Opinion: Erecting the tallest Ambedkar statue will not end violence against his people

The ruling TRS and YSRCP have expressed their eagerness to set up the tallest statue of Ambedkar in Telangana and Andhra even as a cascade of caste crimes is reported.
KCR YS Jagan and Chandrababu Naidu
KCR YS Jagan and Chandrababu Naidu
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"The TRS achieved a separate Telangana by walking in Ambedkar’s path, and following his philosophy of ‘educate, organise and agitate’, by following the Constitution he has written," said Minister K Tarakarama Rao (KTR), a leader in the ruling party at the recently-held Telangana Assembly session. KTR was responding to Congress leader Batti Vikramarka’s allegations that Ambedkar had been humiliated in Telangana. KTR’s comments come on the back of the TRS’s rather recent embrace of Ambedkar. The ruling party in Telangana has promised to build the tallest statue of the leader in the country. In neighbouring Andhra, the YSRCP led by Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy, too, unveiled grand plans to install a 125-foot-tall statue of Dr BR Ambedkar. 

But the eagerness of political parties to set up the 'tallest' statue of Ambedkar – parties that are mainly led by dominant castes – comes at a time when there is a cascade of violence on Ambedkar’s people. 

In Telangana, Scheduled Castes (SC) comprise 15.45% of the state population, while in Andhra the SC community make up 18.28 % of the state populace. Despite constituting a significant proportion of the population, neither government has been able to put an end to attacks on the community. 

Political hand in caste crimes

Before asserting their government's commitment to setting up Dr BR Ambedkar’s tallest statues, political parties should restrain their cadre from killing and indulging in violence against Dalits. Either that or they should restrain themselves from using Ambedkar statues to placate Dalits.

In most cases of violence against Dalits, the accused are backed by dominant castes who belong to political parties such as TRS, TDP, YSRCP and the BJP. At the village level, it is these party leaders hailing from dominant castes who control and perpetuate caste discrimination on Dalits and other lowered castes.

Take the story of two Dalit men – Rajeswar and Laxman – who were attacked and humiliated by a local BJP leader belonging to a dominant caste in Telangana. They were forced to get into dirty water after they attempted to stop illegal gravel mining in Nizamabad.

Caste discrimination is on many other occassions sanctioned by unconstituional bodies like  Village Development Committees (VDC) in undivided Nizamabad and Karimnagar districts. It would be no exaggeration to say that no week goes by without reports of social boycotts and other atrocities on lowered castes by VDCs.

Brutal caste killings like the daylight murder of Pranay, a 24-year-old Dalit man who married Amrutha, a woman belonging to a dominant caste, made national headlines in 2018. Despite the spotlight, little changed on the ground for inter-caste couples.   

Perhaps before the TRS and YSRCP engage in political grandstanding, they may want to do a simple Google search, which throws up scores of incidents of Ambedkar statues being defaced and vandalised in both Telugu states. 

Crimes against Dalits in Andhra Pradesh are equally barbaric in revealing their naked casteism. Many Dalit activists and historians say that if anyone wants to document or archive caste and its bloodbath, one must begin in Andhra where incidents such as Karamchedu, Tsundru massacres took place.

In East Godavari, Malas (Dalits) faced a social boycott from caste Hindus for two years in Garagaparru village. Their ‘crime’ was erecting a statue of Dr BR Ambedkar at the village centre where all caste Hindu men usually sit. 

Poll promises and claims of development often come at the cost of, or exclusion of, lowered castes. On New Year’s Eve in 2017, at a time when then Andhra Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu was promising to build a world class capital in Amaravati, violence was reported just 30-40 km away in the Dalit colony of Peddagottipadu of Guntur. A group of Dalits was assaulted by dominant caste men allegedly belonging to the Kamma community – traditionally associated with Naidu’s TDP.   

Violence against Dalits, however, continues to be reported irrespective of the government of the day. In fact, as per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, there was a 13% rise in crimes against Dalits in 2019 under the present YSRCP regime led by YS Jagan Mohan Reddy. 

But it’s not just physical violence and threats. Two recent incidents where two youths were assaulted and had their heads tonsured reveal the heights of vengeance against Dalit bodies.

Going beyond symbolism

No matter who is in power, the attacks on Dalits, who Dr BR Ambedkar throughout his life struggled to liberate, continue. The motives behind setting up the tallest Ambedkar statue, at a time when their caste Hindu brethren are indiscriminately indulging in violence on Dalits, is better known to the dominant caste elites who are running both states. Perhaps, the raised finger of Dr BR Ambedkar in every statue seeks the answer for the same question.

There is nothing wrong in installing statues to remind people of the spirit of the anti-caste fight, especially when symbols and structures that embody casteism and promote violence in everyday life are omnipresent. But having statues of Dr BR Ambedkar alone is not helpful. He isn’t a religious figure to be worshipped, but a social revolutionary whose ideas threaten the very existence of the unequal Hindu society.

If the business of setting up his statues is merely to turn those spaces into places of worship, then that should be opposed because it endangers and subverts the culture of opposition by creating devotees, and not successors of his fight.

K Balagopal, a well-known human rights activist once wrote, "If we read the political history of the perpetrators in these cases, they either belong to TDP, Congress, BJP or another political party. Their party's high talks and their cadres’ violent acts go together."

"Not just physical attacks, untouchability or the culture of enforcing other forms of caste discrimnation and socially boycotting those who oppose them are done by the key local leaders of these parties. But parties will not take any action on them, instead the leadership will give them priority during the general elections and they even get tickets in local body elections," wrote K Balagopal in an article written for a Telugu daily 20 years ago. His words still stand true today. 

Setting up statues of Dr BR Ambedkar is not enough for caste Hindu political parties, unless they start educating society against the culture of violence and make annihilation of caste their agenda. Anything else is hypocrisy and doublespeak. If they think their caste Hindu brethren will get hurt by such reforms (although human dignity is the bare minimum), they can put an end to their bid for pseudo emancipation of Dalits and talk about Ambedkar's vision.

It is indeed an irony that the Telangana Chief Minister performed a bhoomi puja for the tallest ever 125-feet statue of Dr BR Ambedkar amidst 'mantras' by Brahmin priests. In the end, we must remember that Ambedkar's thoughts and writings are more powerful than his statues. 

Charan Teja covers the two Telugu states and writes predominantly on caste, politics and forest-environmental rights.


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