Police action over actor Chetan Kumar’s remarks sparks row in Karnataka

Writers, thinkers protest attempts to criminalise use of the term brahmanism

Updated - July 03, 2021 10:13 am IST

Published - July 02, 2021 06:42 pm IST - Bengaluru

Actor Chetan Kumar. File

Actor Chetan Kumar. File

Kannada actor and activist Chetan Kumar has been questioned thrice this month after an FIR was filed by the Bengaluru Police for his critical remarks on “brahmanism .” Some members of the Brahmin community have objected to his comments, arguing that the very use of the word was “defamatory and abusive” and had hurt their sentiments.

Attempts to criminalise use of the term “brahmanism” — widely used to denote caste-based hierarchy, discrimination and notions of superiority that stem from birth by several anti-caste thinkers including Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and Periyar E. V. Ramasamy — have sparked a controversy in Karnataka. While several writers and intellectuals have rallied behind the actor, his detractors have been vociferous, especially on social media.

State Labour Minister A. Shivaram Hebbar, also a Brahmin, termed the use of the term “defamatory” and called for Mr Kumar’s arrest. He also alleged the actor was making these statements for “monetary gains”, prompting the latter to sue the Minister for defamation seeking damages of ₹1 and a public apology.

Defending his remarks, Mr Kumar said he had only rearticulated what Bahujan thinkers — Basaveshwara, Ambedkar or Periyar — have said.


Members of the Brahmin community argue that the term is “illogical.”

“When caste hierarchy and atrocities are pervasive in several castes today, why should it be called brahminism? Every ill in society is laid at our door and we are hurt by the repeated use of the word,” said Sachidananda Murthy, Chairman, Karnataka State Brahmin Development Board, one of the two complainants against Chetan Kumar.

The incident has also spurred a debate on the use of the term brahmanya (the Kannada word for brahminism), with some writers defending its usage. Others have pointed out that most Kannada writers, including Kuvempu, one of the tallest writers of 20th century who was critical of caste hierarchy, have used the term purohitashahi (literally meaning ‘the imperial rule of the priestly classes’) and not brahmanya .

Alternate terms

“I have consistently used purohitashahi and jaativaada . We need to update our sociological terminologies as our society evolves. These words cover a larger gamut of issues. However, criminalising the use of brahmanya is deplorable and should be resisted,” said Baraguru Ramachandrappa, a senior writer of the Bandaya Movement of Kannada literature, which rebelled against upper-caste narratives in literature.

However the brahmanya is frequently used in Kannada articulations. For example, in his 1965 novel Samskara, Jnanpith awardee U.R. Ananthamurthy extensively uses the word to denote caste discrimination and orthodoxy.

Dalit poet Mudnakudu Chinnaswamy said only the word brahmanya fully conveys caste discrimination and not purohitashahi .

“Only brahmanya conveys the origins of this distortion of our civilisation in the name of caste. And any other word only tries to mask, or worse, absolves the roots of this,” he said.

Mr. Chinnaswamy pointed to Ambedkar’s 1938 speech at the Railway Depressed Class Workmen’s Conference in Nashik, where he delineated his idea of brahmanism. Terming brahmanism and capitalism as the two enemies of workers of the country, Dr. Ambedkar said: “By brahmanism I do not mean the power, privileges and interests of Brahmins as a community. That is not the sense in which I am using the word. By brahmanism I mean the negation of the spirit of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. In that sense it is rampant in classes and is not confined to the Brahmins alone, though they have been the originators of it.”

Early 20th century usage

Brahmanya or brahminism seems to be an early 20th century usage. For instance, anti-caste thinker of the 19th century Jyotirao Phule of Maharashtra, though he attacked the ideology virulently, does not use the word brahmanya ,” said Pune-based Prof. Hari Narke, who has edited the writings of both Phule and Ambedkar.

Prof. Narke says the term has been widely used in Marathi and Tamil since the 1920s. “It began being used in the 1920s by Vithal Ramji Shinde and Dinkarrao Jhavalkar in Marathi and later by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar extensively,” he said. At around the same time, Periyar used the term extensively in Tamil Nadu during the Dravidian Movement. The term has widely been in use in the discourse of these languages to date, with no major pushback, he pointed out.

Senior political theorist Rajeev Bhargava, Honorary Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, said brahmanism was not only a term used by its critics, but also by its proponents.

“It is undisputed that the legitimising ideology of caste hierarchy, with notions of superiority that stem from birth, making it a pro-elite, status quoist ideology, was given by Brahmins, and that they happen to be one of its biggest beneficiaries. So use of the term brahminism is in that way justified, as long as Brahmins continue to espouse this ideology. If Brahmins as a community truly disown this ideology in both thought and practice, we can think of liquidating this term. Till then there seems to be no moral ground for the objection. It is like men objecting to the term patriarchy,” he said.

The objection raised by members of the Brahmin community smacks of an attempt to use strongarm tactics, misusing official to stifle any criticism, argued noted Kannada critic Rajendra Chenni.

“There has been a resurgence of brahminism and its blatant assertion in the public sphere since the incumbent regime took power. Such a controversy is deliberately created to polarise [society] and use it as an opportunity to assert themselves and gag criticism,” he said.

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