Dalit Camera: Through Un-Touchable Eyes
[In this interview Duddu Prabhakar, veteran Dalit rights activist and President of the ‘Kula Nirmoolana Porata Samithi’ (‘Struggle Committee for Eradication of Caste’, roughly), traces the history of the Dalit movement in Andhra Pradesh from Karamchedu in 1985 to Lakshimpeta in 2012, and says the movement now has to decide whether it stands with the oppressors or the oppressed. This interview was conducted by Ravi Chandran of ‘Dalit Camera: Through Un-Touchable Eyes’ in July, in the wake of the Lakshimpeta massacre and the movement for justice which followed it. Translated from Telugu by Kuffir]
Duddu Prabhakar: Karamchedu happened on July 17th, 1985. When Karamachedu happened, the Dalits were unorganized. There was no organization for the Dalits then, they were working separately. They trusted the Congress, chiefly. Some, a minority of politically conscious Dalits probably, not more than 1%, were with the communists. But the majority were with the Congress, because they felt Indiramma had given them houses, lands etc. They were all with the Congress.
After 1985, when six Madigas were killed by the Kamma chauvinists, then Dalit Mahasabha (emerged). Then Kathi Padma Rao was in the rationalists’ association. Andhra Pradesh Dalit Mahasabha emerged after 1985. After (the rise of) Dalit Mahasabha, a very big movement took place, across the country. It (Karamchedu) was also debated internationally.
They had descended on the Madiga quarter, early in the morning. They had planned it well, arriving in lorries; they chased the villagers, they hunted them and killed them. They caught hold of whoever had gone to relieve themselves in the fields and killed them. When some hid themselves inside the houses, they broke down the doors; in one instance, they tied the father to a pillar and the son to another, and raped the womenfolk of the family in front of their eyes.
They attacked with axes, spears, swords and six people were killed in that attack. After six Madigas died, a great movement took shape. During the Karamchedu movement, when NTR was the chief minister, all the oppressed castes—the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and the backward classes, the majority of agitators were backward classes—agitated against the Kamma chauvinists across the whole state. Even financially, in terms of rice, money—tonnes of rice were sent in—a lot of support was received.
Despite doing all this, mobilizing such a huge movement, the Dalit movement couldn’t ensure that the key culprit’s name— Daggubati Chenchuramaiah —was included in the F.I.R. Even though the Dalits had mentioned that the whole attack on the Karamchedu Dalits was planned and organized by Chenchuramaiah, his name was not recorded even in the F.I.R.
For almost 2-3 years after that (Karamchedu) wherever Dalits questioned oppression or asserted themselves, they (Malas and Madigas) would be threatened: You’ll face the fate of the Karamchedu Dalits!
Later when the People’s War Group (the naxal group now known as CPI ML- Maoist) killed Chenchuramaiah in Karamchedu, the Dalits gained some courage. When Daggubati Chenchuramaih, whose name the Dalits could not even ensure was included in the F.I.R was killed (it changed their despondent mood).
A strange thing happened—we were taking out a rally in our village demanding that the Karamchedu killers should be arrested. So the elders called us and said: You’re taking out a rally here because the Dalits were killed there (in Karamchedu), now if you’re killed here, who’ll care for you?
We realized that was also true. We couldn’t even get a case registered against the main culprit in Karamchedu, and now if we are attacked again, who can we turn to? There was great despair and anxiety among all the Dalits. But when the People’s War took the action it did, then the Dalits could turn back and say: You’ll meet the same fate as (the killers of) Karamchedu!
Later, on August 6th, 1991, Chunduru happened. It doesn’t mean that there were no such incidents in the intervening period; one or two incidents did occur, but such an organized attack, such a brutal massacre happened only in 1991. On 6th August 1991, 8 Dalits — 7 Malas and one Madiga, the Malas and Madigas lived together in that village (were killed).
Chunduru is in Guntur district, a developed village, compared with other Dalit hamlets – both villages were beside the railway tracks. The Dalits worked as gangmen in the railways and as coolies in the agriculturally prosperous village. So they were able to earn a little, and managed to educate their children to whatever extent. There were jobholders in the village; there were some 8 M.A.s in the village even back then.
