Childhood, marriage, markets, goddesses, worship, food, work — for Ilaiah, the lived village has always been the best textbook
I call Professor Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd and we talk about meeting and having a leisurely chat about his life, work and troubles in recent times. The past month has been particularly stormy. Ilaiah, a dear friend of three generations of my family, has been a trenchant and unrelenting critic of Brahmanical Hinduism and the insidious proliferation of dominant caste injustice for decades.
However, the recent publication in Telugu of the chapter from his 2009 book Post Hindu India, titled ‘Vysyas: Social Smugglers’, triggered protest from members of the Vysya caste, with a sitting Telugu Desam Party MP declaring that he should be hanged and Arya Vysya Sangham petitioning the Supreme Court to ban his book (dismissed by the Supreme Court last week).
Our phone conversations these past weeks have been short and hurried, moments snatched from meetings, during a commute, or in the middle of other work. Most of these calls have been to check that he is in good cheer and spirits, since I can never be sure when the strain of belligerent attacks can begin to weigh a person down — even someone like Ilaiah.
As I think about the conversation we are about to have, my mind goes back to 1989 or thereabouts, when as a doctoral student interested in questions of caste, I presented what I thought was a cogent and painstakingly argued critique of caste. A minute after I was done, Ilaiah proceeded to take my paper apart most meticulously, chiding me for hanging on to Brahmanical anthropology that will always obstruct an understanding of caste.
His insistence that day that I must look at a different corpus if I am to make any sense of the structures of caste has stayed with me till today. This is a methodological point he elaborates on in our conversation.
We first agree to meet at his home but that does not seem possible because his family has other plans for the eve of Diwali, and he offers to come over to mine so that we can chat without interruption.
His date of birth according to school records, Ilaiah tells me, is October 5, 1952 — he is the fifth of seven siblings. In July 1960, his mother sent him and his brother (older by two years) to the newly established single-teacher school in his village, Papaiahpet, the first two children to be admitted in his village. When they had passed Class V, his mother took them to the landlord in Guduru and begged him to admit them to school. After passing Class VIII there, they moved to the taluka headquarters, Narsampet.
When his mother died in 1967, his brother discontinued his education, was married to a 12-year-old girl, and took charge of the home, while Ilaiah continued with college and studied political science in Osmania University. In the early 1980s, his brother developed a serious heart problem, so Ilaiah moved the brother’s family to his home in Hyderabad. They have been together since.
His first memories of college in Warangal are of Haragopal, a young and dynamic teacher of public administration, with admirable communication skills, who told him at the end of an English debate where he “closed his eyes and spoke,” that his ideas were good but he needed to work on his English. This was the beginning of a long and trying journey to conquer English. He recalls reading The Communist Manifesto, not just for its content, but paying close attention to the English, the flow, and the expression.
Not having ever had a convent education, he listened to English news on radio every night, and practised reading and pronunciation in front of a mirror. He also speaks with admiration about seeing Kaki Madhava Rao, then Collector of Warangal — a Dalit officer whose doors were always open to those who had suffered any manner of injustice or deprivation — and of going to Musheerabad Jail in the middle of the night when Kista Gowd and Bhoomiah were to be hanged during Emergency, and of his long association with civil liberties advocate K.G. Kannabiran.
Bilingual is best
It is from his own struggles with breaking into mainstream academia that he has pursued the idea of English education in the villages with missionary zeal — facilitating the setting up of 107 English-medium schools from 2002, mostly for OBC, Dalit and Adivasi students. He beams with pride over the fact that children from rural Warangal are able to speak fluent English by the time they reach Class VI, easily substituting rote learning of the alphabet with active association with animals, plants and artefacts in their immediate surroundings. “How do these children change if English doesn’t go to rural areas,” he asks.
What is remarkable about the way the children learn the English alphabet is the fact that experience forms the basis of learning. Ant, not apple. Buffalo, not bat. This resonates with Ilaiah’s early thesis that one can only understand caste if experience provides the framework for debate — an argument he proposed in 1990 in an essay published in Economic and Political Weekly.
Far from arguing for English as a substitute for Telugu, Ilaiah argues forcefully for a robust bilingualism which, in his view, can only be achieved if an English-medium education complements socialisation in the mother tongue.
His own academic and political tracts have been in both English and Telugu. His tryst with English writing started with contributions to Mainstream and Frontier after the Emergency in 1977.
Early on, he, along with a few friends, started a progressive Telugu journal, Nalupu. By this time, he was active in the Organisation for Protection of Democratic Rights, and had been closely associated with the CPI (ML-Nagi Reddy) and had not yet begun to study Ambedkar seriously.
He was part of the Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee where he raised discomfiting questions about caste in organisational leadership. His involvement with civil liberties and left groups opened up a new world of suffering — journeys to Kashmir, the Northeast, Parvathipuram, setting up drought relief centres in Andhra Pradesh and addressing hunger on the ground.
However, it was the Karamchedu massacre in 1985 that was the tipping point in his articulation of caste in politics of all hues.
This was also the time when Ilaiah began to engage with Ambedkar’s writings and chose to work on Buddha’s political thought for his PhD.
Ilaiah believes experience forms the basis of all learning. Thus, Ant, not apple. Buffalo, not bat
Through these engagements, Ilaiah returned to his explorations of the experiential basis of understanding structures of thought, feeling and sociality. With no context of rigorous academic research, and a very ordinary education, constant comparisons between textual narratives and a structural approach to the village built on personal knowledge, opened out the field to an ethnography of a different kind.
Textbook of life
Childhood, marriage, markets, goddesses, ritual, worship, food, work, and the clear dichotomy between productive lives and lives outside production — the lived village was the best textbook. His celebrated work, Why I Am Not a Hindu, grew out of this ethnographic project. His later work, Post-Hindu India, takes this further through an exposition of the political economy of caste.
Importantly, Ilaiah does not see a dichotomy or separation between productive and reproductive labour — he draws intricate connections between the arguments on sexual division of labour by feminist philosopher Maria Mies and his mother’s understanding of productive and reproductive labour, or even the Dalit-Bahujan worship of goddesses like Pochamma bestowed with healing and regenerative powers.
‘The personal is the political’ is a slogan of the feminist movement. Ilaiah looks at this alongside ‘experience as a framework,’ in order to grasp the full contours of the Dalit-Bahujan experience of caste. For, in the Dalitwada, ‘labour is tomorrow’s survival’, and has been for centuries.
Lives are only lived in labour, not in leisure, and there is no notion of property. But there is an immense wealth of knowledge, wisdom, and ethics. The barber’s knife is an illustration — ‘a tool that cleanses, not a weapon that kills’. How does this compare with lives lived in leisure and accumulation of material wealth? This is the question in the eye of the storm today.
Having effectively subverted meritocratic arguments in mainstream academia, and having immersed himself in progressive politics, Ilaiah, now retired from Maulana Azad National Urdu University, has begun to chart a new course with the Telangana Mass and Social Organisations Forum, a broad-based political forum that will bring OBCs, Dalits and Adivasis together to fight for social justice and cultural transformation.
The author is a feminist sociologist and Professor & Director, Council for Social Development, Hyderabad.