by Varun Chirumamilla 

Kancha Ilaiah

Professor Kancha Ilaiah has never been one to mince words. But when he termed Banias as “social smugglers”, he started receiving death threats and abusive phone calls.

His book Samajika Smugglurlu Komatollu drew flak from sections of society, leading to the filing of a petition calling for its ban. However, the Supreme Court would dismiss the petition while upholding his freedom of speech and expression.

Bar & Bench caught up with Ilaiah to discuss his writings, criminal proceedings pending against him, and more.

You don many hats. You are a Professor, an author, a Dalit rights activist and more. Can you describe the evolution of Kancha Ilaiah, the personality?

The evolution has been gradual. I was born into a poor family of shepherds, and started off attending the local primary school in my village, where, for some time, I was the only student. Thereafter, I studied in a village of landlords, where I witnessed atrocious behavior.

I went on to complete my higher secondary education in Narsampet Taluk, and ultimately received an PhD from Osmania University. In the process, I started fighting against oppression and became associated with the radical Left in my student days.

My shift towards caste began in 1985, after the Karamchedu massacre, where Dalits were murdered by the Shudra upper castes. Then came the Mandal commission, and the opposition of the upper castes to reservation. It was during the fight to secure reservation that I started conceptualising and finally wrote Why I am not a Hindu.

It was around the same time that I became involved in Civil Rights and Human Rights movements, and observed the absolutely wretched conditions people were living in. It was then that I realised that it wasn’t just general poverty, but caste that had a big role to play in the larger scheme of things.

My intellectual journey took a turn after the publication of Why I am not a Hindu. I was invited to write for publications such as the Hindu, Economic and Political Weekly, Asian Age and also appeared in television debates.

I focused on issues such as Brahminism, the symbols of both the Brahmins and Dailtbahujans and the conflict between them. I then went on to write books such as Buffalo Nationalism. All of this brought me a certain degree of recognition.

A recent book published in English in which you refer to the Bania community as “social smugglers” has led to your receiving death threats. Police complaints were also lodged against you. Would you do things differently had you known that such consequences would arise?

I was warned by a close friend even before the book was published that there would be grave consequences, and he asked me to remove his name from the acknowledgements. I have also removed the names of several other people, including those of my family members.

Yes, I knew there would be consequences, but my endeavor is and always has been to better understand the socio-dynamics of caste among other things. It was only after meticulous research that I wrote what I did, in the manner in which I did. Whatever the consequences are, facts remain facts.

Freedom of expression comes with reasonable restrictions. Do you think your work comes within the framework of the Constitution?

My publishers, Sage and I had a long series of meetings and negotiations regarding the book, from which this excerpt with reference to the Banias has been published. It was only after a long consultation process with lawyers that the book was cleared for publishing.

I was assured that no legal cause of action could arise from publishing it. I was also told that some Brahmin editors refused to work on the book, and some even resigned. But the publishing house stood their ground and appointed new people. That’s how the book came to be edited.

As far as the question of disrupting communal harmony goes, the book, which is based on fact and research, merely distinguishes between productive and unproductive castes. Even in my previous works and lectures I have said that if the Brahmins, Banias and Jains were to form their own country, it would not survive, as they are unproductive. Their survival is dependent on the exploitation of the productive castes

Is it fair to paint a whole community with the same brush?

It is impossible to theorise without some degree of generalisation. There are certain common characteristics which are widespread through the community. Why do you call all Madigas (a scheduled caste) Madigas when some of them may not have the physical or social characteristics associated with the caste? I agree that a caste is made up of individuals, but like I said before, some degree of generalisation is inevitable in an academic pursuit.

The Constitution has afforded the Dalit community several privileges and safeguards. There is also the Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act. None of these have worked, according to you. Where does the solution lie?

These measures are like having a constable on duty at your door. He may prevent people from the outside from coming into your house and harming you, but if you step out of the house then he cannot guarantee your safety.

The solution lies in empowering the youth from these communities with English education, which will allow them to hold their own with those coming from more privileged backgrounds even at the highest levels of government and industry.

If they continue to be discriminated against despite this, at least they will have the opportunity to emigrate and become global citizens.

Do you think the impact of the Act has been diluted due to alleged widespread misuse?

The Act has been misused in certain instances. Implementation has also been a problem. In any case, seeing your enemy in prison is not the solution. The constable outside your door parallel I drew earlier applies to this Act as well.

The Telangana and Andhra Pradesh High Court has directed Police in the Prakasam District to furnish information on why criminal cases have not been lodged against you, despite complaints being filed. Are you considering filing an anticipatory bail application?

They have asked for a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe and also filed criminal complaints. I am meeting with my lawyer later today to discuss my legal strategy. We will file an anticipatory bail application if required. In any case, the Court must serve me notice before taking any action.

Do you fear for your life? Should the government be doing more to protect you?

An attack on me was pre-emptively thwarted by the police last night. I am meeting with the Commissioner of Police today to seek protection. If they give me this protection, I can continue with my speaking engagements and attend social gatherings. If they don’t, I will continue writing. Nobody can stop me from doing that.


Bar & Bench would like to thank Jangili Darshan, a research scholar at Osmania University, for his assistance in arranging this interview.

Image courtesy: Jangili Darshan