Kancha Ilaiah is not an easy scholar to digest, with his brutal polemic against the Brahminical dominance of the Indian caste order. His latest assault, appropriately titled Untouchable God, is a progression of the unique line of argument he has forwarded since he burst onto the Indian sociological scene with his seminal work Why I am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy.
In the struggle for a de-casteised society, Ilaiah’s has been a radically exclusive position, unimagined even in Dr B. R. Ambedkar’s phenomenal scholarly and political interventions which encompassed ‘annihilation’ of caste as a route towards the Utopia of a casteless and egalitarian India. Ilaiah turned the narrative of systemic exclusion and subjugation of Dalits based on debasement of labour literally on its head and conceptualised labour as an asset and a medium of creativity. As opposed to the works of scholars such as M. N. Srinivas who suggested Brahminical and dominant world views as worthy prototypes for social mobility, Ilaiah proposed the Dalitbahujan society as an exemplary model.
In his essay Dalitisation and Hinduisation (1996), beautifully analysed in comparison with Ambedkar’s Castes in India (1917) and Srinivas’s Sanskritisation (1952) by Kalpana Kannabiran in Sociology of Caste and the Crooked Mirror: Recovering B. R. Ambedkar’s Legacy (Economic and Political Weekly, January 24, 2009), Ilaiah suggests ‘Dalitisation’ as a process that can establish a more just social order.
He presents Dalit society as a model worthy of imitation as, in sharp contrast to the Brahminical order, the Bahujan samaj establishes more egalitarian relations between men and women; where ideas of creativity and knowledge systems are closely tied to productive processes and artisanry and also draw from agriculture and animal husbandry. As opposed to Brahminical society, which enforces a disjuncture between mental and physical labour (mental and intellectual labour being the exclusive domain of the Brahmin while physical labour is debased and consigned to the Shudra), the two constantly reinforce and enrich each other in Ilaiah’s conceptualisation of the Dalit society as a model.
Untouchable God attempts to take this argument further by launching a scorching attack on the venerated historical figures of the freedom struggle, the radical left movement and the reforms being intermittently attempted by Islamic and Christian proselytizers. The idea, as far as one can make out, is to debunk the comfortable notion that the reformists engaged in the freedom struggle or in communist assertions had managed to “de-class” themselves, or were also working towards a casteless society. To some extent, Ilaiah does manage to unmask the unparalleled hypocrisy in the Bhadralok communists’ personal and political lives as he exposes the dangerous dash of religious revivalism that Bal Gangadhar Tilak successfully introduced in the struggle against the British.
And as befits Ilaiah’s polemical streak, the critique invariably takes the form of pamphleteering. To perhaps avoid unnecessary liable actions or confront the hordes of zealots from Maharashtra, Ilaiah’s Tilak is fictional. He calls him Dharmalankar Chanakya Tilak aka D. C. Tilak and assassinates his character with undisguised contempt. There are no redeeming features in Ilaiah’s Tilak. He is a Brahminical fanatic, more in the mould of the RSS ideologue Madhav Sadashiv Golvalkar than the radical right-wing corner the real-life Tilak occupied in the Indian National Congress, along with Bipinchandra Pal and Lala Lajpat Rai. In fact, Ilaiah more or less credits the fictional Tilak for the formation of the fictional RSS which he refers to as Bharatkhanda Protection Sangh (BPS).
The trouble is that Ilaiah is tailoring history to support his thesis. But one cannot argue with him because a factual argument is being made in the form of fiction. Ilaiah’s Tilak is a Muslim-basher who created the fictional RSS. Now, if one argues that unlike the RSS, which has had practically no contribution in the freedom struggle because it considered the three ‘internal enemies – Muslims, Christians and Communists’ as a greater threat than the British, the real-life Tilak was undoubtedly the pioneer of the anti-colonial ‘Swaraj’ movement.
As A. G. Noorani has forcefully contended in Savarkar and Hindutva: The Godse Connection, the RSS and its political progeny, the BJP have unconvincingly tried to foist the label of freedom fighter on their ideologue V. D. Savarkar. Terming the RSS’s attempts to foist its ideological ancestors on the freedom movement as “brazen falsehood”, Noorani proves that Savarkar never dared use arms himself in the killing of Curzon Wylue and collector A.M.T. Jackson, and once convicted, prostrated before the British in an “abject and demeaning” way.
This is a far cry from Bal Gangadhar Tilak whose preoccupations presumably did not include ranting against Muslims. In 1908 when Khudiram Bose was hanged for erroneously killing two women whom he mistook for travelling in the carriage of Chief Presidency Magistrate Douglas Kingsford of Calcutta, Tilak strongly defended the revolutionary and was arrested for sedition. On being asked whether he had anything to say, Tilak memorably said: “All that I wish to say is that, in spite of the verdict of the jury, I still maintain that I am innocent. There are higher powers that rule the destinies of men and nations; and I think, it may be the will of Providence that the cause I represent may be benefited more by my suffering than by my pen and tongue.” He was sentenced to six years in prison.
Contrast this with what Ilaiah quotes the fictional Tilak as saying as he collaborates in the formation of the fictional RSS: “Silence! All of You! Do not bother with Christianity and the British now. If we are successful, the Indian Christians will be at our feet forever. Our first priority must be to break their alliance with the Muslims because those people do the Christians’ bidding. They are their arms and legs. We must hack off those limbs before they take the axe to us first…”
In the same vein, he mocks the revolutionaries from Bengal; the Bhadralok, Presidency College crowd, a generation that was wiped out as the State extinguished the Naxalbari uprising and its aftermath in a bloodied swoop. Ilaiah caricaturises these young men and women, trapped as he believes they were in their Brahminical existence even as he idolises ‘Pariah’, whose life is the redemption point as the book climaxes.
Ilaiah does well to rubbish some popular myths and expertly brings to fore issues related to caste that a century of freedom struggle, post-Independence reforms, social movements and even the communists have failed to address. But if the idea was to popularise his model of the Dalitbahujan samaj and caricature the Brahmins, this is a spectacularly disappointing effort. Much more is expected of him than this amateurish fictionalising of popular figures.