cātur-varṇyaṃ mayā sṛṣṭaṃ guṇa-karma-vibhāgaśaḥ tasya kartāram-api māṃ viddhy akartāram avyayam
(According to the three modes of material nature and the work associated with them, the four divisions, or varnas, of human society are created by Me. And although I am the creator of this system, you should know that I am yet the nondoer, being unchangeable.)
— Bhagavad-Gita, Chapter 4, Shloka 13.
Thus spake Lord Krsna as he clarified the origin and purpose of the caste system in the sanaatana dharma to Arjuna.
The road from Rajamundry to Kakinada, in its run, passes through Dowlerswaram, where the legendary British irrigation engineer Sir Arthur Thomas Cotton built a barrage on the lower stretch of the Godavari river delta. From here a canal runs parallel to this road all the way up to Kakinada where the Godavari empties into the Bay of Bengal.
Many prosperous villages — Thapeswaram, Dwarapudi, Draskharamam, Ramachandrapuram — abut the road on both sides. In fact, the land seems like it has been painted green; green in an orderly and commercial fashion. Only, this order is disturbed by the ubiquitous structure which houses either a rice mill or a cinema hall.
The village of Venkatayapalem is 7km away from Ramachandrapuram, the headquarters of the mandal, towards Kakinada. At almost the centre of the village lives Thota Trimurthulu, the current TDP MLA from the Ramachandrapuram constituency, who belongs to the powerful Peddakapu caste, in a tall duplex house.
At the entrance of the Mala hamlet
From the terrace of the house one can constantly surveil an area within a radius of about 100mts — a panopticon, if you may; Jeremy Bentham, the English philosopher, would have been very proud. In fact, I was quickly rushed into a tiny hut at the far end of the hamlet for the fear that people from the MLA’s house might see us.
Mala is one of the two major Dalit castes in AP. Their hamlet with about 50 households is 30mts away, clearly falling within the 100mts radius. The English phrase ‘under the watchful eyes’ is not metaphorical anymore. Here in Venkatayapalem, it is literal, for one is always under the watchful eyes of the MLA.
And it was from here that justice according to the Dharma, of the Gita variety, was allegedly dispensed on that fateful night of December 29, 1996 by the MLA, then an Independent, and his coterie.
The victims who were allegedly tonsured, Koti Chinnaraju and Dadala Venkataratnam, and the victims who were allegedly harassed, Challapudi Pattabhiramayya, Kanikella Ganapati and Puvvala Venkataramana — were all hot-blooded youngsters then, volunteering for the BSP and all belonging to the Mala community, except one who was a Madiga. They had refused to bow down and take the strong-arm tactics of the MLA’s men at the polling booth.
They entered into an argument, and a push-and-shove show ensued, which ended with threats by the MLA’s men. Not taking them seriously, they returned to their hamlet. Later that evening they were allegedly picked up and taken to the backyard of the MLA’s house. And it was here that they were at the receiving end of the MLA’s benevolence.
Benevolence because they were given an option, they say — whether they wanted to be amputated or have their heads and eyebrows shaven. Unsurprisingly, they chose the latter. And the barber, at the behest of the MLA, reluctantly obliged, according to the Mala men.
The village and its social structure are worth commenting upon. Just like all the other villages in the Krishna-Godavari (KG) delta, Venkatayapalem is a prosperous village. All the land is ‘magani’ (wet land suitable for irrigated cultivation). The major cultivation is of ‘vari’ (paddy).
The attendant growth since the Green Revolution, however skewed, has ensured that the overall standard of living, at least materially, has increased for all sections — including the BCs and the Dalits — but strictly, relative to the other villages in other areas of the state.
For the landed gentry, almost exclusively Peddakapus, the per hectare productivity has increased exponentially. This surplus has been directed into other areas, primarily finance capital. Members of the extended family are into film financing and own the rice mills locally. The other major community in the village, the Settibalija (BC-b,) presently, are the tenant farmers leasing these lands for cultivation. The Dalits, a majority of whom are Malas, usually work on these lands as agricultural labourers.
There is no ‘vetti’ (bonded) labour. The daily wages for agricultural labourers is Rs 400 for men and Rs 300 for women. For works in MGNREGA projects, the daily wage is between Rs 120 and 130, for both men and women.
But ever since the incident, 20 years ago, the few Mala families involved have alleged that they have been discriminated against.
But then, due to the increase in the cost of agricultural production lately, two things have happened. One, the younger generation have migrated to urban areas looking for more lucrative work. And, two, the Settibalija tenant farmers, who earlier were warned by the MLA to prefer poor Kapus from neighbouring villages over the Malas from the village as labourers in their fields, are now employing Malas purely out of desperation - because they would work for a lesser wage.
