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Challenging Brahminical Fascism

By Kancha Ilaiah and Yogi Sikander

05 March, 2004

Kancha Ilaiah teaches politics at the Government Women's College, Koti,
Hyderabad. Active in the Dalit-Bahujan [Scheduled and Backward Caste]
movement, he is a prolific writer in both Telugu and English. His latest
book, Why I Am Not A Hindu, a critique of Hindutva from a Dalit-Bahujan
perspective, turned out to be a best seller. Here he talks to Yoginder
Sikand about how 'Dalitisation' alone can effectively challenge the threat
of Brahminical fascism parading in the garb of Hindutva.

Q: Tell us something about your background. How did you come to be
involved in the Dalit-Bahujan struggle?

A: I was born in a village in a forest area in the Warangal district of
Andhra Pradesh. The entire area had been given by the Nizam of Hyderabad
to Mahbub Reddy, a local landlord, as his fief. My family belongs to the
sheep-grazing Kuruma Golla caste. They had earlier migrated from Warangal
proper to the forest belt. My grandmother had settled the village. After
her death my mother took over the leadership of the caste. I was born
three years after the Police Action in 1948. The communists were then very
active in our area. In the course of the Telengana armed struggle they
killed two people in our village - both were village Patels. Because of
the struggle, Mahbub Reddy began selling his lands off, and our caste
people, who, till then owned no land at all, began buying small plots. So
this was a time when the feudal system had begun disintegrating. Later, at
school I came into contact with Marxists, with Marxist literature, and
became involved in the students' movement.

Q: What or who has been the major influence on your thinking and your

A: The most important influence on my life was the village in which I was
born. As a child in the village I learnt how to breed sheep, till the land
and make ropes, but what was particularly instructive was the interactions
and contradictions between the different castes within the village -
Kurumas, Kapus, Gowdas and Madigas. And it is this personal knowledge of
the dynamics of caste that is central to my thinking and all my writings.

My mother exercised a seminal influence on my thinking, too. She was a
strong woman and the leader of our caste. You see, among the
Dalit-Bahujans, women have an important role within the family and the
caste. They set the moral norms themselves, through interaction with the
productive process and in the process of struggle with nature, unlike
among the Hindus [Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Banias], where women do not
work in the fields, and whose norms are dictated by an external agency -
the Brahminical texts. My mother was in the forefront of the struggle
against the forest guards who would constantly harrass the Kurumas and not
allow them to graze their animals in the forest. In fact, she died in one
of these confrontations, being fatally beaten up by a policeman while
protesting against their brutality. She was then only 46 years old.

I've written a Telugu piece about my mother. It's called The Mother's
Efforts And Her Struggle. There I have tried to show that it is not simply
the big 'political' struggles against the state which alone are important.
Rather, one should look at everyday struggles as well-in this case, a
mother's constant struggle to educate her children, challenging
patriarchy, struggling with nature in the productive process, sustaining
the culture of the caste. Most Marxist texts look only at grand
'political' struggles, party mode of struggles, struggles led by men. In
my writings I have sought to also focus on micro struggles, the stories of
ordinary people, including women.

Q:How would you characterise contemporary Hindutva? What is the
relationship between Hindutva and the Dalit-Bahujans?

A: As Dr.Ambedkar says, Hindutva is nothing but Brahminism. And whether
you call it Hindutva or Arya Dharma or Sanatana Dharma or Hindusim,
Brahminism has no organic link with Dalit-Bahujan life, world-views,
rituals and even politics. To give you just one example, in my childhood
many of us had not even heard of the Hindu gods, and it was only when we
went to school that we learnt about Ram and Vishnu for the very first
time. We had our own goddesses, such as Pochamma and Elamma, and our own caste god, Virappa. They and their festivals played a central role in our
lives, not the Hindu gods. At the festivals of our deities, we would sing
and dance--men, women and all-- and would sacrifice animals and drink
liquor, all of which the Hindus consider 'polluting'.

Our relations with our deities were transactional and they were rooted in
the production process. For instance, our goddess Kattamma Maisa. Her
responsibility is to fill the tanks with water. If she does it well, a
large number of animals are sacrificed to her. If in one year the tanks
dry up, she gets no animals. You see, between her and her Dalit-Bahujan
devotees there is this production relation which is central. Likewise, in
the case of Virappa, the caste deity of the Kuruma shepherds. His task is
to ensure the well-being of the animals. If the flock increases he is
offered many sheep as a sacrifice, but if a disease strikes the flock, he
gets nothing. Our gods, like us, are productive beings. This is not the
case with the Brahminical deities, who have nothing to do with the
productive process, but are frozen in the scriptural texts as an external
agency. So you can see how the Dalit-Bahujan religion and Brahminism are
two distinct and mutually opposed religio-cultural formations.

