“I have never bothered to indulge in the pleasures of an abstract search for knowledge. Nor have I written anything not based on political necessities”.

—Prof. Sunil. P. Ilayidom



Marxist cultural critic and a popular orator, Prof. Sunil. P. Ilayidom is one of the most important voices in contemporary Malayalam intellectual space. His relevance lies in his ability to develop popular methodologies for the dissemination of academic knowledge.

His first major work was his doctoral thesis titled The political unconsciousness of Modernism. An analysis of the modernist movement in Malayalam, it studied O.V Vijayan’s iconic novel Khasakhinte Ithihasam (The legends of Khasak) and K.C.S Paniker’s paintings based on Fredric Jameson’s idea of the political unconscious. He has also published studies on K.J Yesudas and Tyagaraja. His book on literary criticism titled Ajnjathavumayulla Abhimukhangal (Interviews with the unknown) won the Kerala Sahitya Academy award in 2013. 

Sunil’s popularity comes from his public speeches which are characterised by their eschewal of aggression and polemics. Contrary to a mainstream Marxist approach, he prefers a more inclusive and self reflexive style. This also makes him an internal critic of Marxism. He constantly makes it a point to remind his audience about positions that Marxism’s political forms have either abandoned or not yet fully accomplished. 

He has given important speeches on the history of nationalism, Kerala renaissance, Sree Narayana Guru and the Mahabharata. The five-day long series of speeches he delivered on The Cultural History of Mahabharata is considered one of the most significant events of recent times in Malayalam. He has so far delivered this series of speeches on more than ten stages, and has now developed the ideas in them into a book which will be published in March, 2020.

I would like to start with a criticism often levelled against you. You are a critical thinker whose subjects of interest range from art to music and from literature to classical dance. But you never seem to stick to one particular subject or go deeper into micro analysis. And though you often adopt philosophy as a basis of your critical thinking, you also make it a point to avoid a conventional philosophical approach that prioritises depth over breadth.

As far as I am concerned there is only one subject: modernity’s engagements with the cultural history. The reason behind working on so many areas is to analyse and understand various aspects of this fundamental question. Theoretically and methodologically, all my studies are based on this premise. 

For instance, if one were to approach art after understanding how orientalism and its methodology influenced Indian nationalism, one can easily identify its presence in the Bengal school. Looking at Rukmini Devi Arundale, you would then be able to see the Theosophical Society. If you study Tyagaraja after understanding modernity and national modernity’s conceptualization of the individual, you will figure out why he became a patriarchal figure in Carnatic music. But if you focus only on one specific area, this relationship between various aspects may not become clear.

Though a lot of people say it is irrelevant, I still consider the ideas in the eleventh thesis of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach to be extremely important. As he says: “Philosophers have so far only interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it”. And any endeavour to change the world entails a process of praxis. Of course, there are arguments that claim that praxis in itself is a form of thought. But I don’t subscribe to that view. There is definitely an element of practical value in critical thinking. But if you are going to indulge in ideas and immerse in them meditatively, you run the risk of getting trapped in the very framework of philosophy. 

It is imperative to make the political content of knowledge a part of mainstream consciousness. Yet, often, academics is held as a holy realm, and any attempt it makes to engage with the civil society is considered second rate. The need of the hour is to overcome this divide.

Marx did not present a new chapter in philosophy. Instead, what he did was to bring about a rupture within philosophy. In fact, he was constantly arguing with its epistemology. So there is always this question of whether Marx was indeed a philosopher.  As Etienne Balibar points out, Marxist philosophy is different from the philosophy of Marx.

A philosopher’s interest in Marxism and a Marxist’s interest in philosophy are two different things. I am more inclined towards a Marxist’s interest in cultural theory. My conviction is that in Marxist investigations of concrete realities there is no point in adopting a methodology that focuses only on one particular aspect of culture. Between an epistemological realm abstracted out of a reality and a functional reality, I will always choose the latter.


