In mid September, members of the Arya Vysya community in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh began holding protests against the work of the academic and writer Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd. The community, which is also referred to as Kommatis, and is understood to be an upper-caste Vaishya group, had taken grave offence to the contents of a short Telugu-language book, Samajika Smugglerlu: Kommatullu, or “Social Smugglers: Kommatis.” The Telugu book is an adapted extract from Shepherd’s book Post-Hindu India, which was published in 2009. Samijika Smugglerlu argues that the Baniya community—often referred to as Vaishya, the term from which the Arya Vysyas derive their name—has maintained a monopoly over business in India, and excluded Shudra, Dalit and Bahujan groups from the benefits of capital growth in the country.
In the introduction to Post-Hindu India, Shepherd writes that the book covers “Dalit-Bahujan cultural, scientific and economic knowledge systems, analyses their overall relationships with each other and also with the Hindu religion as a spiritual system.” In addition to the chapter on the Vaishya community, the book contains individual chapters on various communities residing in India, and, based on their traditional occupations and knowledge system, analyses the development of the Indian economic system. It theorises that the Hindu religion’s failure to reckon with the evils of caste oppression will lead to its demise. (An extract can be read here.)
The protests against Shepherd’s writings were vigourous—in one instance, nearly 200 demonstrators from the Arya Vysya community reportedly ambushed the professor’s car while he was on his way to Hyderabad from Telangana, and threw stones and chappals at it. Others burnt effigies of him; distributed his pictures to be used as doormats; and called for a ban on his book. Shepherd subsequently lodged a complaint with the Osmania University police station in Hyderabad, alleging that he had received threatening calls from members of Arya Vysya organisations.
On 18 September, TG Venkatesh, a member of parliament from the Telegu Desam Party, held a press conference. Venkatesh, an Arya Vysya himself, said that Shepherd was a “traitor” who deserved to be “hanged.” In an interview to the news channel TV9, Venkatesh added that “people who comment like Ilaiah should be hanged by making changes to law.”
Following Venkatesh’s statements, Shepherd imposed a house arrest on himself, stating that he felt that his life was under threat. Over the phone, he characterised Venkatesh’s statement as a “fatwa” that forced him to confine himself to his home, and said that he couldn’t bear such “intellectual threat.” Comments such as those made by Venkatesh forced him to “reconsider his life choices,” Shepherd told me.
In early October, I interviewed Shepherd over phone and email about the ongoing controversy and the work that became its epicentre. During our conversation, excerpts from which are presented below, we discussed his critique of the Vaishya community, and why he believes that its monopoly over capital persists. He also discussed the status of the economy, and how economic progress could account for caste inequalities.
Shepherd said that due to the circumstances he found himself in, he had decided to resign from his position at the Maulana Azad Urdu University at Hyderabad. “I felt I should be with people,” he said, adding that he would like to organize a campaign to bring English education to poor and oppressed communities such as Dalits. He told me that he would like to appeal to the protestors to not resort to threats of violence. “The path they had chosen is very violent,” he said. “It destroys the ethos of India.” He added that he would like to encourage intellectuals from the Arya Vysya community to debate the ideas presented in his book, or to adopt judicial means to obtain a ban on it. “But, why criticise a writer? That’s not the way to have intellectual debate,” he said.
Sagar: In Post-Hindu India, you write that Baniyas are “social smugglers.” Why is that?
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd: Social smuggling is a concept I coined in Post-Hindu India to capture the caste cultural and economic exploitation of the Bania market, from villages to towns, to big cities, to monopoly capitalists. Every villager in my generation and also in the past has experienced the deceptivity of Baniya sahukars [moneylenders]—both while buying and selling through deceptive mechanisms of dandekottuta [a Telegu term referring to the practice of deceiving buyers and sellers by using faulty weighing machines], by using unfair measures, and techniques that subtly manipulate caste-cultural distances between the Baniya buyer and the village seller. Quite tragically, it worked out in a harmful way for Dalits. Every dealing with Dalits was done from a distance. This led to double exploitation and the drawing of Baniya caste boundaries around wealth, without allowing [others] any access to it. Even now, this kind of accumulated wealth is a source of the modern capital, which is being used by only two communities—the Baniyas and Brahmins.
It is well known that smuggling means taking away wealth from out of the borders of the country illegally. But social smuggling is done within country, within the legal framework of the caste dharma. In ancient medieval times, caste was brazenly used to deny access to such wealth. Now “merit” mantra is being used to deny any access to such wealth, either through jobs or by not allowing any business avenues to Shudras, OBCs and Dalits. If anybody from lower castes starts any business enterprise, both monopoly business companies and bureaucratic state would fail them. The new methods of deceptive controls have not come to an end. A massive movement for the private-sector reservation alone would open up its treasures.
