Ilaiah Lived His Philosophy

From A Shepherd Boy To An Intellectual—My Memoirs

REVIEW of “From a Shepherd Boy to an Intellectuals–My Memoirs by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd Sage/Samya/Select. PP 360


Back in the early 2000s when I was a university student in Delhi, Kancha Ilaiah was all the rage. His book, Why I am not a Hindu, had come out and it was extensively read and widely discussed among the students. The book played a key role in provoking new wave of Dalit Bahujan assertion. I remember that my Telugu roommate with extremely limited English skills, purchased a copy and made an earnest effort to read it through. Many of our evenings were enlivened by heated discussions about the book.

Academic writing takes a long time to make an impact on society. Kancha Ilaiah’s writing is an exception. His impact has been immediate and dramatic. He has written a number of books but the main ideas running through all his writings can be summarized as follows:

  1. Caste in India has an underlying racial basis. The Shudra and Dalit castes in India have Dravidian or Harappan origins where as the Brahmin and Vysya castes have Aryan origin

  2. Hinduism is the religion or social philosophy of the upper castes alone. The lower shudra and Dalit castes have local deities and religions which have little in common with Hinduism

  3. Shudra and Dalit castes are the productive communities of India. The upper castes lead an unproductive and basically parasitical life.

  4. Indian nationalism glorifies the upper caste world view, religion and food habits as the national culture ignoring or delegitimizing the lifestyle, food choices and world view of the productive communities. This has harmed India as a nation immensely.

  5. Dalit and Shudra salvation lies in modernity, in learning the English language, in taking pride in their productive cultures and in rejecting the Hindu world view that does not respect the essential dignity of individuals and dignity of labour.

Kancha Ilaiah has made two significant theoretical contributions to the debate on caste. (1) For him caste question is a question of production. Castes that have suffered under the caste system are the productive castes. So the system that delegitimises work and labour is deeply damaging to society. (2) Although the lower OBCs got reservation thanks to the Mandal decision of the early 90s, the theoretical basis of this arrangement was always suspect. Ilaiah shows that although Shudras were part of the caste society, being a labouring communities, they also suffered under the caste system. According to him shudra castes should give up the Hinduisation project and throw their lot with the Dalits.

The purpose of this memoir is to show the readers that Ilaiah has lived his philosophy. Iliah claims that his memoir is the first memoir written by a Shudra in English. Ilaiah was born to unlettered parents in interior Telangana. His family belonged to the Kuruba or shepherd caste which was a lower shudra (OBC) caste. His generation was first to get any education. He ultimately made his way into the Osmania University where he completed his MA and Phd. He spent most of his teaching career also at the same university.

The book is ethnologically rich. He gives an absorbing picture of village life. Ilaiah’s effort is to show that life style of the lower shudras and dalits were completely different from the lifestyle of the caste Hindus. Equally interesting are his stories about his university years as a student and teacher. Iliah encountered brahmanism and caste discrimination from his teachers, fellow students and colleagues. He started out as a leftist and moved to a version of Ambedkarism after he realised that Indian left did not address the issue of caste and the left movement consisted mostly of Brahmans.

The big challenge of Ilaiah’s life was to come to terms with his caste identity. When he joined college, he found that Dalits and OBCs were shedding their given names in favour of ‘hindu names’. Ilaiah resisted this temptation. The great achievement of his intellectual life was to develop a theory that conferred dignity to the lifestyle and worldview of the lower shudras. The final act in this story reconciliation with ones background is Iliah adding the surname ‘Shepherd’ to his name. It is a triumphant declaration that his caste identity is not to be detested as unclean or backward but worthy of respect.

This book is polemical and Ilaiah does not hold back his punches. However the book is verbose and badly chapterized. With better editing, it could have been pruned to half its size and made more readable


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