Why you should care
He’s a leading — and uncomfortable — voice on behalf of his country’s lower-born.
Kancha Ilaiah was in middle school when he was first made aware of his caste. When he tried to seek admission into grade 8 at a government school, the class teacher made fun of his surname, accused Ilaiah of wasting his time and refused to give him a seat. The teacher relented only after Ilaiah shed copious tears and the headmaster intervened.
Yet the ill treatment never ended. The teacher’s attitude to Ilaiah was condescending and the young boy, already scarred by smallpox on his face and an unusual last name, was discarded to the back row of the room, only because he was born a Shudra — among the lowest in India’s oppressive caste system. However, Ilaiah had his revenge when he placed first in the quarterly school examinations, leaving his class teacher stupefied. “At every stage, it was a very humiliating experience,” he says by phone from Hyderabad, where he works as an academic at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University.
Ilaiah’s childhood experience illustrates what 25 percent of India’s 1.25 billion people endure every day. Among Hinduism’s most contentious tenets is the caste system — a rigid social order where the faithful are clubbed into hierarchical groups, each of which has a defined dharma (duty) and karma (work). So the Brahmins are priests, the Kshatriyas are warriors, the Vaishyas are traders, the Shudras are laborers and the Dalits are meant to be sweepers and toilet cleaners. For generations, the upper castes have used this social order to deny those at the bottom of this ladder basic human rights — education, sanitation, jobs, food and public health services — even though caste-based discrimination is, on paper, barred by law.
Ilaiah has an ability to get under people’s skin in a way that previous generations have not done.
Sudipto Mondal, journalist and former student
Despite India’s gleeful economic rise and shallow urban cosmopolitanism, caste-based discrimination remains an embarrassing chapter in the Indian growth story. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office in 2014, crimes against Dalits have increased. The oppressed have responded with agitations in different states of India, unnerving a government that seeks re-election in 2019 and is counting on the community’s votes.
Ilaiah is among the caste system’s most vocal critics whose work and voice, laced with sharp sarcasm and aggression, provide the intellectual backbone to their agitations. Much like Nelson Mandela did for South Africa’s Blacks, Ilaiah, 65, is pushing society to recognize his group’s basic human rights. Unlike the Nobel Peace laureate, though, Ilaiah isn’t the face of a movement. Instead, he uses his years of research to rip apart upper caste hypocrisy. His assertion of a lower caste identity is now finding resonance in a new wave of Dalit movements that are shaking up the country’s politics.
“He represents the self-confidence of that sector of the marginalized which don’t think that they are inferior in any way [to the upper castes]. He talked to the Savarna [upper caste] intellectuals at the same level, if not a superior level,” says Ashis Nandy, a political theorist.
It’s a confidence that’s evident in the words and actions of emerging Dalit leaders, such as Jignesh Mevani, who in 2016 led a 20,000-people-strong protest through Modi’s state of Gujarat after members of the community were thrashed by a cow-protection group (the animal is sacred to many Hindus). Mevani, who in 2017 fought and won a seat in the Gujarat legislature, calls Ilaiah a “substantial voice for the weaker sections of this country.”
Ilaiah wasn’t always so aware of his identity. He was born to a family of shepherds in southern India’s Warangal district in 1952. As a child he spent his time hanging around sheep and goats, unaware he was born a Hindu. That’s because his parents themselves did not know their religion, celebrated local village festivals and worshiped local gods and goddesses. They never paid a religion tax, nor did they ever visit a temple, which often served as a common congregation point for villagers, he writes in Why I Am Not a Hindu, a scathing critique of Hindu culture that doubles as a memoir. Until grade 5, he and his brother studied under a single teacher in their home village of Papiahpet, before their mother shifted them to a proper school in a neighboring village, run by a feudal lord. “My mother had to take us to the feudal lord, put us on his feet and ask for admission to the school,” Ilaiah recalls.
Four decades later, things hadn’t gotten much better. In 2002, Hyderabad’s Osmania University – where Ilaiah was working after receiving his Ph.D. in political Buddhism — issued a notice asking Ilaiah not to write newspaper articles that created “public discord.” Ilaiah and his fellow academics successfully contested the order and had it overturned. But right-wing propagandist groups put up posters alleging that Ilaiah couldn’t write in English and his articles had been ghostwritten by foreign political groups. Ilaiah challenged those groups to bring senior, well-educated members of the ruling party to Hyderabad so he could deliver a lecture to them. They never took him up on it. In 2016, Ilaiah’s comments pointing out that Brahmin last names had little do with their actual jobs sparked controversy. In response, he adopted his parents’ occupation — shepherd — as his last name.
To some, Ilaiah is the most important voice in the anti-caste discourse since B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of independent India’s constitution. Unlike Ambedkar, however, Ilaiah critiques Hindu religion with a dollop of sarcasm. In Why I Am Not a Hindu, commenting on the idea of prasadam — a set meal cooked in clarified butter (ghee) and offered to the gods — he describes the relationship between God and priest as “a relationship between God and glutton.” “Ilaiah has an ability to get under people’s skin in a way that previous generations have not done,” says journalist Sudipto Mondal, a former student of Ilaiah. His lectures on Hinduism were “both a lens and a talisman against those who said there wasn’t any scholarship in this [lower-caste] point of view. He was for me a new-age Ambedkar.” But critics say Ilaiah has little regard for Dalit lifestyle and cultures. “He, like many Dalit activists, has no respect for Dalit civilization, creativity and craftsmanship,” Ashis Nandy says. “It’s as if they’re a blank slate, and that’s just not true.”
Perhaps that’s because Ilaiah has focused his energies on criticizing the warts in India’s political life, calling it a “Brahminical democracy” rather than a parliamentary one. To illustrate how upper castes have dominated governance in India, Ilaiah rattles off the names of leaders from India’s two big parties, the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party, and their corresponding castes. Ruling parties, he says, believe that caste inequalities are natural and have brought in laws — one on cow protection, for instance — that hurt Dalits the most. His scathing criticism has often landed the soft-spoken professor in trouble. In October 2017, slippers were thrown at Ilaiah and his car was attacked in Hyderabad. A month earlier, he claimed a threat to his life after his book Samajika Smugglurlu Komatollu (“Vysyas as Social Smugglers”) alleged that the Vysya community exploited lower castes. But he’s making a difference, suggests Mevani. Through his work and occasional public addresses, Ilaiah is making India’s other lower castes realize “why they should join hands with the Dalit movement,” says Mevani, forging a unity that Modi’s critics say will be pivotal if the prime minister is to be defeated in 2019.
Unlike Ambedkar, Ilaiah hasn’t chosen to convert to Buddhism, though he has instructed his family to bury and not cremate him. He says he doesn’t identify as a Hindu, considers the religion “spiritual fascism” and yet believes in an abstract God. “I consider Islam, Buddhism and Christianity as spiritual democracies,” he says, though he hasn’t joined any of them yet. “Maybe at some later stage in life I might,” Ilaiah adds. Until that happens, he will continue to call the bluff on India’s caste-based prejudices.