The tension is palpable when we reach Garagaparru in Palakoderu mandal in West Godavari district. A village of around 6,000 residents, Garagaparru is fragmented by a social boycott that the Mala residents of the village allege has been laid against them by members of upper castes for over two months.
At the centre of the controversy is a statue of Dr BR Ambedkar that currently stands outside the old panchayat office. According to the Mala (Dalit) residents of the village, they have been denied their right to install this statue on the banks of the cheruvu (a lake), where other statues like that of freedom fighter Alluri Seeta Rama Raju stand and are regularly commemorated by the upper caste residents of the village.
Daivapadam*, one of the residents of the Malapeta (Mala section of the village), says, that the demand for an Ambedkar statue in the village isnât new. âFor the last three years, we have been bringing it to the village panchayatâs notice, but they never listen to us.â While the Malas of Garagaparru are converts to Christianity â which is why the Malapeta is also called Christianpeta â they identify with their Dalit and Ambedkarite identity.
Determined to install the statue this year, some Mala youths installed a flex board of Dr Ambedkar on the bank of the lake on April 13, narrates Daivapadam. "Youngsters kept the flex board at the cheruvu lane on the eve of the 126th birth anniversary of Ambedkar, and from that time, they (upper castes) were angered and expressed their dissent over it.â
The Flex board
But the situation got worse after the statue was installed on April 23. âThey didn't even let the sun rise over him â they shifted it overnight into the old panchayat building. On learning about this, we reached there and brought out the statue,â says another Mala resident.
Even the local Sub Collector had to be involved in the ensuing quarrel, and he insisted that permission be obtained from the High Court before the statue was installed beside the lake. Angered by resistance of the upper caste members of the village, the Mala men installed the statue right outside the panchayat office, narrates Daivapadam.
"What did we ask from them? Two feet of space for a five-foot tall bust. That is all. But since the finger of our man (Ambedkar) points at the Rajus who sit regularly in front of the statue, that hurt their ego," alleges another Mala resident.
KB Raju*, an upper caste resident, says that they had nothing to do with the statue being locked away in the old panchayat office right after itâs installation. "It was the panchayat secretary, also a Scheduled Caste man (but not Mala), who shifted it to the old panchayat building, we did not do that."
Police protection at village
The upper caste members (primarily the Rajus) of the village, for their part, blame the High Court for the controversy around the statueâs installation. Based on a petition on the degradation of the lake filed by a local man, Gonaboina Umamaheshwar Rao, they point out, the High Court at Hyderabad had ordered a stay in 2010 against erecting any new structures on the banks of the lake, and against conducting village celebrations at existing ones.
"Even before April 23, the Malas had approached the panchayat for space to install the Ambedkar statue. They were shown some other space since the High Court has given a stay order," says Ganapathi Raju, a member of the peace committee set up by District Collector K Bhasker.
However, the Malas allege that despite the HC order, the upper castes had convinced the petitioner to allow celebrations at structures already present on the banks of the lake. They are continuing with all the religious ceremonies and rituals, which we don't object to. But when we tried to install a BR Ambedkar statue, they couldnât digest it,â alleges one Mala resident.
Mala residents say, a meeting was called of all residents of all communities except theirs, and a social boycott was announced. âThey had a meeting on April 26 and decided to boycott us. it was Rs.1000 if anyone talks with us, Rs.10000 for if they let us work in their fields," says P John*, a Mala tenant farmer.
G Lincoln*, a 60-year-old man says that he and his family have been eating two meals a day at the Lutheran church in the Malapeta for the last 20 days. âWe were not called for work, we don't have money to get Buvva (rice) and we are eating whatever our leaders are giving us.â He also alleged that the upper caste members of the village had instructed the residents of nearby villages not to give work to Mala residents of Garagaparru too.
According to John, it was only four days after the social boycott began that representatives of the Mala community were called for a compromise meeting at the house of the former sarpanch Chintalapati Surya Narayana Raju's house. With that meeting turning fruitless, the Mala residents, then attempted to file complaints with the Palakoderu Mandal Revenue Officer (MRO) and the police on May 12 and May 20.
However, they allege, the MRO and the SI ignored the complaint. When the issue eventually found its way into the local media, and the Sub Collector instructed the police to file a case, this was done more than a month later. And, following an intervention by officials of the SC/ST Commission, the MRO and the SI were suspended on June 28. And on June 29, three persons â Indukuri Balaramakrishnama Raju, Mudunuri Rama Raju and K Srinivas â were arrested on July 29 under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.
A road in the main village
No road where the Malas lives
But the upper caste members of the village claim that the allegations against the arrested men are false, and it is the Malas who have boycotted village events. Denying the allegations of a social boycott, Ganapathi says, "Indukuri, along with the others held an all-community meeting to discuss (preparations for the) Pallalamma village goddess festival, for which they (Malas) were absent. For that matter, they did not come to the Annasantarpanas (festive dinner) at two other temples at the end of April and May, they boycotted all of us."
He also alleges that the Malas had threatened the upper caste farmers during their dharna outside the old panchayat office on April 23. "They (Malas) threatened us, saying, âWe will burn down your grains, we will kill you. But we chose to remain silent.â
He adds, âSince they have a Brahmastram (superior weapon) in the form of the SC/ST Act, they booked our people under that." In this, he claims, they have received support from politicians like Harsha
The Malas, however, scoff at the idea of their boycotting work or any social events in the village. They point out that without any of their land to work, they are dependent on the upper castes for their needs, and cannot imagine carrying out a boycott. âWe neither have land nor fishery cheruvus. Most of us are tenant farmers or agricultural labourers,â says Mark*.
Daivapadam explains that many of the Malas leased lands from upper caste landowners at a rate of 26 bags of grain (of 75kg each) per acre. Paul*, a 40-year-old tenant farmer alleged that after the conflict over the Ambedkar statue, his landlord had taken back the lands he had leased out and handed them over to other members of the village.
As for the question of boycotting social events in the village, John asks with a bitter laugh, âHave you ever heard of Malas boycotting higher castes?â
Cooking for Mala community
The upper caste residents, however, point out that members of 14 communities in the village, other than the Malas, have come out in support of the three men who have been arrested. To this, the Mala residents allege that the other Scheduled Caste families were initially in support of their cause, but have been threatened away by the upper castes.
The Mala residents have now put forward a list of demands including land and compensation for those affected by social boycott, as well as the installation of the Ambedkar statue on the banks of the lake and punishment for those who removed the statue originally. They are also demanding that Malapeta be declared a separate panchayat, and security be given to them from the upper caste members of Garagaparru.
Meanwhile, the upper caste members are also simultaneously in protest, demanding that the arrested men be released and the case against them under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act be dropped.
Edited by Luke Koshi and Rakesh Mehar.