Hyderabad: Film lyricist Jonnavittula Ramalingeswara Rao’s poem, which he recited on a TV channel on March 23, has sparked an intense debate in Telangana on caste prejudice against Dalits. In the poem, Rao sought to draw a parallel between the necessary practice of social distancing to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus and the caste-based discriminatory practice of untouchability.
On May 25, the Hyderabad police filed a case against Jonnavittula under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and the Protection of Civil Rights (PCR) Act, following a complaint from the Mala Welfare Association. Mohammed Shakeel, station house officer, Nampalli, Hyderabad, told The Wire that a first information report (FIR) had been filed against the lyricist and the case was transferred to Saifabad’s assistant commissioner of police, Venugopal Reddy, for further investigation.
Jonnavittula , a Brahmin and a resident of Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh, had been drafted by the Telangana government along with other film celebrities to host public awareness programmes to help contain the pandemic.
Since his recitation of the “poem” on March 23, the lyricist has come under criticism on social media by various anti-caste groups for promoting “conservative Brahminical ideas to spread caste hatred in society”. The recitation once again brought to the fore the continuing practices of discrimination against Dalits, who have often been subjected to untouchability, caste prejudice and social boycott in the two Telugu-speaking states.
Atrocities increase in Telangana
Battula Ramprasad of the Mala Welfare Association, which lodged a complaint against the lyricist, observed that Dalits have been increasingly targeted in Telangana since the state came into existence in 2014. He claimed that when the Naxal movement was at its peak in Andhra Pradesh, village landlords fled to the nearest cities, fearing for their lives. After the formation of Telangana, certain pro-farmer schemes like Rythu Bandhu, 24×7 free power for agriculture and a slew of major irrigation projects undertaken by the K. Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) government, which drew the landlords back to the villages, Ramprasad said. “When the landlords returned, they brought caste prejudice back with them,” he explained.
Caste prejudice has taken the form of rampant honour killings. In September 2018, the murder of 24-year-old Perumalla Pranay in Telangana’s Miryalaguda made national headlines. His killing was allegedly ordered by his upper caste wife’s father, who did not approve of their union. In late 2017, in Nizamabad district, the National Scheduled Castes Commission directed the state police to arrest a local BJP leader and pulled up members of Village Development Committee, an official nodal agency created to oversee government programmes at the village level, for harassing Dalits.
In August last year, Katthula Pavitra, a Dalit sarpanch in the state’s Ranga Reddy district, was reportedly barred from participating in a ritual at a local temple. Pavitra and her husband were attacked by upper caste villagers when they visited a temple to offer coconuts to the deity, which as per tradition, is first done by the sarpanch.
“Why has the status of Dalits remained unchanged in Telangana even though KCR’s stated goal is to transform the state into ‘Bangaru Telangana’ (golden Telangana)?” asked Ramprasad. “As long as Dalits are deprived of land, their identity is threatened and they are vulnerable to all sorts of caste prejudices.” KCR’s promise to provide land to every Dalit family, which he had made before the state came into being, still remains a dream, Ramprasad pointed out.
The picture in Andhra Pradesh
Caste prejudice remains as big a concern in Andhra Pradesh as in Telangana. The state gained notoriety for the massacres of Dalits in Karamchedu in Prakasam district and Tsundur in Guntur district in the early 1990s.
“Untouchability and caste prejudice may not be so violently visible now, but is still practiced,” said Andra Malyadri, a spokesperson of the CPI(M) affiliated Andhra Pradesh Kula Vivaksha Porata Samithi (KVPS) or Forum to Fight Caste Discrimination in Andhra Pradesh. For instance, restaurants in rural areas give Dalits tea in disposable plastic cups, while upper-caste people get steel glasses, said Malyadri.
Former lawmaker Thota Trimurthulu was accused of tonsuring two Dalits in the agriculturally prosperous Ramachandrapuram area in East Godavari district in December 1996, for working against him in the elections. Two and a half decades later, justice still eludes his victims.
Citing these examples, Malyadri said the laws made for the protection of Dalits have failed to make them confident for a variety of reasons, including the increasing number of acquittals in cases as witnesses turn hostile during trials.
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dalits continue to be targeted by the upper castes. In Kurnool’s Atmakur mandal and Chittoor’s Nagari mandal, Dalit homesteads were reportedly fenced off by upper caste people who blamed them for the spread of the infection.
And nearly 10 caste-based killings have been reported in Chittoor district alone in the recent past, as a response to inter-caste marriages involving Dalits, Maldyadri said.
Both the Telugu-speaking states have separate colonies for Dalits, referred to as velivada, away from the villages inhabited by upper-caste people and also separate burial grounds.