On April 15, a large flex board with pictures of BR Ambedkar at the entrance to Chinna Eluru, a village in Prathipadu mandal of Andhra Pradesh’s Kakinada district, was torn down, leading to spontaneous protests by Dalit residents. The poster had been put up the day before by the youth of the village’s scheduled caste (SC) Mala and Madiga communities, as part of the celebration of the 132nd Ambedkar Jayanti in the village, which has been simmering with caste tensions for over a year. Conducted with much grandeur, the celebrations this year included a rally to the accompaniment of songs on Ambedkar, and speeches on him. The dominant caste (Kapu and Velama) residents of the village had allegedly torn the flex board, upon being offended by the grand fest organised by the Dalits.
As news of the torn-off poster spread, all of the SC residents soon headed to the scene to protest. “BR Ambedkar changed our fates and gifted the Constitution to all of us. It is deeply agonising that these incidents occur,” a protestor told the media. They blocked the road with a sit-in protest and refused to move until justice was served. The protestors withdrew only after the Prathipadu police, where they filed a complaint, assured them of action against the culprits.
The village’s Dalit residents said that this is not the first time that the politically influential dominant castes have been offended by the splendour of the Ambedkar Jayanti celebration.
Anil Kumar (23) a Dalit graduate from Chinna Eluru, said that a similar incident of tearing a poster had taken place during last year's Ambedkar Jayanti. “Elders from all communities intervened and told us to let go of the issue, saying that it is difficult to have small conflicts and live in the same place,” he recollected.
Describing the planning and preparations for this year’s celebration, Anil said, “This time, since most of our younger generation is earning enough, we put up a 10x15 feet flex board at the entrance of the village. We took out a rally playing songs on Ambedkar and there were speeches on his vision for us.” On the flex board, below pictures of Ambedkar, were the pictures of all the young Dalit men who had contributed towards the celebration. Anil added that the Dalit community looks forward to April 14 the whole year and plans ahead for it. “It is the biggest festival for us,” he emphasised.
In fact, the Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy’s observance of Ambedkar Jayanti pales in comparison to the grand fest organised by the Dalits in the village. More than 200 km from the music and speeches of Chinna Eluru, CM Jagan, along with other cabinet ministers, merely paid a floral tribute to Ambedkar at Tadepalli, Guntur.
Eleven of the 28 MLAs from the Godavari region (consisting of Kakinada, East Godavari, West Godavari, and Dr BR Ambedkar Konaseema districts) are dominant caste Kapus. Several of them belong to the ruling YSR Congress Party, of which CM Jagan is president. Besides the Kapus, there are eight other dominant caste MLAs and four MLAs from backward classes. The five SC MLAs in the Godavari region are those who contested from reserved constituencies.
In Kakinada district alone, six out of the seven MLAs are Kapus. In Chinna Eluru too, the Kapu community enjoys political dominance over the other dominant caste land-owning community of Velamas. There are around 200 SC households (Mala and Madiga) in Chinna Eluru, according to the residents.
Madhu Babu (23) believes that the flex board with Ambedkar’s pictures was torn down with the intention of showing Dalits ‘their place’.
“It must be the scale of the celebrations that triggered the dominant castes. They are unable to appreciate how much better off we are now, or how we organise events equal to them,” said Madhu, who is one of the first graduates from the SC community in the village.
The Dalit residents of Chinna Eluru have been celebrating Ambedkar Jayanti in the village for several years now. The community’s youth have even formed an association to commemorate the birth anniversary of Ambedkar. When asked how they learned about the writings of Ambedkar, Anil and Madhu said that the college education that some of the village’s Dalit youth had received in recent times had given them access to his texts.
Dalit families fear that the protests will have repercussions. Both their families and the caste elders of the village have asked the Dalit youth to refrain from conflict this time around too. However, the youth are no longer willing to give in to such compromises. “It repeated this year. We are not going to listen to anyone now,” Anil said.
He added that he is upset with the local media’s coverage of the incident. “The media reported it as some miscreants damaging Ambedkar’s flex board. They did not mention this was caste arrogance even after visiting the ground,” Anil said. He asserted, “We will definitely seek justice and expose the culprits.”
Prathipadu circle inspector of police Kishore Babu told TNM that they are investigating the case and will soon find the culprits.
Stalin Nelapudi, a former member of the SC/ST Sub Plan Committee and a native of the Godavari region, claimed that caste discrimination is pervasive there because of the districts' fertile land, which dominant caste residents have owned since long, while lowered caste people worked for them.
Madhu explained that this caste dynamic is still in effect in the village. “Up until 10 years ago, their businesses were the foundation of many of our livelihoods. As a result, they continue to view us as their slaves,” he said.
Last June, some of the Mala community members were asked to assist with work at a festival of the dominant caste Kapus, while the Madiga community was hired to play the drums. According to the Dalit residents who spoke to TNM, it is still common practice for them to be served in a separate area at dominant caste weddings.
At last year’s dominant caste temple festival, a Dalit teen was assaulted for allegedly stepping on an dominant caste youth’s feet by accident. “The 17-year-old boy was brutally assaulted by the dominant caste youth and friends. He had to be later admitted to a hospital. We wandered around the police station for nine days demanding intervention, but the village's caste elders stepped in again and resolved the conflict. Those men are upset that we managed to keep them coming to the police station and hence tore up the flex board while no one was looking,” Madhu said.
The teenager at Chinna Eluru was lucky to escape alive, but that wasn't the case for a 22-year-old Dalit man in Srungavruksham village of Thondangi mandal, Kakinada. A similar incident of caste atrocity took the life of Nadipalli Ramu on March 22.
On the eve of Ugadi, during Nukalamma Jatara (a local deity festival) a dispute arose when a Dalit youth allegedly stepped on the foot of an dominant caste youth. The next day, most Dalits, excluding a few youths, stayed away from the fair.
Ramu, a resident of Thondangi village, who had gone to his grandmother's house in Srungavruksham, was among those who attended the fair the next day. The Dalit youths soon fled the place as they were attacked and injured by Kapu and Ontari (a Kapu subcaste) men. When Ramu went to collect his bike from near the temple around 12.30 am, he was once more attacked with beer bottles, along with stones and sticks. He passed away while being taken to a hospital in Tuni town.
Pointing to the flex-tearing incident at Prathipadu, Stalin said, “It is an incident of caste arrogance that occurs because dominant caste communities do not understand the idea of Ambedkar. Ambedkar’s work is not restricted to Dalits, but he became their god because they owed him as he worked for caste emancipation. For political benefit too, politicians appropriated him to gather votes from the scheduled caste communities.”
However, according to Stalin, “Thanks to education, things have changed. People are earning better, dressing better. They are living in better houses and in sanitary conditions. This naturally triggers dominant castes who treated them as their labourers for centuries.”