An author who makes that difference

A title that we have carried for a while now, Why I am not a Hindu by Kancha Ilaiah has been chosen for the Annual London Institute of South Asia Award 2008. Published by Samya, Kolkata, this is one of several Ilaiah titles that we list at SwB.

The citation of the award is illuminating. "Ever since this book was first published in 1996, it did not only become the bestseller of the year, it has been declared one of the Five Great Millennium Books in Dalitbahujan stream of thought by the Indian National Daily, PIONEER. It has influenced a whole range of new discourse on understanding of India and South Asia. It has been translated not only into several Indian languages but also European languages – French and German. It has been adopted as the common core text of New Reading on South Asia by several American and European Universities. Most Indian Universities include it in the curriculum of courses in Sociology and Anthropology.

The native peoples of India (erstwhile untouchables) called Dalitbahujan by Prof. Ilaiah have been denied a separate identity by denying them education; they were not even allowed to be lettered. Under British rule, they were given an identity; they were grouped into Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Castes (OBCs). They also got two things they never had before – reserved seats in education and right to vote. That caused a slow change in the beginning but a veritable revolution in the new millennium.

The caste Hindus are at best 15 % of the population of India today. The Dalitbahujan may be as many as 65% of the population depending on who is included. Realising the power of the vote, Mahatma Gandhi condescendingly called them Harijan (children of Hindu god Hari) and insisted they were Hindus. In 1932, under the Communal Award, the British Government offered them ‘Separate Electorate’ alongside the faith groups – the Muslims, Sikhs and Christians. The leader of the Dalitbahujan, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, accepted the Award. But Mahatma Gandhi went on ‘fast unto death’ to persuade him to reject it. The pressure worked; Dalitbahujan agreed to ‘Joint Electorate’ under which they were put on electoral rolls of the Hindus. That is how the myth of India being a Hindu majority country was born.

Universal adult franchise makes Dalitbahujan the majority in India. Dalit parties, by themselves or in coalition, rule several states. The voice of Dalitbahujan is heard loud and clear all over India; more and more of them are seen in high office of state; yet alienation is so acute as to be almost unbearable. The repression of Dalitbahujan is not so overt but it is still vicious and highly effective as the Brahmin priest caste is adept at evolving covert methods. Complaining about discrimination and securing more places in education and in government jobs has run its course; it still leaves Dalitbahujan at the bottom of the social pile.

The book “Why I am not a Hindu” is chosen because it has ‘made a difference’ since it was first published in 1996. The Constitution of India describes a Hindu as one who is ‘not a Muslim, Christian or a Parsi’; the Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and all the animal/ancestor worshipping faiths, are thus denied their separate identity. This definition portrays India as overwhelmingly Hindu and puts a tight lid on the repression on the basis of faith and castes. Perhaps taking a cue from the Constitution, Prof. Ilaiah defines Dalitbahujan as all except the ‘twice born’. Thus, he also defines the Indian nation as a ‘coalition’ but of different elements. The elements he excludes are those who preach, uphold or practise ‘apartheid’.

Language, race, faith and culture define nations. Prof. Ilaiah has described at length in his book that Dalibahujan are different, indeed better, on every score. He urges his compatriots to stop complaining and begging. Dalibahujan should define their own identity; everything else would follows."

Ilaiah (pronounced Eye-lye-ah, as I only recently learned) has a number of books. Some are- given the nature of his concerns- bordering on the polemic, but he is a passionate writer with a message. In quite a different category from Why I am not a Hindu or God as a Political Philosopher or Buffalo Nationalism (also from Samya) is the delightful Turning the pot, Tilling the land from Navayana (from where we got the accompanying caricature), another of his books to have been internationally recognised.

Our warmest congratulations! To the author, and also to the publishers who have brought us his books. It takes both conviction and courage, and Samya and Navayana have these qualities in plenty.