The incident that night was not an ordinary loose one of violence and corruption normally associated with elections which are the contesting fields for power and money. That is just one side of it. The other, more important and structured side, is the historical evolution and context of Dalit assertion.
Even if one accepts the argument that economically, India’s growth, overall, has been highly skewed, one cannot deny the fact that, at least in a few pockets, this overall growth has relatively improved the lives of the BCs and Dalits. For instance, the Dalits in KG delta region, including Venkatayapalem, are relatively well off when compared to the Dalits in Telangana.
Post-independence, the Congress, as part of their politics of patronage, deliberately kept the landed regional communities away from political power. It feared that strong regional political power centres would weaken the unity of the federation. It gave disproportionate preference to economically powerful sections of the backward communities. Therefore, due to this politics of patronage the Dalits have always preferred the Congress.
But ironically, its efforts towards Green Revolution ensured just the opposite; it made the regional landed gentry and peasantry economically more powerful, which emboldened them to challenge its political power. An excellent case in point is the rise of NTR and the TDP in AP. This self-assertion lead to two forms: rural violence, like the Karamchedu incident, and electoral violence, like the incident on the December 26, 1996, at Venkatayapalem.
The rise of Kanshi Ram and the Dalit assertion in the 1990s also provides the background for this incident. The disaffected young radical Dalits of Venkatayapalem decided to campaign and vote for the BSP. They were educated — Koti Chinnaraju and Dadala Venkataratnam both studied ITI — and they did not want to be told whom to vote for. This self-assertion went directly against the philosophy of the Gita, which extols the virtues of maintaining the caste hierarchy — or more euphemistically labelled ‘social harmony’.
This attitude was reflected that night when the two were allegedly tonsured and repeatedly kicked and beaten, all the while being asked, rhetorically, “How dare you raise your voice and rebel against us, you Mala sons-of-bitches? Don't you know your place?”
It was again reflected when the MLA’s elder brother, speaking to B.Com graduate and LLB dropout Challapudi Pattabhiramayya’s father the next day, reportedly said, “You know why it has come down to this situation? It is because you have spoiled your son by educating him.”
In fact, this attitude, conversely, is reflected in Pattabhiramayya’s words, when he said, “The MLA and his people are uneducated brutes. They couldn't swallow the fact that we were more educated then they are.”
The outside world did not know about this incident until January 4, 1997, until TSN Raju, a brave journalist working for the Telugu daily Vaartha, was the first to write about the incident.
The atmosphere in the village was so tense that no journalist dared to enter it or speak to the tonsured and injured villagers. Proof of this was that the local SP, Aditya Tripati, only came to know of this incident from the newspaper article that Raju wrote. The SP immediately arrived at the village, gathered the victims and took them to his office. Smoking two packets of cigarettes, he listened patiently to the victims for the entire day and personally filed the FIR, and promised them justice and protection.
In fact, the villagers were initially scared and reluctant to meet the SP as they were told by the MLA that the SP was their man.
The MLA, A1, was finally arrested on the January 7. On the January 8, the LW1 and LW2 recorded their testimonies according to Section 164 of the IPC at Alamur. In a first of its kind instance, the then ruling party, TDP, tried to get a bail for the accused from the High Court (HC) by filing the chargesheet in a record 15 days. A chargesheet was filed for the offences under Sections 342, 324, 506 r/w 34 of the IPC, and under Section 3(iii) and (x) of the The Scheduled Castes And The Scheduled Tribes (Prevention Of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
Taking into cognisance the intentions of the government, Justice Thyagaraja Naidu of the Rajamundry sessions court, himself a Kapu, gave a schedule for the hearing of the case from May 27, 1997 to June 4, 1997.
Sensing that if at all the case hearing does happen, he would definitely be punished, the accused got a stay from the HC on the basis that he does not trust Justice Thyagaraja Naidu. He also put in a request for transfer of the case to Vijayawada.
The HC ruled that the victims also have a say in this, and after taking into consideration their reservations, shifted the case to the special court in Visakhapatnam.
In 1997, the TDP government appointed the Justice Puttuswamy commission to inquire into the matter. The already overburdened judge was considered a man close to the TDP. Hence, Dalit leaders and lawyers like Bojja Tarakam, PL Raju and others, advised the victims to boycott the commission. Angered that no one turned up for the hearing despite the issue of summons and notices, the Justice filed a case against the victims. The HC gave a clean acquittal by ruling that, according to Article 19(1) of the Constitution of India, the victims had the right to remain silent.
