Under siege, Telangana Dalits and Bahujans are fighting for their right to life

Mahesh Kathi’s externment is the latest instance of the Telangana government testing the limits in using law to erode all semblance of democracy in the state.
Under siege, Telangana Dalits and Bahujans are fighting for their right to life
Under siege, Telangana Dalits and Bahujans are fighting for their right to life
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On July 9, 2018, the Director General of Police of Hyderabad, M Mahender Reddy, unveiled a new chapter in law and order administration in Telangana. He held a press conference and ordered Kathi Mahesh, a Dalit intellectual and a popular face on television debates, to six months of externment from Hyderabad city for “hurting sentiments of large sections of people and adversely affecting the even tempo of life,” following Mahesh’s response to a debate on Ramayan.

This is the latest instance of the Telangana government testing the limits in using law to erode all semblance of democracy in the state. From the time the Telangana Rashtra Samithi government came to power, the Dalit community has been under siege.

During the agitation for separate state for Telangana, in which Dalit/Bahujan participation was the most significant, there was pride among these communities that the kind of caste atrocities one saw in Karamchedu and Tsunduru in coastal Andhra cannot happen in Telangana.

Some 85% of Telangana population identifies itself as Dailt/Bahujan. These communities have been in the forefront of revolutionary resistance to feudal oppression, to bonded labour and to corvée labour. The spirit of this consciousness prevailed and sustained itself because of the continued activities of the left parties in the region. The earlier governments found this assertion of rights difficult to handle, but the communities were successful in keeping arbitrary brute power of the upper castes under check.

With changing times, large numbers of Dalit/Bahujan families have begun to use the opportunities for education and employment that began to open up, and became increasingly free and articulate. Unshackled from the old oppressive subjugations of tenancy, wage or corvée labour, the communities began to claim their citizenship rights.

But with the ascent of TRS government in 2014 to power, rural and suburban parts of Telangana have become crucibles of targeted violence and death for the Dalit/Bahujan communities.

Instances of police apathy, state excess

On March 14, 2017, in Khanapur village, the body of Manthani Madhukar, a 23-year-old Dalit man was found with grievous injuries on his face, torso and genitals. Initially the police passed it off as a suicide. But for the videos of his dead body going viral on social media, the case would have been closed.

Madhukar was in love with an upper caste college-going girl, who returned his feelings. Her family, with kinship connections to the local TRS legislator Putta Madhu, is suspected of being involved in getting the young man murdered.

It took the Dalit groups’ protests, dharnas and hunger strikes to get an FIR registered. The elderly parents of Madhukar had to file a case in the High Court demanding a re-postmortem. The postmortem was redone, but the case refuses to come up for hearing in the High Court for unknown reasons. Since the system will not allow us to know if it is a suicide or murder, though the Circle Inspector who recorded the case initially has been suspended, no murder case can be filed, much less a case under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989.

In Peddapalle, a 9 year-old girl, the daughter of a Dalit father and non-Dalit mother, was sexually assaulted allegedly by a 11-year-old boy, causing severe injuries. The parents complained against the 11-year-old. The upper caste family of the boy assaulted the victim’s mother and heaped caste abuse on her in an ugly public confrontation, accusing her of chasing compensation. The police also abused her and refused to help. The mother of the victim, traumatised by events not of her making, killed herself.

Even after the mother’s suicide, the administration continues to shield the assaulters and refuses to file cases against them or the police colluding with them, under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989.

In Nerella, under the benign watch of the ruling party, the sand-mafia operates with impunity. What was a 200 trucks a day operation earlier has grown into 1000+ trucks with duplicate numbers, racing down the highway through the village, routinely killing people, reminiscent of the bloody exploits of the Bellary brothers. The indiscriminate exploitation of the mid-Maner river-bed by the sand mafia is an environmental disaster waiting to unfold.

When a group of Dalits/OBCs protested, videos were taken of the protest by the police. Later, an Adivasi elder who came to attend a wedding in the village died after getting run over by a sand truck. The marriage party stopped the traffic and set fire to the vehicles.

The police arrived, rounded up the Dalits/OBCs involved in the earlier protest, held them unlawfully at a house, brutally tortured them for several days before finally announcing that they have been arrested. The police attempted to put the victims in the Karimnagar jail. The jail authorities refused to accept them as they were physically in a precarious condition, and advised the police to admit them in the hospital instead.

Only after they were admitted in the hospital, the families and the community came to know of their illegal “arrest,” detention and torture. The community and activists began to protest and demand answers from the police and the administration. With the intervention of the High Court, the policemen involved in the incident were suspended and cases booked against them. So far no action has been taken about the deaths that have occurred in the area, even as the Dalits/BCs arrested falsely in the cases are out on conditional bail and experiencing the “due process of law.”

Meanwhile, the sand-mafia, backed by their political bosses from the ruling party and the police are hounding the victims, trying to buy them with cash incentives and other methods, ensuring that the perpetrators do not face the legal process. The ruling party ensured that Joginpally Santhosh kumar, a close relative of the Chief Minister, is elected to the Rajya Sabha as an MP from this constituency.