As an organic intellectual, there are two kinds of political expressions you seem to be interested in. In one, you function as a sort of conductor that facilitates the transmission of academic thinking to civil society. And in the other, you are a prolific orator who speaks fervently against religious fundamentalism.

There is a clear connection between these two ways of functioning. Academics for the sake of academics is not in the true spirit of academics. There is no point in being political in epistemological content and then confining that content to an exclusive community. It is imperative to make the political content of knowledge a part of mainstream consciousness. Yet, often, academics is held as a holy realm, and any attempt it makes to engage with the civil society is considered second rate. The need of the hour is to overcome this divide.

In a recent interview, Romila Thapar says that though she is happy with the progress the discipline of history has made in India, we have utterly failed in taking that progress to the common people. This presents a massive danger because if a communal sense of history becomes an influential force in the society, it will eventually find a way to control academics too. In fact, a lot of universities are already in Hindutva’s firm grip. It wouldn’t be much longer before it starts to exert complete control over the whole corpus of mainstream history. So it is absolutely important to bridge the gap between academics and the civil society.  


In the present context of anti-CAA protests, quite a number of academics including Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib took to the streets...      


Because they are truly political creatures who have never abandoned their basic political convictions. They know that it is important to come out when confronted with a critical historical moment. Epistemological politics and practical politics should not be viewed as antagonistic categories. While forms of expression might differ, they share common underlying objectives. And if academicians also share that objective, then they cannot confine themselves to academic spaces. 


You say that your fundamental interest is in studying modernity’s engagements with cultural history. The Indian right wing has premised its common interest on the edifice of culture. And it is a fact that political resistance movements against the right wing, including various left liberal movements, have so far failed to provide convincing explanations for the influence culture wields. How do you see this contradiction?  


It is true that the Left in India has failed to understand culture as a material force. They have not given due consideration to the role played by ideas, perceptions and systems of beliefs in the process of material production or to the influence of processes of material production in reshaping various facets of culture. We might have used Gramsci as a popular intellectual icon of the left, but it’s worth questioning the extent of effort that has been made to actualise a Gramscian world of ideas. For instance, I believe it is important in the Indian context to redefine the idea of class using the Gramscian conceptualisation of the subaltern. Such pursuits might be common in academic seminars, but they have not been translated to everyday political practice.

In fact, we have completely failed to address many modes of ideological operations that have deep rooted presence in our civil society. The question is not whether these ideas are right or wrong. Rather, the point to consider is what we do have at our disposal to address them. There is no point offering platitudes like “these are merely the remnants of a feudatory state”. What is needed is an attempt to address various components of our cultural life that includes both traditional systems of values and modern systems that have emerged as a consequence of a capitalist market economy. And this cannot just be a theoretical project, the emphasis should be on practice.  


The series of speeches based on the Mahabharata and the book that you are now working on based on the same text...Are these your attempts to address this failure?  

 To an extent, yes. There are two ways to critically engage with an ideology like Brahmanism. You can choose to wage a war from outside or you can first enter its premises and then subject it to scrutiny. And for sure, both approaches have different consequences. But if we prefer to turn our backs on the various historical and cultural forms of diversities that have shaped texts like the Mahabharata in their present form, they are likely to remain as essentialist Brahmin texts.

Now, that would not have been a problem if the Mahabharata was a text like the Shatapatha Brahmana which, outside the framework of ritualistic contexts, is a dead text. But epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are and have always been functional texts that have wielded massive influence in determining our ideas of nationalism and the present versions of Hindutva. If such texts exist as functional discourses, then we have a responsibility to carefully examine their nature and character. Which means we have a responsibility to place ourselves in that discourse and study it, both historically and discursively. Only then can we talk to people who are located in various planes of this discourse. We cannot brand them as fundamentalists just because they are believers. The fact is they are not fundamentalists. If we make proper efforts, we can talk to them on their own turf, and convince them that these texts do not possess an essentialist character. And by doing that it will be possible to fashion a counter narrative against Hindutva which has always successfully appropriated these texts for the advancement of its ideology.


