Hyderabad: A recent Telugu translation of a chapter from Post-Hindu India, a book in English written by prominent Dalit and backward caste voice Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, first published in 2009, has created a huge controversy. There have been protests, police and court cases, anonymous death threats and a split among the free speech support groups. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has officially condemned the author and the book, while a parliamentarian of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) from the Vysya community has sought a change in the laws of the country so the author can be hanged publicly.
Shepherd, who is director at the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad, writes in Samajika Smugglurlu Komatollu (‘Vysyas as Social Smugglers’) that the Vysya community, though numerically small in population, has appropriated a huge share of economic resources and that their businesses, ranging from money lending to private enterprises, are exploitative of the lower castes.
The community is up in arms, arguing that it was a non-violent, law-abiding and productive group, contributing to the development and growth of the country by creating jobs and investing, helping social prosperity. The book’s contents, they say, are “derogatory and demeaning”.
Since the release of the book, the community has been protesting and picketing, and has filed cases against the author. The Arya Vysya Association (AVA) has filed a petition in the Supreme Court saying the “book hurt feelings of the Arya Vysya community” and “was written without any evidence and historical facts”.
Seeking a ban on the book and legal action against Shepherd, the community has staged protests in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, even burning the author’s effigies.
TDP MP’s threat
Tension heightened over the matter when TDP MP T.G. Venkatesh addressed a press conference against the author and sought that he be “hanged publicly”.
While the author wondered how the community’s leaders could claim they were “peaceful” when one of the richest and most powerful individuals among them, a parliamentarian, openly threatened to have an author hanged publicly, the MP said that he was merely asking for legal punishment.
“We remain a peaceful community. We are very hurt by the unintellectual writings of this man. I hope the community will be protected against such hateful rants posturing as intellectual work. There are no facts here, only naked hatred. I hope the laws can be changed to punish this man,” said Venkatesh.
“Can an MP who issues a fatwa against a citizen – that too a globally known writer and thinker – continue in parliament? One of richest MPs in India, he has declared a fatwa on me that he would kill or hang me in the streets. The myth that Arya Vysyas are a peace loving and non-violent community has been proved to be wrong,” said Shepherd.
BJP condemns author
Calling the author a “mentally deranged hate-monger” who did not deserve the “self-proclaimed title of intellectual,” BJP spokesperson Krishna Sagar Rao told The Wire, “…he has constantly tried to divide Hindu society and foster hatred between communities and castes. He needs medical help and psychiatric counselling. He lives for creating fake controversies and seeks attention because he has failed to achieve any accolades.”
The BJP has officially condemned the author and his book, but has distanced itself from its ally TDP and its call for a ban and strong action against Shepherd. Rao said, “We try to create communal harmony. Any attempt by anyone to divide people with hatred has to be fought. However, we are not of the view that this work deserves to be treated seriously. It has no merit. No one can read a few pages without feeling revulsion. It deserves neither a ban nor do we support any call for violence against the author. No one can be hanged for writing a book, however disgusting it might be.”
Threats, police cases and missing security
Calling the book an attack against the community, the AVA filed a complaint against Shepherd but the police did not register any case, saying, they are “verifying the plaint”.
Shepherd has also registered a case against Venkatesh, saying, he felt “terribly threatened”.
“I have been getting threating calls from unidentified persons for days,” Shepherd said. “They are burning my effigy. They are asking for me to be hanged on the street. I have stopped going out for my walks in the morning and evening for the first time in 35 years. But the state government in Telangana, which allows an MP from Andhra to come and threaten me in Hyderabad, does not provide me security. I feel afraid sitting at home…. Like the next Gauri Lankesh, a target to be hit.”
While the battles rage on, surprisingly, several bodies, intellectuals and social leaders who are at the forefront of supporting free speech are silent on this issue.
“It is an eerie silence. But I am not surprised. I know the community has declared financial support to everyone who speaks against me in the media. If they can buy condemnation for a price… can they not buy tacit support through silence?” asks Shepherd.
From the Telangana-Mass, of which he is a member, to his academic colleagues and political parties that support such causes – everyone has largely ignored the issue.
Ironically, Rao also condemned the silence. “Why are intellectuals like Professor Kodandaram or Hargopal or Vara Vara Rao silent? They should condemn this hate rant, else they will be seen as being in support.”
There are some efforts underway to settle the issue. Leaders of the communist parties in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana tried to meet former Tamil Nadu governor and Andhra Pradesh chief minister K. Rosaiah, who is also one of the most prominent Vysya community leaders, to settle the matter. However, the meeting never took place because of a dispute over where it should be held.
Meanwhile, Shepherd has offered to withdraw the book or change its title, but for a price. “If Arya Vysya community businessmen agree to earmark at least 5% jobs and contribute a part of their profits for farmer’s relief, I will withdraw my book. I will even change its title to ‘Vysyas – Social Contributors’,” he said.
Sriram Karri is a Hyderabad-based commentator and novelist.