Interview with Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, writer and political observer. By KUNAL SHANKAR
THE noted writer and political observer Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, who is also the Director of the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad, is the latest to receive death threats for his critical writings against Hindutva. He is also targeted for his theory of capital accumulation in India, which he calls “social smuggling” undertaken predominantly by Vaishyas and Brahmins—the country’s traditional trading and scholastic communities. This comes soon after the latest reprint of the Telugu translation of his English book Post Hindu India, published by Sage Publications in 2009, in the form of chapter-wise booklets. The threats began on September 10 from little-known leaders from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh who belonged to an outfit called the “Arya Vysya Organisation”. More powerful voices soon lent support to the threats. The Rajya Sabha member T.G. Venkatesh of the Telugu Desam Party from Telangana issued a “fatwa” against Ilaiah and sought a recall of his books. On September 18, he called for Ilaiah’s public hanging, though later he made light of his comments. On September 23, Ilaiah was returning from a public meeting in the newly created Bhupalpalli district of Telangana when his car was chased at two crossroads on the highway by two separate mobs. According to Ilaiah, his driver’s swift manoeuvres and the police escort from Parakal to Hyderabad saved the day. Ilaiah’s effigies were burnt in different parts of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Speaking to Frontline, Ilaiah said singling out Hindutva’s critics and killing or silencing them had become the norm under the current regime at the Centre. Excerpts:
What is the book about? What is the point that you have tried to make?
These are booklets that have been made controversial by the Arya Vysya Organisation. It is a reprint of the Telugu book published in 2011, which was again a translation of my original English book titled Post Hindu India. Hindi and Marathi versions are available.
The book was written in the context of our failure to get reservation in the private sector. I debunk the myth of “merit” used by the Banya and the Brahmin communities to avoid setting aside a certain percentage of jobs in the private sector. I make the point that tribal people, Dalits and the Sudra castes contribute the overwhelming bulk of wealth in our caste-based economic structure. I include in this category Other Backward Class groups like Gujjars, Jats and Patels. The control and accumulation of wealth in any kingdom that has ruled India from the Gupta period onward has been with the Vaishyas, that is to say, the Banya community. Contemporary capitalists like the Ambanis, the Adanis, Lakshmi Mittal, the Kirloskars and Birlas are from this community. They have gained the biggest control of Independent India’s wealth. And with their Brahmin nexus, a lot of it has gone to temples. Take for example the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple in Kerala.
I have theoretically explained this process of wealth accumulation as “social smuggling”, that is to say, the accumulation takes place through the mechanism of business deals with other communities as India functions largely within a feudal framework. Take, for example, the village markets, the main area of operation for the rural trading community, the Vaishyas. There are several deceptive mechanisms such as a planned decision to undercut the price of produce. Several other tactics could be used, like saying the quality is bad or there is over supply and the use of faulty weighing machines. Finally, for the producer, there is no transparency in the sale of his goods. Therefore exploitation begins right at the village or in the grain market. There is no humanitarian relationship between the seller and the buyer, and the buyer keeps the whole wealth within his caste cabal. He does not invest it in any philanthropic work, for any nationalistic capitalist must have a positive philanthropic relationship with the producers. Take the farmers: they are committing suicide. The Banya sakhas in the village would not even visit the family of the person who committed suicide because of his inability to pay back his loan. This is what I mean social smuggling. The wealth accumulation is not because of the traders’ hard work or ethical business acumen, but because of the caste he belongs to.
My point, therefore, is today the state has privatised many things, and there are hardly any jobs in the public sector. Whether due to demonetisation, or GST [Goods and Services Tax], the companies that benefited the most are the Kirloskars, Vedanta, the Adanis, Ambani, and other Brahmin industrialists.
There is this debate about nationalism that has been raging after the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] came to power. We have been seeing that soldiers are projected as the most nationalist forces in the country. If soldiers are nationalists, have we looked at the castes they belong to? Which are the castes on the borders with Pakistan, or Bangladesh, or China today? What is their economic status? Are there any Banya or Brahmin soldiers on the front lines, the men defending various places in Kashmir?
They are the Dalits, Adivasis and Other Backward Classes. The overwhelming [majority of the] police forces in the country today come from these castes. They do so for the money and because the educational qualification required at the entry level is low—mostly class 10 for constables, even in the CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force].
The second thing is, historically there was a Mehar regiment—[B.R.] Ambedkar’s father himself was a soldier. There were Jat regiments, Yadava regiments, Gorkha regiments and Sikh regiments, but at no point was there a Brahmin or Banya regiment.
But was that not because of the communities’ physical attributes as well?
Yes, vegetarianism could have been a factor. Southern or western India, you look at any nationalist leader. Most of them were never soldiers.
The question is today political leaders, whether [Narendra] Modi or [Amit] Shah, say yoga is our national sport. But for Army selection yoga is not the main criterion; it is running, endurance and athletics—these are Sudra practices of hard work. So how does yoga help in our national defence? Can Baba Ramdev, Sri Sri Ravishankar or Sadguru, any of them, be posted on the Himalayan borders to fight Pakistani soldiers, or protect Indian borders?
