Sunday, August 23, 2015

Pathapally: Mahad of the 21st Century Anand Teltumbde

Pathapally: Mahad of the 21st Century

Anand Teltumbde

The Pathapally Dalit Baditha Nyaya Porata Samiti (PDBNPS), a united front of 11 organizations, created to spearhead the struggle of the Dalits of Pathapally village, decided to observe 25th  anniversary of the Tsundur Massacre on  August 6, and take a long march from Pebber to Pathapally to stress their demands which the administration chose to ignore despite a series of protests it carried out over more  than two months, including a relay fast from 8 July at the Ambedkar statue, not very far from the Pebber Mandal Office. On the previous day, the administration declared that it would impose section 144, right from the Pebber exit on the Hyderabad-Bengaluru highway and ban the entry to Pathapally village on August 6. But in an exemplary display of defiance nearly seven thousand Dalits from surrounding villages gathered in solidarity with the Pathapally Dalits and compelled the administration to accept their demands with a definite commitment for implementation. Pathapally struggle is by far the first Dalit struggle after the formation of the Telangana state and first to expose that even Telangana which had surfeit of legacy of radical movements right from the pre-independence period was not immune to caste atrocities. The importance of this struggle is not however confined to Telangana, it could well be considered Mahad of the 21st century that could herald the advent of new genre of the Dalit movement for the coming times.

The Trigger

Pathapally, a small village in Pebber Mandal in Mehboobnagar district of the youngest state of Telangana that came into being out of popular movement that devoured more than 600 youth, is less than 15 km away from the Hyderabad-Bengaluru express way, connecting India's two most presentable global cities, epitomes of her high-end modernity. But it takes you away to at least 100 years back when Dalits were not allowed to enter temples, use common water sources and were compelled to meekly obey the dictates of dominated castes. Those who wonder why Dalits had endured their oppression and not rebelled against it for over two millennia might find their answer in Pathapally. The Dalits of Pathapally suffered all these years the brute force of domination of the upper caste Boyas. As such the struggle they waged against this oppression since  May 1 signifies new awakening and gets it closer to Mahad, where nearly nine decades ago Dalits had waged their epic struggle for the very similar purpose. The trigger for Mahad was passing of the Bole resolution in the Legislative Council of Bombay and subsequent adoption by the Mahad municipality which opened all public water tanks for Dalits. Pathapally Dalits did not have to wait for any such resolution; the constitution of the country having granted them these rights way back in 1950 and in addition brought in stringent laws against the upper castes discriminating against or perpetrating atrocities on them.

The trigger for Pathapally came on the May Day when a Madiga (Dalit) boy Raghuram, a bus conductor in the Telangana Road Transport Corporation, one of the three lucky Dalits from 40 odd families to have some regular employment, expressed an innocuous desire to do puja in the village temple after his marriage, to a local Congress MLA, G Chinna Reddy, who was among the guests. The MLA assured him to follow him but when he along with other Dalits reached the temple the MLA was not to be found. Thinking that they had blessings of the MLA, Madigas went ahead entering the temple and doing puja. Next day, when Raghuram's mother went to distribute beetle leaves to the Boyas as per the custom, they threatened her that they would kill Raghuram for daring to take Madigas into the temple. Incidentally, Boyas, who are the dominant caste in Pathapally, themselves rank the lowest among the BCs and have been seeking scheduled tribe status for themselves since 2012. The temple priest Krishnamachari performed the yagna for purification and reprimanded Boyas for letting Madigas pollute the gods. In the night Boyas had a meeting and decided social boycott against the Madigas. The saga of atrocities on Pathapally Madigas began from there. The Madigas had to walk through a kilometer long road passing through the Boya part of the village to reach their colony at the lower end. They were teased, abused in caste names, thrown stones at, assaulted with minor pretext, and variously harassed.

