Telangana wants to have its own Karamchedu
[This article was written on 20 July 2015 as my column in EPW. But for some reason the first issue of EPW in August could not carry it and therefater we had a massive 8 km long march to Pathapally, which compelled the administration to negotiate with us and accept all our demnads. It is important however that the public understand the process and the intensity of struggle and therefore this article, needs to be dessiminated to wider readership]
Telangana, the youngest state in Indian Union, carved out by a long drawn peoples' struggle in which more than 600 youth said to have sacrificed their lives has begun within less than a year to disillusion its poorer strata, particularly Dalits, who were in forefront of the struggle for its formation. The struggle had overwhelming progressive support although it was led by a conventional politician K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR). He too was compelled to adopt a pro-poor stance with special emphasis on Dalits. In the wake of last election, he made bombastic promises that included gifting three acres of land and two bedroom house for each Dalit family absolutely free. While attempts to woo gullible and politically disoriented Dalits are not uncommon, these promises were still fantastic. But given the context of Dalit contribution, it appeared plausible although other politicians and analysts derided it as impracticable and just fooling people. Nevertheless, it did convey at the minimum that KCR government shall have special concern towards Dalits of Telangana. The ongoing struggle of Patapally Madigas, the biggest Dalit caste in Telangana, since last two months has completely demolished these hopes and exposed anti-Dalit character of KCR government as any other.
I was invited to intervene in this struggle by the activists of Kula Nirmulana Porata Samiti (Committee for annihilation of Castes), an organization that has been active in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in taking up issues of caste oppression since its formation a decade ago. It lent leadership to local Dalits and catalyzed formation of Patapally Dalit Victims Committee for Struggle for Justice, and launched a struggle under their united banner. They have been on dharna and relay fast in front of Pebberu Mandala Office demanding justice to the Patapally Dalits, who were not only oppressed by the dominant Boya community but also by the local state functionaries who have slapped counter cases on them. Emboldened by the latter's support, the Boyas have intensified harassment of Dalits and been openly threatening them of dire consequences if Dalits defy their dictates. The tension in Patapally is such that Daliits apprehend something terrible to happen if government persists with its inaction and tacit support to the Boyas.
Peep into Primitivism
Those who wonder why Dalits had endured their oppression and not rebelled against it for over two millennia must visit Patapally for answer. One reason is surely their internalization of ascribed status induced by religion but other is quite secular, the brute force of domination of the upper castes. The latter is demonstrated in this village, just 15 KM away from the Hyderabad-Bombay express way that may mislead you to think you were in California. The present episode was triggered off on May Day. A Madiga 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 desire to do puja in the village temple after his marriage, to a local TDP MLA, G Chinna Reddy, who was among the guests. The MLA assured Dalits to follow him but when they reached the temple he disappeared. Thinking they had blessings of the MLA, Madigas entered the temple and offered 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. 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 of the Madigas. The saga of atrocities on Patapally Madigas began from then. The Madigas had to walk through a kilometer long road passing through the Boya part of village to reach their colony at the lower part. They were teased, abused in caste names, thrown stones at, assaulted with minor pretext, and hit with bike.
On 4 may, 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) along with 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 chased them to Dalit colony. From thereon, the harassment and assaults intensified. In order to avoid these daily ordeals, Madigas decided on 1 June to leave their homes and shift to the housing plots near the Pebberu-Kollapur road given to them by the then AP government in 2008. They erected their hutments, brought building materials to make them pucca and began residing there. However, the priest and 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 3 June the Boyas came in hundreds and buried one, Chinna Sayanna, who died the previous day right in the midst of Madiga hutments. Madiga approached police. The police headed by DSP, Vanaparthi accompanied by a circle inspector, SIs and 60 odd policemen came to the village but could not stop Boyas burying another dead, Godanna, in the midst of the Madiga hutments in front of police. Madigas helplessly resorted to rasta roko on Pebberu-Kolapur road in protest. Police who helplessly watched Boyas bury their dead amidst Madiga hutments, resorted to severe lathi charge. 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 the injuries when I met them on 19 July.
Terror of Caste
The episode began with a desire of entering the temple, after 65 years of 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 13 gunthas. With all formalities completed, he began cultivating it from 2001 but the dominant Boyas could not stomach the idea. They began burying their dead on his land and putting up memorial structures. While their traditional burial ground just across the village road had 3-4 innocuous 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 a make shift tap where from Dalits drew water. The sight was so appalling that we had to ask a 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 in auction for fishing, and irrigated Boya lands. What Madigas got is inundation of their houses during rainy season and serpents and other reptiles as their company. While the Boyas evicted Madigas from their own lands, they have usurped the village common lands and put up semi-permanent cow sheds and warehouses.
Interestingly, sarpanch of Patapally 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 Boyas and against agitating Madigas. In contrast, one Boya, Pedda Vusanna, who had been allotted a housing plot along with Madigas is on madiga side. Interestingly, Subhadra also gets water from the Madiga borewells 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. If the agitation intensifies, there is a strong likelihood of the politicians marshaling Madiga Dandora mercenaries against the agitating Madigas, making it look like an intra-caste dispute. Patapally exemplified the contemporary caste dynamics.
While on 17 July, progressive groups in Hyderabad observed 30th year of Karamchedu massacre, the Madigas of Patapally remained in the dread of their village becoming Karamchedu as threatened by the Boyas. The Kammas of Karamchedu in Prakasam district had killed six Madigas and grievously injured 20 others. Boyas of patapally in 2015 may not be as rich as Kammas of Karamchedu in 1985 and the Madigas likewise may not be as politically conscious as their counterparts in Karamchedu. But in terms of hatred for Madigas, the key prerequisite for that scale of atrocity, Boyas have displayed enough of it. Moreover, they are known to be more ferocious than the Reddys and Kammas. Despite a series of assaults, insults and humiliation of Madigas over the last two months and their peaceful dharna and relay fast, the government has not sensed the gravity of situation. With each day of Madigas' agitation, the anger of Boyas is scaling a new high and can erupt any moment into a gory atrocity.
Telangana region unlike Rayalseema and coastal Andhra, did not have history of caste atrocity. It was deceptively attributed to radical movements the region had since colonial times. But as Patapally revealed it is the terrible power asymmetry between the dominant castes and Dalits that perhaps thwarted any big flare up of caste conflict. As KCR fails to fulfill his electoral promises he made to the people, particularly Dalits, he might be wanting to have his own Karamchedu in Telangana to deflect attention.