‘They’re pushing us out’: Dalits in Telangana town protest demolition of Ambedkar hall

Dalit activists view the demolition as an attempt to evict them from the market area, which is at the centre of the town and its economy.
Ambedkar Bhavan demolished in Dornakal
Ambedkar Bhavan demolished in Dornakal
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On September 22, the Ambedkar Bhavan — a community hall belonging to Dalits in the town of Dornakal, Mahabubabad district in Telangana, was demolished abruptly in the early hours of the day. Several protests broke out, with residents alleging that the destruction took place without any prior intimation. The demolition is being perceived as an attack on the entire community, resulting in significant outrage.

 “A group of policemen knocked at the doors of the SC Samuhika Committee members at 2 am on September 22. Around ten people were detained and taken to Dornakal and Kuravi police stations. No questions regarding the detention were entertained and we were released later in the day, by which time, the building was demolished,” said Sunku Krishna Rao, President of the SC Samuhika Committee, which monitors the functioning of the Ambedkar Bhavan. The community hall lies at the centre of the town in the primary market lane, next to a vegetable market. 

While the government has plans to construct a model market by absorbing the land on which the community hall stood, Dalit activists across the state are viewing this demolition as an attempt to evict their presence from the market area, which is at the centre of the town and its economy. Dalit groups sat on a hunger strike for about a week demanding that the government rebuild the hall at the site of demolition. 

The story behind the Ambedkar Bhavan

The community hall was established by late Sarpanch Anumula Maisaiah in 1989 on land endowed by the Dornakal CSI (Church of South India) Diocese. The Sarpanch being a Dalit himself, saw the necessity of space for his community and a place which would serve as a transit stay for villagers around Dornakal, who would often avail railway service in the town.

As the building turned frail, the committee members approached current MLA DS Redya Naik four years ago, requesting funds to renovate the building. The MLA promised to sanction Rs 40 lakh to rebuild it during the recent elections, after which an inauguration ceremony was also held.

The demolition

Contrary to the promise, proposals about replacing the land by demolishing the hall sprung up eventually, residents allege. “We were summoned by the MRO (Mandal Revenue Officer) and Municipal Commissioner on June 20 and were offered an alternative site to the present land, on two locations, out of which one is about 480 sq yards but is located on the outskirts of the town. The other is about 100 m from the present land but is only around 200 sq yards, which is insufficient to accommodate a community hall,” Sunku Krishna Rao said. 

Majority of the Dalit population in the town resisted this idea and said that they were outraged to hear such a proposal as the foundation ceremony to reconstruct the damaged committee hall was already complete. The community members filed a writ petition in the Telangana High Court asking for a stay on the demolition in August. While the writ petition was pending for hearing, delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the hall was demolished on September 22.

“We haven’t received any official notice regarding the demolition. Instead, we were detained at 2 am. We aren't criminals, to drag us down from our houses in that manner,” Sunku Krishna Rao said. 

Image courtesy: Mahabubabad TV 

Protests broke soon after the demolition. Dalit leaders from across the state sat on a hunger strike for about a week. Madiga Reservation Porata Samiti (MRPS) leader Manda Krishna Madiga also took part in the protest and addressed the people of the town. Various Dalit organisations extended their solidarity to the protest. 

“Every town and village has structurally been built and segregated by different castes, which seems to be obvious in this incident. Despite making promises to reconstruct our building, they chose to demolish it in the name of development. The need for segregation and to erase any Dalit presence from the centre of the town portrays the dynamics of dominant castes in this country,” said Sanjeeva Rao, Mahabubabad district president of Ambedkar Yuvajana Sangham. 

A few members of the Dalit community however, found the proposal reasonable. They signed an agreement in the presence of the District Revenue Officer (DRO) and the sub-divisional police of Mahabubabad on September 30, stating that they agreed to the proposal and would no longer engage in legal discussions regarding the demolition.

This changed the initial dialogue around the construction of the Ambedkar Bhavan on the demolished site. Though six members signed the agreement stating that it was a unanimous decision by the SCs of Dornakal, the rest of the community states otherwise and argues that this has never been a unanimous decision. 

“Our community has been oppressed for far too long now. The process of pushing us out of the town has existed for many years and we do not want that to happen again. The community hall is not merely a space to accommodate activities. It speaks about our presence in the centre of our town, which has been denied for centuries now,” said Anumula Varun, the son of late sarpanch Maisaiah.

Meanwhile, K Ramulu, a member of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes arrived after he was informed about the incident and on October 3, had a brief meeting with Mahabubabad Collector VP Gautham.

“We had a brief discussion and negotiations on the alternative sites for land. No agreement was made on building the community hall in the area of the demolition but we agreed on allotting ten shops from the model market to individuals from the Dalit community. The model market has been planned to give vendors space to carry out their businesses in an organised manner. The current area where the vegetable market stands is about 600 sq yards and is insufficient for a model market due to safety and fire regulations, so we decided to merge the land on which the community hall stood,” the Collector said.

“Apart from the ten shops, as discussed earlier in negotiations with the community members as well, we will be compensating them with land near the old gram panchayat area which is about 200 sq yards and 100 m from the current location and also providing them with 480 sq yards near the bus stop,” he added. 

Dalit residents refuse offer

“Although the authorities have repeatedly pointed out that this was a move to ensure development in the town, we believe that this act has come down from structural oppression by the dominant castes and their power to make a political statement, by pushing us out of the main town,” said BRV Ramana. 

“These acts are usually implemented to rewrite public memory,” said Nikita Sonavane, a lawyer and co-founder of Criminal Justice & Police Accountability Project. “Several incidents like the one in Dornakal happen abruptly to erase the presence instantly and visibly, to make sure the power balance in society remains intact," she added.

For the residents of Dornakal, the land and the building is symbolic of a fight against a society in which people have been outcast physically and mentally for centuries. “All across the country, there are several instances similar to this one, where lands are acquired for various purposes in the name of public interest. How is it that the properties of the marginalised are repeatedly taken? Which is why we will continue to fight till we are rightfully given our place in the market with sufficient land to rebuild the community hall with dignity,” said Krishna Rao.  

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