Romanticising Indian villages hides casteism: Telugu Poet Jilukara Srinivas to TNM

Poet, literary critic and activist Dr Jilukara Srinivas discusses his journey as a writer, the exclusion of anti-caste movements in Telugu writing and the oppressive structure of Indian villages.
Dr Jilukara Srinivas
Dr Jilukara Srinivas
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For Dr Jilukara Srinivas, his identity as a poet, critic and activist has been shaped by his childhood in an artistic and culturally-vibrant Dalit community as well as the caste discrimination he has witnessed. Known for his fiery oratory skills and exceptional writing abilities, Dr Jilukara was born in Mallampally of Palakurthy in erstwhile Warangal. 

In his early days, he was drawn to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) due to the widespread influence of the movement. He later left the movement and pursued a path that focussed on caste politics. 

Jillukaras' father and maternal uncles were also full-time members of the CPM and CPI. Starting in student activism, he became one of the strongest critics from Dalits, particularly the Baindla caste, which is the most marginalised among the Madiga community. 

With over three decades of active public life, he is currently the convener of the Dravida Swabhimana Vedika, a platform seeking to forge an alliance among Bahujan communities for political and social change. Jilukara is not only an active creator of articles and books, he is also among the first to respond and reach out to those in need when a caste atrocity occurs in the state. 

TNM spoke to Jilukara Srinivas to discuss his journey and work. 

How did you become a literary critic and activist? Can you take us through your journey?

My father passed away when I entered intermediate schooling. It was a shock to me. I decided then to work for the people, as my father did. So I became a full-time party worker and took the responsibilities of the SFI in Station Ghanpur, a newly-formed division committee. I was trained by the party in Marxism and Leninism. Reading and writing and speaking became my routine. I then joined University Arts and Science College, Kakatiya University, Hanamkonda where I met a Telugu poet Seetaram. He was teaching Telugu literature. He inspired me and I became a poet through his influence. I bagged state-level first prizes in poetry writing and in creative writing. My first critique of 'Shiva Dhanussu' by Rentala Gopala Krishna was published in Andhra Bhumi in my first year. I spent the entire time in libraries and on the grounds to mobilise students to agitate for their rights. 

In Warangal, eminent personalities, such as Kaloji, Varavara Rao, Ampashayya Naveen, Seetaram, Anwar and Ramireddy, created a wonderful literary environment. I used to attend their literary programs. Since I was under the tutelage of Seetharam, I decided to study Telugu literature at Hyderabad Central University. Wonderful professors such as Mudigonda Veerabhadraiah, KK Ranganathacharyulu, Parimi Ramanarasimham, Sharath Jyotsna Rani, Aruna Kumari, Pillalamarri Ramulu and many other great teachers in various departments of the university shaped my literary personality. In various papers, I wrote short stories, book reviews and critiques in my MA days. On the Dalit question I published many articles in those days and they were received well. Prof Mudiganti Sujatha Reddy sometimes responded to my literary engagements and encouraged me. My senior Dr Darla Venkateshwarlu took me to the All India Radio station to read my critical article on Telugu literature. Then I began my doctoral research at the same university. Under the supervision of Prof Pillalamarri Ramulu, I worked on contemporary literary theories and the study of Telugu poetry, with special reference to hermeneutics, structuralism and deconstruction. I was awarded a doctorate degree for my thesis.

What drew you to Marxism?

As a Left student leader, I have made efforts to understand Marxist scripts. I liked Srirangam Srinivasa Rao's writings. I read the progressive and revolutionary stream of literature by the time I completed my intermediate education. I also read Chalam writings too. I believed only Marxism could liberate people and worked with people for over 15 years.

Why did you decide to leave Marxism and become an Ambedkarite?

Though Dalit poetry was a stage in Telugu literature, a revolutionary and Marxist section has been portrayed as a reactionary trend. They considered it class destructionism and a threat to working class unity. Revolutionary poets like Shiva Reddy and Jwalamukhi have openly refused Dalitism in literature. Caste is a reality. The so-called revolutionists and progressives have failed to answer whether not accepting caste as a reality itself brings solution to it. 

As a Dalit, I faced many humiliations in my village. While working as Left party activist, I also witnessed absurd forms of discrimination. I never had the consciousness of caste existence while reading Marxism, whereas reading Dalit poetry shows the omnipresence of caste. As I started reading Marxism critically, at that time I met Dalit intellectual Chittibabu Padavala. I had numerous debates on caste and class with him. Together, we tried to campaign for a Marxist philosophy with Ambedkarite politics. At that time, my first Dalit-Marxian perspective article,  Whether development is possible without destructing villages, kicked off the debate. We have also brought out a critical book on Vemula Yellaiah's Kakka, (Dalit novel which depicts the lives of three generations Madigas in the post indenpendence in Telangana) I have understood that capital works as per the norms of caste and the existence of caste. After reading Dr BR Ambedkar, I realised mere class annihilation does not lead to caste annihilation. I have left Marxism.

Your critique of Marxist Knowledge Theory sparked a major debate in communist circles. How do you feel about this? 

Yes. That debate satisfied my role to some extent. At least eight communist parties intellectuals have written articles differing with my opinions. I'm thankful to them. That debate was in depth and dense, and offered more scope about the theory of knowledge 

Why do you feel that Marxist Cognitive Theory is inadequate to understand caste? 

