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Mainstream, VOL LX No 12, New Delhi, March 12, 2022

Kancha Ilaiah’s "Why I’m not a Hindu" complements Ambedkar analysis of Caste | Aravind

Friday 11 March 2022


by Aravind *

The right-wing nationalism that we see today is confined to labelling certain progressive forces as anti-nationals and urban naxals. As Dr Ambedkar said “Caste kills the public spirit” and precludes the emergence of the notion of nation. Any project of nationalism therefore has to be preceded by strongly advocating the agenda of ‘Annihilation of Caste’. The Post-Ambedkarite movement has thrown up a gamut of ways to achieve this by treading more or less the same path. But one significant text, that was published towards the end of 20th century, had passed tremors through the fort of Hinduism. ‘Why I’m not a Hindu’ takes forward the legacy of Ambedkar’s ‘Annihilation of Caste’ by upending the whole range of analysis of Caste question.

The resurgence of nationalism post-2014 has to be looked at through the caste location of its advocates. "Production" and "Protection" as major determinants of nationalism have gained prominence with Ilaiah’s works. The struggle with land, in production and struggle for securing land in border protection are the foremost qualifiers of nationalism. How can you claim to be a nationalist without participating in the food production and border protection of the nation? The dwija nationalism that we see today is representative of such hypocrisy. Even historically, they were not involved in production activities but were busy ’synthesizing the philosophy of war and violence’ with their mythological stories. Ambedkar did not engage with this question of ’production’ and the egalitarian socio-political philosophy of Dalit-Bahujans that was centered around their "production values". In other words, he challenged the book civilization of Vedic period without taking cues from the Harappan spade civilization [1].

Dr Ambedkar concerned himself mostly with the theoretical analysis of Caste. This was certainly a reflection of his intellectual acumen. But engaging with the Hindu textual literature which was divorced from social reality of Dalit-Bahujans had a limited potential in terms of formulating a positive counter philosophy. He talked about how ’Caste’ prevented the growth of Hindu religion and how it had oppressed certain sections for thousands of years. He also discussed how the system of Chaturvarna is inimical to the economic growth of the country and therefore came to a conclusion that mixing of blood through Inter Caste marriages as a way forward to annihilate caste. [But the Indian Human Development Survey [2] reported that 95% of Indians still find partners within their subcastes.]

Ambedkar’s strong observations could have been well supplemented by delving deep into Shudra, Dalit and Adivasi lives, highlighting the stark cultural differences within the Hindu religion. But the social setting of the previous century and his scholarly life seems to have played a role. After a certain level of theoretical examination, field-level analysis becomes imperative. The realm of ‘intellectuality’, on the other hand, had also undergone a tremendous change since then. Lately, theoretical analyses have come to be associated with Savarna intellectuality. Any anti-caste theoretical formulation has to reflect reality rather than recreating it.

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd came up with such an empirical theory, drawing upon the everyday realities of Dalit-Bahujan lives. Dr Ambedkar highlighted how the caste system is core of Hindu religion and the need to dismantle religion to attain an egalitarian casteless society. The Hindu religion has sustained itself by appropriation of Shudra, Dalit and Adivasi cultures, thereby carving out a so-called Hindu-majority. This ‘majoritarian’ argument had to be effectively deconstructed by taking recourse to ‘experience as a framework’ research method of examining the caste cultures. This was well deployed by Ilaiah in "Why I’m not a Hindu" and his bottom-up approach had allowed him to meddle with the foundations of Hinduism.

Kancha Ilaiah in "Why I’m not a Hindu" stressed upon the differences between the foundational values of dwijas and Dalit-Bahujan cultures from birth to death. This was a systematic attempt to delink the oppressed majority from the oppressor minority, who had formulated a religion based on spiritually fascist values. This decoupling would help in eliminating the notion of hierarchy existing between parasitic (Brahmanical) and productive (Dalit-Bahujan) cultures, within the larger religious domain. His analysis revealed that Brahmanical culture is not only different from Dalit-Bahujan culture but are completely opposed to each other. Whilst Ambedkar talked about the need to destroy the belief in sanctity of Shastras, Ilaiah highlighted that the Shastras do not reflect the worldview of Dalit-Bahujans and by virtue of it the Shastras do belong to the Hindu-fold but Dalit-Bahujans do not.