In everything, as you know the ways we try to assert our self-respect—wearing shoes, the way of going to college—they couldn’t tolerate that. There was a police picket in the village, there had been some conflicts happening, just as in Lakshimpeta. So on that day, the police told the Dalits that: The Reddies and Naidus (Kapus) are planning to attack you; we can’t save you (the Dalits) from them, so leave the village.
So they all ran away, but the attackers were waiting in their tractors in the fields! They had made the police tell the Dalits that they should run away, while they lay in ambush in the fields which fall on the way. There they killed them (the Dalits), and they did it in such a way – they cut them down, chopped them—separating the heads, hands, legs– stuffed those parts into gunny sacks and threw them into the Tungabhadra drain canal which runs through there and stamped them into the mud.
It took four days to find all those (bodies). The bodies had swollen so much and when they were taken to the Tenali government hospital, such big insects crawled onto the legs of those around. The doctor who performed the post-mortem was a Dalit. He couldn’t digest that scene, and hanged himself after going home that night. His name was Ravichandra, the doctor who did the post-mortem. He couldn’t take the brutality.
They had killed eight, but later there was this incident involving someone called Parishuddha Rao (a resident of the Malapalli). He regularly attended prayer meetings (in the church) and did nothing else; he had done his B.A, and had appeared for the B.Ed entrance exam, but was unemployed and indulged in no youthful pranks unlike others of his age. He used to talk of his younger brother being employed with pride.
When he saw his younger brother’s corpse, which had swollen so much, he suffered from a heart attack and died.
To demand the arrest of all the killers an agitation was started. A protest tent came up in Chunduru, and the agitation was organized by the Dalit Mahasabha. Yes, it was again the Dalit Mahasabha (which organized it). So when the agitation was on, a police officer called Meena, SP Meena, arrived on the scene. He alleged that there were Naxalites among the protesters, and that was dangerous, and said that the protest camp should be vacated. He ordered firing.
He ordered firing on the protest camp! On the protesters who were demanding the arrest of the killers. So in the police firing, one Anil Kumar, (a very conscious youth) who was also a graduate and was leading the protest– he was shot dead.
While the Chunduru Reddies directly killed 8, those killed indirectly were the doctor who committed suicide, Parishuddha Rao who died of heart attack after seeing his brother’s corpse and Anil Kumar who was leading the protest, in the hunger strike camp, and was specifically targeted by the police and shot in the heart.
The agitators had planned a ‘Chalo Delhi’ programme to press for justice. When they reached Delhi, one Dalit woman died as they were trying to cross a road. So, that brings the total death toll to twelve. The total number of those who died due to the Chunduru massacre, directly or indirectly, was twelve.
Dalit Mahasabha, which was united during Karamchedu, split into two or three factions by the time of Chunduru. It had become three Dalit Mahasabhas. There was the Dalit Mahasabha led by Kathi Padma Rao, another by Bojja Tharakam, and another led by Babu Rao, who was from Prakasham district. These three had got divided as three Dalit Mahasabhas.
In Karamchedu, the Kammas alone had attacked the Dalits, but in Chunduru the Reddies and Kapus, co-opting the backward classes, attacked the Malas and the Madigas. Then, the Dalit movement was not as strong as during Karamchedu; the backward classes too had separated, they were not coming together (with the Dalits) because of the fast changing social landscape.
In 1998, the Vempenta carnage happened. It was too brutal. Five Madigas and four from the backward classes were caught and (killed). They attacked the village under the leadership of Budda Vengal Reddy (then MLA from Atmakur in Kurnool district). They raided the Madiga palli, and set fire to the whole quarter, all 92 Madiga homes. They caught hold of five Madigas and four backward class persons, cut them down and threw the bodies into the fire. Nothing, no bodies except bones, remained later.
