While the prospect of Dalits and Backward Classes playing a more decisive role in Telangana politics has risen, political narratives are creating constraints to the possibilities of Bahujan consolidation.

From Left to right: RS Praveen Kumar, K Chandrasekhara Rao and Bandi Sanjay
news Politics Friday, October 07, 2022 - 17:30

The cabinet led by Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao (KCR), recently decided to name the newly constructed Secretariat after Dr BR Ambedkar, the architect of Indian Constitution, by passing a resolution. It was a deft move that took the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is mobilising Backward Class (BC) caste groups in Telangana by surprise. A section of subaltern intellectuals have welcomed the decision although they have dubbed it as an act of ‘political symbolism’. Irrespective of ideology, the political elite takes decisions to improve their electoral prospects.

Like many have argued, mere setting up giant statutes or naming the legislative buildings would not bring change in the country that is full of contradictions. Earlier this year, the Andhra Pradesh government led by YS Jagan Mohan Reddy decided to name a newly formed district after Dr BR Ambedker. It resulted in widespread violence by ‘backward’ castes like Kapu and Setti Balijas, who fall just above the Dalits in the caste hierarchy, as they saw Dr Ambedker’s name as a source of threat. 

Their ‘backwardness’ didn’t stop them from resorting to violence against Dalits. 

Ironically, the Kapus’ led a “social justice” agitation seeking 10% reservation in government jobs and educational institutions. The agitation was marred by violent incidents including burning down a train and vandalism. The resentment against Ambedker and Dalit assertion in Andhra is atributed to castiesm nurtured by the agrarian wealth that flourished in regions around the tributaries of Krisha Godavari river. In Telangana, the silence after KCR’s announcement was attributed to the “progressiveness” of its people. But the state, which is known for class struggles like armed rebellion by peasants and Naxalite movement, is not immune to resentment against BR Ambedker and Dalit assertion. 

There is also a simmering tension between Dalits and BC caste groups in Telangana. The recent violence against Dalits by OBC/BCs shows that they too have a role in perpetuating casteism along with the traditional landholding Reddy and Velama castes. When Dalits rise to claim equal space or counter casteism during festivals like Dasara and Bathukamma they’re attacked. 

KCR’s flagship scheme Dalit Bandhu (to transfer Rs 10 lakh cash to Dalit families to encourage entreprenuership) faced resenment from Backward Class (BC) caste groups during the Huzurabad bye election. The BJP “instigated” the BCs to vote against the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), recently renamed as Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS), by campaigning that KCR was neglecting them by making the scheme exclusive to Dalits 

Engineering caste antagonism

Sunil Neeradi, a political science research scholar in Osmania University, observes that following the announcement of Dalit Bandhu scheme, a narrative was built against the Dalit beneficiaries saying that they got ‘rubaab’ (pride) and do not care for people from dominant castes any more. “This narrative is usually built by dominant castes and fed to the Backward Class caste groups,” he says. Sunil Neeradi feels the antagonism is not just engineered against schemes meant for Dalits but also in situations when Dalits get into inter-caste relationships or celebrate Ambedkers’ symbols or statues.

Such narratives will only widen the gap between BC castes and Dalits while instilling a feeling of being “left out” in the former. This poses a challenge to consolidation of Dalits and BCs. There were instances of BC caste groups resorting to violence against Dalits in several pockets of Telangana when they tried to install Ambedker statues. In February 2021, Dalit youth were attacked in Siricilla’s Almaspur over a social media post by men belonging to BC caste groups, allegedly backed by an RSS functionary. In the same district, in October 2020, around 30 Dalit families were attacked in Ramojipeta village on the night of Dasara festival by a mob, allegedly comprised of BC men, over their efforts to install an Ambedker statue. Similarly, over a dozen Dalit youth were attacked for trying to stop the burning of Ravana effigy on the occassion of Dasara in the October 2021 by group of men belonging to BC caste groups and Reddys. In 2020 November, in Guvvalegi in Siddipet’s Dubbak, Dalits came under attack by Mudhirajs, a BC caste group over installation of Ambedkar statue. 

Underlying frustrations regarding their own status and lack of political accommodation seem to be triggering the BC caste groups, especially those with aspiration for upward mobility like the Yadavs, Gouds, Mudhirajs, Munnurukapus.  

Many hurdles before Bahujan consolidation

Telengana has 59.72 lakh hectares of agricultural land. Out of this, Dalits belonging to Scheduled Castes own a mere 8.9% while the Scheduled Tribes own 12.4%. The remaining land is held by “others.” This includes the minority castes like the Reddys (population of 4% to 5%), the Velamas (population just more than 1%), who own a majority of the land, and the BC caste groups, estimated to be over 54% of the state’s population. The BC caste groups own smaller units of land compared to the Reddys and Velamas.

The average land per household of BCs is nearly equal to the average land (2.5 acres) per household in the state. Deciphering the Rythu Bandhu scheme (crop assistance of Rs 10,000 per acre), a recent fund allocation suggests that 30% of the total agricultural land is in the hands of the dominant caste groups like the Reddys, Velamas and others, who have dominance.

