Celebrated Professor Harassed For Identifying 17th Century Social Reformer as 'Sudra'

A section of readers have threatened her over her identification of Veerabrahmendra Swamy as a 'sudra'.

“It was not my intention to hurt their sentiments” begins the ‘clarification’ that yet another Indian academician has been forced to issue on one of her well-researched writings.

Vinodini Madasu, senior assistant professor of Telugu at the Yogi Vemana University in Andhra Pradesh, is the latest addition to the long and growing list of academics under attack from conservative elements. 

Professor Vinodini is a much-awarded, celebrated, writer-poet who was recognised by the government of Andhra Pradesh with the prestigious Ugadi Pratibha Puraskaram for literature in 2016.

Her short stories and poems have been translated into many languages and she has been taught in comparative literature courses at the University of Hyderabad, University of Kerala and Mahatma Gandhi University.

She is considered a powerful Dalit-feminist voice in literary circles and among activists. Her interventions are based on rigorous research and her lived experience. 

Also read: Silencing Scholarly Voices, One Event at a Time

Vinodini’s university is located in the Kadapa district of Andhra Pradesh. In 2014, she wrote a book on Yogi Vemana, Pothuluri Veerabrahmendra Swamy and Annamayya, titled Veguchukkalu (‘Guiding Stars’).

All these three great men hailing from Kadapa were social reformers and anti-caste crusaders who advocated equality. Recently in October, Prajasakthi Book House brought out her 37-page chapter on Veerabrahmendra Swamy from Veguchukkalu as a separate booklet with a foreword and 10 pages of other additions. This was one of the 11 books released in October 2019, three of which are anthologies.

The booklet, titled Bahumukha Darsanikudu, Bahujana Tatvikudu (‘Multi-Faceted Visionary and Bahujan Philosopher’) is a remarkable tribute to the role played by Veerabrahmendra Swamy as a social reformer in Telugu society of 17th century.

Though Vinodini’s chapter on Pothuluri Veerabrahmendra Swamy has been in existence in the public domain since 2014, all hell broke loose after October 12, when a separate booklet was released in Kurnool. By October 16, according to Vinodini, hate calls began to hound her.

The first caller challenged her on the identification of Veerabrahmendra Swamy as a ‘sudra.’ He patronisingly told her to read the Puranas before attempting to write about great men.

Following the standard playbook of intimidation tactics, someone posted her photos on YouTube along with her phone number. 

In 15 days, she received more than 1,000 calls from individuals abusing her and warning her of dire consequences if she did not get the booklet withdrawn and bring out a corrected version without the word ‘sudra’. Some advised her to set fire to her PhD.

Another threatened to send her the “Thitladandakam”, a litany of abuse, composed by them. The matter soon reached alarming proportions when someone sent her the video of a woman allegedly being lynched and burnt alive, and asked her “are you next?” 

Till this time, Vinodini attempted to engage the callers in reasonable debate and asked them to share whatever information they have to the contrary of her position. But after receiving the video, Vinodini filed a police complaint. 

Satyavati Kondaveeti reads out a statement sent out by Vinodini Madasu at a press meet held by the Joint Action Committee (JAC) of women’s groups in Hyderabad on October 28, 2019, to condemn the attacks on the professor. From left to right: Vimala Morthala, writer, Sujatha Surepally, professor of sociology, Gogu Shyamala, writer, Dasoju Lalita, writer, Kondaveeti Satyaavathy, editor of Bhoomika women’s magazine, and Sandhya, activist.

Who was Pothuluri Veerabrahmendra Swamy?

Veerabrahmendra Swamy was a social reformer of the 17th century, a contemporary of the Bhakti tradition that was flourishing elsewhere in the country. His writings, life and times are preserved in the math the family still runs. The family belongs to the Vishwakarma community, which includes goldsmiths, carpenters, blacksmiths, tailors, potters and many other productive-artisanal communities. 

Veerabrahmendra Swamy was hounded and discriminated against by the Brahmins of his time. As a guru, his first disciple was a Muslim, Dudekula Siddaiah. A Dalit of Madiga caste, Kattaiah, several others from Dalit Bahujan castes, along with some from dominant castes and women were among his disciples, and part of his math. 