But there is also a criticism that you are idealising the Mahabharata.         

One thing is certain. I do not consider the Mahabharata a bad work. It is indeed one of the greatest and most exhaustive texts that have come out from ancient India. What I have tried with my series of speeches and the book that will soon be published is to explain on the basis of Indian history and Mahabharata’s textual structure how the epic derived its truly great content. In that sense, my attempt has been to deconstruct Mahabharata’s greatness. If you have noticed my explanations on Mahabharata’s historical evolution, or on the nature of the Naga clan, or on Ambedkar’s analyses of the epic, I don’t think you can say I have idealised the Mahabharata.

When looking at the historical space occupied by the Mahabharata, what I have tried is to explain how the epic becomes a site of embedded history. For me, the Mahabharata is a concrete imaginary world that hosts complex conflicts between three fundamental forces in ancient Indian history: a) the tribal tradition b) the Brahmanic tradition that first incorporated itself into the tribal tradition and then usurped it c) the Buddhist tradition which challenged Brahmanism.

Of course, one can argue that there is no need at all to talk about the Mahabharata and the Ramayana since they are part of the same Brahmanic discourse we are presently fighting against. Such a position might even be effective at a protest site. But in a larger sense, the methods involved in formulating a counter discourse and untangling historically hegemonic discourses are symbiotic in nature. 

Ambedkar has written a lot about the Mahabharata including detailed plot synopsis of the Udyogaparva and the Virataparva. Why did someone like him who had categorically denounced Brahmanism feel the need to think and write so extensively on the Mahabharata? In the introduction to Revolution and Counter Revolution in Ancient India, he writes: “Ancient Indian history must be exhumed. Without its exhumation Ancient India will go without history. Fortunately with the help of the Buddhist literature, Ancient Indian history can be dug out of the debris which Brahmin writers have heaped upon it in a fit of madness.”

If we have to exhume Indian history from that debris, we have to enter the text and untangle its grand discourse. That was what D.D. Kosambi did. How can such attempts be labelled as acts of idealisation?


Talking about Ambedkar, in the recent wave of anti-CAA protests, we saw Ambedkar, Marx and Gandhi coming together in the same platform. How far do you think it is possible to put together these three thinkers among whom there are so many visible conflicts and contradictions?          

As part of the anti-CAA protests there was this realisation that various opposing forms of organised resistance do not share hostile contradictions. Space for a practical and functional co-existence also emerged. Ambedkar, Marx and Gandhi are sites of expression of great historical processes. We must in fact see them as processes in themselves. They should not be frozen in history. The objective must be to figure out ways that facilitate their continuation in our times, rather than make them static and project their contradictions.

If we can see them as processes, it is easy to recognise that they are constantly evolving. This evolution is a result of the many engagements they had with the social structure of their times. For quite a while now, it has become a strategy to project their contradictions. And it’s a strategy that needs to be resisted and defeated. That, however, does not mean that those contradictions have to be kept under wraps. It is important to understand that those were internal contradictions born of their historical circumstances. Acknowledging the presence of these contradictions does not prevent us from seeking the possibility of bringing those thinkers together in the model of resistance that our particular circumstance demands.


So are you suggesting that a methodology that brings together Gandhi, Ambedkar and Marx can successfully challenge Hindutva?             

When you say methodology, it involves quite a few complex issues. To start with, they cannot be placed in the same theoretical plane. They were not what you would call professional thinkers. Rather, they were great thinkers who functioned outside universities and academic spaces. There is a fundamental difference between professional thinkers and organic thinkers. A professional thinker starts from existing premises of critical thought, develops them further, and in the process comes up with new formulations of ideas. On the contrary, organic thinkers start from their social contexts. They adopt a particular method of conceptualisation based on the relationship and contradictions it shares with existing social realities. 

