How the Decision to Name a District After Ambedkar Led to Violent Protests in Coastal Andhra

Violence in Amalapuram on May 24 brought to the fore the deep-seated casteism of the region and 'upper' caste members' fears over Dalit assertion.

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Hyderabad: The recent violence in the Amalapuram town of Andhra Pradesh by dominant castes over renaming the newly formed Konaseema district as Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Konaseema district has once again shed light on the uneasy coexistence of the deeply-entrenched casteism and corresponding Dalit assertion in the coastal Andhra Pradesh.

On May 24, those opposed to the change in the name took to the streets, in violation of prohibitory orders, demanding that Ambedkar’s name be dropped. Protestors vandalised public and private property, pelted stones injuring several policemen and commoners, and torched several vehicles. They set the houses of a minister and a ruling YSR Congress legislator on fire.

Also read: Violent Protests, Arson in Andhra’s Amalapuram Against Renaming District After Ambedkar

Internet, which was suspended for about a fortnight, was restored in a phased manner across the district only on Tuesday, June 7. Section 144 (prohibits gathering of four or more people in the concerned area) of the Code Of Criminal Procedure and Section 30 (regulation of public assemblies and processions and licensing of the same) of the Police Act still continue to be enforced in some parts of the district. At last count, about 111 were arrested in connection with the violence after seven first information reports (FIRs) were registered. An eerie calm now envelopes Amalapuram town and the Konaseema district.

What may seem to be a spontaneous outburst of opposition to the change of name actually points to a deep-seated casteism that pervades this coastal Andhra district, which is best known as the granary of Andhra Pradesh. Behind the lush green fields and coconut canopies, which dot this fertile and prosperous district, is a population vertically divided along the caste lines.

Lush green fields in coastal Andhra. Photo: Wikimedia/Public Domain.

Many of the researchers and activists who extensively studied the region point out that the latest violence is reflective of hubris and the insecurity felt by Kapus (an ‘upper’ caste) and Settibalijas (categorised as Other Backward Caste) who can’t stand the upward social mobility of Dalits in the region, who now assert themselves socially, politically, and to some extent economically as well.

Turn of events 

On April 4, the YSR Congress government reorganised the state by increasing the number of districts from 13 to 26, for decentralisation and ease of administration. Some of the newly created districts now carry names of popular Telugu icons: NTR (Telugu Desam Party founder), Sri Satyasai (spiritual head), Annamayya (saint and composer), Alluri Sitharama Raju (freedom fighter), and YSR (former chief minister), among others.

Also read: Explained: Why Jagan Has Created 13 New Districts in Andhra Pradesh

There has been a longstanding demand from Dalits (and even from some members of other castes) and all political parties in the state that if Konaseema was ever to become a district, it should be named after Ambedkar. However, the state government in its (initial) announcement called the new district ‘Konaseema’, ignoring these pleas.

Many Dalit organisations before the announcement of new districts took out rallies and submitted representations to the state government in pursuit of their demand. In March, Dalit organisations even took out a long peaceful march with 80,000 people in Amalapuram town to highlight their demand. Most political parties and civil society organisations too lent their support to the rally and the cause.

In fact, chief minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy during the Padayatra (walkathon) which is perceived to have catapulted him to power, had promised that Konaseema would be named after Ambedkar in accordance with the wishes of Dalits in the region.

However, the April 4 announcement had no mention of Ambedkar while other districts, as expected, were prefixed with the names of popular Telugu icons (mostly belonging to ‘upper’ castes). The decision not only surprised Dalit organisations but also political parties who had thought a ‘Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Konaseema’ district was a foregone conclusion.

Disappointed, many Dalit organisations in the district protested the government’s move, as some even went on indefinite fasts. They demanded that the government reconsider its decision. Political parties too lent their support to the demand. Even former chief minister and TDP chief N. Chandrababu Naidu, who visited the district in the aftermath of the announcement, at a public rally, said if the YSR Congress government did not fulfil the demand of the Ambedkar Konaseema district, he would do so if his party rose to power. With opposition dubbing the YSR Congress government as “anti-Dalit”, as the issue by then had become a matter of competitive politics, the ruling party was forced to re-think.

Meanwhile, on May 13, chief minister Reddy visited Muramalla village in the Konaseema district to participate in a government programme to announce a slew of welfare measures for the fisherfolk community. On the sidelines of this programme, a number of representatives of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Jilla Sadhana Samithi, floated to press for the demand, met the chief minister to urge the government to rethink the decision.

The convenor of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Jilla Sadhana Samithi, Janga Babu Rao, who was among the Dalit activists who met the chief minister, recalls that they had once again apprised him of the aspirations of Dalits in the district and urged that the government reconsider its decision.

