Should India debate caste? Kancha Ilaiah's book sparks controversy

Last Updated: Fri, Oct 06, 2017 13:40 hrs
Kancha Ilaiah

Prominent Kuruba writer Kancha Ilaiah filed a police complaint last week stating that four people attacked his vehicle and tried to kill him. He was returning to Hyderabad when group of around 200 people belonging to the Arya Vysya community, according to various reports held a demonstration after noticing Mr. Illaiah’s vehicle.

Members of the Vysya community were protesting a book written by Mr. Ilaiah titled “Samajika Smugglurlu Komatollu” which translates to Vysyas are social smugglers. Earlier this month, the CID registered a case against Mr. Ilaiah for the book citing “promoting enmity between different groups based on religion, place and through other means”.

Apart from communities being angered, the book has been subject to criticism from the political class as well. One member of the Rajya Sabha and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) T.G. Venkatesh called for the public hanging of Mr. Ilaiah, though he later walked back the comments but warned that the book should be banned.

In an op-ed for the Milli Gazette, a leading online Indian Muslim news site, Mr. Ilaiah writes on his experience –

“T.G. Venaktesh, an extremist Arya Vysya leader held a press conference on 18 September 2017 in a luxury hotel in Hyderabad with an extremist, conspitorial Arya Vysya team and declared a Fatwa on me that he would kill or hang in the streets as they do in the Middle East”.

“The myth that the Arya Vysya community is a peace loving non-violent community proved to be wrong. This is clear from the violent statements that their leaders are issuing. They seem to have no respect for judiciary also”.

“For writing a chapter in my book called Post-Hindu India with a title called Social Smugglers, a concept I coined to capture caste cultural and economic exploitation in India, and translating it into Telugu they are attacking me”.

In the book, Ilaiah writes that the Vysya community which is small in population, has been the beneficiary of a large share of economic resources and many of the businesses they are active in such as money lending to private companies, are exploiting the lower castes.

The Arya Vysya Association (AVA) has filed a petition in the Supreme Court saying the “book hurt feelings of the Arya Vysya community” and “was written without any evidence and historical facts”.

The protests took an obscene turn as there’s allegedly a video circulating on social media of a group of men wearing saffron shawls encouraging two boys to urinate on a picture of Mr. Iliah. A group of women also released a song titled Ilaiah Niku Damaku Leda’, which translates to Ilaiah you don’t have a brain. The song supposedly contains threats and insults to Mr. Ilaiah. The song which was broadcast on ABN Telegu threatens that he will die if he takes on or insults the Vysya community.

Earlier this month, in a column for The Wire, Ilaiah explains his stance –

“Indian exploitation has a massive component of the use of caste ‘social borders’ to control the accumulated wealth within that border of heavily exploited wealth. It was used by the traders for their good life and gave enough to the temples for better survival of priests”.

“Caste economy established its own borders within the nation state. This issue could not be addressed within the framework of class exploitation. The notion of social smuggling no doubt, has to be developed much more in the future. But I made a small attempt in my book Post-Hindu India and it has brought the richest caste of India onto the streets”.

As the controversy continues, Ilaiah commented on the silence from several organizations, scholars and social leaders about this particular issue; particularly at a time when dissent and free speech is a hot topic. He said, “It is an eerie silence. But I am not surprised. I know the community has declared financial support to everyone who speaks against me in the media. If they can buy condemnation for a price… can they not buy tacit support through silence?”

The Congress has latched on to the issue questioning the motives of the BJP who are silent on free speech. Congress communications in charge Randeep Surjewala said there was an atmosphere of hate and intolerance under Modi and restricting the voices of free thinkers was the new normal under this government.

The Editor of the Hyderabadi English daily Hans India, Prof. K. Nageshwar, in an editorial earlier writes on his assessment of the book which he states had points with which he agreed and disagreed and on the reaction that the book has gotten –

“There are instances of Arya Vysyas reacting in an objectionable manner. No author should be humiliated. No physical attack is acceptable in a democracy. It is true that the Vysya community as a whole might have felt humiliated”.

“I have never questioned Prof Ilaiah's scholarship and nor will I do so now. I have only observed that some of the postulates in the book are sweeping generalizations and unsubstantiated assumptions that lack empirical evidence which is the basic principle of social research”.

Mr. Nageshwar had posted an earlier editorial on his thoughts on the book, which Mr. Ilaiah did not take too kindly to and called out Mr. Nageshwar.

“Prof Ilaiah chose a television show, in which I was not there and debate had nothing to do with me, to make certain personally derogatory remarks on me. Ilaiah's comments are not only uncivilized but even unlawful. Yet, I leave it to his wisdom”.

“I still feel that Ilaiah's thesis is from the prism of caste discourse and it will not contribute to the annihilation of caste, but only reinforces caste sentiment in a section of society”.

More columns by Varun Sukumar