A Critical Defence of Kancha Ilaiah’s Voice

Anand Teltumbde (tanandraj@gmail.com) is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai. Source

In these achhe din when the Hindutva bullet trail has killed people with impunity for speaking what it does not like, the recent threats against Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd should not be taken lightly. Of course, the Hindutva brigade is not known to warn its victims. Narendra Dabholkar, Comrade Govind Pansare, M M Kalburgi, Santanu Bhowmik, and recently Gauri Lankesh were not forewarned. In this case, both Ilaiah Shepherd as well as the representatives of the Arya–Vaisya community filed police complaints against each other. It does not mean that because the threat was publicly issued, the issuer would be marked if something untoward were to take place.

The Sanatan Prabhat, the mouthpiece of the Sanatan Sanstha, has issued a standing threat to all rationalists whom it wants to have killed as demons to establish the kingdom of god. When Dabholkar was gunned down, it had the temerity to justify the act in a celebratory tone, with no legal consequence. Contrast it with thousands of Dalits and Adivasis incarcerated for years just under the suspicion of being connected with Maoists!

In the case of Ilaiah Shepherd, Telugu Desam Party (TDP) Member of Parliament (MP) T G Venkatesh has said that people like him should be “publicly hanged.” Following him, Arya–Vaisya organisations have been holding protests in parts of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh and burning his effigies, seeking a ban on his book, Samaajika Smugglurlu Komatollu (Social Smugglers: Komotis). He has been receiving abusive and threatening phone calls. There was an alleged attempt to attack his car at Parkal town in Telangana, where some people hurled footwear and stones at him; he had to run into the police station for protection. Ilaiah Shepherd has not taken it lightly and has been living in self-imposed house arrest since the controversy broke out.

What Is Behind the Uproar?

The booklet in question is a Telugu translation of one chapter from his 2009 book, Post-Hindu India: A Discourse in Dalit–Bahujan, Socio-spiritual and Scientific Revolution. As such, there is no reason that the controversy be raised after almost a decade except that it is now available to a Telugu-language audience. Maybe the references to Modi–Shah and Adani–Ambani that existed in the book and are now available to the common masses to read are being resented. Maybe the Arya–Vaisya organisations, which are aligned with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or TDP, are being used as proxies to create the ruckus. The book is replete with caustic remarks about Banias like this:

Vysyas have always hated Shudras, Dalits and OBCs [Other Backward Castes] who are involved in the production of goods. They never take up the job of protecting the country—there is no baniya regiment in the Army. They are part of the ruling class—Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are baniyas—and they are backed by business tycoons like the Ambanis and Adanis. They are culturally vegetarians, so how can they fight mighty enemies like Pakistan and China if they don’t eat meat or beef?

Is there anything other than poor knowledge in this that should anger anyone? Are there no castes in India? Do the dwija castes, which he calls parasitic, not treat the Shudras and Dalits with graded disdain? Are they not a part of the ruling class? I would not care for their vegetarianism or not eating beef, or not being in the army or not being able to fight the armies of Pakistan and China, but if Ilaiah Shepherd wants to care for it, is that untrue? I am not sure though whether by this logic he wants to uphold the Kshatriyas.

It is not the first time Ilaiah Shepherd is writing or speaking like this, nor is he singling out only Vaisyas for such uncharitable references as “social smugglers.” In the same book, he has called Brahmins spiritual fascists; others he calls intellectual goondas, etc. This style of writing has an element of making people sit up and take note, like a marketing strategy. Incidentally, I reviewed this book for Tehelka magazine (Teltumbde 2009). I wrote:

Reading this book, it gives you a feel of travelling in a Maglev train—an illusion of running on rails but in fact levitating over a thin layer of air. While traversing through its arguments, the book creates an illusion of being based on truth but is distanced from it by a thin layer of prejudice. There is an overdose of culture and spirituality which could intoxicate readers without them ­realizing it.

Ilaiah Shepherd’s intellectual content may be severally problematised, but none has the right to deny his right to express it, and certainly no right to threaten him.

Condemnation and Beyond

Do the Arya–Vaisya organisations have the right to express their disagreement as they did? They do have a right to approach the courts as advocate K L N V Veeranjaneyulu did, to ban another book by Ilaiah Shepherd titled Hindutva-Mukt Bharat and a chapter in his Post-Hindu India too. But to issue death threats is surely a crime, and that too by a people’s representative. The Supreme Court rightly ruled that banning the book is in contravention of Article 32 of the Constitution. “When an author writes a book, it is his or her right of expression … every author or writer has a fundamental right to speak out ideas freely and express thoughts adequately,” the Court said in its order. However, several MPs, members of legislative assembly (MLAs) and even Telangana ministers do not agree. It is fairly clear, unless the Court takes suo motu cognisance of the death threats in the particular context of the recent spate of killings, the government is unlikely to act.

