Mainstream, VOL LV No 42 New Delhi October 7, 2017
Why are we Silent on the Grave Threat to Prof Kancha Illaiah Shepherd?
Monday 9 October 2017, by#socialtags
While it is nobody’s suggestion that India was a tolerant land some three years back and has suddenly developed intolerance, none can deny the fact that the goons threatening intellectuals and activists have certainly become more arrogant and encouraged by the absolute ‘disinterest’ shown by those in power. In the past few years we have lost a number of persons for the cause of human rights and secularism and probes have reached nowhere even though links with organisations associated with the Hindutva groups have been reported in the media. Activists are being threatened, intimidated and street goons have taken it upon themselves to provide ‘justice’. Where the person is a bit powerful, cases are filed against him in the court while goons are let loose to physically intimidate him.
Kancha Illaiah Shepherd is a well-known Bahujan philosopher who has been actively critiquing the Brahmanical social order and its injustices meted out to the Dalits, OBCs and Adivasis. Should he not be allowed to do this under the garb that it ‘hurts’ the community’s sentiments? It is not the question of any outsider writing a critique but a person from the community historically denied the right to do so. The only difference this time is that his new book that has come out is about the Vaishya community which is basically a trading community. Normally the Brahmins are the target but this time the Vaishyas (Banias) have taken it upon themselves and have been protesting against him for his writing against them. The main contention of the community is that they have been called ‘social smugglers’ by Kancha Illaih Shepherd in his book. One of the Members of Parliament from the Telugu Desham Party, T.G. Venkatesh, has reportedly threatened to kill him and asked for his hanging. On September 25 his vehicle was attacked and a prompt action by his driver could save his life. So shocked Prof Kancha Illaiah Shepherd was that he felt deeply isolated and decided to confine himself to his home for the next one week. It is sad that an intellectual at this stage is facing so much of threat of physical violence and there is no assurances from the authorities for his safety.
Now the issue is being deliberately politicised to createa a Hindutva frenzy in the State so that corrupt politicians can reap the benefit of the emotional blackmailing of people. This is the new India where brahmanical Hinduism will come through violent means. No criticism would be allowed or countered through a fair critique. It is not that Kancha Illaiah Shepherd wrote this for the first time. His thought-provoking books are there in the open and should be welcomed. One can disagree with him and for that we have enormous avenues to not merely protest peacefully but also write counter-arguments to denounce him but that is not happening.
With so much of media and publishing world in hand, these power elites are still fearful of a few who critique them. We are informed that Gandhi was a Bania. None denies that. We are not here asking anyone to be unhappy where they are born. None comes here with a fixed birth record except in the brahmanical system where your caste and occupation are fixed with your birth. That is what we call caste-based varnashram dharma and it must be rejected. We cannot hide the fact that the caste system and caste discrimination are the biggest obstacles in the development of this country. In fact the caste system remains our biggest hurdle to national unity and integration. The caste system creates prejudices in the minds of the people and limits your mobility beyond your own caste. Once you confine yourself within your caste, everything outside it looks suspect and dangerous. Can we have a united India with so many thousands of caste and each considering it superior to the other?
Critiquing India’s notorious caste system is nothing wrong but will ultimately help India get stronger and united. Even then if he has said anything academically or factually wrong, then there are options before the people to go the court or even write rejoinders by engaging in a democratic debate. A huge number of upper castes dominate our media, academia, intelligentsia and they can write a counter-critique of Kancha Illaiah Shepherd but the abominable street protests that we are witnessing in Andhra and Telangana are merely for the political purpose and need to be unconditionally condemned.
The videos of protest using innocent children to urinate in public on the photograph of Kancha Illaiah Shepherd are a reflection of nothing but a sick mindset of the people who are using children to reap the rich harvest of hatred during the elections. This is deeply despicable and condemnable. Why should children be used in a debate which is an academic debate? And even if they are used, is it the best way to use their ‘creativity’? Is this not an imposition of male supremacy as we find no girls or women in the protest? Kancha Illaiah Shepherd has not killed anyone, nor is he spreading hatred against particular communities or people, he has not threatened anyone but used the only way to speak up through his writings against what he and many like him consider historic wrongs. Isn’t it his right to question and speak up against the social injustices that prevailed for centuries in our society?
