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Caste conflict has raged continuously in Gajulamandyam since 1976. In 1994, dominant caste Reddys forcefully installed a bore-well in the Dalit colony and followed this up by imposing a social boycott. Five years later, on 12 June 1999, the conflict over the bore-well again heated up when the Reddys attempted to forcefully lay down a pipeline from the bore-well to their locality. The Dalits resisted and successfully thwarted their attempts. In retaliation the Reddys again imposed a social boycott on the Dalits.
Gajulamandyam is located on the banks of the dried-up Swarnamukhi River. The village has a population of approximately one thousand, living in 154 Dalit homes. The main village, where the dominant caste Reddys reside, lies 1½ km south, across the riverbed from the Dalit colony. Before 1976, the Dalit colony had been located on non-productive land in the eastern part of the main village. Dalit women had been compelled to walk several kilometers to fetch water and the colony had lacked roads and any kind of drainage system. In 1976, the government gave the Dalits housing sites on the more fertile present location of the Dalit colony. The government relocation violated Hindu dharma, according to which Dalits cannot be allowed to reside north – or “above” – “higher” caste settlements. After moving to the new housing sites in 1976, the Dalits began to prosper. In a rare example of a progressive government scheme’s actual implementation, the Dalits were given government subsidies and loans in order to build pucca (solid) houses. A well for drinking water was dug, good roads were laid and a proper drainage system was installed. Though the majority of the Dalits continued to work as agricultural labourers in the main village, some found employment elsewhere. Since the new colony was situated just off the main road, some Dalits were able to find employment in the nearby tourist town of Tirupathi. Tirupathi, about ten km away from Gajulamandyam, is home to the famous Venkateshwara Temple, reputedly the richest tourist site in the world after the Vatican. Employment outside the village brought some Dalits a measure of prosperity, enabling them to send their children to school and build nicer homes.
The changing socio-economic dynamics of Gajulamandyam gave rise to the present state of caste conflict in the village. The dominant caste Reddy community, upon whom the Dalits had traditionally depended for their livelihood, were unwilling to accept the growing prosperity and self-respect of Dalits. In an effort to reassert their dominance and “put the Dalits in their place,” the dominant castes employed several mechanisms, including attacks and social boycotts. In 1976, when the Dalits initially moved to their present-day settlement, the dominant castes imposed a social boycott on the Dalits by denying them access to drinking water from the main village’s overhead tank. The Reddys also exploited the land that had been allotted to the Dalits as a burial ground. In 1994, though an overhead water tank in the main village and several agricultural bore -wells supplied ample water to the dominant caste community, two hundred dominant caste people descended upon the Dalit colony in the middle of the night to erect yet another bore-well for dominant caste drinking water. This group installed the bore-well on the property of one Nagaiah, which was just twenty yards from the Dalits’ common drinking well. The next morning, after testing the bore-well’s functioning, the dominant castes imposed a social boycott against the Dalits. Later that same day, however, the hastily erected bore-well malfunctioned. When the Reddys imposed a social boycott, the Dalits approached officials and filed a case. In retaliation, the Reddys cut off the electricity and drinking water supply from the main village to the Dalit colony for three days. Finally district officials intervened and shut down the bore-well erected on Nagaiah’s property for the time being.
Five years later on 12 June 1999, about five hundred dominant caste people descended upon the Dalit colony and attempted to forcefully connect a pipeline from the disputed bore-well to their (the dominant castes’) property. To avoid violence, the Dalit women prohibited their men from coming out to stop the Reddys. Instead, the women themselves organised a non-violent protest against the Reddys’ aggressive endeavours. In the course of the encounter, the Reddys abused the Dalit women by caste name, harassed them and physically manhandled them; but the Dalit women ultimately succeeded in stopping the Reddys from laying the pipeline. Again, officials eventually intervened and posted a guard at the bore-well. The same day, however, the Reddys imposed a social boycott on the Dalits, which as of 10.01.00 is still effective. The Dalits are not allowed to enter the main village for any purpose, neither for employment nor for any commercial exchange. Any non-Dalit who violates the boycott is fined. The Reddys have also cut off the water supply that the Dalits need to irrigate the fields they lease from the Reddys.
Dalits who work in Gram Panchayat are not allowed to work in the main village and have not been given their outstanding salaries.
It should be noted that throughout the history of this conflict, the Reddys have never been in need of water.
As previously mentioned, there was an overhead water tank in the main village and there were several bore-wells located in the Reddys’ fields. Water scarcity, then, did not drive the dominant caste community to dig a bore-well in the Dalit colony. The aggressive, invasive construction of the bore-well and the ensuing struggle demonstrate what is fundamentally a caste struggle – a struggle for self-respect, equality and self-sufficiency for the Dalits, and a struggle for power and continued domination for the Reddys. One positive outcome of the boycott is that many more Dalits have found employment outside the village in Tirupathi and surrounding areas, thus decreasing the Dalit dependency on the landlords. After the attack on 12 June 1999, police registered a case under the SC/ST Act and arrested twelve of the accused Reddys. The case against the accused is, as of 9.7.99, still pending. The police also attempted to forge a peace between the two communities by creating a peace committee, but it failed to accomplish anything. The then Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Mr. Bhurria, visited the village and sent a letter to the Chief Minister requesting that he take action. Revenue officials also visited the village and made promises to address the situation, but these promises remain unfulfilled.
The village Bhadath is located in Disa taluka of Banaskantha district. The village is very backward in the district. More than caste discrimination, feudalsim is being practiced in the village and because of that many communities like Dalit, Muslims etc. have left the village and got settled some other places.
In the past also around 56 dalit familes had migrated from the village. In the given instance, on 01/06/99 the accused Banji Chaturbhai Thakor killed the victim with deadly wepon. The case involved many other accused but police did not act only because of feudalism. When it became the issue and went to the media, the police registered FIR
Dominant caste Hindus deny Dalits, belonging to Mala (SC) community, entry into the village temple, though Dalits donated both money and labour toward its construction. In 1999, all the villagers of Kommireddi palli, including forty Dalit families, constructed a temple to the Hindu god Rama. Dalits donated money to the cause and also provided free labour, along with the caste Hindus, toward the temple’s construction. The completed temple was called Sri Ramuluvari Gudi.
Once the temple was opened, the dominant caste community barred Dalits entry into the temple on the grounds that the Dalits were “untouchables.” If any Dalit wants to perform puja, he or she must stand outside the temple and depend upon the priest to collect the Dalit’s offerings and perform the puja inside. The Dalits filed a complaint to the local MRO and SP, but the officials did not register a case and no action has been taken.
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.