When finally, the court hearing began in 1998 in Visakhapatnam, both LW1 and LW2 gave their testimonies. The defense, without even cross-examining the witnesses, got a stay from the HC the very next day, on the basis that they do not trust Justice Jagannadha Rao, also a Kapu.
Meanwhile, the government passed the GO no. 1796/1998 giving a clean chit to the accused - a shocking move and blatant violation of the judicial process. This GO was challenged in the HC by the victim Dadala Venkataratnam with the help of the Human Rights Forum. The court rapped the government and ordered the case to be reopened.
When the Congress government came to power, it appointed Rafi Kidwai as the Special Public Prosecutor (SPP). The accused again approached the HC and obtained an interim stay stating they had reservations against the SPP. Kidwai later withdrew from the case.
The case was still pending when Bojja Tarakam on January 8, 2008 filed a writ of Mandamus in the HC. The government immediately swung into action and appointed Jawahar Ali as the SPP. The hearing was scheduled for eight years later, from August 6, 2016 to August 11, 2016.
Just two days before the scheduled hearing was to begin, the DSP of Kakinada range sought the court to postpone the hearing to September 26, 2016 with the excuse that they cannot provide adequate security to the victims owing to the ongoing Godavari Pushkaralu.
Meanwhile, one of the witnesses, Puvvala Venkata Ramana, who is the only Madiga in the case, complained that he 'did not like' the SPP Jawahar Ali, and so GO no. 707 was passed and Jawahar Ali was removed.
Pattabhiramayya alleged that the MLA co-opted Venkata Ramana by using the Mala-Madiga caste division. He also claimed that Venkata Ramana was rewarded with a loan of Rs. 10 lakh from the cooperative bank for purchasing a tea cup manufacturing machine, with the MLA acting as surety, and two housing loans.
The victims requested the HC to appoint a SPP of their choice. While this petition was pending before the court, the government appointed Saladi Srinivas, who belongs to the same community as the MLA, as the SPP.
Taking into consideration the victims’ objection to this move, the HC has recommended Y Sujatha as the special PP as of now. The victims also proposed the name of Viswanadha Sastri. On March 22, 2017, Y Sujatha was finally appointed as the PP.
The accused MLA, however, issued a ‘non-denial’ denial when asked about the incident. "They are from my village, living just near my house and farms. I have to come across them every day. If at all I did do something like that, where is the proof of any such incident? Pilli Subash Chandra Bose of YSRCP is behind all these allegations being raised by these Human Rights Organisations. That’s all," Thota Trimurthulu.
And when asked about why the case has dragged on for such a long time, he blames it on the complainants. “They don't want the case to come to hearing because they know that if it does then I would be proven innocent. Also. my opponent from YSRCP, Bose, is behind this. He wants to cause problems to me politically. This is why they are dragging the case by submitting petition after petition. Recently, when the case came to hearing last year, they petitioned that they do not want Saladi Srinivasa Rao as the special PP. If it is true that because I am in power now I am dragging the case, then Bose was the MLA for two terms from the same constituency, so why didn't he do anything about it then? Even I am suffering running around the courts for 20 years."
What the case reflects
This tale of tonsure reflects the iniquitous role that caste continues to play in our society. Most of us talk about a modern India. Our literary personalities even like to talk about a postmodern India and so on. But what this tale so convincingly demonstrates, among other things, is that most of India still continues to live, mentally at least, in the feudal times.
The mere fact that the Bhagavad Gita, a product of our feudal past, provides the justification for caste and caste violence in the 21st century is proof of this. It also proves that economic growth does not necessarily reduce old social inequalities, but that it has the potential to further reinforce those inequalities, and that too with more violence.
The case also points to the pitiable state of our criminal justice system. An atrocities case, which according to the Act is supposed to be closed, at the most, in two months, has dragged on for 20 years. In all these years, the accused MLA became more powerful politically, economically and socially. He, in fact, is a key negotiator for the TDP to appease Mudragada Padmanabham, the Kapunadu leader.
The victims, on the other hand, have suffered economically and socially. Revu Apparao, one of the witnesses, has failed to get his old age pension from the Venkatayapalem gram panchayat office for many years. His widowed daughter-in-law, Revu Suhasini, who is just 22 years old, hasn't been able to get her widow pension. All the victims have braved threats and intimidation. As Pattabhiramayya put it, “First they hit us on our backs and now they are hitting us on our stomachs.”
Nobody can say when this case will end or whether the victims will get justice, but one thing can be said with absolute conviction: Caste, in this country, will outlive every other social institution.
And Lord Krsna will be the nondoer, transcendental to all the divisions in this material world.