The issue has, as expected, created waves of condemnation all over the world, including in the United States Congress. Harold Trent Franks, representing Arizona’s eighth congressional district in the US House of Representatives, raised it on 12 October, the day the Hyderabad police registered a case against Ilaiah Shepherd for allegedly hurting religious sentiments. Franks, in his speech lasting over four minutes, had described Ilaiah Shepherd as modern-day B R Ambedkar. Indeed, following in the footsteps of Ambedkar, Ilaiah Shepherd has built up a strong cultural critique of the dwija caste culture, imparting it a materialistic hue from his early rendezvous with left politics. He would distinguish the lot as unproductive parasites as against his category of Dalit–Bahujan, the productive category. One need not smell Marx’s labour theory of value in this phraseology simply because it is just not that.

His explanation of social smuggling is even weirder. Writing in the Wire on 15 September Ilaiah Shepherd (2017) said he coined this concept to describe the Vaisya model of accumulation. He explained, “The process of social smuggling started from the post-Gupta period of 5th century AD and continues to operate even today.” This social smuggling, he explains, is the flow of “heavily exploited wealth” taken across “caste ‘social borders’” “to control the accumulated wealth within that border.” If you are still confused, he clarifies,

It [heavily exploited wealth] was used by the traders for their good life and gave enough to the temples for better survival of priests. The remaining surplus was hidden under ground, over ground and also in the temples. This process did not allow the cash economy to come back in the form of investment either for agrarian development or for promotion of mercantile capital. This whole process is nothing but social smuggling. The wealth did not go outside India but did get arrested and used only within the caste borders.

But this is simply a feudal mode that existed everywhere before capitalism entered. When capitalism came, this mercantile community of ­Vaisyas did become industrial capitalists, albeit preserving castes, following the capitalist schema of money–commodity–more money (SPAN STYLE=”font-weight: normal”>M–C–M’).

It is not necessary to agree with Ilaiah Shepherd’s theorisation, but there is no denying the fact that he has powerfully articulated his spiritual–cultural critique with fantastic details so as to reinforce caste identities of the Dalits, although his own coinage of “Dalit–Bahujan” still eludes him.

The Identity Appeal

In a caste society, to conceive Bahujan is theoretically problematic. But we should know what Buddha thought of Bahujans; in modern times, Kanshi Ram uses the category with much clearer meaning than Ilaiah Shepherd does. I cannot resist temptation to recall my review:

If one is not so “spiritually” intoxicated, one suffers from mundane doubts nibbling at his intellect: is this conjoint term “Dalit–Bahujan” sociologically viable, given the huge load of material contradictions between these two population groups that have been precipitating into most heinous caste atrocities? How and why did these worthy “spiritual democrats” or “spiritual revolutionaries” come to emulate the caste hierarchy of Brahmins, the spiritual fascists, within themselves and zealously preserve it? If the Dalit-Bahujans were so accomplished in terms of their scientific and technological prowess, how could they be enslaved by a handful of scheming and spiritually degenerate Brahmins for millennia? The book succeeds in establishing the superiority of Dalit-Bahujans, but doesn’t it essentially follow the very same Brahmanic ethos of superiority-inferiority? (Teltumbde 2009)

If one wears caste spectacles, Indian capital may appear as Vaisya capital, as they still dominate the world of business. But is that not an evolutionary pheno­menon of mercantile capital transforming into industrial and financial capital? It is the fact that capital did rely on caste networks but with a pure business logic to depress transaction costs. It is not confined to only Vaisyas. There are a plethora of other castes. Dalits are the only exception (stray examples and spurious phenomenon of Dalit capitalism notwithstanding). Gounders (who built the biggest knitwear manufacturing hub in the world), Nadars (the lords of the match industry in Sivakasi), and Ezhavas, Patels, Jats, Marathas, etc (in various industries) covering the entire spectrum from Brahmin to Shudra, have made their mark in business, their supply chains cutting across castes, communities, and extending to global regions.

Ilaiah Shepherd’s writings remind us of the religio–cultural critique of Ambedkar, and hence the Ambedkarite Dalits nostalgically love them. They realise neither the difference in times nor circumstances. Ambedkar was struggling to locate the source of castes and simultaneously provoke the Hindus to rethink their traditions and customs with a hope that they might undertake reforms. His diagnosis was that castes came through the dharmashastra part of the Hindu religion and unless it was destroyed, castes would not be annihilated. He ended with embr­acing Buddhism. The issue before the intellectuals who wish to take up cudgels for the Dalits is to assess the past and move forward in the changed world. If at all they wish to follow Ambedkar, his vision of annihilation of caste or the society based on “liberty, equality, fraternity” should beckon them. He was against Brahminism, not Brahmins. Pand­ering to caste identities tickles one like intoxicants; it is certainly antithetical to this vision and damaging to the Dalits’ emancipation project.


Ilaiah Shepherd, Kancha (2017): “Explaining the ‘Social Smuggling’ That Has Angered Arya Vysyas in Two States,” Wire, https://thewire.in/177385/explaining-social-smuggling-angered-arya-vysyas-two-states/.

Teltumbde, Anand (2009): “Our Levitating Prejudice,” Tehelka, Vol 6, No 50, 19 December, http://www.tehelka.com/2009/12/our-levitating-prejudice/.

Social Media Image Courtesy: Screengrab from Youtube/ISEVideos