Over the last several years, a Dalit farming family was being harassed by the upper caste people in a bid to take away their land in Kandikatkoor. Even after the High Court orders, the Dalit family were assaulted and threatened every time they went to work on their own land. No action was taken against the accused even after the victims’ family filed a case under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989.

The village officials colluded with the local powerful families to change the land records. The Dalit family fought it out and won the case in High Court. The family of mother, father and two brothers were waylaid on the road to their land, attacked with chilli powder, the father and one of the brothers were axed to death. The entire administrative structure stands accused in this case of colluding with the upper caste family which was trying to usurp the land.

The incident is going through the familiar routine of protests and dharnas demanding justice for the Dalit family. The cat and mouse game between the victims and the state is on, where the state attempts various subterfuges to tire out the victims into submission, without allowing the law of the land to work.

Interestingly, cases have been filed against the leaders of the civil society groups for supporting the victims’ family. An FIR was allowed to be registered on 14 June 2018 against Sujatha Surepally, Professor of Sociology, Satavahana University, U Sambasiva Rao, Chairman, Bahujan Pratighatana Vedika, Marvadi Sudarshan, Dalita Liberation KNR,  Burra Abhinav, State President, Kula Nirmulana Sangham, Bandari Laxman, General Secretary, Kula Nirmulana Sangham, for (to quote exactly) “un law full assembly, put the corpses on road by sitting on road violating the public peace and traffic also giving slogans as cavity between the castes by creating riots they Abused and obstructed the legitimate duties of Government officers and their men”. These activists were demanding that the case cannot be dusted off with compensation to the victims but that responsibility must be fixed for the dereliction of duty, failure of the police and the local administration to protect the legitimate rights of the family that led to the atrocity against the family.

The police is now galvanised into action and is pursuing the activists, visiting their places of work, whether they had permission to participate in protests etc., while the victims' family awaits justice.

How the state machinery is crushing protests

In Telangana, in the name of law and order, there is a permanent state of emergency, imposition of prohibitory orders under section 144 for prolonged periods, cases, arrests, and preventive detentions.

While the powerful act with impunity, all protests are crushed by using the very state machinery that has caused the problem in the first place. When cases are filed against activists, we are cynically advised by the state and its various dysfunctional arms that the “Law will take its own course and we should respect the law.”

The TRS party is singularly focused on restoring the by-gone feudal order suffused with caste, community and class divisions that the Telangana people had resisted historically and successfully restrained for long. The well-orchestrated religious turn politics took after the TRS took over, with profligate donations to religious entities and celebrations, revival of obscurantist yagnas, propitiation of Brahmins, leave us in no doubt about the unconstitutional world view of an unequal society that the party supremo espouses. The vibrant democratic churn that made it possible for a party like TRS to assume power in the state is being deliberately disabled today.

All dissidents are under watch. Dissent is crushed with repression. Public demonstrations by students, teachers, employees, trade unions and farmers are rarely permitted. Protest venues are shut down and shifted to inaccessible locations. Rival political parties are not allowed to hold rallies or processions. When the chief minister visited Siricilla, some 600 to 700 potential protestors were believed to have been detained till the chief minister’s public engagements concluded and he left the town. There have been instances of public events in meeting halls held with official permissions being raided.

When progressive politics is crushed under intense repression, it is inevitable that the vacuum created is occupied by the feudal lumpen elements. A new political class has emerged in Telangana from these lumpen sections of society that has nothing but contempt for the law. The political bosses are encouraging such local mafia as leaders for increasing their proxy hold over local politics. For them politics is not about welfare of the people. Politics is for entrenching economic interests and ensuring continued hold over the power structure.

It is as a part of this political schema that Dalit/Bahujan communities are caught in the new jostle for power, fighting for their very right to life. The cases from Nerella, Kandikotkoor, Peddapalle, Khanapur are the more visible ones that have been widely reported about in the media. There are hundreds of instances of daily insult, oppression and threats that the Dalit/Bahujan community has been facing at a greater intensity since the bifurcation of the state that go unreported.

Interestingly, it is the victims of such politics who are proudly espousing Ambedkarism and the Constitutional values he enunciated. The Kandikatkoor farmers who were murdered did not resort to killing to defend their right to land. They exposed the blatant class, caste bias of the power structure in a court of law and won their rights. In the other cases too, despite the intense pressure and personal distress, under the leadership of civil society groups who advocate peaceful public protests and legal remedies, the victims have not resorted to violence or vendetta. It is those in power, who swore on the Constitution, who are leaving no opportunity to bury the spirit of the Constitution and making a mockery of the rule of law.

Lastly, the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, under Chapter III, section 10(1) providing for Externment of those who harass dalits says: “Where the Special Court is satisfied, upon a complaint, or a police report that a person is likely to commit an offense … it may, by order in writing, direct such person to remove himself beyond the limits of such area, by such route and within such time as may be specified in the order, and not to return to that area from which he was directed to remove himself for such period, not exceeding two years, as may be specified in the order.”

In all the cases narrated here, it is in fact the perpetrators who have threatened the Dalit/Bahujan victims, the administrators who colluded, that had to be externed to protect them. Instead, we have the DGP externing Kathi Mahesh for a mere comment made on television.

Views expressed are the author's own.

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