Interview with Dr. Ilaiah
'WHY PULL THE RATHA OF HINDUISM WITHOUT HAVING THE RIGHT TO SIT IN IT?'
The following are the answers given by DR KANCHA ILAIAH to questions posed by ANAND, a Madras-based journalist, in the context of the curbs sought to be imposed on the writings of Dr Ilaiah by the Osmania University authorities. This was not a dictaphone interview: the questions were posted (in the last week of May 2000) to Ilaiah who wrote down the answers -- hence the questions are detailed and the answers elaborate.
ANAND: Why do you think the Osmania University Registrar Pannalal has targeted you for an essay written three months ago? Were you, in some way, expecting this? Have you, in the event of the success of 'Why I am Not a Hindu', faced such direct/ indirect harassment from colleagues/ the establishment/ people?
ILAIAH: The OU Registrar's letter censoring my writings is not a sudden happening. As I have been writing in newspapers such as The Hindu, Deccan Chronicle and Andhra Prabha (in Telugu), the brahmanical forces, through the systematic networking of the RSS, have been writing scores of letters to the newspapers, to the university and to me in particular. In the Telugu country, such attacks, through letters, increased after the Telugu version of my book, 'Why I Am Not a Hindu', was published with a dalitist title: 'Nenu Hinduvunetlaita?' The Telugu version gained currency among various castes and social forces, giving them a deep sense of self-respect. Also, for the first time, the brahman intelligentsia read the book and this disturbed their sense of historical being. A Hyderabad-based brahman organisation, All-Brahman Community Development (ABCD), has been regularly discussing the impact of my writings. They too have taken up letter-writing campaigns and other such exercises... The university letter is only a culmination of all these developments. The brahmanical forces, who have been feeling rather disturbed by the questions I ask, are behind this.
ANAND:Do you think the university's/ Pannalal's reaction is symptomatic of the larger intolerance of brahmanic hinduism which has, in the post-buddhist/ jaina period, thrived by treating any questioning of the status quo with violence?
ILAIAH:The intolerance in the present context [of the intimidatory letter] expressed itself rather quickly because the RSS-hindutva forces are today operating from a position of power. The HRD [Human Resources Development] Ministry, which is being controlled by the brahmanical forces, has been particularly targeting the sphere of education. In Andhra Pradesh, after the Chandrababu Naidu Government joined hands with the BJP, key areas such as higher education have come under their [brahmanical] control. As you said, in the post-buddhist/ jaina period, temple power... characterised as hindu power, very securely remained in the hands of the brahman priestly class. This power arrested the hindu gods/ goddesses images in the tight grip of the brahmans -- a small caste in the all-India context. This spiritual power not only casteised [italics please] the divine, but also reserved [itals] the highly resourceful temple-based funds for one caste -- the brahmans. All the wealth coming from the masses as well as the state was converted into a huge economic resource of this caste. During the nearly eighty-year RSS-led campaign for 'homogenous hindu nationalist unity', they have not talked about: one, the right to initiation [dwijahood?] of the shudra, chandala, adivasis (SCAs); two, no right to priesthood was given to them; three, the age-old brahmanic notion of Sanskrit being the language between people and gods was deliberately not sought to be changed; four, while all the SCAs were 'meatarians', the spiritual authority was confined to those who followed the vegetarian food culture. When I asked straight and simple questions about the reform programme of the RSS forces in some of my newspaper articles, 'Hinduism & the right to religion' (The Hindu, 2-12-1999) and 'Spiritual fascism and civil society' (Deccan Chronicle, 15-2-2000), they felt this was going to create a crisis in the temple structures and Shankaracharya peethams... therefore, these wild reactions. In fact, these questions were not raised by Ambedkar directly because at that time, the social forces -- I mean the SCAs -- were not ready to see their 'self' with dignity/ they had not been conscientized enough... Neo-buddhism has enabled the meatarian cultures to assert their (self-)respect, but contemporary jainism has very badly slipped into vegetarianism... And this kind of violent expression of intolerance is very much part of the brahmanic hindutva tradition as these questions are bound to jolt their spiritual, cultural and political hegemony...
