Kancha Ilaiah teaches politics at the Government Women’s College, Koti, Hyderabad. Active in the Dalit-Bahujan [Scheduled and Backward Caste] movement, he is a prolific writer in both Telugu and English. His latest book, Why I Am Not A Hindu, a critique of Hindutva from a Dalit-Bahujan perspective, turned out to be a best seller. Here he talks to Yoginder Sikand about how ‘Dalitisation’ alone can effectively challenge the threat of Brahminical fascism parading in the garb of Hindutva.
Q: Tell us something about your background. How did you come to be involved in the Dalit-Bahujan struggle?
A: I was born in a village in a forest area in the Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh. The entire area had been given by the Nizam of Hyderabad to Mahbub Reddy, a local landlord, as his fief. My family belongs to the sheep-grazing Kuruma Golla caste. They had earlier migrated from Warangal proper to the forest belt. My grandmother had settled the village. After her death my mother took over the leadership of the caste. I was born three years after the Police Action in 1948. The communists were then very active in our area. In the course of the Telengana armed struggle they killed two people in our village—both were village Patels. Because of the struggle, Mahbub Reddy began selling his lands off, and our caste people, who, till then owned no land at all, began buying small plots. So this was a time when the feudal system had begun disintegrating. Later, at school I came into contact with Marxists, with Marxist literature, and became involved in the students’ movement, and that is how I got involved in the struggle for justice.
Q: What or who has been the major influence on your thinking and your politics?
A: The most important influence on my life was the village in which I was born. As a child in the village I learnt how to breed sheep, till the land and make ropes, but what was particularly instructive was the interactions and contradictions between the different castes within the village—Kurumas, Kapus, Gowdas and Madigas. And it is this personal knowledge of the dynamics of caste that is central to my thinking and all my writings.
My mother exercised a seminal influence on my thinking, too. She was a strong woman and the leader of our caste. You see, among the Dalit-Bahujans, women have an important role within the family and the caste. They set the moral norms themselves, through interaction with the productive process and in the process of struggle with nature, unlike among the Hindus [Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Banias], where women do not work in the fields, and whose norms are dictated by an external agency—the Brahminical texts. My mother was in the forefront of the struggle against the forest guards who would constantly harrass the Kurumas and not allow them to graze their animals in the forest. In fact, she died in one of these confrontations, being fatally beaten up by a policeman while protesting against their brutality. She was then only 46 years old.
I’ve written a Telugu piece about my mother. It’s called The Mother’s Efforts And Her Struggle. There I have tried to show that it is not simply the big ‘political’ struggles against the state which alone are important. Rather, one should look at everyday struggles as well—in this case, a mother’s constant struggle to educate her children, challenging patriarchy, struggling with nature in the productive process, sustaining the culture of the caste. Most Marxist texts look only at grand ‘political’ struggles, party mode of struggles, struggles led by men. In my writings I have sought to also focus on micro struggles, the stories of ordinary people, including women.
Q:How would you characterise contemporary Hindutva? What is the relationship between Hindutva and the Dalit-Bahujans?
A: As Dr.Ambedkar says, Hindutva is nothing but Brahminism. And whether you call it Hindutva or Arya Dharma or Sanatana Dharma or Hindusim, Brahminism has no organic link with Dalit-Bahujan life, world-views, rituals and even politics. To give you just one example, in my childhood many of us had not even heard of the Hindu gods, and it was only when we went to school that we learnt about Ram and Vishnu for the very first time. We had our own goddesses, such as Pochamma and Elamma, and our own caste god, Virappa. They and their festivals played a central role in our lives, not the Hindu gods. At the festivals of our deities, we would sing and dance--men, women and all-- and would sacrifice animals and drink liquor, all of which the Hindus consider ‘polluting’.
Our relations with our deities were transactional and they were rooted in the production process. For instance, our goddess Kattamma Maisa. Her responsibility is to fill the tanks with water. If she does it well, a large number of animals are sacrificed to her. If in one year the tanks dry up, she gets no animals. You see, between her and her Dalit-Bahujan devotees there is this production relation which is central. Likewise, in the case of Virappa, the caste deity of the Kuruma shepherds. His task is to ensure the well-being of the animals. If the flock increases he is offered many sheep as a sacrifice, but if a disease strikes the flock, he gets nothing. Our gods, like us, are productive beings. This is not the case with the Brahminical deities, who have nothing to do with the productive process, but are frozen in the scriptural texts as an external agency. So you can see how the Dalit-Bahujan religion and Brahminism are two distinct and mutually opposed religio-cultural formations, two completely different religions.