Isn’t it for Indians to ponder as to why one community is in business or knoweldge while another is purely for cleaning human excreta? Is this not a reservation which has existed in this filthy society where a few protested but those who enjoyed such inequity kept quiet? When this hegemony is challenged, then the question of merit is raised as if all those in the Dalal Street in Mumbai are the most meritorious people! The caste system is nothing but hidden apartheid and you cannot hide from the fact that it needs to go and should be demolished, as Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar as well as many others like him had wanted.
What is more disturbing is that the failure of the two Sate governments of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana to provide him protection and action against those threatening him. The way political protests have been launched against him is a clear indication of the local politicians who are being encouraged by their respective parties to intimidate a scholar through street goondaism. The two Chief Ministers of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are the same ones who refused to speak up against the institutional murder of RohithVemula. Even when the entire country stood up for Rohith’s cause, the two upper-caste governments were actually determined to treat him as a ‘non-Dalit’, a deliberate ploy to divide people on caste lines and deviate from the real issue of the prevailing caste prejudices in their system. A Member of Parliament of the Telugu Desham Party has openly threatened to kill him but there is no action from the Chief Minister, Chandrababu Naidu. The goons are openly attacking him and monitoring his physical movements but the two Chief Ministers remain shamelessly silent on the issue.
Another appalling thing is the conspicuous silence of intellectuals and political parties as Kancha has himself said. This is a very disturbing fact. We know he has been a critique of the brahmanical system in our political parties and the intelligentsia including the Left and this is not for the first time that any intellectual spoke about the Left and other political organisations. It was a critique of Dr Ambedkar, Phule, Periyar and many others who follow their path yet over the years. There are people who acknowledge their faults and happily engage in a fruitful discussion on the issue which is a welcome sign.
This is the period of a great crisis among us. Those who are targeting Kancha Illaiah Shepherd, know it well that there are wide differences among the non-Hindutva groups of people. This is not merely the problem of the Left forces but also of the Ambedkarites and Bahujan forces. It is not the time to get into digging history and then taking a stand. In my opinion, every Ambedkarite or a true intellectual of any variety—Left or socialist or freethinker— will always defend an individual’s right to freedom of expression and engage in democratic debates. Moreover, it is not a street brawl that he has engaged in but a purely academic work which can and should only be countered through an academic exercise or democratic protests. The pain is that we have not heard intellectuals, academics taking any stand on it particularly outside Andhra and Telangana except for some individual responses on the social media. It is good that the Congress party has issued a very strong statement in the media as their spokesperson, Randeep Singh Surjewallah, demanded action against the threa-tening Member of Parliament and protection to Kancha Illaiah Shepherd. This is certainly a positive sign and we appreciate it.
India is fast becoming a mob republic where the power elite has developed various ways to not only intimidate you but put you in deep distress to the extent of causing physical injury or even elimination. The mobs are being encouraged to take law in their hands and they have the fullest backing through the PR agents who can easily convert a wrong into right and vice versa but then these should be the finest hours for all of us who are fighting against the subjugation and discrimination as it is the right time to project the truth manifest in our stand and attitude. We need to develop the culture of debate and discussion as that is the only way to save us as a society and a nation. Once people start taking law in their hand and deciding to judge everyone in the street we will have none to blame but only us.
It is better to learn from the experiences of others. People in Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere know well the importance of democracy as in the name of identity and sectoral interests people there have killed each other. India survived as a democracy and fared well because despite all our weaknesses, we promoted ideas through constructive debates. We agreed to disagree. If you don’t like Kancha Illaiah Shepherd or any one like him, don’t read him, switch off your TV or if you are reasonable enough then counter him ideologically and argumentatively through various means. Each one of us has various options including the social media and it should be used to strengthen the debates but don’t fall prey to the political goons who are only using sentiments to spread hatred and promote their political interest. Prof Kancha Illaiah Shepherd must be provided all the security that he needs as well as those threatening to kill him must be prosecuted.
Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a Radical Humanist and a human rights activist based in Delhi.