There is now this debate about not eating beef—but then you say that if you are vegetarian you are not preferred in the Army. Therefore, you are humiliating the food habits of the people who are protecting your borders, and those you need to fight your enemies. Therefore, yoga and vegetarianism, predominantly Banya and Brahmin traits, are unfit to defend India.
The question is, what is the responsibility of the Banya or the Brahmin capitalists towards India’s national security and defence?
Can they not give one job to one family of the soldier who is on the front lines, if he has a qualified brother or sister, back in civil society, in cities or towns? Indian capitalists have so much wealth today, they fly from one country to another for a business meal. Do they not have a responsibility towards the soldiers’ families? Therefore, defending the nation requires merit. Why is it only looked at as something required for jobs in the private sector? So in a way, the Banyas and the Brahmins are deciding the soldier’s merit now. You insult the farmer’s merit, insult the artisan’s merit, insult the tribal person’s merit, but you say only these two non-productive communities are meritorious.
The argument for merit in the private sector is, therefore, according to me, an anti-national argument because it is confined to the well-being of two minuscule communities who have no contribution to the basic production of wealth in the nation nor participate in its defence.
Corporate capital is talking about CSR [corporate social responsibility], but it has never shown empathy or philanthropic gesture towards farmers’ suicides. So I want industries to create a farmers’ protection fund as a social responsibility. A fund of at least 1 per cent of your total annual profit, which comes to about Rs.3,00,000 crore in my assessment. This should be a farmers’ protection fund because farmers are the wealth creators in this country.
Another point I make is for preferential treatment to Adivasis, Dalits, dhobis and barbers—provide them 5 per cent of the jobs in the private sector.
Why has this book become so controversial now?
It was reviewed extensively and it sold well. The right wing also read it quite seriously, but why this controversy now? I think the atmosphere of creating controversies around those who have been critical of Hindutva, keeping a watch on them, with an intention either to stop them from writing or to kill them, has become the norm in India today.
How and when did these protests begin?
The first to protest was one Ramakrishna. He threatened physical attack, hunting me down, etc. Then came another statement on September 10 by one Ramana, that he would cut off my tongue. That’s when I lodged a case at the Osmania police station, on September 12.
On September 17, there was a fatwa issued by T.G. Venkatesh that I should be killed or hanged. This is the first time a Vaishyas, in fact, a Hindu person, issued a fatwa to another citizen of India. I filed a case against him on September 19.
Protests such as the burning of effigies have been ongoing since. I was at Bhupalpali on September 23. As we were returning from there, 10 to 15 people followed the car. They were Arya Vysyas. They came and rammed into my car from behind at a crossroads. My driver had the presence of mind to pick up speed. At Parakal, there was a mob of 30-40 people with stones and other weapons.
Bheenaveni Ramaiah, a lecturer in the sociology department of Osmania University, was with me. My driver took a quick turn to the right. We noticed a police station on the left, we went straight in. The constable closed the gate. Meanwhile, some Dalits and [people of] OBC communities noticed my car and came to my rescue. So the Arya Vysyas ran away. We filed a case, and with a Circle Inspector [CI] and a protection convoy we returned to Hyderabad. At Ghanpur, a business town in Warangal Urban district, there was another mob. The Ghanpur CI noticed that and rushed to our convoy on the way and shifted me from my car into his car and took a circuitous route to avoid the mob. There have been counter protests, meetings and seminars against the Arya Vysyas.
The September 23 attack seems well planned. It does not sound like a sudden act of rage.
Absolutely. From K. Rosaiah [former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh and former Governor of Tamil Nadu] to the man on the street, many people have asked me to apologise and withdraw the book. It [the protest against Ilaiah] was very well coordinated across two States, with leaders organising meetings in Hyderabad and Vijayawada.
The attack on you does not fit the pattern of the killings of critics of Hindutva or rationalist writers/academics. Why do you think this is so?
Maybe they wanted it to be a mob lynching in my case. The organisation [the Arya Vysyas] is not known to be violent, it is usually very peaceful. So a lynching would not be attributed to it. It seems to be something that appears to have sanction from high political bosses.
This is not the first time you are courting controversy. From your student days at Osmania University, you have taken a public stand against caste discrimination and have written several articles, and even a book—“Why I Am Not A Hindu”. Where you ever threatened this way?
This kind of a situation never arose. Even the last time that the BJP was in power, there was an attempt to thwart my writing, by some academic authorities—in 2002 when I wrote an article in Deccan Chronicle titled “Spiritual Fascim and Civil Society”. The academic community forced the Registrar of Osmania University to withdraw the letter directing me to stop writing. Last year, when I gave a speech in Vijayawada, when I said Brahmins never participated in productive activities since the Vedic ages—my effigies were burnt, protests broke out. That’s when they derogatorily referred to me as an Iligadu—a reference to someone who is a ruffian. That’s when I decided to add my caste title to my name. I am an ardent supporter of English education in government schools, and hence the caste title is in English as well.