In fact, many Dalit communities preserve traditions of the Hindu gods being their enemies. In Andhra, the Madigas enact a drama which sometimes goes on for five days. This drama revolves around Jambavanta, the Madiga hero, and Brahma, the representative of the Brahmins. The two meet and have a long dialogue. The central argument in this dialogue is about the creation of humankind. Brahma claims superiority for the Brahmins over everybody else, but Jambavanta says, ‘No, you are our enemy’. Brahma then says that he created the Brahmins from his mouth, the Kshatriyas from his hands, the Vaishyas from his thighs, the Shudras from his feet to be slaves for the Brahmins, and of course the Dalits, who fall out of the caste system, have no place here. This is the Vedic story. But Jambavanta says that this is nonsense. He says that prakriti [nature] created him and Shakti [the female power principle], and through his union with Shakti, the trimurti [Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva] were born. And then he goes on to say that although Brahma was born as his own offspring, he has not been faithful to his way of life, and that is why the Madigas have kept the Brahmins away from them. Here he talks about the superiority of the Madiga way of life over the Brahminical--of beef-eating over vegetarianism, of manual labour, working with leather and making shoes, as opposed to a parasitic life of living off the labour of others. And then Brahma is defeated, because he has no answer to give Jambavanta.
Q: And then what happens to Brahma?
A: That is most interesting. You see, Jambavanta defeats him by argument, not by killing him. In the Dalit-Bahujan tradition there is no defeat by killing your enemy, which is so central to Brahminism, be it the Gita or the Puranas. This Dalit-Bahujan tradition of overcoming your enemy through logical persuasion runs right from the Buddha to Ambedkar. The understanding is that you must establish your philosophical superiority and defeat the enemy on the moral ground.
Q: What you are perhaps suggesting is that Dalit-Bahujan religion can be used to effectively counter the politics of Brahminism or Hindutva. But Brahminism has this knack of co-opting all revolt against it, by absorbing it within the system.
A: It is true that although Dalit-Bahujan religious formations historically operated autonomously from Hindu forms, they have never been centralised or codified. Their local gods and goddesses have not been projected into universality, nor has their religion been given an all-India name. This is because these local deities and religious forms were organically linked to local communities, and were linked to local productive processes, such as the case of Virappa and Katamma Maisa whom I talked about earlier. But Brahminism has consistently sought to subvert these religious forms by injecting notions of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’, hierarchy and untouchability even among the Dalit-Bahujans themselves, while at the same time discounting our religious traditions by condemning them as ‘polluting’ or by Brahminising them.
Q: Then would you say that religious conversion to a major codified religion could be the way out of the dilemma, as Ambedkar thought?
A: Historically, it was in the struggle of the Dalit-Bahujans against the Hindu order, the Brahminical system which had captured the state and used it as an instrument to impose the caste ideology, that Dalit-Bahujans converted in large numbers to Buddhism, Sikhism,Islam and Christianity. These were social protest movements to gain social rights and self-respect. The whole Buddhist phenomenon in our early history was a story of Dalit-Bahujan protest. The Buddha says, ‘Just as various different streams flow into a river and become one, so, too, the different castes, when they come into the sangha [ the community of the Buddhist faithful], they join the sea of colourless water’. This stress on social equality is, of course, in marked contrast with Hinduism, which cannot be defined in terms of a universal religion with a universal social rights’ concept. It is simply another name for oppression. I have serious problems with Brahmin writers who say Hinduism is ‘a way of life’. As I understand it, it is nothing but a means for exploitation of the Dalit-Bahujans.
To get back to the point I was making, conversion to Islam and Christianity was for many Dalit-Bahujans a means for social liberation. In the medieval period, conversion to Islam afforded some Dalit-Bahujans a means to enter political structures for the first time. In fact, the whole Shudra emergence dates back to this period. Akbar instituted what could be called a ‘reservation policy’ for Shudras in landlholdings—groups such as Jats in north India or Reddys in Andhra. You do not see Shudras as major landowners in the pre-Akbarian period. In the entire period of Hindu rule, you have the agraharam sort of landholding system, with Hindu kings donating vast tracts of lands to the Brahmins.
In the colonial period, of course there was massive economic plunder, but the Christian missionaries did a lot for the Dalit-Bahujans—education, some amount of economic and social mobility. Many Backward Castes which did not convert to Islam or, later, Christianity, are suffering today, the reason being that there is no educated elite among them.
Q: But, then, does conversion have any relevance today?
A: My own feeling is that if the Dalit-Bahujan movement proves unable to propel the Dalit-Bahujans to state power and to place them in politically hegemonic spaces, educated Dalit-Bahujans will increasingly look to religious conversion as a major alternative as a means of mobilisation and protest.
Q: How do you see the demonisation of Muslims and Christians in Hindutva propaganda?
