On January 9 this year, while the whole of Andhra Pradesh was preparing for the upcoming Sankranthi (Pongal) festival, more than 35 civil society organisations representing marginalised castes had gathered under the leadership of senior advocate Santha Kumar before the Guntur district collector’s office to demand justice for the Peda Gottipadu victims. Some of the slogans the agitators raised were “Justice to the Peda Gottipadu victims?”, “Withdraw false cases filed by the police against the victims”, “Arrest the real culprits?”, “Down with the upper casteism”. But why did the agitators gather there and what happened in Peda Gottipadu village?
Minor incident and the flare-up
At the stroke of midnight on new year, two youth belonging to the Dalit Mala caste in Peda Gottipadu village in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh were roaming around their village on motorbikes, wishing random people a happy new year. On reaching an area where people of the Rajaka caste (dhobis/washermen) predominantly live, their bikes skidded due to water on the streets. Decorating the front of the houses with rangoli after sprinkling water during the festive season is a tradition in coastal Andhra villages. Two Dhobi women, who were making rangoli at that time, rushed to help the two men. Chiding them, they told them they should have been more careful while riding at night.
When the youth were about to leave after offering their apologies, a group of people from the Kamma caste who were watching the entire incident from their homes suddenly came to the spot and began hurling abuses at the stunned youth. “It appears we are not able to control these Malas anymore! These days every Mala household has a bike and they are roaming everywhere without any check,” a Kamma woman shouted at the top of her voice. Without any warning, all of them began hurling stones and sticks on their bikes. Hearing the commotion, over 20 more Kammas arrived and joined in the assault of the hapless youth. Abandoning their bikes, the youth ran for their lives.
When they reached their Mala hamlet, the youth informed their elders about the incident. The elders, in turn, immediately called the police station at Prathipadu, the mandal headquarters. Interestingly, the police responded immediately and came to the village in the middle of the night. After listening to both the sides, the police asked the Kammas to apologise to the victims on account of their casteist slur. According to the law, insulting Dalits by their caste is a punishable offence under the non-bailable Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. But the police took no such action. The police may have acted in good faith, but as the servants of the state, their conduct is objectionable and unacceptable. The Mala elders went with the police’s suggestion and decided to bury the hatchet. As a result, the two men accepted their apologies and returned to their hamlet. The police, as a precautionary measure, remained in the village to prevent any further fallout.
However, another group of Kammas in the village did not digest the fact that Kammas had apologised to the Malas. After all, the Malas, until a few years ago, depended upon Kamma patronage and support for survival. The group considered it as an insult to their socio-economic and political supremacy in Andhra Pradesh. The same night, they gathered and hatched a plan to avenge the insult to their caste. By early morning on January 1, they mobilised hundreds of Kammas from nearby villages. Armed with two trucks filled with rods, sticks and beer bottles, they were waiting for the right moment to strike. They found the right moment when two Malas – 55-year-old Jonnalagadda Prakash and 51-year-old Jonnalagadda John – went to a barber shop in the village’s main area dominated by the Kammas. The Kammas pounced on them and beat them mercilessly with sticks. One person’s head and legs were severely injured and the other person’s hand was broken. The two injured men were dragged into a dilapidated house and locked up. Later, the Kammas called up the Malas and asked them to take away the injured men. The Malas rushed to rescue the injured men and with the help of police took them to the Government General Hospital in Guntur for treatment.
While a good number of Malas were waiting at the hospital, the mob attacked the Mala hamlet with iron rods and sticks. They also threw beer bottles at people who were running for their lives. Such brutality against the helpless and terrified Malas, however, did not seem to have curbed the anger of those whose so-called caste-pride was ‘wounded’ as their people were made to tender an apology. They were hell-bent on teaching a lesson to the Malas, who dared to complain against them to the police. They even molested the Mala women and dragged them by their hair to the roads. The hooligans even entered a church, where many women of the village were offering their prayers on the occasion of the new year. They indulged in indecent acts before them.
The entire episode took place right in front of the village police, who neither tried to stop the mob nor helped the women. It was only when the hooligans left the Mala hamlet after having a free-run, the police imposed Section 144 in the village.
But the question is whether a trivial motorbike incident was the reason behind the caste violence or something else?
Domination vs self respect
Caste-based violence and atrocities against the Dalits by the upper caste are neither a recent phenomenon nor do they take place suddenly. Violence has been used as a weapon against the marginalised communities by the upper castes for several years now. It is employed not just to teach the ‘downtrodden’ a lesson, but also to keep the lower castes in their ‘respective places’ in the society.
In recent years, particularly ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, came to power in the Centre, violence against the Dalits and against the Muslims and other religious minorities has been on the rise. Flogging of Dalits in Gujarat’s Una and the violence against the Dalits in Bhima Koregaon are just two instances that reflect this unfortunate trend. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana too have seen attacks on the Dalits whenever the latter tried to question the social and political domination of the upper castes. The Karamchedu massacre of July 17, 1985, where the Kammas killed six Madiga Dalits for objecting to the pollution of drinking water; massacre in Tsunduru village on August 6, 1991, where the Reddys hacked eight Mala Dalits to death simply because a Mala boy’s feet accidentally touched a Reddy woman in a cinema hall; Rohith Vemula’s suicide on January 17, 2016; and the killing of Manthani Madhukar, a Madiga Dalit youth, on March 14, 2017 by caste Hindus for falling in love with an upper caste woman in Peddapalli district of Telangana – are some of the incidents of violence that reveal the true nature of the Telugu casteist society.
The violence against the Mala Dalits in Peda Gottipadu can be attributed to similar reasons as seen in the above incidents – daring to question the domination of the Kammas. Peda Gottipadu is like any other coastal Andhra village where almost all the majorly populated castes and communities in the state reside. About 2,500 Kamma families, 1,000 Mala Dalit families and 400 Madiga Dalit families reside in the village. A majority of the Kammas are engaged in agricultural businesses as landlords, besides in various profitable businesses, such as liquor and construction.
Until a few years ago, a majority of the Dalits were engaged in agriculture as labourers. It is common knowledge that agriculture labourers, especially the Dalits, are treated worse than slaves by the upper caste landlords in rural areas. A majority of the younger generation from the Dalit community in Peda Gottipadu are educated. Unlike earlier generations, they do not want to suffer casteist humiliations at the hands of the Kamma landlords. They refused to work in the agricultural fields and moved to Guntur town, which is approximately 24 km away from the village, to work in construction, automobile, electrical, carpentry, cabinet-making, painting etc. The Dalit youth from Peda Gottipadu are not only earning their livelihoods but also self-respect that these jobs offer. They have also established the Ambedkar Yuva Jana Sangam or the Ambedkar Youth Association, through which they propagate the philosophy of Ambedkar to fellow Dalits. The association has become a platform for discussions not just on Ambedkar, but also for the village panchayat politics, politics in the state, caste-based sufferings of the Dalits outside their village and so on. The Dalit youth have started questioning the politics and domination of the Kammas in the village. They have questioned the Kammas’ domination in three recent incidents.
The first incident was about the use of the panchayat funds by the Kammas. Since the Kammas are the majority in the village, it is they who decide on how panchayat money is spent and the kind of developmental works to be taken in the village. However, the Kammas constructed a cement road in their own locality with the money sanctioned for the same in a Dalit locality, and the Mala Dalits caught wind of this. A portion of the tax money collected from the Dalit households was also used for the same. The Dalits questioned their misuse of the funds and the Kammas could not digest the fact they were being questioned by the Malas.
The second incident relates to Janmabhoomi Maa Vooru committees initiated by chief minister Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) government. During the meetings of these committees, Mala youth questioned the committee members for not giving pensions to the elderly and the differently-abled persons from the Dalit community. What is more, under the programme of Neeru-Chettu (Water-Tree), a programme again initiated by the Naidu government, the Kammas in the village, in the name of supplying water to all the newly-planted saplings, attempted to encroach upon a pond that belonged to the Madiga hamlet. The Mala youth came in support of the Madigas and together, they foiled the Kammas’ attempt. This incident angered the TDP leaders from the Kamma caste, for despite possessing political power both in the village and the state, they could not take control of a pond that belongs to the lower caste Madigas.
The third incident relates to closing down of a liquor shop in the village by the Dalit women. A Kamma, who is one of the main accused in the violence against the Malas, had opened a liquor shop in the village. Prior to the opening of the shop, the villagers had to go to Prathipadu, which is some four km away from the village, to buy alcohol. In a way, the distance seemed to have deterred the villagers from consuming alcohol. But once the liquor shop came inside the village, many Dalit men became regular customers and would spend a large part of their earnings on it. Dalit women then gathered and joined hands to agitate against the liquor shop, and succeeded in closing it down. The owner, enraged at the Dalit women for closing down his business, was perhaps waiting for an opportunity to get even.
The immediate response of the state
Top police officials of the district, instead of arresting the culprits, have admonished the victims. The Mala Dalits were told that the Kammas had to resort to such an action because the Mala youth had misbehaved with the Kamma girls. The entire Mala hamlet was dumbstruck with this sudden unexpected, unconnected and fabricated allegation. What is worse, they even foisted false cases against some Mala youth and threatened the Mala hamlet of dire consequence if they do not come to a ‘settlement’ with the Kammas. The victims, despite threats from the higher officials, do not want to have any kind of settlement with their oppressors. They simply want justice in accordance with the due process of law.
The police even went to the extent of confining the victims in their locality by placing pickets around the Mala hamlet. Further, when civil rights organisations, associations of the marginalised sections and opposition parties, especially the Congress and the Left parties, tried to visit the victims, they were prevented from entering the village and were told that these organisations and associations do to have any ‘business’ in the village. Some of the leaders of these organisations were also arrested in the name of safeguarding the law and order situation. Clearly, these acts of the officials are not just preventing the victims from seeking justice but also leading to their further victimisation. What is more, the refusal to arrest the culprits so far, despite the clear evidence of violence, seems to show that the officials have some kind of clandestine understanding with the mobsters. Their acts are indirectly legitimising the violence against the Malas.
Despite all the suppression, civil society organisations are making every effort to secure justice for the Peda Gottipadu victims. Will they succeed in their efforts?
Sambaiah Gundimeda teaches at the School of Policy & Governance, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.