S: You suggest in the book that the trade and business enterprises were born in India as part of a social contract between Baniyas and Brahmans to benefit each other. Could you explain this?
KIS: From the Gupta period—approximately from 320 to 550 BCE—onwards, the Baniyas shifted completely from diversified activities like cattle herding and agriculture to business. They seem to have taken only business as their activity from the village level and upwards, properly settling down in the varnadharma order. Obviously, this has continued all along—hence in contemporary India, they are mainly in business. In my own life time, I could see that in just the Telegu-speaking regions—from villages, town market yards, wholesale and retail kirana shops, to district headquarter wholesale, to gold and other businesses—are under their control. Mahatma Gandhi in his autobiography says, “The Gandhis belong to the Bania caste and seem to have been originally grocers. But for three generations, from my grandfather, they have been Prime Ministers in several Kathiawad States.”
Today, in high-end business and industrial capital, their share is 46 per cent. As per “Corporate Boards in India: Blocked by Caste?,” a study by D Ajit, Han Doker and Ravi Saxena published in August 2012 in the Economic and Political Weekly, Banias comprise 46 percent [of corporate boards], Brahmins 44.6 percent, Kshatriyas 0.5 percent, OBCs—that includes all Shudras—3.8 percent, SC/ST [Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe] 3.5 percent, and others 1.5 percent. This shows an absolute control of these two castes [Brahmins and Baniyas] on industrial and financial power.
It is a known fact the Brahmins have been in the control of the Hindu spiritual system. Even now the Agama Shastra authority of priesthood [according to which the appointment of priests is governed by ancient treatises, or agamas] is sanctioned to them even by the Supreme Court of India by a 2016 judgment by the justices Ranjan Gogoi and NV Ramanan, but to no other Hindu caste.
Historically, the political and bureaucratic power of Brahmins is well known. The top industrial power-houses, like the Ambanis, Adanis, Laxmi Mittals and so on, come from the Baniya community. We must also remember Amit Shah and Narendra Modi (who are members of OBC communities) come from this caste-cultural background. Thus, its present power and its roots of evolution go back several centuries. The Shudra upper-castes like Jats, Marathas, Kammas and Patels are still a marginal force in the national economy.
S: In your book, you refer to guptadhana economics, by which you say that Baniyas have hoarded wealth. Could you explain this concept? How did it exclude Dalit-Bahujans from the economy and ban the flow of money into social capital, as you suggest?
KIS: Guptadhana was wealth buried underground by the Baniya business forces in ancient and medieval times. Such underground wealth was unearthed in many towns and also rural areas. This was in the form of gold, coins, and so on. The second form [of guptadhana] was shifting such wealth into temples, which is still available in sites such as the Padmanabha temple. The implication of this was that it blocked investment into agrarian development and also formation of mercantile capital and later, indigenous capital. This is the biggest loss. If such gupthadhana was in the circulation, the position of the Shudras and Dalits would have improved from medieval days onwards. Over time, no new economic avenues were created for any community because of that guptadhana. Even now they are not allowed to have share in the monopoly—Baniya-controlled capital—in the name of merit. The whole of the private-sector economy is a modern gupthadhana for the Adivasi, Dalit, OBC and the poor Shudra masses.
S: Why do you think Dalits, Shudras and OBCs never challenged the Brahmins and Baniyas?
KIS: The tragedy is that Shudra upper-castes—like Patels, Jats, Gurjars, Marathas, and Kammas—have somehow accepted the spiritual sovereignty of Brahmins. And they have not asked for a place in the ritual, school or temple system. But, the other factor is that from the time of Raja Ram Mohan Roy to now, Brahmins were educated in English. After their control on political and administrative system, they got English education through Christian schools. Baniyas, too, received good English education at higher level. But Shudras did not get educated until recently—some of them are peasantry, or labourers, and some were landlords. Landlords did not start becoming educated until recently—even now, very few receive an English education. Dalits, because of other factors like religion—Christianity, Buddhism, Ambedkar— are better English speakers.
The Shudras did not become philosophers themselves—that is a historical disability, a disadvantage, that you don’t find philosophers among them. Writing philosophy was left to Brahmins mainly. To them [Brahmins], the first challenge came from Ambedkar, from below. Now some of us are doing it.