On May 4, some Madiga youth went to Pebberu and informed the Tehsildar in Prajawani (a forum for voicing people's grievances) about this harassment. In response, Tehsildar Pandu Nayak along with Prakash Yadav, sub-inspector of police (SI) and some policemen visited the Madiga hamlet, established a police picket and opened the doors of temple to let Madigas in. However, as the Tehsildar left the village, a mob of 300-400 Boya youth rushed in and attacked the Madigas in front of the SI and drove them to Dalit colony. From thereon, the harassment and assaults intensified. In order to avoid these daily ordeals, Madigas decided on June 1, to leave their homes and shift to the housing plots near the Pebberu-Kollapur road which were allotted to them by the then AP government in 2008. They erected their hutments, brought building materials and began living there. However, the priest and the village revenue officer (VRO) incited the Boyas that if Madigas lived at the upper part of the village, they would pollute the entire village and bring bad omen. In order to push them back to their old colony, on June 3, the Boyas came in hundreds and buried one, Chinna Sayanna, who died the previous night, right in the midst of Madiga hutments. Madigas approached police. The police headed by DSP, Vanaparthi accompanied by a circle inspector, SI and 60 odd policemen came to the village the next day (June 4) but could not stop the Boyas burying another dead, Godanna, in the midst of the Madiga hutments right in front of the police. Madigas resorted to rasta roko on Pebberu-Kollapur road in protest. Police who helplessly watched the Boyas bury their dead amidst Madiga hutments, resorted to severe lathi charge on the protesting Madigas. Jitendra Reddy, SI, Pebberu took 20 Dalits including Raghuram into custody and beat them black and blue. Even women were not spared by male policemen. Many of them were still taking private treatment for injuries when I met them on 19 July.   

Skeletons Tumble Out

The episode that began with an innocuous desire of a Dalit to enter temple, after 65 years of the constitutional guarantee to do so, exposed the years of injustice and terror the Dalits meekly endured. Just close to the newly allotted housing plots, one Narayana Madiga was allotted a patta of 1 acre and 13 gunthas agriculture land. With all formalities completed, he began cultivating it from 2001 but the dominant Boyas could not stomach the idea. They started burying their dead on his land and putting up memorial structures. While their traditional burial ground lay just across the village road and had only 3-4 such structures over several generations, the new burial ground already had over a dozen of them. Narayana was harassed into eventually giving up cultivation in 2007. As we travelled into the Madiga colony, many more things came to lime light. The village had a water tank but it supplied to only Boya houses. For Dalits, there were separate bore wells, from which underground pipe carried salty water to Dalit colony. It opened into four pits with an opening each where from Dalits drew water. The sight was so appalling that I had to ask a Madiga lady for demonstration to believe it. Beyond the Dalit village was a huge tank, which was said to have swallowed Dalit lands. Total of 54 acres of lands belonging to them was submerged rendering them landless labourers. Such is the terror of Boyas that Madigas could not utter a word of dissent. The tank standing on their lands reportedly fetches over Rs 12 lakhs annually from the auction for fishing, and irrigates Boya lands. What Madigas got in return is inundation of their houses during rainy season that brought along serpents and other reptiles for their company. While the Boyas evicted Madigas from their own lands, they have usurped the village common lands with impunity and put up semi-permanent cow sheds and warehouses.   

Interestingly, the sarpanch of Pathapally is one Madiga woman, Subhadra, who was previously a cook in the village school under the mid-day meal scheme. Boyas had objected to her being a cook but accepted her as the sarpanch of the gram panchayat. In the current caste polarization between Boyas and Madigas, her family is on the side of the Boyas and against agitating Madigas. In contrast, one Boya, Pedda Vusanna, who had been allotted a housing plot along with Madigas is on the Madiga side. Interestingly, Subhadra also gets water from the Madiga bore wells but would not speak a word against the dominant Boyas and Pedda Vusanna is punished by his own caste men by demolishing his hut and severely beating his wife, son and daughter.

