The threat to writers' well-being and basic right to life and liberty has never been more pronounced. Exactly as journalists gather at the Delhi Press Club to demand press freedom and security for themselves, reports of Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd getting death threats over his anti-caste writings are flooding social and mainstream media.
Though Ilaiah has been talking of receiving threats and being attacked since last month, after a 20-page monograph/essay of his questioning caste was published, the media and the public sphere seem to have woken up only now. Last Saturday, Ilaiah filed a police complaint saying members of Arya Vysya caste had attacked him, after a demonstration near Hyderabad. It must be noted that Ilaiah is the director of the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad.
Ilaiah has said in an interview to journalist Shoaib Danyal of Scroll that he "doesn't feel safe" and has put himself in a self-imposed house arrest as a precautionary measure. His "voluntary house arrest" would however not deter the likes of those who had gunned down Gauri Lankesh at her own doorstep.
The Dalit and subaltern rights activist has a long and illustrious history of anti-caste writing and writing strong political columns responding to the changing fabric of India, especially under Narendra Modi regime. His bestselling book Why I Am Not a Hindu is a scorching indictment of the caste system and the religion's inherent biases and structured exclusions.
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is carrying on the Ambedkarite intellectual tradition of writing anti-Brahminical polemics and helping change the Brahminical hegemony in India, that's seeing a resurgence of Hindutva and along with it, widening of the caste fault lines. As Dalits are being lynched for skinning bovine cadavers in Una or watching Garba festival or sporting stylish moustaches like Chandrashekhar Azad of Bhim Army fame, the writers and intellectuals such as Shepherd are threatened for their searing questions destabilising the entrenched privileges of caste Hindus, particularlytbe Vysyas in case of Ilaiah.
Shepherd has explained "social smuggling" - of which he accuses the Arya Vysyas as "cultural and economic exploitation". He says:
The Dalit and subaltern rights activist has a long and illustrious history of anti-caste writing.
"Smuggling is a process of illegally taking away goods and commodities or wealth out of a nation's borders. Social smuggling, as I define it, draws wealth, grain, goods and commodities from all the productive (agrarian and artisanal) lower castes, into the boundaries of the bania caste. The bania business often involves deceptive mechanisms while buying and selling, which is called dandekottuta in Telugu. The lower the caste, the higher the level of exploitation by the shahukars at the village level. At higher levels, non-banias are either not allowed to enter business, or not allowed to survive in it. Bania social relations with others were/are very negative, without any element of "moral sentiments", as Adam Smith would describe it. This is what leads to massive poverty among the lower castes and massive wealth in the hands of bania business and industry."
He goes on to accuse the government of privatising national assets, thereby perpetuating the social smuggling and exploitation. He adds:
"In ancient and medieval times, it took the shape of guptha dhana. Now, it has led to the massive accumulation of billionaires without any social responsibility. A 2012 study of corporate boards in India shows that vysyas make up 46% and brahmins 44.6%. Shudras, including all OBCs are a mere 3.8%, and SC-STs are 3.5%. The population of banias is so small, how do they control such a large share, right from the village grain market to the top industries? And okay, there is no problem if you have historical control, but what is your moral relationship with the rest of the productive market? There is no responsibility towards farmers and foot soldiers. Forget the sham of corporate social responsibility, there is no sense of social or national obligation. People keep asking the Modi government and state governments for jobs, but when they privatise everything, how can they give jobs? Why can't the private sector give some jobs to lower castes, or create a fund? I have said I am willing to modify the book if these demands are met."
These are extremely valid questions, and Shepherd's unique contribution is mixing class and caste critiques, in order to ask pointed questions on systemic exclusions of Dalits and minorities from catchphrases such as "New India". Yet, instead of the government of the day paying heed to Shepherd's line of reasoning, it's mute while he gets threats to life.
To The Times of India, Shepherd has reiterated his fear that he might be on the hit list after Lankesh. As Shepherd's case illustrates, the climate in India is becoming inimical to scholarship that questions the privileges that the Sangh Parivar would see unchallenged. It's tragic that while Prime Minister Narendra Modi is visiting the Mahatma Gandhi memorial in the national capital, his countrymen are attacking citizens for their writings. Perhaps Gandhi and Ambedkar would have met with the same intellectual hooliganism, regimental intimidation and violence had they been alive.