How anti-caste activist Kancha Ilaiah’s mother was an inspiration for his rebellion

In this extract from ‘Rebels with a cause: Famous dissenters and why they are not being heard,’ TT Ram Mohan explores anti-caste activist Kancha Ilaiah’s formative years.

Kancha Ilaiah gesticulates with his right hand as he speaks into a mic


Ilaiah is one of the foremost intellectuals of the Sudra caste, traditionally regarded as the lowest of four castes in the Hindu religion. He is a familiar figure on television. He appears frequently on issues related to Dalits: violence against them, affirmative action, Ambedkar, Gandhi. He also appears in discussions on Indian politics, especially where these relate to Hindutva and the activities of the Sangh Parivar. In his now familiar, high-pitched voice, he makes his points forcefully. He uses strong words to characterize those whose politics he loathes—‘fascist’, for instance. 

Ilaiah champions the cause of the lower Sudra castes (there is hierarchy even within the Sudra caste) and the Dalits, formerly called the Untouchables, who were regarded as beyond the pale of the caste system. Dalit is an expression that Ambedkar used towards the end of his career to refer to Scheduled Castes. It means ‘suppressed and exploited people’. Kanshi Ram, founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), now led by Mayawati, used the expression Bahujan, which means ‘majority’, to refer to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes (OBCs), all categories that exist in the Indian Constitution. 

Kanshi Ram preferred not to refer to Dalits alone as he did not want to separate them from the other two categories who shared their plight. Ilaiah groups the Scheduled Castes and OBCs together in the expression ‘Dalitbahujan’ to connote the majority that is suppressed and exploited by the upper castes who constitute a minority. (He grants that Scheduled Tribes may also be included in the expression. Ilaiah believes that the Dalitbahujans have nothing in common with the other Hindu castes. They cannot be called Hindu at all. He finds the very idea of a homogeneous Hindu order, implied by Hindutva, revolting. null

Ilaiah has been called a modern-day Ambedkar. He echoes the rage of Ambedkar against an order that has kept millions in backwardness for centuries. Like Ambedkar, he has strong academic credentials and an appetite for digging out unpleasant facts obscured by the mainstream narrative on Hinduism. 

Ilaiah, who has taken to calling himself Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd to affirm his origins, was born in a small village in Warangal district in what is today the state of Telangana. His family belonged to the Kurumaa sheep-grazing caste. His father, he told me, was ‘an innocent man’ who was mostly away from home grazing the herd. The dominant figure in the family was his mother who also happened to be the head of the community of about twenty-five shepherd families, each with about a hundred sheep and goats. 

Having a woman as head was something of a necessity. The men were away most of the time. A head was required for settlement of disputes that arose within the shepherd community or between the community and others. Besides, the sheep were an important source of income through the manure they produced when they rested at night on agricultural land. The owners of the land were willing to pay significant amounts of money for the herd to spend the night on their land. The leader of the shepherd community would negotiate the sums with the landlords. 

An individual of the same caste had migrated from another village and had become the police ‘patel’ or head in the village. He coveted the leadership of the community and was looking for an opportunity to grab it from Ilaiah’s mother. He colluded with another leader of the shepherd community to dislodge Ilaiah’s mother. 

It was common during festive occasions for people to get drunk and get into minor fights. On one such occasion, a fight erupted between Ilaiah’s mother’s team and the police patel’s team of about fifteen persons. Ilaiah’s mother rushed to intercede. The police patel and his team, who were on the spot, beat her up badly and she sustained serious internal injuries. A quack administered some medicine. It resulted in tetanus. Ilaiah’s mother passed away. Ilaiah was in the ninth standard at school at the time. Ilaiah regards his mother as an inspiration for his own rebellion. 

Ilaiah was part of the first generation in Dalitbahujan history to go to school. His school was housed in a thatched hut and had one teacher. There were seven students in his class. Ilaiah studied up to the fifth class. Thereafter, he moved to a school 8 km from his village. A local landlord rented him a small room and Ilaiah cooked for himself. For high school, he moved to the taluka town of Narsampet where he studied up to the eleventh class, followed by one year of pre-university studies. He topped his school in the eleventh class. He did his BA in English literature in this college. He then moved to Osmania University, Hyderabad, where he did his master’s in political science, MPhil and doctorate. 

Ilaiah became acutely aware of caste while at school. Everything about the upper-caste children was different, although they had all been born in the same village. Their food habits, the stories they were familiar with, their religious practices and symbols (including the sacred thread they wore) were all alien to Ilaiah and to his companions from the lower castes. The gods and goddesses that Ilaiah encountered—Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva—were all unknown to him. The gods and goddesses that he was familiar with found no mention in the textbooks. null

The Brahmin teachers resented having to teach Sudra children. They saw the Sudra children as coming from families that did lowly farm work. The heroes of the upper-caste children, the names that Ilaiah encountered in textbooks, belonged to a different world. This early experience at school led to his overwhelming conviction that Dalitbahujan culture and the culture of the upper castes were poles apart. 

Entering university, Ilaiah found his teachers silent on caste discrimination, however radical their views on other matters. Like the teachers he had encountered at school, they did not approve of lower-caste people in their classrooms. They considered them undeserving. They felt that the lower-caste people would only cause standards in higher education to fall. Of course, they wanted better wages and living conditions for the lower castes. But this should happen in their own villages and within the agrarian economy. 

Excerpted from ‘Rebels with a cause: Famous dissenters and why they are not being heard’ by TT Ram Mohan, published by Penguin Random House. The book is available on Amazon here.

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