In fact, many Dalit communities preserve traditions of the Hindu gods
being their enemies. In Andhra, the Madigas enact a drama which sometimes
goes on for five days. This drama revolves around Jambavanta, the Madiga
hero, and Brahma, the representative of the Brahmins. The two meet and
have a long dialogue. The central argument in this dialogue is about the
creation of humankind. Brahma claims superiority for the Brahmins over
everybody else, but Jambavanta says, 'No, you are our enemy'. Brahma then
says that he created the Brahmins from his mouth, the Kshatriyas from his
hands, the Vaishyas from his thighs, the Shudras from his feet to be
slaves for the Brahmins, and of course the Dalits, who fall out of the
caste system, have no place here. This is the Vedic story. But Jambavanta
says that this is nonsense. He says that prakriti [nature] created him and
Shakti [the female power principle], and through his union with Shakti,
the trimurti [Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva] were born. And th...

Q: And then what happens to Brahma?

A: That is most interesting. You see, Jambavanta defeats him by argument,
not by killing him. In the Dalit-Bahujan tradition there is no defeat by
killing your enemy, which is so central to Brahminism, be it the Gita or
the Puranas. This Dalit-Bahujan tradition of overcoming your enemy through
logical persuasion runs right from the Buddha to Ambedkar. The
understanding is that you must establish your philosophical superiority
and defeat the enemy on the moral ground.

Q: What you are perhaps suggesting is that Dalit-Bahujan religion can be
used to effectively counter the politics of Brahminism or Hindutva. But
Brahminism has this knack of co-opting all revolt against it, by absorbing
it within the system.

A: It is true that although Dalit-Bahujan religious formations
historically operated autonomously from Hindu forms, they have never been
centralised or codified. Their local gods and goddesses have not been
projected into universality, nor has their religion been given an
all-India name. This is because these local deities and religious forms
were organically linked to local communities, and were linked to local
productive processes, such as the case of Virappa and Katamma Maisa whom I talked about earlier. But Brahminism has consistently sought to subvert these religious forms by injecting notions of 'purity' and 'pollution',
hierarchy and untouchability even among the Dalit-Bahujans themselves,
while at the same time discounting our religious traditions by condemning
them as 'polluting' or by Brahminising them.

Q: Then would you say that religious conversion to a major codified
religion could be the way out of the dilemma, as Ambedkar thought?

A: Historically, it was in the struggle of the Dalit-Bahujans against the
Hindu order, the Brahminical system which had captured the state and used
it as an instrument to impose the caste ideology, that Dalit-Bahujans
converted in large numbers to Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam and Christianity.
These were social protest movements to gain social rights and
self-respect. The whole Buddhist phenomenon in our early history was a
story of Dalit-Bahujan protest. The Buddha says, 'Just as various
different streams flow into a river and become one, so, too, the different
castes, when they come into the sangha [ the community of the Buddhist
faithful], they join the sea of colourless water'. This stress on social
equality is, of course, in marked contrast with Hinduism, which cannot be
defined in terms of a universal religion with a universal social rights'
concept. It is simply another name for oppression. I have serious problems
with Brahmin writers who say Hinduism is 'a way of life'.

To get back to the point I was making, conversion to Islam and
Christianity was for many Dalit-Bahujans a means for social liberation. In
the medieval period, conversion to Islam afforded some Dalit-Bahujans a
means to enter political structures for the first time. In fact, the whole
Shudra emergence dates back to this period. Akbar instituted what could be
called a 'reservation policy' for Shudras in landlholdings-groups such as
Jats in north India or Reddys in Andhra. You do not see Shudras as major
landowners in the pre-Akbarian period. In the entire period of Hindu rule,
you have the agraharam sort of landholding system, with Hindu kings
donating vast tracts of lands to the Brahmins.

In the colonial period, of course there was massive economic plunder, but
the Christian missionaries did a lot for the Dalit-Bahujans-education,
some amount of economic and social mobility. Many Backward Castes which
did not convert to Islam or, later, Christianity, are suffering today, the
reason being that there is no educated elite among them.

Q: But, then, does conversion have any relevance today?