“We told him how Dalits in the district, compared to other regions in the state, moved up the social ladder drawing inspiration and guidance from Ambedkar. We had also told him that Ambedkar had once visited the district in the 1940s, and impressed upon him about the sizeable Dalit population in the district. He gave a patient hearing and assured that government would reconsider. He responded positively,” Rao tells The Wire.

The government did reconsider, issuing a notification within five days, on May 18, announcing that the Konamseema district would be renamed as Dr.B.R. Ambedkar Konaseema district. The decision was naturally welcomed by Dalit organisations while political parties, more or less, remained guarded in their response lest they rankle the dominant Kapus and Settibalijas.

Counter mobilisation

The decision to rename the Konaseema district after Ambedkar did, in fact, rankle the ‘upper’ castes. The next few days saw a counter mobilisation of ‘upper’ castes, both offline and online, to vehemently oppose the government’s decision. Social media pages were created, lavishing praise on their castes while opposing the renaming move. Kapus and Settibalijas, who traditionally share a hostile relationship in the region, came together in the face of what is perceived as an affront to their dominance socially.

In fact, within the next few days, new outfits in the name of Konaseema Joint Action Committee, Konaseema Parirakshana Samithi and Konaseema Sadhana Samithi sprang up, whose sole motive was to oppose the change of name.

Between May 18 and 24, the day when the large-scale violence took place, there were a few clashes at an individual level between Dalits on one side and ‘upper’ castes on the other side. These were, according to rights activist M. Gaurav from Amalapuram, the result of old and existing rivalries between different individuals.

“However, given that the environment in the town by then was already vitiated in the wake of competitive mobilisations by Dalits and other groups, these incidents gained traction and were spun into ‘attacks on their communities’ by both sides. Aggressive social media campaigns too helped both sides to rally people behind their causes,” adds M. Gaurav.

Sensing trouble, the police had by then enforced prohibitory orders in the district. However, in response to a call given by groups demanding Ambedkar’s name be dropped from the district, several protestors planned a rally on May 24 towards the district collectorate in Amalapuram. This rally turned violent. Even additional police forces brought from surrounding districts were not able to bring the situation under control, as protestors went on a rampage, pelting stones, vandalising properties and torching vehicles and buildings.

Violent protests took place in Amalapuram town of Andhra Pradesh on May 24 over the renaming of Konaseema district. Photo: Screengrab.

The state home minister, Taneti Vanita, blamed “anti-social elements and some political parties” for the violence. Opposition parties hit back at the government and called it a “serious failure” on the part of state intelligence.

Many in the district believe the government did not handle the issue properly. “Had the government announced the name of the Ambedkar Konaseema district along with others, like NTR and Annamayya districts, there would not have been such an issue. The fact that the government first decides not to call it Ambedkar district, ignoring Dalits’ aspiration, and then does a re-think has allowed upper castes to perceive that the government gave in to the demands of Dalits. This perceived humiliation resulted in the violence,” says Bhima Rao, a Dalit activist associated with the Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Jilla Sadhana Samithi.

Some even allege the role of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Hindutva groups behind the May 24 violence. “In the days prior to the violence, about 100 members from various organisations affiliated to BJP, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bajrang Dal were mobilised and were prompted to oppose the proposed name change even if it required violent means,” alleges Janga Babu Rao.

The Wire has also tried to reach out to groups that opposed the new name, however, none responded. It is learnt that some of the members of such groups have either been arrested for the May 24 violence or have gone underground.

Dalit assertion in Konaseema

Dalits in Konaseema account for nearly half the population; in absolute numbers, there are about five lakh Dalits out of the total population of 11 lakh. Due to this, three out of seven assembly constituencies in the district are reserved for Scheduled Castes, and the only parliamentary segment, Amalapuram, which falls under this district, is also reserved for the community. Given this demographic preponderance, Dalits here have asserted themselves politically despite the fact that powerful Kapus and Settibalijas continue to hold sway socially and economically.

In the last generation, Dalits in the district have also acquired relative upward social mobility, compared to other parts of Andhra Pradesh, thanks to Dalit progressive movements and the spread of Christianity and missionary education.

“Many of our brothers and sisters from the Dalit community have acquired higher education, up to post-graduate levels. Many of them emigrated to countries such as the US and the UK. This is all because of the guidance and efforts made by Babasaheb Ambedkar to empower us. We have made the best use of reservations despite the fact we had disadvantages in the past. Today, Dalits in our region are no less in comparison to so-called upper castes, which is not palatable to them. They can’t tolerate the fact that Dalits, who once served them as menial workers, have now moved up the ladder,” observes Janga Babu Rao.

