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Delhi University should have the courage to read Kancha Ilaiah

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Kancha Ilaiah’s writings are provocative, but that’s no reason for Delhi University to drop him

Professor Kancha Ilaiah provides a counter-narrative to the dominant politico-cultural thoughts. If the university system is not allowed to engage with contrarian ideas, then that will be the end of the quest for knowledge.

The standing committee on academic affairs of Delhi University has recommended removing Kancha Ilaiah’s books from its political science curriculum for being “anti-Hindu”. The books recommended for removal are Why I am not a HinduPost-Hindu India and God as Political PhilosopherGod as Political Philosopher is Ilaiah’s PhD thesis. The Academic Council of the University has to take a final call on this matter.

It’s strange that some political science teachers of Delhi University do not want their students to study the texts produced by a professor of their own discipline whose works are immensely popular.  One of the largest publishers of academic books, Sage, has published one of Kancha Ilaiah’s books.

Also read: A guide to surviving and thriving in Delhi University, by Gurmehar Kaur

It’s true that these books are provocative. In his books, Ilaiah challenges the commonsensical ideas about nation, society and culture. But this can’t be a reason to ban or remove these books from the curriculum.

These books are part of the suggested reading list for one of the optional papers in M.A. course of the political science department in DU. Professor N. Sukumar is offering this optional paper, titled Dalit Bahujan Political Thought. In this paper, students are supposed to study thinkers and philosophers like Buddha, Kabir, Ravidas, Jyotiba Phule, B.R. Ambedkar, Tarabai Shinde and Kanshi Ram. The objective of the course is to “focus on the political thoughts of Dalit Bahujan thinkers in India, as the pedagogy has remained exclusive to the various egalitarian ideas put forward by Dalit Bahujan thinkers”.

This is one of many optional papers, and the books of Professor Kancha Ilaiah are listed as suggested readings only, therefore anyone with so-called Hindu or Brahminical sensibilities can exercise her or his choice of merely not opting for this paper. The course outline mentions what it is offering and there is no ambiguity on that.

But this is not how books should be dropped from the academic curriculum. Not reading specific ideas or text can be a layman’s way of dealing with contrarian thoughts. The academic style of demolishing an idea is by presenting a more logical and robust theory or idea. As Ilaiah suggests the professors asking for the removal of his books should better provide a critique of these books. They can review the books or write a paper and demolish his arguments. Banning books and texts are an authoritarian method and not accepted in the corridors of knowledge.

Also read: UGC’s graded autonomy for DU colleges gives primacy to management, not academics

Moreover, these are not banned books. Last year, a petition came up in the Supreme Court demanding a ban on Kancha Ilaiah’s PostHindu India. The Supreme Court rejected the petition saying, “It is not up to the court to use its powers to ban books, which are a free expression of a writer’s thoughts and feelings about the society and world he lives in. Courts cannot be asked to gag free expression.”

Why are Hindutva forces against Professor Ilaiah?

Apart from being an academician, Professor Ilaiah is an anti-caste crusader. His works deal with the fault lines in the so-called Virat Hindu fold. If we go through his most famous book Why I am not a Hindu, we can understand why his ideas generate so much heat.

In its preface, he mentions what this book is all about. “I am not writing this book to convince suspicious Brahminical minds; I am writing this book for all those who have open minds. My request to Brahmin, Baniya and Neo-Kshatriya intellectuals is this: For about three thousand years you people learnt only how to teach and what to teach others – the Dalit Bahujans. Now in your interest and the interest of this great country, you must learn to listen and to read what we have to say. A people who refuse to listen to new questions and learn new answers will perish and not prosper.”

To engage with such a scholar, we must have the courage of George Orwell, who famously said, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.

Kancha Ilaiah is the author of several political science and sociological texts, but their theoretical foundation is one. He believes that Dalit Bahujan and Brahmin-Baniya culture in India are competing against each other, and knowledge and science in India have not developed much because there has been a dominance of Brahmin-Baniya non-productive culture for a long time.

In Why I am not a Hindu, he propounds that Dalitisation of the society is a prerequisite for a developed nation. He goes on to say, “Yet another major area of Dalitisation will be to push the Brahmin-Baniyas into productive work, whether it is rural or urban. Both men and women of the so-called upper castes will resist this with all the strength at their command. This is because among them Hinduism has destroyed all positive elements that normally exist in a human being. Their minds are poisoned with the notion that productive work is mean and that productive castes are inferior. No ruling class in the world is as dehumanised as the Indian brahminical castes. They can be rehumanised only by pushing them into productive work and by completely diverting their attention from the temple, the office, power-seeking, and so on.”

Kancha Ilaiah considers Gautam Buddha to be one of the finest thinkers of the world. In his PhD thesis God as Political Philosopher, he argues that in many ways Buddha is a greater philosopher and political thinker as compared to Aristotle, Plato, Confucius and Kautilya.

Professor Ilaiah believes that knowledge is gained not by studying texts, but during the production process. Therefore, he rejects shastras and scripture-based knowledge and strives to establish the knowledge tradition of farmers, artisans and tribals. He is also known for comparative study between Brahmin culture and productive culture in terms of language, behaviour patterns, food habits and man-woman relationship.

Also read: ‘Not just Right-wing, even liberal academics have biases against Dalit scholars’

The political science paper, which is in controversy, also includes writers and thinkers like Ravidas, Kabir, Phule, Ambedkar, Periyar, Gail Omvedt and Kanshi Ram; a person may dislike all or few among them.  Knowledge is always acquired by challenging established norms and thoughts. Had this not happened, we would still be studying that earth is flat and the sun revolves around the earth. Diversity of ideas and conflict of thoughts give birth to new ideas and thoughts. This is the very purpose of the university as an institution. It is precisely because of this fact that universities are different from gurukuls, which stress on rote-learning of established thoughts.

Even if we do not like Kancha Ilaiah, we should still read his writings. If his writings are not taught in the universities, it will be a huge loss for the advancement of knowledge and science.

The author is a senior journalist.

Read this article in Hindi.

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  1. I have studied many things but if texts are produced from a certain prejudiced perspective then what’s the point of engagement & change ? Provocation may help one to start a conversation but actual conversation needs to happen beyond a certain point. I have never seen him ever engaging seriously even though i have studied a lot of his articles & has seen him on various Audio-Visual platforms discussing the Dalit issue.

    Should only upper caste study the history or Dalits & other oppressed classes are willing to engage with historical narratives in honest manners ? Are they willing to look beyond privilege-oppressed identities to the system which creates these identities ? Will they only remain critical of identities while allowing the system that perpetuates these identities to remain intact or will they look beyond identities to the system itself ?

    The system of oppression from their perspective is religious but never political or economical whereas religions appropriate the social behavior to gain the numbers so then the question arises ‘whose system is it to oppress’ – All religions all over the world appropriated what was already prevalent in the society or the society which was divided even before the religious umbrella created a single religious denominational identity ?

    I can keep discussing Caste from various point of views & according to me the only texts which should be allowed in history are ones which provide the most accurate portrayal of history in factual numbers, incidents, manuscripts, inscription but leaving the judgment to interpret them on each individual.

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