In the last four months, Marepalli witnessed the deaths of four Dalit men. Residents allege that liquor addiction due to the illegal liquor shops in the village is behind the deaths.

Residents of Telangana’s Marepalli village take a pledge against illegal liquor shops
Delve Ground Report Friday, February 11, 2022 - 16:06

On January 17, Meesala Naveen, a 25-year-old daily wage labourer from Marepalli, a tiny village in Kondapur mandal of Telangana’s Sangareddy district, died by suicide. His was among the five deaths that have rocked the village in the last four months. All the five men who died, four of whom were Dalit, were said to be addicted to alcohol.

With a population of less than 3,000 and not connected by public transport, Marepalli has been embroiled in a controversy over the sale of liquor at belt shops – extended counters operated illegally by existing liquor stores. Common across villages in the state, these belt shops are allegedly run by paying commissions to permitted wine shops and bribing local police and Prohibition and Excise Department officials.

A day after Naveen’s death, Dalit women and youth headed to the six belt shops in the village, alleging that liquor addiction was behind the death by suicide and the three other deaths in their colony. The women reportedly asked the shop owners to stop the sale of liquor. An exchange of words allegedly prompted some of the women to ransack the liquor bottles in all the stores.

However, while the police filed a case against the Dalits for alleged rioting and looting and sent them to judicial custody, no action was taken against the men running the illegal liquor shops.

Arrested under false charges

Two days after the incident, Kondapur police booked 19 people under sections 147 (Punishment for rioting), 148 (Rioting with deadly weapons), 327 (Voluntarily causing hurt to extort property), 386 (Extortion by putting a person in fear of death or grievous hurt) and 444 (Lurking house-trespass by night) read with 144 (Unlawful assembly) of the Indian Penal Code. The charge against the Dalits was that they had attacked Purra Mahesh Goud, who runs one of the belt shops in the village, and snatched Rs 30,000 from his shop.

On January 24, the police summoned all those who were booked to the police station in the name of counselling and allegedly forced them to sign some papers. According to the Dalits, the Sub Inspector (SI) at the Kondapur police station threatened to file a case under the Preventive Detention Act (PD Act) and open a rowdy sheet if they didn’t sign the papers. Thirteen people, including four women, were detained at the Sangareddy district jail for 10 days.

Activists felicitating the Dalit men and women who were arrested and later released from jail

But despite repeated oral complaints and one written complaint given by the Dalit residents on January 18, the police did not register any case against Purra Ashok Goud, Goundla Chennam Goud, Nimmamgari Laxmaiah, Kambalapalli Raju, Govindapuram Maneyya and Purra Raju, the men running the belt stores in the village.

‘Families are being ruined’

When this reporter visited the colony on February 4, a day after the arrested people were released, Dalit activists and organisations had arrived to express their solidarity with the local residents. Around 150 Dalits gathered near the Dr BR Ambedkar statue in the village and took a pledge: “We’re pledging to start a movement to ban belt shops from Marepalli. Jai Bhim!”

A meeting held after garlanding Dr BR Ambedkar

The jailed residents said that the men from the colony were becoming addicted to alcohol, spending all their earnings through daily wage labour on drinks or completely abandoning their work.

“My son used to be inebriated throughout the day, he came home only to beat up his wife seeking money,” said Sushila, Naveen’s mother. Naveen was the sole breadwinner of his family of five, which included his parents, wife and two young children.

Sushila, Naveen's mother at Dalit colony

Another reason for people continuing to be alcoholic, the residents said, is that the belt shops give liquor on credit if the customers don’t have money.

Naveen used to work as a daily wage worker until some months ago, but ever since he started working at a belt shop he became an alcoholic, according to his mother. “They never paid him, instead they gave him liquor on a daily basis. That day he shouted at us and fought with us seeking money before taking his own life,” she said.

According to Kondapuram Prashanth, one of the accused in the case, several men from the colony were addicted to alcohol, which in turn impacted their families as well. He said, “Families are being ruined. We have been urging the police and excise officials to take action and shut down the belt shops but they didn’t listen to us.”

Another man, Meesala Narasimlu, 48, died near the premises of a belt shop last October allegedly after consuming liquor. Locals who did not want to reveal their identity told TNM that Narasimlu’s body was moved from where he died fearing an attack on the shop by the villagers.

