The journalist alleges the former PM's party brought pressure on his newspaper

In a former PMs backyard the story of a Dalit journalist and social boycott of an SC colonyAnisha Sheth
news Caste Friday, April 15, 2016 - 15:12

Vijay Kumar, a journalist and a Dalit, was in Class 10 when a man from a neighbouring village became the prime minister of India. Just like everyone else, he was happy. After all, Sigaranahalli was just two kilometres away from the village in which the first and only prime minister from Karnataka was born.

“It was a matter of pride. We felt we were of Deve Gowda’s village. But I think today, everything has gone upside down. It’s because he became the prime minister that I’m facing so much injustice,” 35-year-old Vijay says.

Haradanahalli Doddegowda Deve Gowda, who hails from Haradanahalli village in Hassan district, was India’s prime minister for less than a year between June 1996 and April 1997. But that short stint was enough to give him a certain kind of clout, Vijay feels.

Vijay’s sense of dejection comes from the events of the last few months. As a reporter for Kannada daily Vijayavani, Vijay’s reportage including covering instances of caste discrimination. But covering an incident that occurred in his native village Sigaranahalli, turned his world upside down.

Vijay Kumar in Kavishaila, a memorial to Kannada writer Kuvempu, in the latter's village Kuppalli (Courtesy: Vijay Kumar Facebook page)

In September 2015, he was the first to learn that Vokkaligas of his village had fined four Dalit women because they had entered the Basaveshwara temple, whose presiding deity is the Nandi. He and a journalist with a national daily reported on it.

Of around 300 houses in the village, around 30 houses of the Holeya caste are located in the Holageri (the Holeya-keri. Keri refers to the lane on which Dalit houses are located). The rest of the houses belong to the Vokkaliga caste, which is a socially and politically dominant land-owning group. One house, is of the Vishwakarma caste.

After these reports appeared, other journalists in the district followed suit. Eventually, the district administration intervened and conducted a temple entry programme. However, angered by this, the Vokkaligas closed down the temple for months.

Read: Ugly India: How a Karnataka village turned into a battle zone over temple entry for Dalits

Towards the end of March, the temple had been “purified” for the Durga Parameshwari Jatre, an annual temple fair. Deciding that the worst had already happened, the Dalits of the village submitted a memorandum to the Deputy Commissioner urging that the district administration enable them to offer pooja during the jatre.

Things took an ugly turn on April 1. The district administration had arranged a meeting near the temple between representatives of the Vokkaligas and the Dalits, to enable the latter to offer puja during the jatre. However, a group of villagers, many of them women, assaulted two photo journalists, locked up the Assistant Commissioner, Assistant Superintendent of Police and another official in the room of a government school near the temple, and even pelted stones at the police. The ASP and AC have since said that they locked themselves up in the school for their own safety.

Vasanthaiah, a stringer with Vijayavani, told The News Minute that his camera worth Rs 35,000 had been damaged. “They chased us, hit us with their hands, with clubs, pelted stones at us. Krishnaiah (the other photojournalist) was wearing a helmet. They hit him on the head and it broke. The police came to our rescue, and they too were hit. We thought we would die that day.”

He alleges that the violence was planned. “When we reached there to cover it, there were other journalists too, but they left some time before the violence. The attackers said that they had sent a message to some journalists.”

Vijay Kumar happened to be in Sigaranahalli on the day of the violence. Although he moved to Hassan 10 years ago owing to his work, his family still lives in the village. “If I had gone to the temple to cover the meeting, I would not have returned,” he said.

Police have arrested 29 persons, mostly women, for the assault and violence. Protests and counter-protests followed. JD (S) MLAs protested in Hassan, demanding the release of the arrested people, who were “innocent”, and a judicial inquiry. Social organizations in Holenarsipura taluk, in which Sigaranahalli is located, organized a march condemning the attack on journalists and the police.

Vasanthaiah is saddened by the attitude of his fellow journalists. “They protest when something happens to journalists in Delhi, but they didn’t say a word for us.”

When it occurred, the violence took everyone by surprise, even the Dalits of Sigaranahalli. However, for five months before that, they had been living under severe pressure.

On October 27, 2015, Vijay Kumar released his book Boodiyagada Kenda (Embers that will not turn into ash) published by Aharnishi Prakashana. It is a collection of essays on how caste operated in his village; an anthology of stories of how his family and neighbours were treated by the Vokkaligas of their village.

One of the stories is about a programme organized in the Dalit keri 15 years ago. Two Vokkaliga boys had wandered into a Dalit house and eaten food. “They fined us for it,” Vijay says. 

Monica, who is in Class 7, holding up a copy of Vijay Kumar's book. She has read the first story and shyly says she likes it. 

The day it was released, the village boycotted the Dalits. “They stopped calling us for work, selling us rations and supplies, they closed off the flour mill to us, and nobody would rent out a tractor or loan us money,” Vijay said.