A: My own feeling is that if the Dalit-Bahujan movement proves unable to
propel the Dalit-Bahujans to state power and to place them in politically
hegemonic spaces, educated Dalit-Bahujans will increasingly look to
religious conversion as a major alternative as a means of mobilisation and

Q: How do you see the demonisation of Muslims and Christians in Hindutva

A: It is obvious that the real threat that Brahminism faces is not from
the Muslims or Christians but from the growing awakening of the
Dalit-Bahujans, who now refuse to accept Brahminical supremacy. And that
is why Dalit-Bahujan wrath is being craftily sought to be displaced from
their real oppressors onto imaginary enemies in the form of Muslims and

Q: There's been much talk about Dalit-Bahujan-Muslim unity. What are your
own views about this?

A: It is important to remember that Dalit-Bahujans and Muslims,
particularly indigenous converts who form the vast majority of the Muslim
population, share much in common in terms of culture. Both belong, in
contrast to the Hindus, to a meat-eating culture, and in a society where
what you eat determines, in a very major way, your social status, this is
crucial. Then, Islam champions social equality, and there is a total
absence of the feeling of untouchability. Take a very simple thing-the
Hindu namaste, folding your hands to greet someone-is a very powerful
symbolic statement. It suggests that I recognise you but you should not
touch me. In contrast, the custom that the Christians introduced of
shaking of hands is a touching relationship, while the Muslims go even
further and physically embrace you. Even today in the villages the Muslims
are the only people who actually physically embrace the Dalit-Bahujans. Of
course, the Brahmins and Banias don't let them do that to them ...

There's a lot else that Dalit-Bahujans share with Muslims. Scores of
Dalit-Bahujans continue to participate in the Muharram rituals and visit
Sufi dargahs. Further, in the productive process the bulk of the Muslims
find themselves in the same position as most Dalit-Bahujans, as peasants,
agricultural labourers, as cobblers, weavers and so on, and in that
capacity they share a common culture.

Q: But can mere cultural similarity or commonality serve as a platform for
a wider political unity between Dalit-Bahujans and Muslims?

A: My point is that we urgently need to explore and expand these spaces of
cultural unity, and only on that basis can political unity come about.
Brahminism or Hindutva or call it what you like, seeks to deny this unity,
and plays up only on the differences. We, on the other hand, must focus on
the elements of unity, and try to expand these sites of unified life into
the political domain. Because of our faulty western Marxist methodological
training, we start from political unity, straight away trying to unite
Dalit-Bahujans and Muslims on the political plane, without an appropriate
cultural back-up. And then when attempts at political unity fail, you give
up. I feel that this is not the way of doing the job. You must start by
exploring existing sites of cultural unity as well as what could be called
productive unity, unity that follows from Muslims and Dalit-Bahujans being
placed in similar or common niches in the broader productive process.
Build up this consciousness.

Q: What role do you see Dalit-Bahujan spiritualities as playing in all of

A: Let me begin by saying that Brahminism is more afraid of the
Dalit-Bahujan thought process than of political challenge. It can
manipulate or even kill off any number of Eklavyas or Shabukas, but it
cannot face the challenge of Ambedkarite thought. They may conspire to
kill me off, but they can't do a thing with my book [Why I Am Not A
Hindu]. And it is in this realm of the cultural that Dalit-Bahujan organic
intellectuals have a lot to do. We need to retrieve and revive our own
histories, traditions, cultures, religions and knowledge systems, all of
which are organically connected, in contrast to the Brahminical, with the
productive economic process, with the dignity of labour.

Q: But here you seem to be assuming that Dalit-Bahujan traditions have
remained static. Is it not the case that they, too, have fallen victim to
the process of Brahminical co-optation?

A: I think the process operates both ways, and there is a major way in
which Hindu structures themselves are getting Dalitised, which has not
been written about. Take, for instance, the Ganapati festival. Earlier the
festival was centred around the Brahmin priest, but now most of those who
participate in the festival are probably Dalit-Bahujans. And no longer is
the festival Brahminical in the classical sense. With the Dalitisation of
the festival has come dancing, drinking and singing and loud filmi music!
To take another example, some Dalit-Bahujans are demanding that prayers be
said in the temples not in Sanskrit but in the languages of the people
themselves and that they, too, should be allowed to become priests.
Whatever one might otherwise say about this, this is a means to challenge
Brahnminism from within its own structures, a process of Dalitisation
whose ultimate culmination can only be the destruction of Brahminism.

Q: Do you see what you call the Dalitisation process operating in other
spheres as well?

A: This is evident everywhere-the fact that a Brahmin doctor is willing to
treat a Dalit patient is a reflection of this process, as is the
willingness of a Brahmin woman to divorce her husband or smoke and drink
in public or a Brahmin widow going in for another marriage. You must
remember that smoking and drinking, divorce and remarriage have never been
problems for Dalit-Bahujan women, in contrast to Brahmin women, so all
this is nothing but Dalitisation in action. M.N.Srinivas and other Brahmin
sociologists wanted to bolster Brahminical hegemony by claiming that India
is getting Sanskritised. But when we asked them what is all this surge in
drinking and smoking and women's emancipation all about, they said it was
Westernisation, when actually it is nothing but Dalitisation. Of course,
they do not want to admit that because that will mean recognising that it
is from the Dalit-Bahujans that others are learning.