While the villagers believe that it is excessive consumption of alcohol that is taking a toll, Dalit activists alleged that adulterated liquor sold at the belt shops is causing the deaths. Mupparapu Prakash, president of Samajika Hakkula Sangam (Sahasam), said, “People are consuming liquor from belt shops in other places as well, but only men who consumed liquor from these shops have lost their lives. The cheap liquor sold here is adulterated with chemicals used in toddy-making.”

Prakash added, “Prohibition and Excise Department officials were also negligent. When the villagers complained about the illegal liquor stores, they neither visited the village nor took any action on the people who ran the shops.”

Meesala Sushila, Meesala Bhagyamma and Meesala Ananda: Family members of the men who died due to liquor addiction

One-sided action by the police?

A complaint purportedly lodged by the Dalit women and villagers against the illegal liquor shops was not taken into consideration for initiating any criminal action. On the other hand, the police were quick to book the Dalits who ransacked liquor bottles at the shops.

S Mariyamma, a woman accused in the “attack” on the shop owners, said, “We went there to caution them to stop selling liquor illegally in the village as it is ruining the families and the health of the people. But the shop owners spoke to us in a provocative manner and said that we are no one to tell them as they are paying commission to police and excise officials. They abused us with our caste names.”

She added, “We didn’t attack anyone physically, we threw out liquor bottles, but they filed a case against us saying we looted money from the counter. That is not true.”

This reporter approached two of the shops where illegal liquor was sold earlier. While there was no one available at one shop, the person in the other place refused to comment.

However, the police officer overseeing the investigation into the case denied the allegations made by the accused. Speaking to TNM, Kondapur SI Srinivas Reddy said, “We registered a case based on the prima facie evidence. The initial investigation found 13 people indulged in rioting and theft.”

When asked about the inaction on the belt shops, the officer said that all the six shop owners were booked for selling liquor without license in violation of the Prohibition and Excise Act and were presented before the Kondapur Tehsildar (who is the Executive Magistrate). However, he did not mention the specific sections under which they were charged.

A kirana store at which liquor was being sold illegally

The SI also denied threatening to slap the PD Act and rowdy sheet on the accused. He said, “At the time of the investigation also they were saying that they will attack the complainants for lodging the complaint. We did not threaten them but cautioned them about the consequences of taking the law into their hands.”

The SI also said that the deaths cannot be linked to the consumption of liquor. “While one was death by suicide, our investigation revealed that the other four deaths too can’t be attributed to consumption of alcohol from these belt shops.”

Sangareddy Prohibition and Excise (P&E) Superintendent D Gayatri also said that her office was unaware of the existence of the six belt shops until the vandalism took place. When asked about the alleged negligent approach when the villagers brought the belt shops issue to their notice, the Superintendent said, “The villagers gave a representation about the belt shops on January 19. We have taken action on the same. Now there are no belt shops in the village or sale of liquor in any manner.”

When asked about the alleged adulteration of liquor causing the deaths, the officer said, “There was no complaint lodged when the deaths occurred. We could have investigated scientifically and taken action accordingly.”

However, she did not have an answer when asked why her officials did not know about the existence of the six belt shops in a village that does not even have public transport facility.

Political pressure?

According to Errolla Prashanth, another jailed resident, the belt shop owners initially did not want to lodge a police complaint about the vandalism following Naveen’s death. He said, “They were quiet for two days, as it happened spontaneously following the death by suicide. But two days later, their syndicate – which does not want our village to be liquor-free – saw a threat to their business and prompted two of the shop owners to give a complaint and file false charges of theft of money and gold chain.”

According to a resident, the case was filed just to “teach a lesson” to the Dalits. “Those liquor shops were a point of controversy for the last three to four months. Everyone in the village wanted them to be shut down but those who run them are influential in the village and have political support,” he alleged.

A journalist from a popular Telugu news channel who covers the erstwhile Medak district also confirmed the same to TNM: “Even licensed wine shops cultivate small belt shops in order to do more sales. The syndicate saw a threat to their business, and when the women ransacked the shops they filed a complaint.”

Of the six belt shops, five were run by Gouds and one by Yadav, both Backward Class (BC) communities. Residents alleged that these liquor shop owners approached TRS leaders who pressurised the police to act quickly on the Dalits.

Now Dalits in the village are demanding the arrest of the belt shop owners under murder charges, for selling illegal liquor and causing deaths. Prabavathi S, one of the accused women who was released from jail, told TNM, “We were sent to jail for doing what the police and excise officials are supposed to do, but there is no action on the belt shop owners who are the reason behind the deaths of the five men in the village.”

READ: How Nalgonda cops cracked down on a 460 kg ganja haul with TRS link

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