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Since 14 April 1998, the Dalits of Vasi hamlet have been living under a total social boycott imposed by the dominant caste landlords of the village. With no means to earn a livelihood, no opportunities to buy or sell commodities or participate in the cultural life of the village, and under constant fear of attack, 65 of the 80 Dalit families originally living in Vasi have left. The remaining 15 families live in great insecurity and on the brink of starvation. No case has been filed against the landlords for the illegal social boycott. Rather, it is the Dalits who have cases pending against them on false, fabricated charges of assaulting the Mandal Revenue Officer (MRO).
Vasi is a small hamlet situated about five kilometers from Mandal headquarters in S. Kota. With extensive canal and bore-well irrigation, this Mandal is rich in agriculture. Sugar cane and rice paddy are the main crops. Banana groves are also in abundance. Before the social boycott, eighty Mala (SC) families lived in about forty dwellings in the Dalit colony of Vasi hamlet. Due to scarcity of housing sites, the Dalits were forced to share the same small houses as the population increased. As is the case in almost all of India, not one Dalit owns any agricultural land in Vasi. Hence, the Dalits are dependent on agricultural labour for their livelihood. Three or four generations ago, a few Dalit families owned some land in Vasi, but due to lack of education, these lands were lost in debt repayment to toddy vendors. Surrounding the Dalit colony of Vasi hamlet are the dominant caste, land-owning families of Vasi, Timidi and Vachalapudi hamlets. Together the thirty Velama caste and eighty Kapu caste families own nearly 89% of the land in Vasi, with holdings between eight and twenty acres per family. In addition to owning most of the land, the vast majority of the landlords work as government employees. As a result of their economic dominance, the Velamas and the Kapus also dominate the village politically and socially. Prior to the social boycott, these dominant castes employed all the Dalit families as agricultural labourers.
Three hundred Balija (Backward Caste) families also live in the village, either cultivating small landholdings or working as agricultural labourers. The rest of the village consists of various Backward Caste families – two clothes-washing families, twenty barbers, twenty weavers, and toddy tappers. Though these castes are considered socially low, they are still within the caste system and therefore “above” the Dalits. In Vasi, the Backward Castes look down upon the Dalits and comply with the social boycott by not rendering any services to the Dalit community.
The present dispute between the Dalits and the dominant castes began in 1991 when a Timidi landlord named Papala Soma Naidu illegally occupied an expanse of poramboke (wasteland under government ownership) and dug a bore-well to supply water to nine acres of his legally-owned land situated some distance away. Soma Naidu also illegally constructed a cattle shed and a small house on the land. As this expanse of waste land (land survey no. 82, 1.90 acres) was adjacent to the Dalit colony, the consequence of Soma Naidu’s drawing water from the bore-well was that the water level in the Dalit colony’s common drinking water well lowered substantially. The community acted. The elders of the Dalit village intervened and ordered Soma Naidu not to draw water from the bore-well when the water level in the drinking water well fell below five to six feet. Soma Naidu, however, did not comply with this compromise and continued to draw water as he liked. Furthermore, he filed a civil suit in the district municipal court in S. Kota for a permanent injunction to draw water from his illegal irrigation bore-well. In the suit, he produced false witnesses and documents to claim that he had inherited the land of survey no. 82 from his father and brothers. Though the Dalits were accorded an advocate in the case, the advocate failed to properly represent them and the Dalits lacked the financial resources to support a strong and proper case. As is overwhelmingly common in India, the Dalit community lost the legal case. Not only did they lose the case, but they also lost all their savings and became trapped in debt from various court expenses and the costs of Soma Naidu’s lawsuit. Soma Naidu, on the other hand, having won the case, began drawing water indiscriminately from his now legally protected bore-well and further humiliated the Dalits by abusing them by caste name. Still the Dalits did not give up; in April 1998 they filed a case against Soma Naidu under the Protection of Civil Rights Act (PCRA). In retaliation, Papala Soma Naidu gathered all the dominant castes and, under his leadership, the caste community united to impose a social boycott on the Dalits. The present social boycott began on 14 April 1998. The significance of this date should not be missed, as it is the birthday of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. During the week leading up to 14 April, all the dominant caste landlords belonging to Timidi, Vasi, and Vechala Pudi hamlets assembled in the house of VAO Vechalapu Rama Naidu to strategize and implement the boycott. Each dominant caste family allegedly contributed Rs. 300 to support the boycott. May 1998: There was tension in the village as the Dalits organized a dharna in protest against the social boycott. A police picket was posted in Vasi village.