Tsundur day and the Long March

The lathi charge on June 4, catapulted Pathapally to the pages of district newspapers. The Kula Nirmulan Porata Samiti (Committee for the Struggle for Annihilation of Castes) (KNPS) picked up the issue and formed a united front styled as Pathapally Dalitha Badhitha Nyaya Porata Samiti on June 10, to spearhead the struggle. It comprised KNPS, Telangana Praja Front (TPF), Praja Kala Mandali (PKM), Chaitanya Mahila Sangham (CMS), Civil Liberties Committee (CLC), Palamuru Adhyayana Vedhika, Telangana Vidyarthi Vedhika (TVV), Ambedkar Yuvajana Sangham, Democratic Teachers Federation (DTF), Madiga Students Front (MSF), and Jalavanarula Samrakshana Samithi. This new outfit organized a dharna in front of the collector office in Mehboobnagar on June 23, but no one paid any heed to it. Dejected with the continuing neglect of the administration, it decided to do indefinite sit-in at the Ambedkar statue near the Pebber Mandal Office with relay fast from July 8. Even then none in the administration felt the need to speak to them. The KNPS requested me to come and intervene in the struggle which I could do on July 19. I met the relay-fasters at Pebber and thereafter, accompanied by some KNPS and PDBNPS activists, went to Pathapally. I carried out my own investigations and addressed an impromptu press meet in the Madiga colony. The next day, Pathapally got prominently flashed for the first time in the Hyderabad papers and through the Hindu report became national news. On July 20, we again had a formal press conference at Hyderabad which further added to its exposure. It stirred up the establishment but negatively. That very day (July 20) some goons feigning as MRPS (Madiga Reservation Porata Samiti) activists came and broke the pandal and had a scuffle with the agitating inmates threatening them to stop the agitation. They had to beat retreat before the resolve of the agitating people. The administration however remained unmoved.

In order to create pressure on the government, the PDBNPS in consultation with me decided to observe 25th anniversary of the Tsundur massacre on August 6 and take an eight kilometer long march to Pathapally after the meeting at Pebber. The district administration had taken a serious note of it and declared that they would not allow it to happen. It clamped section 144 right from the entry to the Pebber town up to Pathapally. In the morning the entire area was cordoned off by the police. Before starting off from the Hyderabad airport to Pebber, I called up the SP and the (special) collector to understand their plans and informed them my desire to discuss the matters. As we reached Pebber, people began gathering and soon the crowd swell to four to five thousand. The Additional Police Superintendent (ASP) DV Srinivas Rao who headed the police there spoke with me and got my assurance that everything would be peaceful. After the speeches of the prominent activists in observance of the Tsundur Day, I addressed the gathering and gave a formal call for the long march to Pathapally. It opened up the floodgates of peoples' enthusiasm and before we could manage to come out, they began marching towards Pathapally. Many people poured in on the way to stretch the rally for nearly two km, packed with slogan shouting people. The procession reached Pathapally by 3 pm. The sloganeering reached high pitch as it entered the village. People strolled into the temple, the entry to which had triggered off the entire episode. After taking round of the Madiga colony, the procession converted itself into a public meeting on the land belonging to Narayana Madiga. The two big pandals put up for the purpose could barely accommodate a fraction of the crowd.  

