Jan 19, 2010
An intellectual interview with Kancha Ilaiah
[Here is the interview of Kancha Ilaiah, a prominent political thinker
of our times, published in tehelka.com]
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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