A: It is obvious that the real threat that Brahminism faces is not from the Muslims or Christians but from the growing awakening of the Dalit-Bahujans, who now refuse to accept Brahminical supremacy. And that is why Dalit-Bahujan wrath is being craftily sought to be displaced from their real oppressors onto imaginary enemies in the form of Muslims and Christians.
Q: There’s been much talk about Dalit-Bahujan-Muslim unity. What are your own views about this?
A: It is important to remember that Dalit-Bahujans and Muslims, particularly indigenous converts who form the vast majority of the Muslim population, share much in common in terms of culture. Both belong, in contrast to the Hindus, to a meat-eating culture, and in a society where what you eat determines, in a very major way, your social status, this is crucial. Then, Islam champions social equality, and there is a total absence of the feeling of untouchability. Take a very simple thing—the Hindu namaste, folding your hands to greet someone—is a very powerful symbolic statement. It suggests that I recognise you but you should not touch me. In contrast, the custom that the Christians introduced of shaking of hands is a touching relationship, while the Muslims go even further and physically embrace you. Even today in the villages the Muslims are the only people who actually physically embrace the Dalit-Bahujans. Of course, the Brahmins and Banias don’t let them do that to them, but that’s a different matter. You must remember that the human embrace is itself a very liberating symbolic act for the Dalit-Bahujan victims of Brahminism.
There’s a lot else that Dalit-Bahujans share with Muslims. Scores of Dalit-Bahujans continue to participate in the Muharram rituals and visit Sufi dargahs. Further, in the productive process the bulk of the Muslims find themselves in the same position as most Dalit-Bahujans, as peasants, agricultural labourers, as cobblers, weavers and so on, and in that capacity they share a common culture.
Q: But can mere cultural similarity or commonality serve as a platform for a wider political unity between Dalit-Bahujans and Muslims?
A: My point is that we urgently need to explore and expand these spaces of cultural unity, and only on that basis can political unity come about. Brahminism or Hindutva or call it what you like, seeks to deny this unity, and plays up only on the differences. We, on the other hand, must focus on the elements of unity, and try to expand these sites of unified life into the political domain. Because of our faulty western Marxist methodological training, we start from political unity, straight away trying to unite Dalit-Bahujans and Muslims on the political plane, without an appropriate cultural back-up. And then when attempts at political unity fail, you give up. I feel that this is not the way of doing the job. You must start by exploring existing sites of cultural unity as well as what could be called productive unity, unity that follows from Muslims and Dalit-Bahujans being placed in similar or common niches in the broader productive process. Build up this consciousness of social and cultural unity and then a lasting political unity will easily come about.
Q: What role do you see Dalit-Bahujan spiritualities as playing in all of this?
A: Let me begin by saying that Brahminism is more afraid of the Dalit-Bahujan thought process than of political challenge. It can manipulate or even kill off any number of Eklavyas or Shabukas, but it cannot face the challenge of Ambedkarite thought. They may conspire to kill me off, but they can’t do a thing with my book [Why I Am Not A Hindu]. And it is in this realm of the cultural that Dalit-Bahujan organic intellectuals have a lot to do. We need to retrieve and revive our own histories, traditions, cultures, religions and knowledge systems, all of which are organically connected, in contrast to the Brahminical, with the productive economic process, with the dignity of labour.
Q: But here you seem to be assuming that Dalit-Bahujan traditions have remained static. Is it not the case that they, too, have fallen victim to the process of Brahminical co-optation?
A: I think the process operates both ways, and there is a major way in which Hindu structures themselves are getting Dalitised, which has not been written about. Take, for instance, the Ganapati festival. Earlier the festival was centred around the Brahmin priest, but now most of those who participate in the festival are probably Dalit-Bahujans. And no longer is the festival Brahminical in the classical sense. With the Dalitisation of the festival has come dancing, drinking and singing and loud filmi music! To take another example, some Dalit-Bahujans are demanding that prayers be said in the temples not in Sanskrit but in the languages of the people themselves and that they, too, should be allowed to become priests. Whatever one might otherwise say about this, this is a means to challenge Brahnminism from within its own structures, a process of Dalitisation whose ultimate culmination can only be the destruction of Brahminism.
Q: Do you see what you call the Dalitisation process operating in other spheres as well?