As the speeches began, it started raining heavily but people remained unmoved. Around 5 pm, I along with Prof Lakshminarayana of the University of Hyderabad, M Raghavachary, B Abhinava, and K Jayaraj of the PDBNPS went to the Special Collector and Additional SP, who were waiting for us, for discussion. The discussion went on for three hours at the Scheduled Caste Welfare Hostel in the nearby village of Srirangapuram in Peppirair Mandal. The administration represented by the Special Collector Vanaja Devi and ASP Srinivas Rao extended exemplary understanding and displayed dignified appreciation of the struggle and gracefully accepted all our demands, except for the charging Jitendra Reddy under the SC/ST Atrocity Act and the suspension of the RDO and the DSP under whose supervision the huts of Dalits were demolished. About the first matter, Srinivas Rao wanted to discuss with the SP before making a commitment and about the second Vanaja Devi assured us that the action would be taken as per the CCA rules. We accepted it in good spirit. The accepted demands included: (1) Fencing off the graveyard created by the Boyas on Madiga lands and disallowing any more burials there, (2) The heirs of Narayana Madiga to be given 23 gunthas land which they lost in the burials of Boyas within three months; (3) 45 house pattas to be given to the Dalits within a week and construction of two-bedroom houses  to start on top priority under the government scheme; (4) 18 huts and one shutter that were demolished by RDO/DSP to be made good within a week; (5) Madigas who lost about 54 acres of land in the village tank to be compensated with equivalent land under the government's land purchase scheme within three months if they had proof of patta or cultivation; (6) the fake cases filed against Madigas vide FIR 65 and 67 of 2015 and another case under section 107 against 23 Madigas to be investigated and withdrawn within 10 days; (7) Jannaiah, Erranna and others from Boya community to be charged under IPC 307 as per the complaint; (8) Boya Mallesh and Anjanelu to be arrested under the SC/ST Atrocity Act according to the FIR 55 of 2015; (9)  the temple priest Krishnamachari to be tried under the SC/ST Atrocity act; (10) the cases to be filed against the persons named in the last 11 incidents in the village; and (11) cases to be filed against the five families who buried their dead on the Madiga lands. The special Collector in addition assured that she would put in special efforts to normalize relations between the Boyas and Madigas to establish peace. The Additional SP also assured us to maintain police vigil and protect Dalits from any reprisal from the Boyas.

Reminiscing Mahad

Comparison of Pathapally with the iconic Mahad struggle under the leadership of Babasaheb Ambedkar might sound audacious but in many ways it is reminiscent of the former. After the attack on the Dalits on 20 March 1927 in retaliation for their 'polluting' the Chavadar tank, Ambedkar had consciously planned the Satyagraha conference on 25 December. It envisaged a team of satyagrahis offering a daily satyagraha at the Chavadar tank by drinking its water. However, some orthodox Hindus had fraudulently managed to obtain a court injunction just a few days before the conference, claiming that the Chavadar tank was actually a Chaudhary tank, a private property and hence it did not come under the purview of the Bole resolution. The entire conference debated whether to go ahead with saytyagraha or not. The overwhelming majority of the 10,000 delegates that came for the satyagraha were determined to go ahead defying the injunction and to court arrest. But eventually at the behest of Ambedkar, they relented and agreed to return without performing satyagraha. Similar situation was created on 6 August for us by the administration by clamping section 144. But sensing the resolve of the several thousand Dalits that began gathering there, it took a sensible stand and averted unseemly consequences. In Mahad, the situation was certainly far more congenial than at Pathapally to exhibit the Dalit resolve to secure their human rights but unfortunately the historical opportunity was lost in giving up the satyagraha as it also happened in the decision to not retaliate the attack during the previous conference.

Pathapally, perhaps reflected the learning from Mahad that the mode of struggle depends upon the adversary and that the state is not necessarily a friend of Dalits or even a neutral arbiter in social conflicts. The Mahad struggle had got strangled into court battles which when won after 10 years proved to be a Pyrrhic victory. The Pathapally was surely more complex than Mahad. While Mahad was focused on a symbolic assertion of civil rights of Dalits, which were already granted them, Pathapally involved actual civil and criminal issues against the dominant community. Mahad had largely pitched itself against the orthodox Hindu society whereas Pathapally was clear that it was confronting both, the dominant community as well as the state. Mahad had a largely non-partisan colonial state to induce a notion of neutrality, but Pathapally had to knowingly deal with the neoliberal state, which characteristically tended to ignore the weak and shelter the strong. It could only bend under the pragmatic exigencies of public pressure. Pathapally reflected clarity, learning from its predecessors with which it could strategize and secure victory in one go, which Mahad could not. While such advancement in strategy, execution and consequent aftermath in Pathapally over Mahad is a natural learning consequence, it does not rob it of its similarities with Mahad. Indeed, Pathapally could be seen as Mahad of the 21st century!

While it is shameful for India to need Mahads, it may be necessary for Dalits to herald a new genre of Dalit movement.

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