S: Could you deconstruct the current political system in terms of caste hierarchy and nexus of power?
KIS: It is very clear after the BJP came to power that their financial backbone is Baniya capital: Adani, Ambani, Laxmi Mittal, Bajaj, et cetera. Amit Shah and Narendra Modi come from that background—Modi come from an OBC Baniya community. In Bihar and Gujarat, they registered as OBCs, but they were never strong supporters of reservation system. You can see Narendra Modi’s life—he was never a vocal supporter of reservation system. [After their election,] the whole economy became privatised in a big way. But [Modi] doesn’t say anything on reservation in private sector, and how it has a nationalist role to provide jobs. There are no jobs in the government sector; Modi knows that. Amit Shah knows that job creation is much [more] difficult than what it was during UPA times. But at least the UPA initiated a discussion about private-sector reservation. Amit Shah says that [the BJP’s opponents and critics] are using caste as a ploy. But the president is Dalit, the prime minister is OBC, the vice president is Shudra, and Amit Shah repeatedly talks about caste and background.
S: Isn’t this symbolism, and not a serious effort to include Dalits and Shudras in the administration of the country?
KIS: True. In constructing a nationalist agenda, they could actually corner many Dalits and OBCs. What I’m saying is, I’m not interested in other things like Pakistan—I’m not addressing the issue in terms of Hindutva and Hinduism. I’ll address it in terms of caste. Why is the 46 percent of capital in Baniya hands? Why are grand markets under them? Why is the jewelry market under them? And why has political power also come to them?
Why are they taking up cow protection in a huge way, which is [actually] a farmer’s agenda? Cow-grazers are farmers, or lower-castes. But non-grazers are giving theories to the government, and bringing out laws.
S: Do you think the gau rakshaks are destroying the livelihoods of Dalits or Muslims?
KIS: To me, this is an anti-national agenda. How can they not allow farmers to sell or graze their animal? I don’t find a single Shudra’s written work that thinks of the cow as an animal of worship. Who has given this theory? A Brahmin thinker, who is not a cow grazer. Nor is a Baniya thinker, nor a Jain thinker. How can theory come from those who never taken care of the cattle?
S: What can be done to change the holdings of Baniyas on Indian businesses?
KIS: To start with, some reservation in private sector—at least to the kith and kin of foot soldiers on the borders, police constables who died during civil strife. A Farmers Fund [should be started] to save them from. The industry also has nationalist responsibility. This is only the entry point on the ground of nationalist ethic. The monopoly capital and its allied political forces are claiming an unethical, immoral nationalism, without having any share in the labour and production of wealth or the protection of the nation. This false nationalism has to be turned on its head. Post-Hindu India is meant for that.
There is no Brahmin regiment in Indian history; there is no Baniya regiment to protect the nation. We have a Mahar regiment, Jat regiment, Gurkha regiment—regiments of lower caste. Whether it’s Congress or BJP, they [should] address this question of foot soldiers who come from lower caste. Look at the constabulary—[a majority] come from the lower caste. The ordinary soldier’s salary doesn’t cross more than Rs 25,000, so why should their family not get jobs in private sectors? If they have merit to defend India from China, don’t they have merit to sit in a private company and work?
But is the prime minister talking about jobs in the private sector? No. He thinks that if he opened up that issue, the private sector might go against him. I’m only asking five percent seats for families of soldiers, Dalits and Adivasis in private sector. You can recruit people with good, reasonable [command over] English, but they are not willing.
S: Could you discuss how the economy is currently performing?
KIS: Demonetisation shifted the wealth to private sector through banking, the purchasing power has come down suddenly, and the market is weakening day by day. Who benefited from demonitisation? The big Baniya businesses at work got the highest return—industries like technology and real estate have suffered, but certainly not the Adanis and the Ambanis. [Demonetisation] is a huge privatisation. It shifted the money of Shudras, Dalits and Adivasis into Baniya businesses. They deposited all their notes in the banks, and the big industry got all the loans.
S: The BJP has won elections in many states after 2014. Does that not show they have people’s support?
KIS: If not for OBCs, they wouldn’t have won. But I’ve not seen their political party or other [affiliated] organisations helping Dalits when there are atrocities. I’ve not seen them in Karamchedu, Chunduru [where several Dalits were killed by upper-caste villagers] All these are very rich agencies. But have they organised a tribal protest under their leadership, or [one for] equal rights, or protection against exploitation? They didn’t organise any Dalit protests anywhere. How they are helping Dalits, I don’t know.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Sagar is a web reporter at The Caravan.