ANAND: In the history of India, would you look at 'hindutva' as something specifically related to post-british brahmanic assertion? Do you think it is enough to identify the ideology of hindutva only with the RSS and forces that revolve around it, or would you agree that the RSS/BJP/VHP symbolise only a modernised version of an anti-dalit, anti-woman, anti-human rights, anti-democratic discourse that has dominated India for centuries -- that is, would you see reactionary figures such as Shankarachrya who reversed the good done by centuries of buddhism and the bhakti movement, and in more recent times figures such as Vivekananda, Gandhi and the Arya Samaj movement as representatives of the sanatanist, anti-change face of the caste-hindu forces?
ILAIAH:The brahmanic assertion started in the early nationalist period. The Maharashtra chitpavan brahmans and the Bengal, U.P., Bihar brahmans organised the early nationalist movement as basically a brahmanic movement against christianity. The larger term 'hindu' became more popular only when Gandhi, a baniya, and a kayastha like Rajendra Prasad entered the Indian National Congress. Beyond the 'brahman boundary' hinduism was sought to be constructed by a kayastha man like Vivekananda... but even today in the temples of hinduism he is not a respected or worshipped saint. He basically emerged form the bengali nonbrahman Kali cult and was drawn towards the nationalist hindutva ideology. That is why he is portrayed as a hindu hero in the political realm of RSS hinduism, but not in the spiritual realm controlled by priestly brahmans... The brahmans within the Sangh Parivar and the priestly class in the temples respect and worship the Shankaracharya(s)... to some extent Dayanand Saraswati... but they do not respect Vivekananda and Gandhi. As I said in my DC article, Gandhi was killed by chitpavan brahmans. But nobody knows the cause of the early death of Vivekananda. He was said to have died at the age of 33 and he was a very healthy person all through his life. The mystery of his death should therefore be unravelled... The anti-SCA and anti-woman ideology of hindutva used (appropriated) different historical images as was suited to it... but it failed to convince the priestly brahman caste to decaste the hindu temple system. Some of my recent writings began to tease out this caste-based dichotomy (with)in the Sangh Parivar and this annoyed the brahmanical forces in Andhra Pradesh. So the status-quoist ideology of the RSS can be easily seen if you look at their unrelenting stance on the "garbha" of hindu religion -- the temple. They do not want even a marginal share of the spiritual power, the wealth and the land to go the way of the SC/ST/ shudras... whom they want only as a votebank. In a way the SC/ST/OBCs who are operating within and around the Sangh Parivar are pulling the ratha of hinduism without even having the right to sit in that ratha. I have raised this question knowing pretty well that I shall be targeted for doing so.
ANAND: Dr Ambedkar stressed the need for the annihilation of castes. However, today the emergence of caste consciousness among hitherto-suppressed subaltern castes seems to be a belated first step towards this goal. We see specifically subcaste-based assertion for political space even within the dalit parties. Do you think this is sustainable/ desirable? Could you identify the positive and negative sides of such subaltern caste assertions?
ILAIAH:In any process of destruction of the old system, the identity assertion of groups and sub-groups is inevitable. In order to destroy caste, the productive castes must first assert their productive culture and gain economically. In this process, all castes may get politically reorganised... by adopting caste names as suffixes, by reinvesting a positive polemical value to the caste idiom itself... This is desirable at this stage and the transformation into a different casteless whole will happen at a different stage.
ANAND: The Congress was a brahmanic umbrella party that held power for over four decades. Though it refused to publicly identify itself with brahmanism, it did encourage and sustain it in its own way. However, the BJP, despite being an openly brahmanic party, is in power today with the support of identifiably OBC-conscious parties, ex-socialists and even dalit outfits. Do you therefore think the post-Mandal subcaste assertion of the last decade -- vanniyars, malas, kammas, reddys, thevars, madigas, devendra-kula vellalars, jats, yadavas... each asserting their caste pride and throwing up community leaders -- will in the larger order of things keep the dalit and sudra castes divided, and thus indirectly benefit the BJP? I ask you this because in your recent articles, you have been talking of the need for each sudra-dalit caste/ community to come into its own, write its own history, theorise the positive aspects of its culture, its productive contribution to society...