So, in the method of conceptualisation adopted by an organic thinker we may not be able to find continuities with its historical and academic evolution. In fact, we are more likely to find ruptures. Which means it is a folly to understand organic philosophers based only on what they have written. To arrive at a more rounded understanding of them, we must also consider the interventions they made in the social life of their times. For instance, Gramsci did not coin the term ‘subaltern’ to denote a proletariat. To expand the idea of class was not his philosophical concern; nor was it his intention to con his jailor. That was a word born of a concrete historical situation which demanded that ways be figured out to formulate expressions of resistance in an Italian society that was under the control of the Fascists.

Therefore it is not possible to divorce these thinkers from their circumstances and confine them to conventionally accepted frameworks of methodology. They were people concerned more about resisting and protesting than about creating a watertight world of critical thought.  


Probably, the most significant discourse that has occupied the left intellectual space since the times of E.M.S Namboodiripad is the one centred on identity politics. You have been a prominent presence in that discussion and have even stated that political mobilisation based on identities is not a Marxist practice or for that matter even part of the larger framework of left politics. Do you still hold that position?

My fundamental position remains the same. I have never completely denounced political understandings and criticisms that have emerged from various identity-driven paradigms of resistance. The real problem is when such paradigms shift their focus from being articulations of resistance to platforms of essentialist identity politics.

So, while my basic approach to this discourse has remained more or less the same, I must also admit that there have been changes when it comes to details. I still think identity politics is against the Marxist ethos, but I no longer consider its historical content and functionality to be monolithic. There are contradictions within identity politics and I now have a clearer and more perceptive understanding regarding what to accommodate and what to reject from these contradictions. Unlike before, I now don’t consider all identity questions under one large category. When various groups like Adivasis, Dalits, women and transgenders stress their identity position, they do so from a point of view of resistance. While it is true that such an approach carries with it the theoretical limitations of essentialism, it has a historical justification as its emphasis is on fighting for social rights that have been denied them. So it is important to extend solidarity despite ideological differences.

However, I don’t think there is any point in extending solidarity to caste organisations that function solely on the basis of their bargaining potential or to assertions of identity based on religion.

The question is: Does political Islam acknowledge secularism? As far as I understand, it does not. Islamists have a strategic relationship with secularism.   

So, to be more specific, how can the Left address the questions raised by political Islam in the Indian context? What is your response to the argument that the Left should extend its solidarity to them?

I think the Islam question should be addressed by connecting it with questions of nationalism. We have a responsibility to take a critical position towards Indian nationalism’s supremacist tendencies and the various kinds of marginalisations it has brought about.  

But if we were to translate that criticism into the language of political Islam, we will soon end up adopting the same logic of Hindutva, thereby negating the validity of our critique. It will trap us in a Hindu-Muslim binary that will cancel out the rightness of our resistance. 

The question is: Does political Islam acknowledge secularism? As far as I understand, it does not. Islamists have a strategic relationship with secularism. Of course, it is their choice, but I don’t think it is a strategic choice to be secular or not; it has to be a fundamental position. And as long as they don’t adopt that position, it is just not possible to be in solidarity with them.  

Yet, it is also not possible to denounce the reality of the issues they raise just because it was they who raised them. It is possible to address those issues without adopting their logic. Political Islam approaches the question of identity in a very peripheral manner. They see religion and values associated with God in a permanent form that is absolutely essentialist. But Islam came into being in its present form after undergoing various historical processes in which it assumed many different forms. When you essentialise it, you are also placing the religious identity of Hindu as its opposing force. Politically, that is self-defeating. And if the Left decides to be in solidarity with political Islam, it is only going to fortify Hindutva’s political vision.         

Now we also see various discussions on the Constitution that go beyond legal technicalities and focus on its philosophical and ethical dimensions. Was it a failure of our democratic movements that it took so long for such discussions to happen?   