Those who took part in this attack were the Malas and the BCs. The Reddies had changed their strategy in Vempenta. They realized that all the Dalits and other oppressed castes are coming together to castigate them as ‘upper caste killers’, so they decided this was not the right path. Therefore they instigated the Malas to attack the Madigas, and the BCs to attack other BCs.
In these changed circumstances, it was difficult for us to say that the upper castes had attacked us (Dalitbahujans). The Malas and Madigas were already separated by then; the Madiga Reservation Porata Samithi had already emerged. The Dalit movement faced a dilemma: should they say that the Malas had attacked the Madigas or the BCs had attacked the Madigas?
This should be understood as a check on the Dalit movement, a challenge for it. A challenge the ruling classes had imposed on the Dalit movement. Since then and until now, until Lakshimpeta happened, these questions– how the Dalit movement should be run, what should be done, how should situations where the Madigas attack the Malas or the BCs attack the Madigas or the Madigas attack the BCs or the Malas and Madigas attack each other be resolved — in finding solutions to these questions the Dalit movement has totally failed.
In 1998, the Kula Nirmulana Porata Samithi appeared. From them until the Lakshimpeta attack happened.. It’s not like the Kapus in Lakshimpeta are big farmers or landlords, they are also poor. But even though they are poor, their caste arrogance and Botsa Satyanarayana’s patronage and support and Botsa Vasudeva Rao’s support—those are their strength.
Kondru Murali belongs to a scheduled caste, the Sub-Inspector there also belongs to a scheduled caste, a Mala at that, the Circle Inspector is a Mala, and the DSP is Mala (he has got promoted as ASP now). Kondru Murali, the MLA from Rajam constituency (in which Lakshimpeta falls) is a Mala, and he is also a Minister; but even then while the Malas of the village were facing attacks for two long years, not even a single case was filed (after any attack).
There was only one instance of a case being filed, and even that was a nominal effort. The accused were detained in the station but they got out in a mere three days, even when the case was filed under the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. They got out of jail in just three days and threatened the Dalits saying: Bast***s, you dared to file cases against us, you sent us to jail; we will kill you.
Then the Dalits who got scared went and pleaded with the SP and the DSP, who arranged a police picket in the village about a year ago. From then until now, until the attack happened, neither Kondru Murali nor the SI or CI or SP or DSP or the Congress government showed the slightest interest in solving the problem.
Finally, after five people died, now they are promising land. They are only promising that, not taking any practical steps to actually do that. The government is not even thinking of allotting the land there (in the village). They are trying to delude the Dalits with offers of land, money and jobs, but to get even Botsa Vasudeva Rao (Kapu landlord and leader in the region) arrested an agitation of this large scale had to be organized.
Even now, what the government is more concerned about is (how) to remove the Malas from that village. What they are trying to say, through the Collector and the JC by calling meetings with the Malas: If you leave this village, we will give you houses, 2 acre plots to each family, cattle and bore-wells in your farms. We will build a big Kalyanamandapam (function hall) for you, a library, a playground where your children can play cricket etc.
They are talking all that. Through all these deceptive promises they want to ensure that the Malas leave the village so that the surplus land of 250 acres in the village can be given to the Kapus. That’s the plan of Botsa Satyanarayana (Pradesh Congress President, Minister in AP cabinet and Turpu Kapu leader) and this Congress government.
Now the Dalits, both Malas and Madigas, who are saying that because Kondru Murali is a Mala he should be protected, are not considering the fact that the people who were murdered were also Malas (and Dalits).
What we, Kula Nirmulana Porata Samithi and 52 other organizations, are thinking is: all Dalits are not the same. The Dalits of Lakshimpeta are different from Kondru Murali. The Dalits of Lakshimpeta are Malas and Kondru Murali is also a Mala, but there are Dalits who become targets of atrocities and murders, there are Dalits who are at the very bottom of the social ladder. The Dalit movement should stand by the Dalits who are at the very bottom, and not say that all are Dalits, we will protect all Dalits (ignoring socio-economic status). That’s what resulted in the utter failure of the Dalit movement.
