Professor Kancha Ilaiah is again in the eye of a storm, this time so overpowering that he has imposed house arrest on himself . There have been menacing threats of violence, police complaints and petitions to the High Court at Hyderabad. There are statements out in his support. He has addressed the media, calling for a public debate on the questions he has raised in his writing. And the course is open for any of us to challenge his views/ideas, to agree or to disagree.
Challenging the caste system
In his writing over the past three decades, Prof. Ilaiah has consistently challenged the oppression in Hindu society that is predicated on graded inequalities and oppressions rooted in the caste system. He is not the first intellectual to do this, and he certainly will not be the last. The Indian Constitution is built on the words, ideas and struggles of those who led entire movements for the annihilation of caste, with the figure of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar calling into memory the countless others who marched with him and before him. Prof. Ilaiah is a figure in the current moment, following a long and illustrious line of dissenters and critics of the caste order.
Especially at the political moment we are located in — a moment of violent Hindutva assertion — this is an urgent project. Within the Hindu social order that ordains work, occupation, livelihood and status according to birth and restrains individuals from moving away from their pre-ordained status, it is important to question the fundamental basis of this status if we are to shed the oppression of caste.
Not long ago, Bezwada Wilson received the Magsaysay Award for a lifetime of work in pursuance of this same argument that Dalits have historically been untouchables and condemned to the most degrading occupations such as manual scavenging. Women have a pre-ordained status in the caste order which saw the practice of gruesome violence with impunity, something we have still not been able to annihilate effectively even in the constitutional era despite a century and a half of the most powerful critiques against the enslavement of women especially by anti-caste philosophers.
So yes, it is Prof. Ilaiah’s argument that Vysyas (a caste, not individual persons) have had a particular place in the caste order that guarantees impunity for the performance of particular caste oppressions that he terms ‘social smuggling’. He has previously written about the privileges and impunities granted to Brahmins by the Hindu caste order. It is useful to look at what he says.
His recent Telugu tract on ‘Vysyas: Social Smugglers’ is an extract from an older book Post Hindu India: A Discourse on Dalit–Bahujan, Socio-Spiritual and Scientific Revolution (2009). His preface to the mother publication is important: “My appeal to Brahmanic readers is that if they want to read this book they must read it without self-righteousness or self-pity. As they begin to read it, it may generate a warlike situation in their minds which are trained in Brahmanic thought. It may indeed result in a ‘war of nerves’ between Brahmanic and Dalit-Bahujan civil societies, the latter having just begun to produce its own organic intellectuals. At the moment there is no large-scale Dalit-Bahujan civil society that could take inspiration from a written text and lead a liberation struggle. The main aim of this book is to create the self-respecting Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) into an intellectual social force that can lead a socio-spiritual and scientific revolution… This book is meant to play a positive role in empowering the Dalit-Bahujan forces of India in all spheres of life. It is also meant to show how spiritual democracy and spiritual fascism are opposite systems, and define what roles they play in our lives.”
The different chapters in this book focus on unpaid teachers, subaltern scientists, productive soldiers, subaltern feminists, social doctors, meat and milk economists, unknown engineers, food producers, social smugglers, spiritual fascists, intellectual goondas, symptoms of civil war and end of Hinduism, and the concluding arguments for a post-Hindu India. The intellectual trajectory of this book is clear and cogently stated. The productive and creative contribution of Hindu India’s most oppressed castes have been systematically appropriated and expropriated through a dangerous mix of violence (Chunduru, Karamchedu, Melavalavu, Khairlanji and countless others), discrimination (in access to schools despite the RTE Act, for instance), and obscurantist arguments that pass today both as spirituality and as science.
Examining the past
If the classes most subjected to injustice are to rise and claim their rights under the Constitution of India — fraternity, equality, dignity and liberty — there must be a clear debate on what ails our social systems and how we might reckon with our past; how might we rise above parochial assertions that make us complicit in histories of oppression perpetrated by dominant castes and classes before our time. This is an argument we cannot fault. Nor can personal outrage and ‘caste solidarity’ be the basis of ‘hurt sentiments’ for those who have not been forced to suffer the indignities of the caste system.
It must be noted that Prof. Ilaiah is not making a brief for/on behalf of a particular caste. He begins his argument on the note that suffering and dispossession must be the fulcrum of our understanding and critique of the order we live in – based on the lived experience of those at the bottom. There is undoubtedly rage over the gross injustices of the caste order that come through unequivocally in his argument. But this rage is channelled into forging a political and ideological position. It is open to us to debate that position, to disagree even. But we cannot defeat the argument by taking recourse to the same parochialism and bigotry that drive the oppression in the first place. And for a free and equal participation in the debate, it is important to generate the text in many languages, for otherwise it will again be confined to the elite English literati, which has no representation whatsoever of voices from among those who have suffered these indignities, and this violence.
Justice S.A. Bobde observed memorably in the Right to Privacy judgment of the Supreme Court that ‘Privacy must also mean the effective guarantee of a zone of internal freedom in which to think… The vigour and vitality of the various expressive freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution depends on the existence of a corresponding guarantee of cognitive freedom.”
Prof. Ilaiah is writing within a constitutional framework. It must be debated within that framework. Elected representatives who demand his hanging because they happen to belong to the caste he critiques are guilty of gross misdemeanour while holding public office — and must be removed from office for making that appeal alone. The appeal on behalf of a caste association to a constitutional court that Prof. Ilaiah must be arrested or an FIR registered for engaging in social critique cannot stand constitutional scrutiny. It is caste discrimination that causes disturbance of peace and social unrest. Speaking out against discrimination and injustice is an affirmation of constitutional morality.
Kalpana Kannabiran is Professor and Director, Council for Social Development, Hyderabad