Ambedkar’s discourse on social and political democracy was complemented by Ilaiah’s spiritual democracy. He emphasized on the need for equal spiritual citizenship within a religion. Having an equal Spiritual citizenship here is to have the right to become a priest, irrespective of caste backgrounds. Had there been democracy in the spiritual realm, it would have been translated into social, economic and political democracy. The public sphere in India is a private Brahmanical sphere. The larger civil society is under the grip of the Brahmanical value system. To counter this negative philosophy, Ilaiah came up with positive concept of "Dalitization" as a way forward. This is also to challenge the larger Brahmanization (read Sanskritisation) process at work. As Ilaiah points out, Dalitization requires the whole of Indian society to learn from Dalitwaadas. It emphasizes on the need to extend the collective consciousness (equality, labour) of Dalits to the whole society. In other words, it is to exalt the universal values associated with Dalit lives to a level where everyone starts to Dalitize themselves, instead of Sanskritisation.

There is no universal appeal in Hindu religion. Its spiritual base is constricted to serve dwija interests. ’Inequality’ being the official doctrine of Brahmanism led to the creation of Caste and Untouchability as twin factors to prevent social cohesion. The Hindu Shastras have established a religion based on exclusionary principles. They excluded the productive cultures of Dalit-Bahujans and if at all there was any acknowledgement, it was in the negative. ’Labour’ for dwijas is a polluting work whereas it forms the basis for any civilizational progress. Therefore, Hindu religion is not a positively constructed philosophy.

Another major aspect is the style of writing. The western education influence could be seen in Ambedkar’s writings in terms of his spectacular English and in-depth analysis of varied issues. But Ilaiah’s writings are more natural and are easily comprehensible in what he calls "Shepherd English’’. This factor facilitated even the remote rural students to get a sense of complex caste-theories that he had elaborated upon. His writings act as a bridge to understand Ambedkar works in a better way. His framework of analysis is based on the idea of "Simple is intellectual’’. He tried to alleviate the language problem which plagues Dalit-Bahujan lives due to their regional language education base. The Shudra communities have been in intellectual slumber till "Why I’m not a Hindu’’ gave them a philosophical foundation to assert themselves.

Ambedkar was neglected by savarna media and politicians until the last decade of earlier century when he was posthumously conferred Bharat Ratna in 1990. It took almost 40 years for these so-called nationalists to recognise the true Nationalist in every sense. Ilaiah’s "Why I’m not a Hindu" though has been a constant bestseller is now reaching larger audiences and is being intensely debated. To realize the contribution of this text is going to take at least half a century. The Hindu civil society has to understand that rather than religious gurus who give pravachans in the morning, it is in the light of arguments made by thinkers like Ambedkar and Ilaiah, that the priestly classes have to reform themselves otherwise Brahmanism which is functioning under the garb of Hinduism in its current form will die a natural death.

The theoretical unsustainability of Hindu religion was established by Ambedkar. The pragmatic peculiarity associated with Dalit-Bahujan lives was highlighted by Kancha Ilaiah. A combination of both these approaches have to reorient the Post-Ambedkarite anti-caste movements. But communists are so enamored with their class analysis that any caste-related approach towards Indian society is not worth examining for them.

The tragedy of Indian communists is that they did not produce even a single thinker, of Ambedkar’s stature, who could reorient their ideological apparatus to suit the uniquely stratified Indian societal needs. They still hold the upper-caste privilege of parading as ‘Nationalists’. This privilege was punctured to a large extent by Kancha Ilaiah in his book by redefining the framework of ‘Nationalism’.

* (Author: Aravind is a Postgraduate student in Sociology at Hyderabad Central University.)

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