On the evening of 19 November, when this reporter entered the Dalit neighbourhood in Abhangapatnam village in Nizamabad district of Telangana for the second time, he was met with a different sight than earlier in the day.
The village appeared crowded with waving blue, red and black flags and resounded with slogans of “Johar Baba Saheb Ambedkar” (long live Ambedkar!) and “Evarunna lekunna memunna meekosam -- kadilostam meekosam” (Whether there is any one or not, we are with you – we come for you) as a long queue of activists headed to the village from Navipet mandal headquarters.
When TNM reached the home of Kempula Laxman, his grief-stricken wife Bhavana (25) sat huddled in their tiny two-room penkutillu, while Laxman’s parents sat on another side, visibly crying.
Laxman is one of the two Dalits who has been missing for a week after a video surfaced showing BJP leader M Bharat Reddy reportedly ‘punishing’ him and another Dalit youth, Rajeshwar.
Bharat Reddy was seen in the video holding a stick and threatening to cane the two men as he hurled abuses at them, allegedly for stopping his truck which was illegally transporting gravel. He then forced them to take a dip in muddy waters repeatedly, even as they tell Reddy that what he was doing was wrong.
When this reporter introduced himself to Laxman’s family, they agreed to interact with skepticism.
Laxman (31), who worked as a daily wage labourer in the fields or as a hamali, rarely talked about what happened at work. Likewise, he apparently decided to keep the matter of the incident in the video to himself.
His mother Narsavva said, “We don’t know anything about it, he never told us. We all got to know about the incident only after watching it on TV.”
Breaking into tears, Sailu Kempula, Laxman’s father, said, “Now everything has come out. My son has left home, who will bring him back? Many have come, many have gone (police, activists) but we are the ones suffering.”
Bhavana, who is clearly nervous about all the happenings – Laxman going missing, the police coming home – said, “He didn’t tell us anything. On Sunday when he left home he said that he was going to work as usual. From then he has not come back, we don’t know where is he.”
When asked if there have been any phone calls from him, she said, “He didn’t call but soon after news came out that he was missing, the police came and took away my mobile. They must have thought that he would call on my phone, but he didn’t.”
Later, in the presence of activists, Bhavana along with Latha, wife of the other victim Bachala Rajeshwar, gave a complaint to the local Sub-Inspector alleging that their husbands were kidnapped by Bharat Reddy’s men.
Activists Prof Sujatha Surepally, Jilukara Srinivas, Telugu film director E Prem Kumar, student leader Sharat Naliganti along with members of the Bahujana Pratighatana Vedika and others consoled both the families. The huge flock of activists crowded in front of the Dr Ambedkar statue in the centre of the village, while chanting slogans, singing songs and giving speeches in support of the community.
However, the massive support from the activists did not seem to assure the sorrowful wives.
When this reporter first tried to reach out to Rajeshwar’s family, he found only his 6-year-old daughter Richitha sitting in front of their tiny house without any idea of where her father was.
“We don’t have anyone to look after us,” Latha broke into tears looking at her daughter, when asked who else is there in the family. She said Rajeshwar’s parents passed away long ago and he was looked after by some relatives till he got married.
Talking about the day he went missing, Latha said, “He left home as usual. He also took his phone.”
Richitha, who has just started speaking, has nothing to say but her eyes convey fear and despair.
Village Dalits unmoved
The massive inflow of activists seemed to have failed to move the village Dalits.
The protest demonstration didn’t see the active participation of the Dalits of the village. But many small kids were seen cheering at the slogans and songs sung by the activists.
Three hours before the protests, this reporter encountered a Dalit youngster who was getting ready with his dappu (a musical instrument which Madigas (Dalits) play as their caste profession). When asked about the ongoing happenings in the village, he said, “I don’t have anything to say, I don’t know anything. I have a function, I have to rush,” leaving to play the dappu at a function.
Women were seen listening to the speeches from street corners and from behind walls. Most residents feigned ignorance and did not want to be seen talking about the incident.
Addressing the crowd, Jilukara Srinivas said this was the real face of casteists in the country. He alleged that KCR’s bangaru Telangana had become a threat to the lives of Dalits.
Taking potshots at Swami Paripoornananda (a Hindu seer who was in the news recently for criticising social scientist Kancha Ilaiah and actor Kamal Hassan), he said, “Mr Paripoornananda should answer now; he was labelling Dalit intelligentsia as anti-nationals orchestrating the constitution values.”
Prof Sujatha Surepally sought a statement from local MP K Kavitha for alleged police inaction.
She pointed out that Telugu media gave lesser priority to the Dalit “punishment” video and other incidents, such as the alleged murder of Madhuker, a Dalit youth who fell in love with a higher caste girl.
“How silly it is to write about the family affairs of KCR (referring to the recent news reports about him attending marriages); their cough and cold is news but not Dalits getting killed everywhere. Why don’t they write about all this?”
Student leader Sharat Naliganti, who accused the government of carelessness, warned about severe consequences if “missing” youth weren’t back.
What are the police saying?
Following the meeting, the activists took out a rally from the village up to the main road where they burnt the effigy of the accused Bharat Reddy.
In a conversation with this reporter, a police officer of Inspector rank said, “This apparently happened two months back. It was Santhosh Reddy, vice-Sarpanch, who asked the youths to stop the trucks because he allegedly had a grudge against Bharat Reddy.”
When asked if Bharat Reddy had any old cases against him, the officer confirmed, “Yes, he has. He has even gone to jail (under murder charges).”
Talking to people in Navipet, TNM heard that Bharat Reddy was “violent” ever since he became an ABVP leader. Apparently, he was not being given any active, participatory roles in the party as he had been breaching the decorum.
However, earlier the BJP state committee top brass had issued a statement saying that Bharat Reddy does not belong to their party.