Vijayawada: A young man from the Mala community of Dalits was tonsured by a police sub-inspector on July 19 in Vedulapalli village of Sitanagaram Mandal in Andhra Pradesh’s East Godavari district.
Indugamilli Varaprasad, a resident of Vedulapalli village of Sitanagaram Mandal, told the media that sub-inspector (SI) Shaik Feroz Shah and two constables had picked him up from his house on Monday for “questioning” about his alleged unruly behaviour with a YSR Congress leader.
“The SI whipped me with his belt and kicked me. Later, the SI phoned a barber and had my head and moustache shaved,” said Varaprasad.
Varaprasad had reportedly been stuck in a traffic jam on his two-wheeler, obstructing the movement of a car in which the ruling party leader was travelling. The YSR Congress leader allegedly warned him of dire consequences. This was what had led to his tonsuring the next day, Varaprasad alleged.
Under pressure from Dalit organisations that protested this caste atrocity – tonsuring is one of the ways the ‘upper castes’ humiliate Dalits – the government has suspended the SI and the two constables concerned.
Second case in two decades
The last time a Dalit was subjected to this form of abuse was on December 29, 1996, when two Mala youths, Dadala Venkataratnam and Koti Chinnam Raju, were tonsured at Venkatayapalem in the Ramachandrapuram assembly constituency. Thota Trimurthulu, the MLA representing Ramachandrapuram at the time, was a prime accused in the case. He had ordered them to be tonsured in his presence because the two young men had worked for parties opposing his in the 1996 assembly elections. It took 24 years for justice to even begin to catch up with this case: its first ever hearing was held in the SC/ST Special Court (Prevention of Atrocities) in May 2016.
By the time it was first heard in the special court, one of the nine accused and 13 of 24 witnesses had died. Trimurthulu, the accused MLA, switched loyalties after winning the election to the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which ruled up to 2004, so he could avoid the police. He then defected to Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSR Congress soon after it came to power in 2019.
A form of caste abuse
Tonsuring is a form of caste abuse that has been meted out to Dalits when they ‘defy’ the diktat of ‘upper caste’ elders. Since East Godavari district has the highest population of Dalits in the state, caste abuse is rampant here.
In the 1970s, an irrigation system and the subsequent green revolution helped the land-owning upper castes in the Krishna-Godavari delta region gain financial strength, which deepened the social and economic divide in the area.
At the same time, the Dalits of this region made tremendous progress in literacy and employment, which helped them assert their caste identity.
In 1981, Kusuma Krishna Murty, a Mala community member and former member of the Lok Sabha from East Godavari’s Amalapuram constituency, had been selected by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as a member of the Indian delegation to the United Nations to speak on the uplift of Dalits. This increasing assertiveness of the community led to a confrontation with the ‘upper castes’.
According to writer and analyst Satish Chandar, whose family has its origins in the Godavari delta region, the methods of caste discrimination and abuse vary distinctly within the region from the Godavari delta, comprising East and West Godavari districts, to the Krishna delta with Krishna and Guntur districts.
The Dalit massacres in Karamchedu (July 17, 1985), Neerukonda (July 1987) and Tsunduru (August 6, 1991) in the Krishna delta region, Chandar told The Wire, reflected the prevailing attitude to ‘lower caste’ people. While the Kamma community was behind the violence at Karamchedu and Neerukonda, the Reddys were involved in the Trsundur massacre.
However, Chandar added, in the East and West Godavari districts, caste oppression is seldom seen in the form of physical violence. Instead, the ‘upper castes’ humiliate Dalits by way of tonsures and social boycotts. In this region, the dominant caste is that of the resource-rich Kapus. Both cases of tonsuring in this region had Kapus as the accused.
In West Godavari district, Dalits are in conflict with Kshatriyas, another affluent ‘upper caste’ community. On June 3, 2016, in Kshatriya-dominated Garagaparru in West Godavari district, the Kshatriyas slapped a prolonged social boycott on Mala families and refused to rent them land so they could farm.
Jagan government feels the heat
Daggubati Chenchuramaiah, a relative of N.T. Rama Rao, then the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, was one of the main accused in the Karamchedu massacre. Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSR Congress accused NTR’s TDP of being anti-Dalit and rode this plank to victory in the April 2019 assembly elections. To show that he was committed to social justice, Reddy made Narayana Swamy, a Dalit, his deputy chief minister.
Yet, in the one year of Jagan’s rule, Andhra Pradesh has witnessed a spate of atrocities on Dalits. On July 18, Yericharla Kiran Kumar, a Dalit youth, died in police custody in Chirala in Prakasam district, after allegedly being tortured for not wearing a mask. Varaprasad’s tonsuring case was reported in East Godavari district on the same day.
On July 15, former magistrate S. Ramakrishna, a Dalit, was allegedly attacked in Chittoor district by the supporters of P. Ramachandra Reddy, a minister in Jagan Reddy’s government.
According to Swarupa Rani, professor of Buddhist studies at Nagarjuna University, since all the mainstream parties in Andhra Pradesh are under the control of dominant castes, a change of ruling party in the assembly makes no difference to the way that Dalits are treated.