It is true that previously we never bothered to discuss the historical factors and conditions behind the formation of our Constitution. But ideas and questions that come up in a particular historical context would never have appeared in the same form in a previous context. For instance, national anthem was for decades a mere formality in this country. It was even understood as an instrument of state logic. But in the present protests, the same national anthem acquired an emotional value. The song remains the same, but its function changed dramatically.

Similarly, it is simply impossible for the present form of awareness on the Constitution to have manifested in the same form in a different circumstance. This is an awareness that has now organically entered the experiential realm of citizens. And it has transformed the Constitution into a counter narrative against a social order prescribed by Brahmanism and the Manusmriti.      

What is your take on the politics of these protests?

If you look at the history of the formation of Indian nationalism, you can find two distinct political forms. From the 1880s to 1920s, mainstream nationalism was indeed religious in its essence. There might be exceptions here and there, but it is safe to say that nationalism in this period grew around Hinduism and various discourses on it. After the 1920s, however, this religious nationalism was replaced by a more inclusive and popular form that was fashioned by various factors like Gandhi, socialist and communist ideas, trade unions and various youth and student movements. It is this phase of nationalism that later became the bedrock of modern India.

An opposing nationalism had also come into existence which was later appropriated by Hindutva. But at least for half a century, popular nationalism managed to triumph over its religious version, until the tables were turned in the last couple of decades. Now, champions of religious nationalism like Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya are presented as the champions of true nationalism. CAA, at one level, is an expression of the conflict between these two streams of nationalism. To be precise, the secular answer to the question Who is an Indian is one that is based on definitions of national territory. The religious answer, instead, is premised on the sharing of a particular culture. CAA is a demonstration of the State’s shift to the latter answer.

You have been an orator for the last thirty years. How did you develop your style? What are the kinds of preparations you make when you try to communicate theoretical ideas to an audience located outside academics?

My life as an orator started in my college days as part of student politics. It was the glory period of modernism in Kerala. And the general style of oratory was based on memorising Latin American and African poems and then quoting them. Just to make it sound different from ordinary speeches. By the time I completed my graduation, I started to go outside my college and speak.

Looking back, I can see that my style was quite artificial. I also had a fair bit of anxiety. But for the last decade or so, I have gotten over it. I can now give a speech with the same calmness that I engage in a conversation. And my style has become more natural too. There is no longer any need to memorise what I have to quote; those things just fall in place organically these days. 

I think when you speak with calmness, your audience too will be inclined to sit and listen quite peacefully. If we become aggressive, they will try to resist. The most important factor behind successful oratory, in my view, is an ability to develop a heart-to-heart connection with the audience. And the easiest way to accomplish that is to refrain from sounding dominant. People must feel that I am one among them. But it is easier said than done. It requires a lot of experience.

 As far as theoretical ideas are concerned, I prefer telling the audience about the effects of theory rather than stating it as such. Theory, after all, is only a framework to explain a social reality. So, I prefer to start from the experience of that reality and then present theory as an explanation of that experience. If theory comes from above, without a context, it is not going to touch people. One of the problems with our theoretical models is that they are too abstract. You feel as if there is no connect between theory and the human condition it theorises.

Of course, not all theoretical concepts can be explained based on concrete realities. But as an orator, I can only work within that limitation. Practically speaking, with experience, you get a sense of where to stop when you are on stage.

You always conclude your anti-CAA speeches with a lot of optimism. Can we be so certain about a bright future?

Optimism is something that we have to consciously uphold. Protests for justice cannot move forward in its absence. Optimism is a part of our political will, not of our frameworks of intellectual analysis. And political will is a necessary condition if we have to intervene in an act of protest. Even when the reality is against us, we have to sustain this will. It is not a dream or a vision about the future, but an indispensible political conviction. 

 (Translated from the Malayalam by Suresh P. Thomas.)