Lenin's reflection theory was not well understood by Savarna authors, Marxist knowledge theory notes that physical circumstances will decide the person's consciousness and those will reflect in writings. In our country, Marxist intellectuals have not accepted caste as a physical reality. Till today, among Marxists circles, there is debate about whether Caste is a physical reality. I tried to point to the limitations of class. The writer or poet will continue his trade with the caste consciousness he considers whatever he perceives as a reality.  But reality is a collection of multiple things and abstract concepts. As knowledge increases the reality will change its shape. My observation is that the caste will decide knowledge earning and the system of knowledge, while class is merely a small part of it. In fact, it is an in-depth theoretical debate.

While making certain arguments you have shown disagreements with "Postmodernism" (a theory of knowledge of arts, which discusses the problems and limitations of modernity and argues for alternative modes beyond it). Could you elaborate? 

I was obsessed with postmodernism. For me, reading of American philosopher Richard Rorti's idea of 'pragmatism, Jacques Derrida's idea of 'deconstruction' and Michel Foucault's writings on power apparatus, Roland Barthes' essay 'The Death of the Author' was like a festival. My PhD was all about those theories. My disagreement with postmodernism was fundamental, that is postmodernism is against  power and moreover it is dead against the idea of state. Bahujan politics in Indian context are happening for political power but postmodernism argues the denial or refusal of power as it causes disparities. But Ambedkarism argues that with political power, we can dismantle inequalities and suggest fighting for it. Ambedkar was very clear about the individual’s role in history-making. If we don't care about the individual contributions of Bahujans (referring to SC, ST, OBC and religious minorities), gross injustice will take place. I consider it a conspiracy if Dalits, fighting across realms against thousands of years of discrimination, is merely called a "identity struggles."

What has been your experience of working in the Telugu film industry? 

I'm proud of it. Telugu Director Venu Udugula knows literary aesthetics. We both used to discuss poetry writing during our undergraduate days. He made me write two songs for his debut Needi Naadi Oke Katha. It was a super hit. I have also written a warrior poem for his next project. I should thank my friend Venu. Songs are our culture.  

You have critiqued Sri Sri and Abhyudaya (Progressive) literature. Could you tell us why? 

I like Sri Sri (Srirangam Srinivasarao very much, but why didn't he write about caste and anti-caste struggles? Were his Brahminical metaphors and symbolism conscious or unconscious? How has concluded that there will be no great poets from the Nizam state? Why didn't he write in favour of the Telangana armed struggle and murders by Razakar army, and why was he working as translator in the public relations department of the Nizam. Why has he written merely about Gandhi but not about Ambedkar? These were all questions raised by Dalit intelligentsia Marxists, saying he has limitations but failed to explain reasons behind limitations. They tried to label other critics as castiests but labeling can’t be the answer. No poet is exempt from caste; we are just reminding  that it is the responsibility of all to write against caste.

You have written that anti-caste movements in colonial times are not reflected in Telugu literature. Could you explain this?

It is necessary to see Telugu literature from the Ambedkarite perspective. A few writers have written to reform Brahmin society; those weren't anti-caste writings. 

Though there were anti-caste movements across the country, Telugu writers failed to reflect them in their writing. There was a conspiracy of fiction to arrest readers from going towards anti-caste literature. Instead, those struggles Savarna writers have mooted the people around fictitious love between lovers. In fact, my criticism is that the entire Telugu progressive poetry movement and revolutionary streams of literature have tried to undermine anti-caste movements by creating chaos. Contextualizing Telugu literature will expose the core intention. 

Your recent poetry collection 'Tatva' is full of Buddhism and compassion. What is its relevance today? 

Yes, I believe Buddhism is the true soul of our soil. I believe that Buddhism is the best path to progress this country. Freedom, justice, equality and fraternity are basic principles of it. Its main foundation is compassion. To transform this caste society, we must cultivate compassion in the minds of people. Love is another form for compassion. My poems are a reflection of my Buddhist understanding of the society through BR Ambedkar’s writings and teachings. I reject all sorts of differences and inequalities and hatred. Buddhism is very much relevant today. You can't build a nation on the foundations of hatred and injustice. To establish an egalitarian society, we should adopt Buddhism. It's not only a way of life, but it also a political philosophy. 

In your article on the village and oppression published in Telugu Dalit Writing, an anthology edited by Prof K Purushottham and Gogu Shyamala and published by Oxford University Press, why do you look at the village as a prison house?

In Telugu poetry, the village is romanticised. For Savarnas, the village is a place of joy and happiness because they enjoy caste hegemony. Gandhi proposed Grama Swarajyam and he tried to give a beautiful color to it. But Babasaheb Ambedkar denies the idea of Grama Swarajyam. Ambedkar described the village as a prison house for depressed classes. In my article, I argued that a village is a place for caste violence and hegemony. It denies equal rights and honor to Dalits, women and variously disabled people. Romanticising the village is an audacity of upper caste writers. I proposed to redefine and reorganise the village on the basis of equality, freedom and fraternity. To understand Indian social structure, it's not the village to consider as a primary unit, but the caste. Poets write that human beings are living in villages. Urban spaces and towns are the centers for exploitation, cheaters and fraudulent activities. It's not true. I said there are no human beings living in the villages, but caste beings. This romantic and nationalistic notion of the village will lead us into dark times. 

Do you feel digital media is helping the spread of contemporary literature?

I don't think so. But it has created a new generation of poets and writers. There are a few digital forums and a limited space for creative and critical writing. It is also excluding the Bahujans. Savarnas are very conscious of technology and they occupy digital media. Quality is very important. Substandard writing is appreciated for the benefits of literary politics. But, we should use this new space to produce quality literature in terms of content and aesthetics.

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