There has been a concerted attack on Kancha Ilaiah for the last month or so. These are not mere happenstance but well organized by the Arya Vaishya community all across Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh has been toying with the idea of banning his book titled Vaishyas are Social Smugglers. A TDP legislator demanded he be hanged in public. The chief minister of Telangana has maintained stoic silence on the issue. What has been even more disturbing is the eerie silence across board on the threats that Ilaiah has received.
Ilaiah has offered a rare critique that includes the Ambanis, Adanis and even Amit Shah as baniyas who have accumulated wealth. In a sense, Ilaiah is providing a social narrative to an abstract political economy critique of growing inequalities in Capitalism. It is caste that provides the matrix for accumulation, which is generally overlooked in the Left-Liberal critiques of the processes of accumulation. In fact, this critique of Ilaiah gains a renewed significance since not many Left-Liberals are able to stand-up to the pressures of taking on the corporate, as witnessed in the recent crisis in the EPW resulting in the ouster of its editor, known for his investigative journalism against the corporate.
Though there are calls for freedom of speech, by Ilaiah himself and others, we must move a step further from this liberal rant to ask ourselves what is the social basis that is necessary to nurture an ethos of free speech and dialogue and a culture of debate for the `argumentative Indian` to be alive and kicking.
In Europe free speech was an ideal that went along with a social democratic character of the state. The middle classes in Europe had a stake in free speech to preserve institutions in order to institutionalize rule of law and social equality. In India, in contrast, after neoliberal reforms we have been looking for secularism without welfare state, and free speech amidst growing social and economic inequalities. Sociologist Zygmut Bauman notes that till the 1970s the displacement from `primitive accumulation` was slower than the number of jobs created through industrialization and after the 70s it is the other way round. India is witnessing this process of mass displacement and fewer jobs being created leading to a social anomaly of explosion of aspirations and implosion of opportunities. Middle classes and social elites from other so-called lower castes in India expanded with the onset of the neo-liberal order. Pervasive insecurity has become the hallmark of both the traditional caste-Hindu elites, like the Brahmins and Banias that Ilaiah is referring to as much as the late entrants such as the Dalit-Bahujans and also the intermediary castes such as the Jats, Patels, Marathas and others who have recently moved up the social and economic order and facing threats from both neoliberal order and demands for social and economic equality from below. Neoliberalism’s singular ‘success’ has been in destroying the shared ethos that a social democratic welfare regime was putting in place, even if that was under the patronage of the dominant social elites. Social Darwinism got instituted along with political space for mobilizations for social mobility and equality. In such a scenario, we do not have social classes that have deep conviction in free speech and dialogue as a necessary mode of social upliftment and preservation of democratic ethos.
This top-down process gets further entwined with the bottom-up mobilization, especially by the dalit-bahujans, which is struggling to find a space and force its presence within this dominant narrative. Dalit-Bahujans do not have the social gestation necessary to lay a path outside the dominant paradigm. They have, consciously and unconsciously, willingly-unwillingly become part of this ethos of social Darwinism, wanton indifference and self-imposed ghettoisation. The dormant or mezzanine social elites within the subaltern castes are struggling to preserve the mobility gained through a singular focus on representation against the unabated pressure of being displaced by the neoliberal economic order lead by the dominant castes at one end and new demands from smaller social groups, including the dalit-bahujan women, within the dalit-bahujans at the other end. In order to preserve this tenuous mobility and visibility achieved through relentless struggle against the Brahminical order, the dalit-bahujan politics has remained steadfast in protecting this space not only against intrusions from the dominant elites but also other political fellow-travelers, including the Left and liberal discourses. They have been unsparing of alternative voices even from within the dalit-bahujan community. Scholars and public activists such as Gopal Guru and Anand Teltumbde too have been at the receiving end of their ire. Every criticism is equated with the attempts to pull down the mobility and block new and legitimate aspirations. The anxiety to preserve representation and social visibility achieved through reservations has cast a dark cloud on deliberative processes, including institutional arrangements that could be enabling for social empowerment. Universities such as Osmania today have 90 percent of dalit-Bahujans as its students, while it has seen sustained decline in its academic performance. It’s an intriguing coincidence that can be understood both in terms of abdication of responsibility to offer quality education by the caste-Hindu faculty and attacks on institutional arrangements as a target of mobilization by the dalit-bahujan student politics.
To add further bitterness to this overcooked recipe was the rise of right-wing Hindutva politics. While the Left-Liberal politics was largely circumscribed by a language of universal justice, dalit-bahujan politics grounded those norms of justice in a social narrative of caste. Hindutva politics today is in turn grounding the social processes in the imperative of emotions and human psychology. It is directly appealing and mobilizing the emotional-psychological traits, including that of fear, anxiety, anomie, envy, hatred and alienation. There is a concerted effort to mobilize common emotions across castes and classes, directing them against the weaker social groups, primarily against the Muslims and women. Organised lynchings are meant to be symbolic of the permissiveness in the system to target the weak and the demobilized. Given the rampant insecurity and anxiety that have become a way of life, lynchings come through as a symbolic and an emotional relief for a social life lived at the edge. The street violence has become a legitimate mode of political mobilization, whether it is by the Jats or the followers of the Dera chief. The purported violence and street mobilizations by the Arya Vaishays against Kancha Ilaiah is only a continuation of that process, which had gained currency under the current political dispensation.
Let me conclude with an anecdote. After a talk I recently delivered on challenges to dalit politics in Bangalore, a young dalit activitist walked up to me to say `Every Dalit in this country will become a Chanakya and manipulate in such a way till they get what is due to them`. The universalisability of the imagery of Chanakya is symptomatic of the desperate times that have disallowed social gestation necessary for free speech and dialogue. The Eerie silence on the attacks on Kancha Ilaiah is yet another nail in the coffin of democracy in India.