Surrounded by green agricultural fields and cold storages for post-harvest produce like paddy and vegetables lies the small village of Ramachandrapally in Makloor mandal of Telanganaâ€™s Nizamabad district. The village, which otherwise hums with a flurry of agriculture activities, has been simmering with caste tension from the last four months over a piece of land meant for graveyard.
Around 70 families belonging to the Mala (Dalit) community are allegedly facing a social boycott â€“ all because they opposed alleged encroachment on this land for a plant nursery, and want to preserve their ancestral practice of burial as opposed to cremation.
An old cemetery that is accomodating a plant nursery
Earlier in the last week, TNM visited the village to assess the situation on ground. The population of the village is just over 1,800, comprising Backward Class (BC) and Scheduled Caste communities and a handful of people from the Nayakpod community, who are adivasis. A massive tank and an irrigation project canal cater to the agricultural needs dominated by the locally dominant Perika caste, a backward class community.
Statues of Mahatma Jyothiba Phule and Dr BR Ambedkar at the village centre
The Mala community says that their resistance has attracted the wrath of the Village Development Committee (VDC), resulting in a social boycott by many other communities. For instance, village residents have allegedly been disallowed from shopping at the grocery stores owned by the Dalits. One person from the Perika community was allegedly fined Rs 5,000 for violating the ban.
TNM visited the grocery shop of Sakki Sanjeev, who belongs to the Mala community. He said, "From the last four months, except people from our own community, no one is buying from here. Earlier I used to make sales of around Rs 2,000 per day, but now, I barely make Rs 500 in one day. Our only source of income is the shop but they don't want it to be run."
Like Sanjeev, another Mala family used to run a grocery shop and an electrical shop in the middle of the village. However, due to the boycott, the family had to shut down both. The owners - Dandu Pramila and her son Anvesh â€“ say that they have incurred a loss of over Rs 1.70 lakh as a result. "Several materials which we had newly procured were not bought by anyone fearing VDC. Food items expired and we had to throw them away. Electronics material was given back to the wholesale traders for half price," Pramila rued. When asked if they had approached the sarpanch or any official, Avnesh said, "We tried but no one responded. Not only has the income from the shop stopped, but the interest on our debt is growing."
Apart from preventing people from buying from their grocery stories, the Malas say that they have been unable to rent agriculture machines such as tractors and harvesters, and are being denied daily wage work. The community members say that these are ways the Perikas are punishing the Dalitsâ€™ resistance, by cutting off their means of livelihood.
Flash point that led to the tension
Several Mala residents have objected to accommodating the village plant nursery in a common burial ground where all communities conduct last rites as per their faith. While the SCs such as Malas and Madigas bury their dead, most BC communities burn them.
The Dalits argue that the plant nursery can be arranged elsewhere on government land instead of on an existing burial-ground. However, the Panchayat and the VDC -- both headed by Perika men -- decided to shift to a new burial ground 200 metres away and built the plant nursery at the existing site. Sakki Prabhakar told TNM alleged that this is to facilitate land encroachment. "The sarpanch's kin own the land just beside the old burial ground (Vaikunta Dhamam). To ease his kin's encroachment of the burial ground's land, the sarpanch convinced the panchayat and VDC members to shift the burial ground."
A new cemetery where VDC is allegedly forcing the Dalits to cremate their dead bodies
After shifting the burial ground, the VDC has also allegedly directed the Dalits to not to bury the dead bodies but to cremate them like other communities, claiming that newly constructed burial grounds (Vaikunta Dhamam) are meant to only cremate, not for burials. According to the Mala community members, the Perika community, want the Dalits to stop burials as it takes more space in the cemetery. Besides, the Dalits construct memorials which usually have Christian crucifixes on the burial site.
The Malas, in comparision to the other Dalit communities, have come to hold a significant amount of properties and have a superior status over the other Dalit communities. Their economic and educational advancement has given them a social standing to mobilise against the Perikas. According to several youth whom TNM spoke with, the Malas had initially united the other BC communities - like Gollas who are shepherds, the toddy tapping Goud community, the washerman Chakali community - and tribal Nayakpodu community, convincing them to stand against all land encroachments by the Perika community.
A portion in Mala colony with decent houses
To counter the action by the Perikas, the other communities that were supporting the Mala community and other Dalits, threatened to form their own VDC-like body, which also apparently prompted the Perikas to instigate a social boycott of the Dalits in the village.
The BC communities later withdrew their support to the Malas.
An existing caste divide, widened
Interactions with the community members reveal that the friction between the Malas and Perikas is not new. "Most of the Malas are independent as they own a significant amount of land and are economically well off as at least one person from each family is working in a Gulf country. However, the Perikas are not able to digest that we too have decent houses and lifestyle," said a youngster who is back at the village from overseas on a short vacation, on the condition of anonymity.
Sakki Prabhakar, Mala community representative.
Concurring, Sakki Prabhakar added, "They often express displeasure at boys from our community owning good bikes or some of us building new houses. This [social boycott] did not happen all of a sudden; their plan to boycott us was long due. Our demand for action against the VDC and those who encroached on the village land are not being heeded."
Srikar*, a youth from Nayakpod community, which survives on agriculture or daily wage agricultural labour, said, â€śMalas are being ostracised as they stood against land encroachment. They are harassing whoever is supporting the Malas."