According to Vinodini, “He built bridges across castes and religions, and preached humanism and inclusiveness.” Though he had five sons, he left the math to his only daughter, Veeranaryanamma, an inspirational figure herself.  

Veerabrahmendra Swamy is remembered in Telugu society as a philosopher-rationalist for his widely quoted aphorisms, but also as an oracle who foretold the future like Nostradamus.

Many historical events and contemporary political developments are sought to be interpreted through the prism of his writings in “Kalagnanam.” Over the years, his oracular writings have caught the imagination of all sections of the population. His aphorisms and poems are a part of the daily life of the Telugu culture.

Also read: Sociology for the Aryavrat

Travelling mendicants carried his words far and wide and embedded them in popular consciousness.

A section of the Vishwakarma community that deifies him, has built temples and worships him as God. Over the years, as in the case of many great social reformers, miracles have been attributed to him and a ‘caste-purana’ was constructed around his life and times.

Those who deify him also call themselves Vishwa Brahmins and wear the ‘sacred thread’ and consider themselves superior to and preceding the Brahmins’ origins. Instead of discarding caste hierarchy, this process has shifted the focus from the philosophical position of a caste-free society that Veerabrahmendra Swamy envisaged to assertions of their own caste superiority.

Deification also shifted the focus away from his role as a philosopher and reformer.

It is this section that has taken umbrage at the description of the Vishwakarma community as ‘sudras.’

However, Vinodini is not the first one to use this description. Other writers who have written about productive castes such as Vivekananda, R.S. Sharma, Jyotiba Phule, and Dr Ambedkar, for the lack of a better term that is widely understood, also have described these castes in similar terms.

Pulikonda Subbachary, a Vishwakarma writer himself, had also used a similar caste description in more recent times. 

RUNJA, a forum of Vishwakarma poets, artists, writers and journalists, issued a press release on October 24, 2019, condemning the attack on Vinodini after a Vishwakarma writer Dasoju Lalitha was also subjected to abuse and threats for defending Vinodini’s academic freedom in a television debate.

According to Sujatha Surepally, a sociology professor of Satavahana University, out of the varna system defined by Manu, only four tiers of caste are recognised in textbooks: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras.

All Indian sociological texts include this definition and those who are not named under the first three tiers, mostly the productive communities, are lumped under the label of sudras. Those who are outside the framework of the four tiers are defined in the constitution as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. 

Dalit-feminist writer Gogu Shyamala points out that there are terminological controversies about words like Dalit as well. “While there is a need to debate terminology, the importance of bringing out authentic well-researched histories of social reformers cannot be ignored. Vinodini made a stellar contribution to this. Controversies like this will only help to disrupt the honest pursuit of history,” she said.

Shyamala also described how in South Telangana, villages would host five days of all-night events called Brahmamgari Aata, incorporating Veerabrahmendra Swamy’s teachings that foster solidarity among SCs, STs, backward classes and minorities.

“When these events were very popular in these villages, there was less untouchability and discrimination. This is now disrupted by the advent of films and television. Vinodini’s effort has put a short, low-cost book in the hands of ordinary people and made Veerabrahmendra Swamy’s ideas accessible to the literate among today’s youth,” Shyamala added.

Shyamala also remarked that earlier the Brahmin peethadhipatis would indulge in these disruptions, which they no longer have to do. Now there are sections within many castes, who are enslaved to bear the burden of Brahminical ideology, who jump into the fray to defend discriminatory social hierarchies.

Though an FIR has now been filed, Vinodini said, “I do not want them arrested or punished. I requested the superintendent of police to call these people over and explain to them the value of reasoned, fact-based debate instead of resorting to threats.” 

She regretfully says that she wrote the book chapter on Veerabrahmendra Swamy with the greatest of admiration and respect for him as a social reformer. Now this controversy is dragging the issue down into a dispute about a single word that has been used by many other respected writers in similar contexts.

“I was successful in highlighting his significant role as a social reformer. Now I am asking myself – what are the limitations of a writer, a researcher in our times?”

The political Hindutva juggernaut has found another local emotive issue to polarise by stoking chauvinism, as they have done in the case of attacks against Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd and Perumal Murugan.

The goal seems to be to silence Dalit-Bahujan intellectuals who are shining the light on the historical realities of India. 

Padmaja Shaw is a media analyst and a former professor of communication at Osmania University.