16 June 1998: Vasi Dalits attempted to attend the village deity’s festival, as it was their traditional duty to play the drums during the festival. This time, however, the dominant castes brought Dalits from other villages to play the drums. When Vasi Dalits protested, the dominant caste community attacked. The dominant castes broke open the doors of Dalit houses and chased Dalit women and men through the streets, beating the Dalits with sticks and iron rods. Twenty Dalits were injured, some seriously enough to be hospitalised at S.Kota Government Hospital. The Dalits registered cases with the police and thirty of the accused assailants were arrested. However, the VAO, whom the Dalits alleged to be the chief conspirator and participant, was not arrested.
18 September 1998: The dominant caste community again attacked Vasi’s Dalit colony. The Dalits protested the attacks and continuing boycott by holding a mass dharna and relay hunger strike near the MRO office. On the same day, the dominant castes from the three surrounding hamlets, along with local political leaders from the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress Party, staged a dharna and rastha roko (road blockade) demanding that the Dalits who allegedly attacked the MRO be arrested. They also accused the Dalits of misusing the legal provisions of the SC/ST Act and demanded that the Act be repealed. The RDO met the protesting dominant castes and politicians and assured them that no cases would be registered under the SC/ST Act. In exchange, the landlords agreed to cancel a public meeting and procession scheduled for later the same day. This event is a strong indication of the connivance of officialdom with the dominant castes.
13 October 1998: As the mass dharna and relay hunger strike had not produced any result, the Dalits publicly converted it into a fast unto death. Five days later, the police foiled the fast unto death by demolishing the tent and forcibly hospitalising the hunger strikers. Again, the Dalits protested at the MRO office and at the hospital. Senior district officials visited the scene and assured the Dalits that they, the officials, would take steps to end the social boycott and also issue pattas (land deeds) to the Dalits. On this assuran ce, the Dalits dispersedand ended their agitation.
20 October 1998: To the shock of the Dalit community, false cases were registered against the Dalits on charges of attacking the MRO and others. Seventeen Dalits were arrested and it is reported that as many as one hundred Dalits were named in the FIR. As of 9.5.99 the social boycott is still total. The Dalits are barred from any agricultural work, they are not permitted to enter the village, and they are excluded from participation in any village activities. The barbers refuse to serve them and no vendor in the three hamlets sells any commodity to them. The severity of the situation has forced 65 of the 80 original Dalit families to flee from the village in search of livelihood. The remaining fifteen families lead a life of great insecurity. Legal cases are pending against them and they fear police arrest and dominant caste attack. On the day that the SAKSHI Fact Finding Team visited Vasi, a marriage was being celebrated in the Dalit colony. The usual marriage procession had been cancelled, Dalit leaders explained, due to fear of an attack. The unity of the dominant castes, with active connivance of the VAO and passive connivance of other officials, has made the social boycott devastatingly effective. Even in the construction of a road, a government project that ordinarily hires Dalits for temporary work, the Dalits were denied employment. Siva Rama Raju Peta, a landlord from an outside village, agreed to employ Vasi Dalits in some agricultural work and paid one hundred rupees in advance. Under pressure from the landlords of Vasi and Timidi, however, Raju Peta turned the Dalits away on the first day of work. One Dalit beggar died during this period, as no one gave him any food. Indeed, those Dalit families who have remained in the village are on the brink of total starvation.
Despite repeated betrayal by government officials, the Dalits of Vasi are persistent in their demands. By acting in open collusion with dominant caste landlords, local officials are engaged in the deliberate suppression of Dalits. This became evident in October 1998, when officials broke up the Dalit hunger strike and forcibly hospitalized the hunger strikers. One week later, police arrested 17 Dalits on false charges of assaulting the MRO. Open government partiality to the dominant caste community was again made clear on 18 September 1998, when the RDO assured landlords that no cases against them would be registered under the SC/ST Act. Not surprisingly, then, thirteen months after its initiation, no case had been registered against the landlords for the boycott, and the thirty dominant caste assailants arrested for the 16 June 1998 attack on the Dalit colony were not booked under the SC/ST Act. Though the Executive Director of the SC Corporation and other revenue officials intervened, they failed to convince or pressurise the dominant castes to end the boycott. The former, along with civil liberties organizations like Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Council and Human Rights Forum, visited Vasi village, organized dharnas and public meetings in support of the Dalits, but to no avail. The boycott still continues and tension remains high. The leader of Vasi Dalits, Sanyasi Rao, who is a very articulate member of the panchayat board, is under great danger for his life.