According to Ravi Kanneganti, farmers’ rights activist from Rythu Swarajya Vedika (RSV), the majority of farmers from BC caste groups are tenants. Around 80% of farmer suicides in Telangana are also by tenant farmers, he says. “Neither the BC caste groups nor the SCs, STs and other minorities are socially homogeneous. All of them have different livelihood issues but there are similarities in terms of lack of land and wealth and access to healthcare. To achieve this there is a need for a collective fight,” says Ravi.

KCR, quoting from the Comprehensive Household Survey, has stated that there are 18.22 lakh Dalit families in the state, accounting for 17.53% of total families. Tribals are believed to be over 10% and Muslims are 12.68 %. This Bahujan (SC, ST, BC and Muslims) demographic hints at the possibilities of political consolidation in the future, but the mere summing up the numbers does not reflect the reality on the ground. The state unit of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) led by the former cop Dr RS Praveen Kumar is advocating a “Bahujana Rajyam” by consolidating Bahujans under a single political umbrella. 

The Reddys and Velamas have political clout that came through continued electoral representation in Assembly and parliamentary constituencies. The accumulation of political power in their hands resulted in the BC caste groups being mere subordinates with no political accommodation. Out of the 119 Legislative Assembly seats, the BCs occupy only 22. Political observers feel that a nuanced addressing of the “unrest and aspiration” among the certain visible BC castes like Munnurukapu, Goud, Mudhiraj and Yadavs would certainly pave a way for Bahujan consolidation. 

“Though the political spheres underwent a reshuffle after the formation of the new state, the power remained with few dominant castes. If Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) wants to consolidate BCs with SCs and STs they should reach out to them and make them part of social justice discourse,” says Vashishta Bhargav, a Hyderabad based political commentator. 

Despite a certain amount of upward social mobility, the BC inclination towards the Hindu “culture” which relegated them to remain subservient seems to be a potential reason behind their hesitation to align with the fellow oppressed Dalits. 

Dr BR Ambedker as the leader of the Scheduled Caste Federation (SCF) Party too felt the same. He said: “The fear of the SCF is that BC and STs by reason of their want of consciousness may fall a prey to the minority of Caste Hindus and continue to be their slaves instead of becoming masters of their own.” In anticipation of a push towards political collaboration from the BCs and STs, he offered to rename the SCF as the Backward Classes Federation (BCF). 

At the time he had also made it clear that his party would not have any alliance with the Hindu Mahasabha or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or the Communist Parties.

Owing to the hesitation of the BCs, due to historical reasons, the BJP in Telangana chose them for its Hindutva politics experiment. In Telangana, a new communal rhetoric is being aired by the BJP to build a narrative along Hindu-Muslim religious faultlines beside offering the BCs political power. The Hindu Right Wing is also aggressively mobilising the BC youths around the symbolism of Maratha emperor Chatrapathi Shivaji Maharaj, to suit its anti-Muslim narrative. 

Need for a cultural movement

A proactive programme is needed to attach the BCs to the Bahujan political wagon. Praveen Thallappalli, a PhD scholar in Centre for Political Studies (CPS), Jawaharlal Nehru University, feels that unless there is a cultural movement to awaken the "OBC consciousness" that also acknowledges that they are not a monolith a change is unlikely. “BC intellectuals and artists should be roped in to expose the systematic exclusion that these communities are facing,” says Praveen. 

Reaching out to the BC castes like Chakali (washermen), Mangali (Barbers), Kamsali (goldsmiths), Kammari (blacksmiths), Kummari (potters), Vaddera and other artisan castes which have zero or meagre political representation would also provide space for them to engage with the idea of Bahujan politics. 

“If the BCs are politically swallowed by the BJP, the TRS may benefit temporarily but in the long run it will pave way for the growth of hardcore Hindutva politics at teh cost of subaltern empancipatory politics,” says Praveen.

The absence of platforms like All India Backward and Minorities Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF) founded by Kanshiram that organised oppressed castes is another concern. In the context of Telangana, the success of the radical Left movement and separate Telangana' movement is attributed to mass mobilisation of BC castes and Dalits through the cultural movement. Consolidating Bahujans in Telangana would also require a similar movement that articulates the forms of exploitation and exclusion. 

However, the prospects for rise of lower caste politics during the upcoming elections are high. Senior journalist and author Kingshuk Nag says there is a paradigm shift in the political framework in Telangana. “Traditional dominant castes like Reddys and Velamas' might be kept away from power as the numerically strong BCs and Dalits are coming forward for power. Weaker sections are going to rule the roost of politics in Telangana though we don't know under which ideological platforms they would organise."

It is interesting to note that this ‘lower caste’ political upheaval is taking shape under the ambit of KCR, whose regime is characterised by Hindu feudalism and a liberal rhetoric laced with populist welfare.

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