FORTY years ago, a thin boy with the face of an ascetic asked his mother if he could ever become a priest of a Hindu god. In his forest village of Papaiahpet in Andhra Pradesh's Warangal district, his Dalitbahujan ancestors had been illiterate for generations. But they had always been pious. Local gods and shrines hid everywhere among the trees and spiritual passions ran deep. The boy himself had survived a burning attack of small-pox. He had been placed at the feet of the local Reddy landowner for admission to senior school and been mocked by his teachers for daring to join a high school. In the solitude of his humiliation, he craved the right to pray. And to study. To be close to a god that might shelter him in a compassionate, egalitarian confederacy. But his mother's reply was harsh. "No matter what you do," she told him, "you can never be the priest of their god. You can be a priest of Beerappa or Pochamma, but never of Shiva or Krishna."
Today, Kancha Ilaiah, 48, is associate professor of political science at Osmania University, Hyderabad and author of the highly controversial book, Why I am Not a Hindu (Samya). His second book, God as a Political Philosopher: Buddha's Challenge to Brahminism (forthcoming Samya), is due for publication this month. He's been called 'irrational', 'extreme' and 'hate-filled' but his work has been extracted for an international anthology on culture. Since Ilaiah's an obc and not a Dalit, many Dalits have criticised him for usurping their protest space. Upper-caste Hindu society has accused him of trying to divide people. But his war against Hindu 'spiritual fascism' and its religious texts has only grown more passionate.