My point is very simple. If you go on saying that India is getting
Dalitised, Brahminism will die a natural death, but if you keep harping on
the theme of India getting Hinduised Brahminism will gain added strength.
So many books were written in the wake of the Babri Masjid affair selling
the argument that India is getting Hinduised. But where were all these
historians and sociologists when ten lakh Dalits converted to Buddhism in
1956 along with Dr. Ambedkar? Did they then say that India was getting
Dalitised or Buddhistised? Had they done so we would have had a very
different history today. So, I say, write history from the point of view
of the Dalits, showing how while Sanskrisation and Brahminism are
historically unproductive, a burden on the system and a legitimation for
exploitation, Dalitisation, in contrast, is historically a productive,
creative and constructive process because it is rooted in the dignity of

Q: How would you envisage this project of writing Indian history from the
point of view of Dalit-Bahujans as subjects, as the central actors?

A: To be honest, I am seriously opposed to the writing of what is called
the 'history of sorrow'-simply narrating all the oppression and sufferings
that the Dalit-Bahujans have had to suffer under Brahminism, although
that, too, cannot be ignored. But I feel that the more you cry, the more
the enemy beats you. If you want to defeat the enemy, you cannot remain
contented with merely critiquing him, because even in that case he is the
one who sets the terms of discourse and you are playing the game according
to the rules that he devises, so naturally it is he and not you who wins
in the end. Thus, rather than dwell simply on our historical oppression or
the dangers of Hindu fascism, keep the focus on the process of
Dalitisation, and thereby set the terms of discourse and debate yourself.
For that you have to present a Dalit-Bahujan alternative as a workable and
better solution. If you don't do so, and restrict yourself to simply
criticisng Brahminism by quoting slokas from one Brahmini..

Central to that task would be re-writing Dalit-Bahujan history to show,
for instance, their knowledge systems, their role in the productive
process, their great contributions to the development of technology or in
the realm of spirituality or how their societies afford women a much
higher status than the Brahminic. Sati and dowry have historically been
specifically Hindu problems never ours. So history re-writing will have to
be informed with Dalit pride. You have to show that Dalitisation, and not
Hinduisation, is the answer to our ills, because unlike Brahminism, which
is rooted in texts that do not spring from real-world experience in the
productive process, Dalitisation reflects the interaction of human beings
with nature in the labour process.

Unless you present Dalitisation as a superior alternative, you can't win
the battle. Take the Buddha, for instance. His greatest contribution was
not his critique of Brahminism, important though that was, but his
founding of the egalitarian community of the faithful-the sangha-as a
superior alternative to Brahminical caste society. Or take Marx for that
matter. To my mind, his greatness lies not so much in his critique of
capitalism but in his presenting a superior alternative in the form of a
communist society.

Q: Have you attempted anything of this sort yourself?

A: I think you can see this in most of my writings. To give but one
example, I wrote this piece on the leather-working Madigas titled 'The
Subaltern Scientists' and another piece on the Madiga Dalits called 'The
Productive Soldiers'. Presently, I am working on a book dealing with the
discoveries and inventions of certain Dalit-Bahujan tribes and castes.
There's so much to be done to recover Dalit-Bahujan knowledge systems. I
mean, for instance, you would have to trace industrialisation in India not
to Lancashire but to the Madiga wadas [localities], where the Madigas
first perfected the art of turning raw leather into shoes, or to our
barbers who invented the knife.

Q: One last question. What made you give your book the title Why I Am Not
A Hindu? How was the book received?

A: I thought it was important for Dalit-Bahujans to make a powerful
statement against the Hindutva propaganda that we, too, are Hindus. As for
how the book was received, well, Dalit-Bahujans, of course, were very
excited about it. Predictably, orthodox Brahmins were angry, but so too
were some 'socialist' Brahmins. Actually, that did not surprise me at all,
because they read Marx's Capital just as they read the Vedas-reciting
it-not a critical reading. But I did get quite a few responses from
Brahmins in Tamil Nadu They wrote to say that they had read a lot of
Periyar, but he had only criticised them but never told them where they
had gone wrong. They said that it was after reading Why I Am Not A Hindu
that they discovered what was wrong with their religion and culture and
how they must change if they are to survive.