Kancha Ilaiaha Shepherd’s first book, Why I am not Hindu, published in 1996′ made waves both in India and abroad.
Having read that book and his subsequent books, Post Hindu India and Turning the Pot and Tilling the Land, I quickly started reading his just released Autobiography, From a Shepherd Boy to an Intellectual–My Memoirs.
Unlike other autobiographies, which normally tend to indulge in self praise, the autobiography of Ilaiah is refreshingly different.
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd’s memoirs takes us on a journey of Shudra/OBC life from his childhood to his emergence as an intellectual from a small village, Papaiah Pet, in Warangal.
It deals with village life in great detail. Brings out it’s simple rustic pleasures and harsh and irrational practices and self destructive superstitious customs and beliefs.
I never read such detailed description of village life in any Indian autobiography.
These Himalayan externalities crushed Ilaiah. But he bounced back with great determination. That determination shaped him and motivated him to be what he is today.
Ilaiaha’s life story reminds me of the autobiography –Roots — written by the American author, Alex Haley in 1976. This book was adopted by ABC as a Television serial in 1977, which was watched by over 130 million viewers at that time. The book and TV serial have greatly stirred the public awareness about the problems of African Americans. Now the Black Lives Matter movement is shaking the West.
Haley writes about seven generations of his ancestry, starting from the famous slave boy, Kunta Kunte of Gambia, who was sold to a baron of Virginia in USA. Ilaiah writes about three his generations. But it is no small a canvas.
When was real Kancha Ilaiah born? Not on the day he came out of the womb of his mother, Kattamma. But on the day he defied the Brahmin Poojari who commanded him to prostrate and put his head on the latter’s feet. According to the Hindu rites that are to be observed at the time of the cremation of a parent, the son performing the rites, has to prostrate on the feet of the Poojari. Non compliance with that command would carry the inevitable risk of the dead parent not going to heaven. No son would like his parent to go to hell by refusing to prostrate. It is just not the Poojari but all the followers of Hinduism seriously believe in such irrational rite. The Poojari and all the relatives cursed Kancha Ilaiah for that sacrilege of refusing to prostrate at the feet of Poojari. But Kancha Ilaiah stood firm, believing that such an act is totally irrational and inhuman, which destroys human personality. That Kancha Ilaiah spontaneously defied the priest and all his relatives at the young age of 15 when he was studying only class 9, makes it hugely significant. It was on that day Kancha Ilaiah, that we now know of, was re-born. If that priest was re-born with upanayana (sacred thread) cermony Ilaiah was re-born by rejecting his control and authority.
His recollection of all the experiences his childhood from the age of five is admirable. He recounts how he used to walk on dusty along with animals and smell the dung of sheep and buffalos while taking them for grazing in the fields. How he breathed the dust they raised. How he rode on the back of buffalos. How he swam in the rivulets. How he watched his father helping a sheep which was going through a complicated delivery. Obviously, the Shepherd must have been the first veterinary doctor and mid-wife in the world.
Kancha Ilaiah wrote pages and pages about the spontaneous weeping of women among his relatives and of the village when his mother died. This weeping is a rhythmic intonation of the goodness of the departed soul. It goes on all the days on which the death ceremonies take place. This happens at the death of every SC, ST and OBC house in both the Telugu States. Strangely, men don’t weep aloud, much less in musical tones. It also doesn’t happen in Brahmin Bania, Reddy, Kamma, Velama families. Is it not a measure of spontaneity and warmth Vs prudish restraint? Which is culturally and civilizationally more humane?
Ilaiah also describes the pleasures of men drinking toddy every evening and their impatience if they have to forego the drink to attend to a sick wife.He tells how his own father wanted to choose drink, when his mother was on the verge of death.
Ilaiah always accompanied his father to enjoy toddy and tells us children are taught to drink in Indian village cultures.
These simple rustic pleasures and habits were accompanied by deep rooted prejudice against Sudras going to school and the near compulsion for child marriage. It was understandable that Manu and his Brahmin lineage, not wanting all Shudras to be literate. But Shudra elders played worse role in keeping their children away from schools. They believed that Saraswathi, the so called Goddess of education, would punish a Sudra child if he goes to a school. This superstition was obviously instilled in their minds by Brahministic forces for generations for selfish reasons. But it continued upto the 1960s in Telangana region. Fortunately, this resistance to education among Sudras has nearly disappeared now. Saraswathi has now become powerless to punish Sudra children for going to school, thanks to tough nuts like Ilaiah, spread of Phule Ambedkar Ideology, Mandal movement and literacy programmes of the Governments over time.
Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 abolished child marriage but Sudra community in Telangana did not wake up to it till 1980s. If a Shudra boy is not married by 13, he became a target of discussion and derision in the whole village. The villagers of Papiah Pet blamed Kancha Ilaiah for his not getting married early and going to school caused the death of his mother. They even ridiculed him saying that he must be impotent. Ilaiah went through this trauma from age 13 till he entered into late 20s.
Glad those days of 1970s do not exist. Glad, Kancha Ilaiah wrote about those horrible days, which the world would not have known otherwise.
The third factor that caused considerable anguish to Kancha Ilaiah was his name. He was given that name by his parents as an adaptation of the local God, Iloni Mallanna
That name is easily identified with Sudra community, as Iloni Mallanna is a Shudra God. Hindu Gods are Siva, Vishnu, Rama, Krishna and so on. Names like Sharma, Shastry, Reddy and Rao sound respectable. The villagers loathed and ridiculed him for going to school and not getting married early. His Sudra name caused severe embarrassment to Ilaiah in the college and University. Many Shudra students, carrying similar names changed their names into non Shudra names to avoid embarrassment. But Kancha Ilaiah is not the one to yield to insults.
Ever since he wrote his path breaking book – Why I am not a Hindu – he converted that very Shudra name into an iconic name. In literary and media circles, in India and in other countries, he is more easily identified and remembered with that name than if he were to carry a name like Sharma or Rao or Reddy.
Moving on from personal aspects of Kancha Ilaiah to philosophy and ideology, a few things stand out. One is his love for English language. Initially, it was meant to be a weapon for his personal empowerment. But after he moved to Osmania University for post-gradutation studies, he converts it into a weapon of a crusader for empowering Dalit and OBC combine and to fight the caste demon.
Starting from the police Patel of his village, who harassed his mother in power struggle, the entire district of Warangal was under the grip feudalism. By and large, the landlords were arrogant, exploitative and merciless. The landless, the bonded labour, the tenants and marginal farmers were at the mercy of landlords. Bonded labour, low wages, grabbing the lands and cruel punishments were their main instruments.
When Ilaiah was grappling with the handicaps of not getting married and going to school and college against the so called command of Goddess Saraswathi, he happens to hear about a Dalit officer becoming the district collector in Warangal. That Collector champions the cause of the poor and the oppressed and checks the atrocities of the landlords.
One day he sees the collector addressing a college function and gets impressed by his good English speech.
Instantly, he imagines that the secret of the power of that Dalit officer over the dreaded land lords, was his command over English.
Following this first break through, Kancha Ilaiah lays his hands on the English version of Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Initially, it seems that he was struck more by the English in the manifesto than its philosophy. After his revolt against priest in the village at the funeral rites of his mother, these two developments mark a major shift in his life. In his own words, “Madhavarao, a Dalit Collector gave me an ambition and Marx, a German author, gave me a direction”
The third major shift takes place when he finds Brahmanism even in the radical left wing organisations like CPI (ML) Tarimala Nagi Reddy Group and also in the civil liberties organizations that he worked with.
His social background pulls him to the left student organizations in Osmania University.
He actively participates in their debates and field work but was terribly disturbed about the left’s silence and indifference to the problems of caste system. He writes at length about this failure of the leftist groups, who are satisfied with just highlighting the class issues.
Ilaiah says that he was denied the opportunity of being called for interview for a professor post in the Central University of Hyderabad. He mentions some names who might have stood in the way. Only the persons involved in the decision know the facts. But one thing is certain. If Ilaiah joined that University, there would have been more than one Rohi Vemula. And, he would have motivated and emboldened more faculty members to encourage and mentor number of Dalit- Bahujan students and scholars.
A person who is harassed, victimised on multiple grounds has every reason, nay a right, to oppose and revolt against those forces. The degree of revolt reflects the nature of that persona. Those who do not oppose or fight will fall a victim to the oppressors. Those who fight back, serve themselves and the general cause of the oppressed.Ilaiah did the later.
