The fear of ideas
The long winter of intolerance shows no signs of thawing. The script remains the same: Offence, weaponised, is ranged against ideas and intellectuals. The latest to be threatened with death and violence is academic and political theorist Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd for a work he published eight years ago. Shepherd’s Post-Hindu India is a critique of the caste system and its integral ties with the Baniya-dominated capitalism.
The row erupted when a publisher reprinted chapters of the Telugu translation of the work and distributed them in the form of booklets. One of the booklets, which described how business and trade in India became the monopoly of the Baniya caste, had the provocative title: “Social Smugglers”. In Post-Hindu India, Shepherd coins the phrase to put forward his theory that the wealth produced by all the castes in Indian society has been concentrated in the hands of one caste — the wealth is not smuggled out of the country, but it results in a near-total caste monopoly over capital in India. It also, he argued, blinds the Baniyas and Brahmins to the systemic exclusion behind the so-called “meritlessness” of other castes. This analysis of a structural inequity in Indian economic life has not been met with debate. Instead, the Arya Vysas in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have accused Shepherd of insulting their community. A Telugu Desam Party legislator wondered at a press conference why Shepherd should not be hanged. Shepherd’s car was attacked and death threats have been issued to him over telephone and on television. In all of this, the Telangana government seems to be playing with fire. While no police protection has been extended to the writer despite requests, the home minister has threatened Shepherd with legal action and another minister has called for an apology from him.
As this episode illustrates, the argumentative Indian is now in full retreat. In her absence, what ought to be an academic debate is now being sought to be settled on the streets with violence and fisticuffs — and on social media with abuse and venom. Much worse, however, is the state’s reluctance to stand up for the constitutional rights of Shepherd’s freedom of speech and expression. The academic is a trenchant critic of the caste system, undoubtedly one of the most oppressive and humiliating systems of social organisation that exists in the world. By all means criticise his ideas and concepts, but to threaten him to silence is intellectual cowardice. The state government and the Centre, as well as the civil society, must stand up for Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd.