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Rohith Vemula's death anniversary: 'Sophisticated untouchability’ has become the norm in AP, Telangana

Dalits in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are angry — and rightly so. They strongly feel that a new "sophisticated architecture of inequality or untouchability" has replaced the traditional practice to suit the convenience of the lawmakers. Dalit experts say they remain under-represented in elected posts, public positions and sidelined in social events and practices which form the ethos of the Indian subcontinent.

The National Crime Records Bureau data indicates that the number of incidents of atrocities against Scheduled Castes increased from 39,408 in 2013 to over 47,000 in 2014 and to a record 72,000 by 2015. Analysts attribute this to a backlash of the General Elections to Lok Sabha of 2014. But the statistics do not capture the more insidious forms of prejudice that dominate the society. While 1,675 cases of Dalit atrocities were reported in 2015 in Telangana, 4,415 cases were reported in Andhra Pradesh. "There has been a continuous rise of atrocities against Dalits since 2014, 9.8 percent in Telangana and 10-15 percent in Andhra Pradesh, as both state and central police remained indifferent spectators to the antics of the militant wings of Sangh Parivar," said Dalit activist and balladeer Gummadi Vithalrao better known as Gaddar.

Rohith Vemula suicide row also hit the Parliament, as Opposition parties lashed out at HRD Minister Smriti Irani. PTI

Rohith Vemula suicide row also hit the Parliament, as Opposition parties lashed out at HRD Minister Smriti Irani. PTI

In the 1980s, a traveller in the interior districts of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh could witness separate clay plates and clay cups in hotels for serving Dalits. In some hotels of Rajahmundry, Eluru and Vijayawada, Dalits had to bring their own bed clothes if they wanted a room.

Dalit officials, even Tahsildars and Mandal Revenue Officers, had to sit separately in weddings and eat at a special session. Caste-based ragging continued in colleges, schools and government offices. Women workers, in particular, faced the ire of a casteist society.

In 2002, a lady RDO was requested by a Kamma (OBC caste) leader in Eluru to attend a temple function, but only after the Brahmins and upper caste women had left. Others have faced similar discrimination. "I have stopped attending family weddings of my colleagues after they requested me to come for reception only and not the muhurtam event," said Katti Saraswati Rao, a gazetted officer in the revenue department of Guntur and wife of a Mala leader.

The young and the restless

Luckily though, today, it is not just a tale of victimisation. Dalits are now more organised and connected. They see themselves as a part of an assertive movement of social justice. They have sympathy for Dalit parties but criticise their failures. They worry that caste is getting reinforced, rather than annihilated — the ultimate vision of their icon BR Ambedkar. In Rohith Vemula, they have found a new icon for achieving social justice, and social media is their new weapon.

What perturbs this current generation of politically and socially informed and aware Dalits is the increasing salience of caste in politics and civil society. "From the selection of party office bearers to the distribution of tickets, and nomination of selective posts in societal organisation, caste continues to be central to politics and civil society," says revolutionary poet and balladeer Gummadi Vithalrao better known as Gaddar.

In such a landscape, it is inevitable that Dalits — who have been discriminated for generations have also been mobilising and organising on the same lines of caste identity.

In pre-independent India, Dalit movements in Andhra Pradesh took a reformative stance — attempts to reform the caste system to address the issue of untouchability. Eminent social reformers like Kandakuri Veereshalingam and Gurazada, Apparao, Devulapalli Krishna Sastry were only successful in improving social awakening but not eradicating the injustice.

In a 1980 editorial, eminent editor of Andhra Bhoomi daily, Gora Shastry, wrote that the political parties like Indian National Congress had broken the back of the Dalit movements with land reforms and Panchayati Raj. They raised hopes of getting social justice for the victims, which did not happen at all, he wrote. "Congress party is the main culprit as it transformed a Harijan into a Dalit and its electoral backbone by misinterpreting the Constitution for its political advantage," he wrote during the heat of the quota agitation.

Fact-finding committee reports on the gory police encounters in Telangana, allegedly on extremists, have often exposed the atrocities being perpetrated on Dalit farmers and labourers in villages, and politicians are at the top of the pyramid. For instance, in early 1997, a 56-year-old Dalit farm labourer Yadaiah along with his wife and two children were hauled up in Mulugu area of Warangal for refusing to work in the fields of a local landlord for a pittance. "Yadaiah was threatened of an encounter death if he and his family did not work in the fields of landlord Purushottam Reddy (Congress leader)," said a villager.

The first major movement for Dalit rights in united Andhra Pradesh was the violent campaign against the killings of Dalits in Chunduru in Prakasam district in 1991. It had sent a chill up the spines of the first Telugu Desam Party (TDP) government led by actor-politician NT Rama Rao who thereafter launched a campaign for the elevation of Madigas (SC caste) in the party.

Another intrinsic factor of the Dalit movement was that it was supported only by the middle class and educated section within a caste group, while the illiterate and poverty-ridden sections fell in line with the upper caste bigwigs in the villages, perhaps due to their hapless livelihood constraints. While the lower income groups among Dalits were lured by political parties with subsidies and sops, it was only the middle class among the SC groups that led the Dalit movements. The creamy layer among the SCs, mostly the kin of politicians and bureaucrats, had no inclination to agitate as they cornered the majority of quota seats and jobs. "The poor Dalits in villages had no strength and support to agitate. But the middle classes among Dalits in district towns and cities alone were influenced by Ambedkar or Kanshiram and other Dalit icons," says Dalit activist Mala Venkat Rao of Mala Mahanadu.

The Dalit movement is in a critical phase in the country, and particularly in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, which account for the country’s 22 percent of Dalit population. Political parties are deliberately enforcing "Dalitism" with an eye on the vote bank and also on their retention as farm labourers and manual workers.

But the struggles of the middle class have brought the Dalits on the national mainstream politics. The academic lobbies of the movement have exploded a number of myths. The movement though has fallen prey to the designs of political managers who promoted and created the concept of quota raj and sub plans (welfare schemes). "Unfortunately our political leaders want to harvest Dalits as a vote bank and have no programmes to remove the Dalit as their prefix," laments Nandi Yellaiah, a former Congress MP from Mahbubnagar, now in Telangana.

Rohith Vemula, A Role Model For Dalit Movement

The suicide of Rohith Vemula is seen as a revival of the Dalit movement in AP and Telangana. "In other words, the Rohith Vemula issue helped in institutionalising the inequality factor and regrouping the Dalits who had split into different parties," says Gaddar.

"Through social media, we reached Vemula. And Vemula reached us even after his death," says Velupula Sunkanna, one of the five students and members of the Ambedkar Students’ Union who was suspended along with Vemula.

It is also learnt that the Union HRD Ministry officials are investigating yet another angle to the Vemula episode. University authorities say that Vemula was a diehard Students' Federation of India (SFI) activist. SFI is the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). He quit SFI after his comrades discriminated against him for his caste. After a visit of Sitaram Yechury, now CPI(M) secretary, to the University of Hyderabad in 2015, Vemula’s Facebook post questioning why the CPI(M) hasn’t had a single Dalit politburo member in 51 years had gone viral and earned him the wrath of the CPI(M) leadership.

The Dalit movement is in a critical phase in the country, and particularly in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, which account for the country’s 22 percent of Dalit population. Political parties are deliberately enforcing "Dalitism" with an eye on the vote bank and also on their retention as farm labourers and manual workers.

"The militant units of Sangh Parivar, cow vigilantes and hate groups who are patronised by the central and state governments have been running amuck in rural Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and attacking Dalits for not supporting their campaign. In November 2016, two Dalit families were socially boycotted and beaten up in Chittoor district for eating beef at a family event," points out B Laxmaiah, leader of Kula Nirmulana Porata Samithi.

“Political lobbies want Dalits to remain Dalits for life. The future of the Dalit movement lies in bonding and in enlightening all sections of the community on their rights and privileges granted by the Constitution,” says former chief secretary and a Dalit rights campaigner Dr Kaki Madhav Rao, adding that political exploitation was the bane of the Dalit movements in both Telugu speaking states.


Updated Date: Jan 19, 2017 14:24 PM

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