In mid September, members of the Arya Vysya community in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh began holding protests against the work of the academic and writer Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd. The community, which is also referred to as Kommatis, and is understood to be an upper-caste Vaishya group, had taken grave offence to the contents of a short Telugu-language book, Samajika Smugglerlu: Kommatullu, or “Social Smugglers: Kommatis.” The Telugu book is an adapted extract from Shepherd’s book Post-Hindu India, which was published in 2009. Samijika Smugglerlu argues that the Baniya community—often referred to as Vaishya, the term from which the Arya Vysyas derive their name—has maintained a monopoly over business in India, and excluded Shudra, Dalit and Bahujan groups from the benefits of capital growth in the country.
In the introduction to Post-Hindu India, Shepherd writes that the book covers “Dalit-Bahujan cultural, scientific and economic knowledge systems, analyses their overall relationships with each other and also with the Hindu religion as a spiritual system.” In addition to the chapter on the Vaishya community, the book contains individual chapters on various communities residing in India, and, based on their traditional occupations and knowledge system, analyses the development of the Indian economic system. It theorises that the Hindu religion’s failure to reckon with the evils of caste oppression will lead to its demise. (An extract can be read here.)
The protests against Shepherd’s writings were vigourous—in one instance, nearly 200 demonstrators from the Arya Vysya community reportedly ambushed the professor’s car while he was on his way to Hyderabad from Telangana, and threw stones and chappals at it. Others burnt effigies of him; distributed his pictures to be used as doormats; and called for a banon his book. Shepherd subsequently lodged a complaint with the Osmania University police station in Hyderabad, alleging that he had received threatening calls from members of Arya Vysya organisations.
On 18 September, TG Venkatesh, a member of parliament from the Telegu Desam Party, held a press conference. Venkatesh, an Arya Vysya himself, said thatShepherd was a “traitor” who deserved to be “hanged.” In an interview to the news channel TV9, Venkatesh added that “people who comment like Ilaiah should be hanged by making changes to law.”
Following Venkatesh’s statements, Shepherd imposed a house arrest on himself, stating that he felt that his life was under threat. Over the phone, he characterised Venkatesh’s statement as a “fatwa” that forced him to confine himself to his home, and said that he couldn’t bear such “intellectual threat.” Comments such as those made by Venkatesh forced him to “reconsider his life choices,” Shepherd told me.