” Satyanarayana said.

Despite threats and abuses, Ilaiah has shown that he will not be silenced.

He has alleged that the protesting Arya Vysya organisations were acting on the orders of BJP national president Amit Shah, and called on Shah to discuss his book with him. He also questioned the credibility of Kaloji Narayana Rao, one of Telangana’s most celebrated poets, and criticised Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao’s policies.

Now that he’s retired from Maulana Azad, he says he will focus his attention and support on the Telangana Mass and Social Organisations Forum (T-MAS), a group that aims to fight for social justice.

Though Ilaiah’s work can be esoteric, his main goal remains simple: to see India as a socially responsive country. While he remains a staunch critic of the caste system, he will continue to advocate for openings in the job market and reservations in the private sector for marginalised communities.

“Unless that happens, the nation will have a huge problem,” he said.

(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)

First Published: Oct 16, 2017 12:28 IST