“Telangana state will see a Dalit son as the chief minister. I will behead myself but will not go back on my word.” These were the words of the then Telangana stalwart and incumbent CM K Chandrashekar Rao for wooing Dalits and other marginalised sections into the Telangana movement for separate statehood.
The elections that followed the state’s bifurcation in 2014 saw the TRS leader take charge as Telangana’s first ever chief minister of the state, sidelining his popular promise to the marginalised sections of society. While that led to many of KCR's critics to call him “anti-Dalit,” the situation of Dalits in the state in the last four-and-a-half years has remained the same, as they are still prone to attacks from members of dominant castes.
With the state just days away from going to the polls, TNM looked into whether the incidents of violence would impact the incumbent TRS government in any way.
Dalits reportedly make up 15.44% of the state’s population according to the 2011 census. The state stood 9th with respect to crimes against Dalits according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data.
There were several concerning incidents of violence against Dalits in the state. Take the case of Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula from University of Hyderabad, who killed himself in 2016 in the wake of alleged caste discrimination by university authorities. At that time several letters came to light, which suggested that BJP lawmakers had played a role in the incidents leading up to his death.
At the time, students accused the KCR's government of not doing enough and siding with the BJP in order to safeguard the accused in the case.
In March 2017, the murder of a Dalit youth, Madhukar, for being in love with woman from a dominant caste in Peddapalli district’s Kathalapur was another case that sparked massive outrage.
However, one of the first incidents closer to TRS’ homeground took place in Sircilla constituency, where caretaker IT minister K T Rama Rao was the sitting MLA. As many as eight people were allegedly subjected to police custodial torture on the charges of burning sand-laden trucks in Nerella village, after one such vehicle rammed into one of the locals and killed him. This triggered violence among the locals as they accused the administration of failing to address their charges of sand mining in the region, despite repeated complaints.
The incident was criticised by all parties, with one of the victims even recently trying to immolate himself near KTR's campaign rally.
TNM spoke to Harish, the victim in question, who said, “We still haven't received justice. We will vote for whoever we feel will deliver justice.”
In another prominent incident in November 2017 in Nizamabad district’s Abhangapatnam village, two Dalit youths, Rajeshwar and Lakshman, were allegedly flogged and forced to take a dip in muddy water by a local BJP leader for reportedly questioning sand mining. Soon after the video went viral, the BJP leader even resorted to abducting them.
Several student organisations and Dalit activists, including Sujatha Surepally and Jilukara Srinivas, who are now contesting the upcoming polls on tickets of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), had staged protests to demand justice.
Speaking to TNM, Rajeshwar B said that he and his family were ostracised for filing a case.
Rajeshwar now makes ends meet by working as a daily wage labourer in neighboring Navipet, while his wife Latha works as a beedi worker, just like the wife of Lakshman, the other victim.
“Today, Latha asked them on their face about why any of us would vote for them when none of them came when her husband was humiliated and taken away from us,” Rajeshwar added.
Lakshman, when asked about which party he thinks would support them, said, "We actually want to support those who will stand for us, but who are there. We haven't yet decided about whom to vote."
More recently, in September, Pranay Perumalla, a Dalit man, was killed in broad daylight for marrying an upper caste woman in Miryalaguda, triggering outrage across both Telugu states. While the state government’s official machinery was swift to act, the relative silence of TRS leaders on the issue was questioned.
Which way will the votes sway?
However, several social scientists and political observers looked at the voting patterns of the community and said that they have never voted taking violence into consideration.
“Dalits are not united, despite comprising over 15% of the population. They can defeat any one if they take a collective decision," noted Prof Haragopal, an academic and human rights activist.
Stating that the main parties in the state have always divided the Dalit vote bank, he said, “Though there is resistance sometimes, the spirit of the Dalit movement needs to go beyond this, to the next level.”
Prabhakar Chouti, a research scholar and Dalit activist from Osmania University said, “Dalits in Telangana are looking for an alternative, but that does not mean that they are leaning towards the Congress or parties led by upper castes. They don't want to see TRS ruling again."
Furthermore, Prabhakar added that KCR's tenure has glorified feudalism like never before. “The attacks were carried out with the thought process that state mechanism and laws can't do anything.”
However, activist and academic Padmaja Shaw states that the violence against Dalits has also awakened the consciousness to be a collective. “Though there is a spirit to be a collective among Dalits, we can't say how much it will reflect on the vote,” she said.
“There will be a definite effect where acts of violence were seen on the Dalits. That may show impact on their voting decision but we can't assume that it will show everywhere,” she added.
However, TRS party leaders believe that the Dalits of the state will rally behind them because of the party’s welfare schemes and initiatives taken for them.
TRS MLC MS Prabhakar Rao told TNM that their government has done many things for the community on a priority basis -- from land distribution to better education in social welfare schools.
“Dalits, along with all sections, are reaching out to us. They want to re-elect the TRS government. The scenario is in our favour. We will definitely come into power,” he said.
When asked about the alleged atrocities that took place against Dalits during the tenure of the TRS government, he said, “Opposition parties have taken a few minute issues and blown them up and are using it blame us politically. The government has made sure that the law takes its course.”
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