Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, director of the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad, is no stranger to controversy. His best-selling book, Why I am Not a Hindu, is a scathing critique of the caste system. More recently, the subaltern rights activist’s analysis of caste in the book Post-Hindu India has sparked outrage and even invited death threats from powerful politicians.
Illaiah spoke to Scroll.in about the threats he has received for his work describing the Vaishya caste as “social smugglers”. Excerpts from the interview:
What are the threats you have received?
The first threat came on September 10 when I went for a meeting of my organisation T-MASS [Telangana Mass]. Then the Arya Vyasa community [the Vaishya merchant caste] organisations started to threaten me. Soon, Arya Vysa organisations were burning my effigies, tearing up my photographs and abusing me. A deliberate campaign started from that very day. Since that day, I get hundreds of phone calls, one after the other, throughout the night. They come from all over India. The callers use very abusive language. Now, I never pick up calls from unknown numbers.
After a week, on September 17, a Telugu Desam Party MP, TG Venkatesh – he is from the Arya Vyasa community and he is the second richest person in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana – called a press conference. He said I should be killed and hanged in the street like it happens in the Middle East.
He asked why the Vyasa community should help farmers who are committing suicide. The banks are responsible for the farmers, not him.
I filed a case for the September 10 threats. Then, I filed a case against TG Venkatesh. We wanted to go in a procession and file the case but the government did not allow us. But dozens of us still went and filed the case.
Both times, I asked for protection from the Telangana government. But until today, they have not posted policemen outside my house.
Then, I went for a meeting with my organisation on September 23. On the way back, the Arya Vysa groups accosted me in Parakal town. They had stones and chappals in their hands. They attempted to attack my car. But my driver quickly made a turn and we got away. Then we rushed to the police station. The mob came running to the station as well but the police stopped them. We filed a case and I came back to Hyderabad under police protection.
The Arya Vysas community in both states is being allowed to take out rallies, and abuse me for a book I wrote in 2009.
Why do you think the Telangana government has not given you protection?
I don’t know. The government allowed the Telugu Desam Party MP to come to Hyderabad and issue a fatwa against me. And until today, they have not responding to my requests for protection. The state home minister, in fact, has issued a statement saying Kancha Ilaiah is wrong, he should not write books like that. He condemned me in the presence of leaders from the Arya Vysa community. Another minister Harish Rao said I should stop writing. The chief minister has neither issued a statement nor provided me with protection. I have no idea why.
Has the Telugu Desam Party taken any action against TG Venkatesh?
On the contrary, Andhra Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu [the party’s leader] said we will make sure this book is not available in the state. He is allowing all Arya Vyasa organisation to take out protests. Since I was getting no support, I decided to undergo voluntary house arrest from the morning of September 24.
What does that mean, voluntary house arrest?
Since September 24, I have not moved out of my house. I will also not speak to the local Telugu media. The local media has been fully supporting the Arya Vysa hooliganism under the banner of “hurt sentiments”. I will be in this state till October 4. Then only will I move out to attend a meeting at Osmania University, on 200 years of Indian English and why Dalit-Bahujans should learn it. I will restart my work from there. Till then I am under voluntary house arrest. I don’t feel any security anywhere. Even academics, whether liberal or leftist, are not coming to my defence, or asking for a reasonable academic discourse. The national atmosphere after [the assassinations of] Gauri Lankesh and MM Kalburgi and so on has produced a frightening situation.
This particular situation has been caused by a book of yours, Post-Hindu India, in which you talk about the concept of “social smuggling”. Could you talk about that and explain why it has caused so much outrage?
See, this book was written after we failed to get any agreement on reservations in the private sector in 2006-07. At that time, the UPA [Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government] had proposed it but the industry opposed, saying there is no merit among the Dalits, Other Backwards Castes, Adivasis, and so on. So I wrote a book called Post-Hindu India in which our [Bahujan] merit was highlighted. The Dalit-Bahujan masses are the producers of the wealth of the nation. The first chapter deals with the Adivasis and is titled “Unpaid Teachers”. The second chapter is about chamars: “Subaltern Scientists”. It is about leather technology, leather goods, agriculture, and so on. The third is about Mahars, Malas, etc: “Productive Soldiers”. It details how these castes do village defence, cattle training, canal digging and also border protection. After all, BR Ambedkar’s father was a soldier and there was a Mahar regiment in the British Indian Army. Then, the book goes on to the washerman community in a chapter titled “Subaltern Feminists”. The chapter on barbers is called “Social Doctors”. Then it deals with ironsmiths, goldsmiths, pot makers and so on with the title “Unknown Engineers”. In the chapter “Meat and Milk Economy”, my work deals with cattle-rearers and shepherds. Jats, Gujars, Patels, Kapus are in the chapter “Food Producers”.
Then I move on to the bania [vaishya] community. I examine how since the post-Gupta period, business has been entirely reserved for them by the Hindu social order. And how they deceive people while buying and selling. At one point in history, they buried their capital underground, calling it “gupta dhana”. They have never invested this money back into agrarian production. There is no concept of charity in that culture. There is no concept of intermarriage with other castes. They don’t mix on festivals. They treat almost everyone else as untouchable. This culture has moved to the highest levels: 46% of Indian business capital is in the hands of the bania community. So, the title of this chapter is “Social Smugglers”. Smuggling is taking a nation’s wealth outside its borders illegally. Social smuggling is when the wealth remains within the country but is confined to the caste compounds built according to the theory of Manu Dharma. So they don’t invest, they don’t share, they only pile up their wealth. The wealth remains without any social use. I went on to prove that whatever capital the Adanis and Ambanis build today, it is not associated with a culture of social responsibility. It has no humanitarian sympathies, nor does it create any funds for humanitarian causes.
Business being done by one caste has not allowed any mercantile capital to develop in India; it has not allowed any indigenous industry to develop since the medieval period. Because of the bania-Brahmin network, huge amounts of gold were shifted into temples. So, wealth was hidden away. As a result, indigenous industry did not develop. Today, the same culture continues. This is the reason they deny the right to reservation in the private sector even when there are no jobs in the government sector. So my point is, the banias are social smugglers while the Brahmins, under the rules of Manu Dharma and the Shastras, have built a fortress for themselves called “spiritual fascism”. The nexus between the two has created the culture of caste.
Remember, even now 46% of the wealth is in bania hands. After Narendra Modi came to power, the focus on the private sector has increased. If they don’t take social responsibility, farmer suicides cannot be stopped. I am now asking for at least one [private sector] job for the families of soldiers in the Indian Army. There should be at least 5% reservation for Dalits and Adivasis [in the private sector].
This [the book] is an academic inquiry. They could have invited their intellectuals to debate it, they could have written another book. But they are on the streets; they don’t have any respect for the judiciary. Even governments are scared of them because they offer large donations. As per a recent study published in the Economic and Political Weekly, 46% of board directors are banias; Brahmins are 44.6%. All Sudras combined make up 3.8%.
Post-Hindu India was published in 2009. Why the controversy now?
A small publisher took the Telugu translation of the book and published each chapter separately as a booklet. This agitation started with the publication of the booklets. Moreover, they found the present environment very conducive.