From the very beginning, the leadership (of the Dalit movement) has been controlled by Dalit Ministers and MLAs etc. From 1985 until now, the entire history of the Dalit movement has run along those lines. The Dalits have come to a stage when they should arm themselves for their self-defense, but even now they are confused about the right direction, and are without leadership.
When all the Dalits are fighting for land, when they are fighting for self-respect, the Dalit leadership is following the directions of the Ministers, MLAs, IAS and IPS officers while organizing agitations. Such is Dalit leadership now. If we don’t break this (degeneration) somewhere, many more atrocities like Lakshimpeta will happen and at a faster pace.
Why I am saying this is because the government has usurped all land in the plains in the name of SEZs. The Dalits don’t have land, they only have assigned lands. The Dalits, Backward Classes, and Scheduled Tribes – all the poor have only assigned lands. The government doesn’t pay compensation for assigned land, because it says we have only taken back our own land. This way, they’re taking away all the land in the plains in the name of SEZs; in the forests, they are taking away all the land from the Adivasis for bauxite mining and other purposes and are driving the Adivasis away from the forests; by establishing thermal power plants along the coast they’re driving away fishermen from the sea.
Today, we might not understand the situation living here in the cities, but when you go to the countryside we find that there are no plots to build graves! They are occupying even the graveyards. In the coastal areas (in Andhra) where paddy is grown, there is so little space that they bury one corpse over another. They are occupying even graves now. This is a problem we are facing in every village now.
In every village they are occupying graveyards. In this crisis which is the result of the destruction taking place in the name of development, it is the Dalits who are being sacrificed, Dalits and other oppressed. Chiefly Dalits. Those who live along the coast and the Dalits who have lost assigned lands in the plains.
To survive, they now have to face this unavoidable, life and death situation and decide on their course of action. The conditions are not right for them to come here (to Hyderabad) and become adda coolies (casual labourers who wait in some prominent traffic junctions every morning for contractors and others to hire them for the day). The Dalits here are living under flyovers. The Dalits who have no work in the villagers are migrating here as adda coolies and sleeping on road dividers in the night. They work during the day, sleep on the dividers during the night and then wrap up their belongings in bundles and shove them under some trees. No family, no kids, no home.
They have left the villages and come here. Lost their occupations: Mangali (barbers), Madiga, Chakali (washermen), Bestha (fishermen), Kammari (blacksmiths), Kummari (potters). Everyone has lost their occupations. They have lost their occupations, their lands. They are in hopeless conditions. So it becomes imperative to fight for land, to talk about land.
While the Dalits are talk about the unavoidable issue of land, the government is trying to corporatize agriculture too; we can see that in the press. At this stage, when corporatization is also creeping into agriculture, (we might need to) build a big movement for food, just for food. In this process, there is a high probability of many more massacres like Lakshimpeta happening.
To overcome all this, the Dalits—the Dalit intellectuals, poets, artistes and leaders who sprang up from the blood shed by the Dalits in Karamchedu—all of them will have to decide on which side do they stand. On which Dalits’ side do they stand, they will have to decide. Are they on the side of the oppressed or the oppressors? On the side of the rulers or the ruled? Unless we decide that and rise strongly, many more Lashimpeta like massacres will happen.
Therefore, in these circumstances, those who depended on the Dalit identity and used reservations to become SPs and Collectors, MLAs and Ministers—all those who used the Dalit card and the reservations brought in by Ambedkar to acquire positions of power… All of them are using the identity of ‘Dalit’ to thrive, and some activists, who are also dependent on Dalits, are acting as their agents.
People who live on Dalits, people who live for Dalits—we will definitely have to demarcate them now. That’s the warning from Lakshimpeta. What Lakshimpeta is telling us is that the oppressed Dalits — the Dalits who are starving, who have no clothes or shelter—are being murdered. Whether it is Dalit bureaucrats or MLAs or Ministers, they offer them no protection. The responsibility for their protection is on the shoulders of students, poets, artistes and writers.
If we don’t understand this historic moment correctly and build a strong Dalit movement, all the villages will become graveyards. The villages will not survive.