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.
"Just as the Brahmins are shouting Hinduise India, we should shout Dalitise India. Shout that we hate Hinduism, we hate Brahmanism. Capture the Hindu temples by expelling the Brahmins from them," he says. "The hated must hate. They must become powerful and organised. I want to create anger."
He doesn't look angry, though. Sitting in his flat in Hyderabad, he looks scholarly and unassuming. His wide sudden smile makes the atmosphere decidedly jolly. His walls are gently decorated—a single tribal painting hangs alongside a photograph of Amartya Sen. As he chats over fiery mutton curry and rice—"cooked just as we do in my village"—his words are not borrowed or easy to categorise. Instead, they seem tormented but careful, conclusions born of perpetual re-examination.
He's had his world turned upside down during the Mandal riots. He's parted ways with the orthodox Left. He's questioned his entire education every time he contrasted what he learnt at school to his own home. Through all this, he has emerged as a people's thinker, for whom thought must spring from labour. For Ilaiah, the best ideas must use the earth as their ballast. "The barber, the woodcutter, the shepherd and the ironsmith practice skills that are ancient and wise. Yet not a single Hindu text reflects their pleasures and their pain. No Hindu god suffers with the poor. Vishnu never suffers. Rama never suffers. Hindu gods are far too victorious."
He believes that unless the Hindu religion itself is reformed, India cannot become modern or progressive. Dalitbahujan gods and goddesses like Poturaju and Pochamma reflect the daily lives of people because they guard crops, protect from disease and watch over livestock. Hindu learning, on the other hand, is divorced from life. All over the world, religions worked for mass education.Only in Hinduism, education works to restrict social mobility.
"Hindu goddesses are sex symbols, Hindu gods are violent. The Dalitbahujan way of life by contrast is progressive and radical, rooted in hard work, in gods who are loving and production-oriented." As a first step, there should be a parliament of all Indians who should sit together and re-work all the Hindu religious texts, he believes.
He's unmarried. And in his careless clothes and ardent, hectic profundity, he's a bit like a Jesuit priest striding down the Osmania University campus as a missionary might have rejoiced in a newly-established school. "The British were the liberators of the Dalits. The entire debate against colonial rule has to be reframed. If I had my way, I would start en masse English-medium schools in all rural areas."
Buddha is his great inspiration. Politics is most muscular when it grows from the perception of one's own part in injustice. Kancha Ilaiah, the son of a shepherd who looked for love from his religion and was dealt only cruelty, now wants his revenge. His books-crowded study and masses of papers are evidence of hours of frantic search, the yearning for a god who is determined to reject him. "Only when gods suffer as we do is there a liberating energy."
A flurry of controversy broke over his head after the publication of Why I am Not a Hindu. Osmania University wrote him a letter asking him to temper his statements. The Andhra unit of the rss attacked him in a pamphlet called Ilaiah Leela. An angry debate continues in the Telegu press. He founded the first Dalitbahujan journal, Nalupu, and dreams of the day when he will sit in a village school teaching Dalit children to share in the excitement of a modern education.
He grew up among a small community of shepherds. Sheep-breeding was his primary task until a village school was opened and he was enrolled by default only because the numbers had to be made up. "At school I learnt about Krishna and Radha. Yet my own world was centred around Pochamma and Poturaju. At school I learnt how kings lived. Yet my world was about pot-making and sheep-rearing. At school I learnt about Brahmins and Kshatriyas. But I was a Kuruma. Why was my knowledge considered inferior to that of the Brahmins?"
At school, his schoolmasters expostulated: "Not another Ilaiah in our school! Why do you people keep coming to here? Why don't you do what you're good at?" After he stood first in the final examinations, his teacher had the grace to apologise. Ilaiah came to Hyderabad, "shivering in my pants at the sight of the university buildings" and went on to take a masters in English literature, later to become a member of the faculty. In God as Philosopher, he tries to show that Buddhism was not simply a religion but a political manifesto against Brahmanism. Buddha was a man, not a god.
He laughs aloud when asked if he has any Brahmin friends and confesses to many. "Upper-caste women particularly are very sympathetic to me. Perhaps because they too have experienced the oppression of the Brahmanical male. In fact, the women's movement in India has a very fundamental link with the dalitbahujan struggle."
On the Husain Sagar lake in Hyderabad, in a speedboat careering past the giant statue of Buddha, he sings along with a Buddhist hymn being played over a loudspeaker. Wordsworth, he smiles, was the son of a woodcutter. Rousseau, the son of a street watch-maker who died in penury.And in Kancha Ilaiah's conceptual universe, you feel the pain of life. In his ideas, you sense the vulnerability of battling unpredictable waters. But in his intellectual adventurousness, you also sense the gaiety of robust combat and the fun in the fight.