Interview – If govt can’t protect (me), other intellectuals not safe in country: Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

Threatened over translated writings, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd discusses caste system and his work with Indian Express.

Written by Amrita Dutta | New Delhi Indian Express

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd has faced death threats, abuse and criticism from some members of the Arya Vysa community

After a publisher reprinted chapters of his book Post-Hindu India (2009) into booklets in Telugu, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, 65, has faced death threats, abuse and criticism from some members of the Arya Vysa community. In this interview given on the phone, the Hyderabad-based academic explains what he means by “social smuggling” and why that offends the castes that dominate Indian capitalism. Excerpts:

Why are the Arya Vysas (Baniyas) of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh protesting against you?

I wrote this book in 2009 in the background of a debate over merit and the demand for reservation in the private sector. It includes several chapters on various castes — a chapter on barbers is called “social doctors”, one on dhobis is called “subaltern feminists”, and so on. The chapter on Baniyas was called “social smugglers” and the one on Brahmins was called “spiritual fascists”. This June, a small publisher printed each chapter as a separate booklet, with caste names on the cover page. This has led to protests and violent abuses by the Arya Vysa community. Two people have threatened to take my life on television. A TDP MP, P G Venkatesh, said in a press conference that I should be hanged and killed as is done in the Middle East. On September 23, I was returning from a meeting when my car was attacked. I was saved because my driver managed to take me out and reach the police station. I have filed cases at the Osmania University police station and requested for full police protection. The state has done nothing — at least as much as CM Siddaramaiah has done to protect intellectuals in Karnataka.

Has anyone in the government reached out to you?

Ministers in my Telangana state, including the home minister, joined the Arya Vysas in condemning me. The CM is silent. The Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister has been sending out feelers that he will ban the book. Look at the climate in which I am fighting this battle — the murders of Gauri Lankesh and M M Kalburgi in my neighbouring state. This is the fear I have. Therefore, I placed myself under house arrest. I am telling the world that if the Indian government cannot protect an intellectual who is known in the country and world, then other intellectuals have no safety in this country.

What do you mean by calling Baniyas social smugglers?

Social smuggling is a concept I coined to capture caste-based economic exploitation, from the village upwards to the monopoly Baniya capital, which involves the Ambanis, Adanis, the Laxmi Mittals, and so on. Social smuggling is a method of deceptive business, which accumulates wealth in the Baniya economy itself, and does not let it go back to the producers, who are the source of the wealth. Historically, because of the nexus between the Baniya and the Brahmin priestly community, the wealth was also transferred into temples. This led to non-development of mercantile capital in the medieval and late medieval age, and later indigenous capital.

This encirclement of business is done through the spiritual dictum of Manu, Kautilya and Vedic texts. Unlike in the West, only one caste was allowed to do business in India. Smuggling means taking away wealth out of the borders of the nation illegally, but “social smuggling” means taking away the produce of all castes into the vaults of one caste — the Baniya, without any access to others. Wealth remains within the nation but in the control of one caste. It does not go back into the agricultural economy or the philanthropic economy or the education economy. This happened historically and is now happening even in the modern, privatised economy. That is the reason why 46% of the corporate directors in India are Baniyas, whereas their population is 1.9%. Brahmins come second, with 44.6% of corporate directors from their caste.

So, you are saying that in this form of capitalism, caste cannot be challenged.

It is this caste-controlled, socially smuggled capital which does not want to give preferential treatment or reservation in the private sector. They have been talking about our meritlessness. But we have proved our merit in producing the wealth, in the agrarian economy. Why are they not sharing this wealth with 90 per cent of the other castes, including Jats, Patels, etc, by giving them space in the private sector?

Is it true that you have set terms for withdrawing the book?

These are the conditions I have set (to the Baniya community to disprove that they are social smugglers). Look at our soldiers on the border. When the nationalism debate is taking place, Amit Shah and (PM) Modi are holding up the soldiers as an example. But, among these foot soldiers, there are no Baniyas or Brahmins. I am asking for one job for the family of each soldier serving on the border in the private sector. Look at the number of constables fighting in Naxalite regions or in Kashmir. Their family members should be given jobs in the private sector. Farmer suicides is one of the biggest issues in the country today. I am asking for a farmer protection fund from the entire industrial capital — at least 1% of their annual profit, around Rs 30,000 crore. Corporate social responsibility doesn’t fight the caste system, or help the tribal or Dalit issue. It should be a social responsibility.

What is the social consequence of this “socially smuggled capital”?

When Adam Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he said that without moral sentiment, a transparent capitalism cannot survive. The buyer and seller will have to be honest and treat each other with respect. In this Baniya-Brahmin capitalism, that empathy, that goodwill towards the poorest of the poor is missing. To the point of ignoring the death of the farmers, who is the source of wealth. Industries must prove their nationalism like the soldiers are proving their nationalism on the border.

Why do you think writers are facing such anger today?

Earlier, we have had writing which has become controversial when gods or prophets are involved, or women are involved. But this is an academic concept and as a research scholar I have full rights to formulate it. This is not an issue that can be settled on the streets. Tragically, and to my surprise, the Indian intellectuals or economists have not responded to this debate. In this environment of cow vigilantism, killings of intellectuals, if communists and liberals are silent, if the English media is not reporting this, it is very frightening. That scares me more. Why are our progressive intellectuals silent? Because I am a lower-caste intellectual?