Depending on the degree of anger and revolt, it will result in mild protest to taking a gun and kill oppressors as armed guerrillas and Marxist Leninst Groups did.
Then we have the third category in those who oppose silently and peacefully.
Buddha and Socratese are the earlier models. Later we had Martin Luther King Jr, M.K. Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
Fortunately, Ilaiah is a born fighter. He chose the leftist path but was not able to find peace and fulfilment in it. His Shudra and village background could not digest the silence of leftists (of all shades) about the victims of caste system. He shifts to Mahatma Phule, Ramasami Naicker, Narayana Guru and Dr.B.R. Ambedkar, who opposed the oppressive and inhuman caste system.
Ilaiah has the advantage of standing on their shoulders and he decided to carry their mantle further to suit his times.
He discovered that Buddhism worked as an anti- caste system. He dug deep into it and found Buddha to be the political philosopher to challenge the caste system of Hinduism and did his Ph.D on that subject.
To do this he must become a scholar, a speaker and a writer. He finds this to be a higher calling and gives up the idea of becoming an IAS officer and a collector, who (in the popular imagination) is so powerful that he can control feudal landlords and “print his own money”!
Kancha Ilaiah was obsessed by the images of Hindu Gods always carrying lethal weapons. You cannot fight such armed Gods with empty hands. So Ilaiah became the Pit Bull of Phule and Ambedkar. And he chose English as his weapon to fight the caste system enforced by the Thrisul and Sanskrit.
Earlier Dalit Panthers too radicalised Phuleism and Ambedkarism.
They burnt Bhagvad Gita while Babasaheb stopped at burning Manusmrithi.
Ilaiah is an angry man. Anger produced by castism, feudalism and disappointment with left party cadres.
He donned the role of an angry Phule, angry Ambedkar and angry Buddha, in carrying on their mantle.
Ambedkar condemned the theory of birth of Brahmins from the head and Sudras from the feet of Hindu God.
Ilaiah wants to rewrite this HIndu folklore. He wants that the Dalit-Bahujans writers to reverse the order – Bahujans are born from the head and Brahmins are born from the feet of their God!
How many ages will it take for Bahujans to believe in the new order that Ilaiah is talking about and when will they start behaving like that?
Ilaiah rightly believes that learning English is the master key to fight casteism and to advance economic and political power. English is his passion and instrument.
Read English, speak English and write in English are his slogans and his mission.
If I may say so, Ilaiah breathes English and lives for English. He takes English along with him, when he goes to sleep. In sleep, he dreams about English.
There is a considerable discussion in the book about Brahminical forces capturing leftist leadership. Many other sources like Mr U.Sambasivarao, Dr Gopinath, late KG Sathyamurthy, G.Ramulu and others give similar feedback. This is unfortunate both for Marxism and Ambedkarism.
The concerted effort of Mr Prakash Ambedkar and Mr G.Ramulu and Ilaiah have helped in Neel (Ambedkarism) – Laal (Marxism) campaign in Telangana.
This effort resulted in the formation of TMASS, an ideological platform and Bahujan Left Front (BLF), a political platform. BLF has fielded candidates in 107 (out of 119) constituencies in Telangana State Assembly elections in December 2018 and secured 2 per cent votes in its maiden effort.
Kancha Ilaiah’s life is an open book. He talks about his failed courtship that lasted for 2 ½ years. He gets more frank by saying that not marrying does not mean foregoing the pleasure of sex. He says that there are other ways to fulfill that natural physical desire. So he chooses to Love for knowledge to serve common good over lust for selfish physical pleasure.
He talks about how the girl students used to be nice to him to get their academic writing was done by him and then keep away after their work was done. Girls also made fun of his looking like an old man at the age of 23.
I have no doubt that this book will be received with great interest by readers in various areas of life, in India and abroad.
It is a great life story of the most known rebel intellectual among the Shudras of India. And, Shudras constitute 60 plus per cent of the Indian population. Their liberation is the books agenda.
Kaki Madhava Rao is the former Chief Secretary of United Andhra Pradesh. He was the first Dalit collector of Warangal district, who weakened the feudal hold on the district with determination and tact. During his term as the Chief Secretary the Dalits benefited a lot