This forced them to travel to Hassan (35km away) to find work, and to neighbouring villages for rations. Eventually, a married couple of the SC colony set up a small supplies shop in own their house. In November, the district Social Welfare Department had submitted a report confirming the boycott.

What happened to Vijay, was different; he says he was forced to resign from his job. In the four years that he was a reporter with Vijayavani, Vijay often reported on instances of discrimination in other villages in Hassan district, as did the district reporter of a national daily. In the past year alone, Vijay and he did three stories. In Kuruvanka village, Dalits were not allowed to draw water from the pond. After he and another journalist reported it, upper caste people came around. 

On another occasion, the pair did a story on Chowdeshwari temple in Kaaginahare village of Sakhleshpur taluk, which did not allow Dalits even into the temple compound. Both filed the story for their respective newspapers, but Vijayavani did not publish the story.

“I didn’t ask what happened. It’s my job to report, it’s their job to publish the story. It is a question of my livelihood; I can’t ask questions (about things like this),” he said. No response could be obtained from Vijayavani on this.

Vijay became a journalist by accident. A decade ago, he was the only Dalit graduate in the village. Today, one more young man is a degree holder and another is a post-graduate. He was the only Dalit from his village to have a salaried job.

“We couldn’t afford to send the other children to school, but he was the darling youngest (of six). His father and I worked so hard to raise our children, and to educate Vijay. Now look what has happened. I’m very sad,” his mother Kalamma said.

Kaalamma, Vijay Kumar's mother, she's very pained by what has happened. 

After college, Vijay worked as a newspaper boy and also doubled up as office boy. Eventually, local papers such as Jana Mitra and Hassan Mitra offered him opportunities to write stories.

“Back then I just wanted a job.” But with over eight years of reporting, Vijay loves his job. “I love being a reporter for the print media. It means I can write. I’m attached to the profession now.”

However, neither he, nor his fellow Dalit villagers anticipated the backlash from the stories he did on Sigaranahalli. Besides the denial of entry into the temple, Vijay also reported on a Samudaya Bhavana built by MPLAD funds sanctioned by HD Deve Gowda, but allegedly renamed Vokkaliga Bhavana and taken over by the Vokkaligas.

The Vokkaligas have allegedly re-named the community hall

Practically everybody in the keri blames Holenarsipura MLA HD Revanna, Deve Gowda’s son, for the hostility over the temple entry. In the immediate aftermath of the fine in September, they allege Revanna allegedly scuttled a peace meeting, and did not allow it to be officially documented. During a meeting of JD (S) workers in Hassan city in November 2015, Deve Gowda had blamed “a print reporter” for all the tension, misrepresented the demand for temple entry by the Dalits, and called the whole episode a pack of “lies”.

Watch the speech here:

 

In past several years, the JD(S) has been accused of discarding its socialist legacy in favour of casteist and nepotistic politics. It’s often been called the “father-sons party”. Raju, of the Dalits of the keri, adds another nickname: “The JD(S) should be called Jaati Dala, not Janata Dal.”

All of the Dalit villagers allege that Revanna has consistently carried out a vilification campaign against Vijay. Revanna has publicly blamed Vijay and the journalist from a national daily for “creating trouble”.

Vijay also alleges that Revanna and Deve Gowda brought pressure on his newspaper Vijayavani, because of which, he was transferred out of the district. He was first posted at Gangavathi (Koppal district) and when he requested a posting closer to home, they moved him to Mysuru.

Thayamma, one of the women who was fined last September

“I tried it for two months in Mysuru, but I was away from my family and it was very difficult to meet the expenses of two houses,” Vijay said. He has two daughters – one is six and the other is one-and-a-half-years old.

Now, he works two jobs – as a stringer for a local television news channel and as a journalist with Jana Mitra, a local daily. As a permanent employee – Vijay was the only one from his village with a salaried job; the rest are daily wage workers – Vijay earned around Rs 18,000 per month. Now, his earnings from both jobs put together are around Rs 10,000 or less.

Editor-in-chief of Vijayavani Hariprakash Konemane denied that anybody from the Janata Dal (Secular) had brought pressure on his office. “Nothing like that happened,” he said. Asked whether Vijay had been transferred because of his reportage on Sigaranahalli, Hariprakash said: “There were other reasons for his transfer. Those are internal matters which I cannot discuss with you.”

HD Revanna agreed to an interview. He responded all questions posed to him about the situation in Sigaranahalli including those on the district administration confirming social boycott in a village in his constituency, his role in conflict resolution as an MLA, allegations that he was targeting Vijay Kumar, and Deve Gowda’s remarks during the JD(S) meeting in November.

Towards the end of the interview, Revanna said: “Whatever I’ve told you so far is off the record. If you write any of this, I will refute it.”

As one of the Dalit residents of Sigaranahalli dropped me off to the nearest bus stop a few kilometers away, he pointed out Deve Gowda’s native village. “You know where the Dalit keri of Haradanahalli is? It’s outside, two kilometres away from the village. That’s a former prime minister of this country for you.”

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