A: This is evident everywhere—the fact that a Brahmin doctor is willing to treat a Dalit patient is a reflection of this process, as is the willingness of a Brahmin woman to divorce her husband or smoke and drink in public or a Brahmin widow going in for another marriage. You must remember that smoking and drinking , divorce and remarriage have never been problems for Dalit-Bahujan women, in contrast to Brahmin women, so all this is nothing but Dalitisation in action. M.N.Srinivas and other Brahmin sociologists wanted to bolster Brahminical hegemony by claiming that India is getting Sanskritised. But when we asked them what is all this surge in drinking and smoking and women’s emancipation all about, they said it was Westernisation, when actually it is nothing but Dalitisation. Of course, they do not want to admit that because that will mean recognising that it is from the Dalit-Bahujans that others are learning.
My point is very simple. If you go on saying that India is getting Dalitised, Brahminism will die a natural death, but if you keep harping on the theme of India getting Hinduised Brahminism will gain added strength. So many books were written in the wake of the Babri Masjid affair selling the argument that India is getting Hinduised. But where were all these historians and sociologists when ten lakh Dalits converted to Buddhism in 1956 along with Dr. Ambedkar? Did they then say that India was getting Dalitised or Buddhistised? Had they done so we would have had a very different history today. So, I say, write history from the point of view of the Dalits, showing how while Sanskrisation and Brahminism are historically unproductive, a burden on the system and a legitimation for exploitation, Dalitisation, in contrast, is historically a productive, creative and constructive process because it is rooted in the dignity of labour.
Q: How would you envisage this project of writing Indian history from the point of view of Dalit-Bahujans as subjects, as the central actors?
A: To be honest, I am seriously opposed to the writing of what is called the ‘history of sorrow’—simply narrating all the oppression and sufferings that the Dalit-Bahujans have had to suffer under Brahminism, although that, too, cannot be ignored. But I feel that the more you cry, the more the enemy beats you. If you want to defeat the enemy, you cannot remain contented with merely critiquing him, because even in that case he is the one who sets the terms of discourse and you are playing the game according to the rules that he devises, so naturally it is he and not you who wins in the end. Thus, rather than dwell simply on our historical oppression or the dangers of Hindu fascism, keep the focus on the process of Dalitisation, and thereby set the terms of discourse and debate yourself. For that you have to present a Dalit-Bahujan alternative as a workable and better solution. If you don’t do so, and restrict yourself to simply criticisng Brahminism by quoting slokas from one Brahminical text or the other, they will put forward yet another sloka to disprove you. But if you write from the Dalit point of view they have no way to rebut what you want to say.
Central to that task would be re-writing Dalit-Bahujan history to show, for instance, their knowledge systems, their role in the productive process, their great contributions to the development of technology or in the realm of spirituality or how their societies afford women a much higher status than the Brahminic. Sati and dowry have historically been specifically Hindu problems never ours. So history re-writing will have to be informed with Dalit pride. You have to show that Dalitisation, and not Hinduisation, is the answer to our ills, because unlike Brahminism, which is rooted in texts that do not spring from real-world experience in the productive process, Dalitisation reflects the interaction of human beings with nature in the labour process.
Unless you present Dalitisation as a superior alternative, you can’t win the battle. Take the Buddha, for instance. His greatest contribution was not his critique of Brahminism, important though that was, but his founding of the egalitarian community of the faithful—the sangha—as a superior alternative to Brahminical caste society. Or take Marx for that matter. To my mind, his greatness lies not so much in his critique of capitalism but in his presenting a superior alternative in the form of a communist society.
Q: Have you attempted anything of this sort yourself?
A: I think you can see this in most of my writings. To give but one example, I wrote this piece on the leather-working Madigas titled ‘The Subaltern Scientists’ and another piece on the Madiga Dalits called ‘The Productive Soldiers’. Presently, I am working on a book dealing with the discoveries and inventions of certain Dalit-Bahujan tribes and castes. There’s so much to be done to recover Dalit-Bahujan knowledge systems. I mean, for instance, you would have to trace industrialisation in India not to Lancashire but to the Madiga wadas [localities], where the Madigas first perfected the art of turning raw leather into shoes, or to our barbers who invented the knife.
Q: One last question. What made you give your book the title Why I Am Not A Hindu? How was the book received?
A: I thought it was important for Dalit-Bahujans to make a powerful statement against the Hindutva propaganda that we, too, are Hindus. As for how the book was received, well, Dalit-Bahujans, of course, were very excited about it. Predictably, orthodox Brahmins were angry, but so too were some ‘socialist’ Brahmins. Actually, that did not surprise me at all, because they read Marx’s Capital just as they read the Vedas—reciting it—not a critical reading. But I did get quite a few responses from Brahmins in Tamil Nadu They wrote to say that they had read a lot of Periyar, but he had only criticised them but never told them where they had gone wrong. They said that it was after reading Why I Am Not A Hindu that they discovered what was wrong with their religion and culture and how they must change if they are to survive.Related link
Interview with Dr. Ilaiah