A Mala woman in her mid-30s said, "The Perikas have created the division of "us" and "them" (Malas vs other village residents). We are going to shops owned by the Malas. But tractor owners are reluctant to lend us the machines, and those [Dalits] who are dependent on daily wage are suffering as they are not being given work."
A Mala youth claimed that though the Madigas, Gosangis other two Dalit communities and Nayakpodu (ST) were initially supporting the Malas, they too were threatened with social boycott and with fears that they will have to pay their debts immediately.
According to some people, VDC members from the Perika community have even collected Rs 500 from each Perika family to foot the legal expenses in anticipation of a police case based on the Dalits' complaint.
In October, Mala community members went to meet the District Collector and the Commissioner of Police, and gave them a written representation and complaint on the matter.
When asked why there has been no case registered against persons and members of VDC for the alleged social boycott, the Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) Nizamabad (North) told TNM that the "social boycott" was not established as per their preliminary investigation. "We have conducted a preliminary enquiry into their complaint at district Collector's Prajavaani (peoples redressal drive). A social boycott was not established, but the people seem to be divided into two factions as one community has created their own VDC. We are going to arrange a counselling for both communities to solve the problem amicably at a suitable place and time." The ACP further added, "All the steps being taken to prevent occurrence of any law-and-order problem as the matter is sensitive."
An extra-constitutional body perpetuating caste disparity
What makes this alleged mandate by the VDC even more controversial is that VDCs are extra-constitutional bodies. These were formed around the late 90s and early 2000s, on the pretext of village development, predominantly in Nizamabadâ€™s Armoor area and other parts of northern Telangana. However, the real rationale behind constituting VDCs was apparently to counter the social and political assertion of Dalits through reservations in late 1990's at the panchayat level. While elections are held for the committee president, vice-president and treasurer posts, the representation is often disproportionate, with dominant castes holding more seats than marginalised castes even though the population of former is lesser than the latter in many cases. The VDCs accommodate few politically active Dalit men for token representation, who usually act as per the instructions dominant caste members.
Pylon of the Ramachandrapally VDC
According to senior Dalit activist and lawyer Ganta Sadanandam, every month, there are tens of reports about the social boycotts by the VDCs in the area. Earlier in 2017, a VDC in Bussapur of same Armoor sub-division had boycotted four Dalit families for not "writing off" 10 acres of their land to the village, and 120 Dalit families â€“ mainly Malas â€“ were boycotted for not giving their land for construction of temple. Sadanandam himself advocated on behalf of Dalits and other communities which were being harassed by VDCs.
More recently, local media reported on November 25 that at least 15 VDC members from Munipally village of Jakranpally mandal were booked under the SC, ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act for socially boycotting the Nayakpodu community for not giving up land to build a road to a temple.
Sakki Prabhakar said, "Though there are enough competent people from other communities, they (Perikas) would never let others become heads of the VDC. They say that Mala, Madiga and Gosangi individuals are not fit as they're lower caste and since VDC membersâ€™ responsibilities involve festivals and temple related rituals, the lower caste communities are not suitable for the posts."
Sarpanch denies social boycott
When TNM reached out to Katakam Venkanna, the village sarpanch who is also a representative of VDC with the Mala communityâ€™s allegations, he said, "Neither the VDC nor any caste has boycotted the Malas. They themselves wanted to be separate; they formed their own organisation like a VDC, and set up their own shops including a belt shop. We have requested the villagers to buy from the shops which are paying an annual lease amount to the village VDC." Apart from paying a tax to the gram panchayat, which is the official revenue agency, shop owners are also supposed to pay a lease amount to the VDC, which veritably acts as a parallel government, even running open bids for shops to sell cool drinks and liquor. According to the sarpanch, the lease amount paid by shops is used by the VDC as funds for the â€śvillageâ€™s developmentâ€ť.
Venkanna further denied the allegations of land grabbing attempts by his family members and pressuring the Dalits to discard their burial practice as it is taking more space. He said, "We have asked them to use land at the same place where they have been conducting burials, though Vaikunta Dhamam (cemetery) built by the government was meant for cremating all the bodies."
Venkanna also denied the allegations of threatening other communities who support Malas while stating "no one threatens anyone here, our village is peaceful."
VDC members and its chairman were unavailable for comments.
United by the cause, divided by vulnerability
Incidentally, the Madigas, another Dalit community that is treated as a brethren community to Malas, has not been vocal against the alleged social boycott. The reason seems to be that while the Malas are better off comparatively, the Madigas are socio-economically weaker. For instance, while there is around 700 acres of land under cultivation, at least 30% of it is owned by the Malas. However, 25 Madiga families together own barely 20 acres of land.
Madiga colony in the neighbourhood of the Mala colony
In a conversation with TNM, two women from the Madiga community corroborated that the "VDC has decided to impose a boycott on Malas over the burial land." When asked why Madigas are silent about it, they said, "All the communities in VDC have taken a decision, but we have not boycotted [the Malas]. We are on good terms with them, and we live and work together."
Ramachandrapally's Madiga men in a wedding procession
A man in his 30s from Madiga colony added, "It's true that the Malas have been boycotted for standing up for our ancestral burial practice. Madigas are silent as most of them still depend on beating dappu in festivals and marriages in villages and are daily wage labourers. We have to fear the consequences [of expressing support]."