ILAIAH:Congress brahmanism was basically a bureaucratic kind of brahmanism, whereas the BJP brahmanism is now both civil societal and bureaucratic. When P V Narasimha Rao perceived the danger [to the brahmanical social order] in the Mandal agenda, he took the major step of privatising public sector industries and mobilised the upper castes to buy them. Vajpayee is continuing with that policy with much more vigour... Modern brahmanism knows that by offering small concessions in the sphere of the state at this stage to the dalitbahujans it would lose nothing... The link between the Congress and the BJP lies in securely leaving the spiritual space to the dwija castes, particularly to the brahmans. But the BJP becomes more answerable because it came to power on the hindutva plank. It cannot simply say that it will characterise the dalitbahujans as hindus, give them some space in the political and organisational power structures but keep the spiritual domain entirely closed... since it is doing this, the sudras and SC/STs within the RSS have to raise these issues. On this count, the Congress cannot be accused. Because when [a nonbrahman like] Gandhi began to make inroads into this protected spiritual sphere, he was shot dead. Se we can't equate the BJP and the Congress in many respects.
ANAND: One gets the feeling that the BJP is only playing the role of the Congress a little too successfully and less inhibitedly. How else does one explain the manner in which it seems to be getting away with forming a Constitution review panel which has the tacit support of dalits and OBCs who are part of the NDA government? Some are arguing that the review may even benefit the dalits more!
ILAIAH:The Constitution review panel has been set up with the support of gullible NDA members in order to effect some basic changes which do not appear to be falling under the governing philosophy of the Constitution . For instance, if they say that the name of India shall be replaced with 'Hindustan', cow protection will be made a fundamental right, [if they] place a proposal for a permanent five-year term [for an government] and so on and so forth... these things change the basic character of the Constitution and would give it a clear hindutva slant. That is the reason why I raise the question of India being named 'Dalitistan' if such a proposal [to rename India as 'Hindustan'] comes... and the need for listing the buffalo as a constitutional [national] animal that needs protection since it represents the dravidian blackness as against the white racist cow agenda.
ANAND: At one level the hindutva movement has forced itself upon the dalits in a better way than say the communist/ leftist movement. The BJP has more dalits, shudras and women at different publicly important positions -- as spokespersons, in party/ cabinet posts etc. -- unlike the CPI/ CPM where top jobs are still reserved for only upper-caste men.
ILAIAH:The CPI-CPM have to now rethink their understanding of the caste and hinduism questions. The question also is not how many SCAs or women get to the top positions in an organisation. The question is one of decasteing the hindu temples and the religion as such... this is the key to the removal of caste inequalities. If the RSS wants to foreclose thinking among the people on this front, that is because it is a casteist, status-quoist formation. The communists thought that that since they [personally] are not going to the temples, the 'temples do not exist at all'; they have neither assessed nor understood the role of hindu religion and brahmanism in Indian history... Now they must think about it.
ANAND: Of late, some dalit intellectuals and activists have been identifying you as a specifically sudra/ OBC theoretician. They have also come to resent your framework of dalitbahujan unity, that is unity between dalits, sudras and women, though you have clearly said that the terms of such unity would be 'dalitization'. There has been a similar rejection of Periyar's thesis by some dalit outfits in Tamilnadu. Is there a way out?
ILAIAH:Some dalit intellectuals say that I am an OBC thinker, and they are right. The dalit thinkers have a right to lead the anti-hindutva movement and I am willing to follow them.
ANAND: Some dalit activists argue that in specific everyday terms unity between dalits and sudras is virtually impossible given that they are pitted against each other at the empirical ground level, especially in villages. For instance, it is pointed out that thevar-parayar/ reddy-mala unity would be inconceivable for a long time to come, though according to your thesis the Sudras-Chandala-Adivasis can come together because they have common cultural habits such as the culture of participating in productive labour, meat-eating etc. How does one convert such a theoretical possibility into an empirical reality?
ILAIAH:The scope for OBC-dalit unity lies in their productive relations with nature, their food culture, the democratic man-woman relations that they have preserved all these years, the culture of their female-centred goddesses etc.
ANAND: How do you view the legalisation of the sub-division of the quota between malas and madigas in AP? What are the implications of this for dalit movements in other states? For instance, in Tamilnadu there is talk of some dalit outfits seeking a similar split in the overall quota share.
ILAIAH:Problems relating to the subdivision of quota can be easily sorted out within the framework of Ambedkar's ideology. At an assertive stage each caste should get everything according to its numbers [proportionally]. Within the women's sphere, each caste women should get their share in every benefit that the state accrues to them. This is what actually Ambedkar proposed. With the Madiga Dandora Movement in Andhra Pradesh and the women's movement for legislative reservations, this question has come to be considered seriously. It is a positive development.