The Dalit massacres in Karamchedu (Prakasam district, 1985), Neerukonda (Guntur district, 1987) and Chunduru (Guntur district, 1991) have resulted in heightened caste consciousness among Dalits, leading to the spread of the Ambedkarite movement and rise of several Dalit outfits in the coastal Andhra Pradesh, including Dalit Maha Sabha that spearheaded the Dalit cause in the region. The effects of these developments are still strongly felt in both erstwhile East Godavari (from which Konaseema district is carved out) and West Godavari districts.

Women Dalit protestors in Gujarat carrying a portrait of B.R. Ambedkar. Credit: PTI

Representational image. Photo: PTI

Contrary to the popular perception that capitalist development and modernisation would result in a decline in caste consciousness leading to a rise in the class conflict, the coastal Andhra belt, however, followed an opposite trajectory. Scholars who worked on caste in Andhra Pradesh have thus noted:

“…rather than leading to a rise in agrarian class conflict, the post-Green Revolution period in fact led to an increase in caste articulation. Since the 1980s, therefore, the advanced Green Revolution belt of coastal Andhra has witnessed intense caste-based polarisation and mobilisation on both sides of the social spectrum, i.e. among land-owning as well as labouring communities. Heightened caste awareness and mobilisation in the educated middle classes of upper castes, backward castes and scheduled castes dates from the 1970s.”

The fact the erstwhile East Godavari (out of which Konaseema is craved) is among the districts in the country (first in the state) where most Prevention of SC Atrocities cases are filed is not only indicative of deep-seated casteism but also Dalit consciousness and assertion in the Godavari districts of Andhra Pradesh.

“Many empowered Dalits and Dalit organisations here make sure that any attack on Dalits is not tolerated and make sure that an FIR [first information report] is registered. Although many cases do not result in convictions due to out-of-court settlements, Dalit groups ensure that the affected parties are rightfully compensated,” says Human Rights Forum (HRF) state secretary Y. Rajesh, who is also a lawyer practicing locally.

Despite the upward social mobility of Dalits, Kapus and Settibalijas still own the majority of land in the district. While many Dalits form the labour force in these farmlands and local aquaculture activities, some Dalits, especially women, migrate in search of livelihood opportunities to the Gulf. According to estimates, every year 40,000 women (mostly women from the SC community) from both East and West Godavari districts move to Gulf in search of work despite the several reported instances of harassment from the employers there. The remittances these women send back home have also been running Dalit families in the region, aiding their economic empowerment.

Also read: In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, New Social Dynamics Accompany Brutal Caste Killings

Given this background of Dalit consciousness and assertion, and the demographic reality, Dalits have long demanded that the district be named after Ambedkar. However, ‘upper’ castes locally question the logic of naming Konaseema after Ambedkar and instead proposed the names of Dokka Seethamma, Vangaveeti Mohan Ranga and Sir General Arthur Cotton, who they say, are local icons.

Seethamma, born in Konaseema’s Mandapeta in a Brahmin family, was known for her life-long charity of feeding thousands of poor through her annadanam. Locally, she gained recognition as a Hindu saint and earned the title of Apara Annapurna, meaning an incarnation of the Hindu deity Annapurna.

Vangaveeti Mohan Ranga was a popular Kapu politician from the region who was killed in 1988 in a fight against another politically powerful caste of Kammas. Sir General Arthur Thomas Cotton was a British irrigation engineer whose efforts resulted in the construction of the Dowleswaram Barrage on the Godavari river, which is said to have resulted in agricultural prosperity of the region. In fact, the barrage is officially known as Sir Arthur Cotton Barrage.

While saying that they have nothing against other popular icons of the region, Dalits argue that Ambedkar’s towering personality and legacy cannot be reduced to a region, for his spread is pan-Indian, if not global due to the causes he championed.

“Nobody raised objections when districts were named after NTR, Annamayya, Sathya Sai, because they all were from ‘upper’ castes. However, they made it an issue in the case of Ambedkar Konaseema district because they consider Ambedkar only as a Dalit icon. And, to see a Dalit name prefixed to their district name is nothing short of a humiliation for them,” says Bhima Rao.

Given the sensitivity of the issue and the prospect of losing vote banks, political parties in the state have largely remained non-committal on the matter except for blaming the YSR Congress government for failing to contain the violence. However, some discordant voices did emerge from the opposition who came up with their own logic to oppose the change of name.

For instance, a BJP leader, speaking in a television debate recently, asked, “Why undermine the towering personality and legacy of Ambedkar by naming just a district after him?”

On the other hand, actor-turned-politician and Jana Sena chief Pawan Kalyan asked why the state government did not name Kadapa, where powerful Reddys are dominant and which is the home district of chief minister Jagan Mohan Reddy, after Ambedkar, instead of Konaseema.

In a country with thousands of Mahatma Gandhi Roads and Nehru Margs – which exist without debates against reducing their towering legacies to localised spaces – the irony of indefensible arguments arising out of naming a single district after Dr B.R. Ambedkar is writ large, say Dalits in the region.