Keeping tabs on those murdered for their rational, questioning world views, you realise that the dead are reminders of civilizational values that have been handed down by the great dissenting traditions of thought in this sub-continent. Whether rational, agnostic, atheist, or shramanic in origin, these traditions have sustained their vigour through time, though they appear to be eclipsed by more rhapsodic or coercive forms of spiritual authority as the case may be. Yet they remain, and today, they offend than ever before, because they are everywhere, in colleges, on the streets, speaking English and in the vernacular, they write, are present in public life, they challenge verities of every kind, including those that are deemed ‘progressive’ but in all instances, they remain committed to an open, democratic society and a social order that hinges on equality and fraternity, on compassion and comradeship. The dissenting tradition has found its bahujan votaries, and this is clearly not a good thing for those who dislike dissent as well as the bahujan.
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is an eloquent representatives of critical bahujan thought, and an original exponent of its various aspects. Anyone who’s spent time with him knows what a valuable and rich experience that usually is: you are made to reflect, are startled out of your habitual ways of knowing and importantly, Ilaiah is civility itself, ready to argue, debate, and follow you around into the kitchen if you are a woman friend, offering to assist with this or that domestic task of the day.
This way of being, critical, rational, standing up to the coercive power of Brahminical Hinduism, speaking truth to those who don’t want to hear it– this is clearly a problem not only for the ideologues and soldiers of the Hindu right, but also for all those who hold onto their caste identities and refuse to brook any critique of the latter. Ilaiah has earned the ire of sections of the Arya Vaisya caste, because he described their economic role as an instance of ‘spiritual smuggling’ – a brilliant use of language, reminiscent of what another rationalist and iconoclast said many decades ago, when he described the deities in Brahminical Hindu temples as ‘stone capitalists’ (this was Kuthoosi Guruswamy of the Self-respect movement, arguing with his communist peers in the pages of his magazine and theirs in the 1940s).
By targeting the great unproductive social existence of the upper castes, who live off the productive labour of others, Ilaiah has consistently called attention to the makers of social and economic wealth, those who ‘till the field and turn the pot’. In the post-Mandal period, when upper caste students flaunted their so-called merit to call attention to their being kept out (sic) of the citadels of learning and government, Ilaiah turned the very notion of merit on its head and developed a new measure for judging skill, intelligence, discretion and wisdom – based on what the working (caste) communities do of a day. He thus went on to develop a ‘labour theory of value’, adequate to a complex social reality, where labouris both exploited as well as degraded and viewed as polluting, and the spiritual surplus extracted from it, deemed pure, divine and necessary to shore up birth-determined cultural capital. His extolling of the worth and science behind different forms of labour, albeit caste labour, and his suggestive sense of what the productive bahujan are all about, and how may they be destigmatized are very important points for us to ponder.
Sadly, those who appear to have pondered long and hard over these matters are those who are dismayed, angered by his views. They may not be of the vintage Hindutva variety, but they are far more durable and locally visible and powerful – for caste hierarchy is sustained not on account of a proclaimed religious ideology alone, but by the exercise of petty power and banal attempts to belittle some folks and worship others, in short by a descending scale of contempt and an ascending scale of reverence. This caste way of being, a primal expression of a partial, alienated selfhood, is what fascism feeds on, pandering to its fears and anxieties on the one hand, and drawing from its impulse to denigrate, on the other. So, when so-called sentiments are hurt, we realise that it is democracy that is being called out, critical rationality that is being censored, and in all this the dissenter is viewed as expendable. The crude violence of Hindutva is recognizable and identifiable, but the sustained, whining violence of thwarted caste folks is less so, being localized and easily marked as an ‘atrocity’ rather than the norm that it is.
Ilaiah has dared show up this norm, for the unlovely thing that it is – the product of an exploitative, dissembling and parasitic social order. And he is thus to be censored, attacked. In this context, it is important to read him, debate his views, affirm his politics of dignified labour and skill and stand with him.
V Geetha has been active in the women’s movement for over two decades, and has written in Tamil and English on gender, caste, anti-caste radicalism and socialism.