It is only when the oppressed demand for their cultural symbols that there are incidents of organised resistance, writes the author.

Mob that set fire to Andhra Minister P Viswarupu's house in AmalapuramMob that set fire to Andhra Minister P Viswarupu's house in Amalapuram
Voices Opinion Friday, May 27, 2022 - 19:36

In light of the recent arson and violent protests by dominant castes against naming the newly created Konaseema district of Andhra Pradesh after Babasaheb Dr BR Ambedkar, this article attempts to delve into the nuances around the same.

Before the state Assembly elections in 2019, Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy had promised that if YSRCP comes to power, it will create new districts based on parliamentary constituencies. The creation of new districts is justified on the grounds of administrative efficacy and good governance. The state government issued a preliminary notification in January this year for the creation of 13 new revenue districts under the Andhra Pradesh Districts (Formation) Act of 1974. The CM virtually inaugurated the 13 new districts on April 4. Konaseema is one such newly created district that was carved out of the erstwhile East Godavari.

Due to Konaseema’s rich history of anti-caste movements, various Dalit and Ambedkarite groups have been demanding naming it after their beloved Dr BR Ambedkar for some time now. Consenting to their demand, the government decided to rename the newly-created district as Dr Ambedkar Konaseema district. The district, spread over 2,081 sq km, has a population of nearly 17 lakh, with two revenue divisions, three municipalities and 22 mandals. The social composition of the district suggests a significant presence of Malas, Kapus, Rajus and other OBC groups. Geographically set near the Bay of Bengal, the district houses an alluring ecosystem.

The river Godavari, which originates in Trimbakeshwar, Nashik, sets its course eastwards, travelling through central Maharashtra, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, covering 1,465 km in length. The magnitude of people practising casteism also increases as the Godavari passes by. The casteism reaches its epicentre in the most fertile lands of the Godavari delta basin, which are primarily owned and controlled by dominant castes who exercise their power over the marginalised. River Godavari lies in the middle of erstwhile East and West Godavari districts as the dividing line between the two.

Due to their location in the Godavari delta region, the districts have very fertile land making them the agrarian rich districts of the state. This places the local landed Kapu and a few other castes at the highest pedestals of power due to their vast control and ownership of these lands. Konaseema, located on one side of the Godavari, with its vast land mass remaining under the control of a few dominant castes has been witness to sporadic incidents of caste violence and atrocities giving rise to the politics of assertion by Dalits.

Read: Konaseema violence ‘pre-planned and orchestrated’, cops probe 20 WhatsApp groups

Many modern day Telugu films eulogise the dominant castes’ rural, conservative and religious lifestyles set in the backdrop of the erstwhile East and West Godavari districts. A never-ending list of movies – Shatamanam Bhavati, Geetha Govindam, A Aa, Seethamma Vakitlo Sirimalle Chettu, Rama Rama Krishna Krishna and many others – present a utopia of village life that celebrates toxic family bonds, patriarchy, and harmonious lives engraved through enforced social hierarchies and by patronising the oppressed sections. At times, the ideal protagonist is the one who commits brutal violence against his nemesis to ensure order. The celebration of this violence by the protagonist is what keeps people awe-inspired. The violence perpetrated by brahminical thought often stands as a ground for festivities in these imaginations.

I have had the opportunity to conduct field visits in the interiors of the erstwhile East Godavari district, including the Konaseema region. These have been my observations: Due to the abundant availability of water, many in Konaseema have turned to fisheries and aquaculture in recent decades, utilising the vast mass of land for the same instead of for agriculture. This created a reserve army of labour, especially Dalits – who never owned lands – being rendered jobless since aquaculture requires very few workers. In the past three decades, thousands of Dalit women emigrated to the Arabian Peninsula, especially to the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The Union government’s own data suggests that the erstwhile East Godavari is one of the top 25 districts in the country with the highest rate of women migration to Gulf countries.

With many Dalit women migrating and ensuring steady income for their families, the relative economic deprivation has dropped. There are exceptions too. In many instances, these women emigrants undergo the most brutal and inhuman exploitation at the hands of their employers in these countries. A majority of them are employed as housemaids and caregivers. I also happened to come across incidents of migration that are a result of caste and gender oppression back home.

In my understanding, the significant Dalit population of the district has been faring better than Dalits in other districts despite their landlessness and unemployment. They managed to acquire some education and mobility. Their political mobilisation has increased in the recent past, which enabled them to demand the naming of the district after Dr Ambedkar. This demand also arose because Konaseema has a history of Babasaheb visiting the place and holding a meeting there in September 1944.

With districts and places being named after YSR, NTR, Gandhi, Nehru, including religious figures such as Sathya Sai of Puttaparthi, naming a district after Dr Ambedkar shouldn’t have been an issue. But it seems that the Kapus, the elevated former Shudras, cannot stand the name. In their aim to gain upward social mobility, Kapus seem to be competing with Kammas and Reddys of other regions not only in economic and political terms but also in resorting to brute violence against Dalits (Malas, Madigas and other Dalit castes). This is evident through the episodic incidents of atrocities reported in the region. Actor-turned-politician Pawan Kalyan, a Kapu leader, has questioned the state government for not naming other districts, namely the Reddy dominant Kadapa, after Dr Ambedkar.

Paradoxically, the names of places with dominant caste leaders enjoy universal acceptance. It is only when the oppressed demand for their cultural symbols that there are incidents of organised resistance. This contempt and hate for Ambedkar is not new. There are dozens of incidents of vandalism of his statues in different corners of the country. These incidents corroborate Ambedkar’s words to Gandhi, “Gandhiji! I have no homeland”, suggesting that for casteist mobs it doesn’t matter even if Dr Ambedkar is the chief architect of the Constitution, he still remains an untouchable for them and whose name they can’t bear to have for a place they reside.

The protests in Konaseema need to be seen in conjunction with similar incidents in other parts of the country – whenever dominant castes have come together in protest invoking their social identities, whether it be for Kapu reservation in Andhra, Jat reservation in UP & Haryana, the protests by Karni Sena and so on. Most of these protests had a violent modus operandi, which is unconstitutional. It is not at all amusing to see the ‘state’ becoming a mute spectator when violent mobs hailing from dominant sections go on a rampage destroying public property. There is a strong need to examine the way popular media and the state perceive and project such violence. Governments need to understand that they have a responsibility to ensure public safety and order. At this juncture, the government of Andhra Pradesh should explore more democratic ways of curtailing the violent protests.

Manohar Boda is a research scholar at the Centre for the Study of Law & Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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