Hindutva makes inroads in Telangana as Congress, BRS maintain caste inequity

After using social justice as the platform to carve out a separate Telangana, both the BRS and Congress have maintained historical caste inequities. This has allowed the BJP and its virulent Hindutva to grow among the OBCs, SCs, and STs of Telangana.
Telangana Congress president and Chief Minister Revanth Reddy and BRS chief KCR
Telangana Congress president and Chief Minister Revanth Reddy and BRS chief KCR
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In Telangana, the two feudal castes — the Reddys and Velamas – dominate the state’s political landscape though they comprise not more than 5% to 6% of the demography. Even as the two rivals – the Reddys led by Telangana Congress president and Chief Minister Revanth Reddy and the Velamas who nearly revived their lost glory for a decade under the reign of the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) founder and chief K Chandrashekar Rao (KCR) – are engaged in a power struggle, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is desperately seeking to gain a foothold in the state.

In the united Andhra Pradesh, Telangana as a region had experienced exclusion, marginalisation, and undermining, which had led to demands for statehood in the first place. Also, the Reddy-Velama rivalry in Telangana was insignificant in the undivided state as the power tussle was always between the Kammas and Reddys of Seemandhra. Despite having a firm hold on the rural society by the subjugation of lowered castes – mainly Dalits – as Doras and Patels (honorific suffixes to feudals), the Telangana Reddys and Velamas were either confined to one or two cabinet berths or relegated to the role of sub-chieftains in the Congress and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) governments.

The last phase of the separate Telangana movement with popular slogans like Neellu (Water), Nidhulu (Resources), Niyamakalu (Jobs/appointments) drew huge support from Dalits, tribes, backward castes, and minorities. However, the movement’s leadership remained in the hands of the Velamas and Reddys, like former CM KCR and Prof Kodandaram. The undeterred mass movement forced the then Congress Union Government to accord the separate state in 2014, leaving the field open to all aspirants.

KCR’s fiery oratory skills, mass mobilisation techniques, and the image of a stalwart of the Telangana movement made him the preferred first CM of the state with the promise of a ‘Bangaru Telangana’ (golden or prosperous Telangana). This led to discontent among the Reddys about their political prospects in the newly formed state. Fast forward to 10 years later and Revanth Reddy not only emerged as a contender for the CM post but also as a charismatic consolidator of the Reddys. After his arrest in 2015 over the ‘cash for votes scam’, he positioned himself as KCR’s rival. In 2017, seeing no prospects in the TDP, he moved to the Congress only to lose his sitting MLA position in 2018 and win as MP from the Malkajgiri segment. As he grew politically, Revanth had to fight the BRS as well as cosy up to his resentful colleagues for ‘snatching’ the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chief position in 2021.

Amidst this political slugfest, during the last phase of KCR’s second tenure, a section of Reddys under banners such as the Telangana Reddy Joint Action Committee (TR-JAC) and Reddy Jagruthi began organising mass caste congregations hoping to seize political power. KCR might have thought that such consolidation of Reddys may not harm his Velama political regime as he always gave them their fair share of seats in his power coterie. He allowed Reddys to occupy several berths in the cabinet and conferred on them most of the nominated positions in local bodies. Moreover, his Rythu Bandhu (farmer investment support scheme), Kaleshwaram mega irrigation project, and policies like Dharani (digital regulation of land records) not only benefited the landholding Velamas and Reddys, but Reddys are said to have gained more as the schemes spread across the state.

Even as political power exchanged hands from the BRS to the Congress, the current Telangana Assembly has 43 legislators from the Reddy caste and 13 from the Velama caste, together making up 56 of the 119 MLAs, despite these castes comprising a small fraction of the total population of the state.

After using social justice as the platform to carve out a separate Telangana, both the BRS and Congress have maintained historical caste inequities to cement their grasp on power. This has allowed the BJP and its virulent Hindutva to grow among the OBCs, SCs, and STs of Telangana.

Upper castes retain power after new state formation

Decoding the Reddy consolidation that ended the Velama reign, Satish Manjeera, a senior journalist who has closely watched KCR’s statehood activism and shrewd politics, told TNM, “Revanth Reddy and other opponents of KCR created an undercurrent among the Reddys that sought absolute political power. In that pursuit, minor Reddys from different economic networks like real estate were also roped in. Caste congregations that saw the attendance of Reddys across party lines echoed with caste-centric rhetoric and the portrayal of Reddys as the rightful owners of political power.”

He further noted, “Joined by some TDP leaning Kamma capitalists who were disgruntled with KCR’s regime, Revanth was successful in confining the feudal honorific Dora to Velamas alone although the Reddys too ran their feudal businesses in cahoots with the Nizams.” Whenever Revanth criticised KCR as Dora and termed his behaviour Dorathanam (Doraness) and called Pragathi Bhavan a Gadi (feudal mansion) and often termed it as Pragalbala Bhavan (mansion of exaggeration/tall claims), the media houses owned by Andhra Kammas – who are said to be cosy with Revanth – legitimised such depictions without questioning Revanth’s social roots. Similarly, the BRS sweeping the economic hub of Hyderabad and its suburbs has to be read while considering the financial interests of Kamma settlers within and in the periphery of the city. 

Professor Dr Inukonda Thirumali in his 1992 research paper Dora and Gadi: Manifestation of Landlord Domination in Telangana while defining Doras as “someone with caste privilege, land, money and ruthlessness” noted that most of them were upper caste, primarily Reddys, and a few Brahmins, Velamas, and Muslims in some pockets. The infamous Reddy and Velama power bastions can be traced to the 14 samasthanams and 1,167 jagirs in the Nizam’s Hyderabad as more than half of them were held by the Hindus as noted in Between Tradition and Modernity: Nizams, Colonialism and Modernity in Hyderabad State by historian Professor Dr Bhangya Bhukya. Under the Nizam’s reign, samasthanams were governed by autonomous rulers called samasthandars while jagirs were held by jagirdars or land managers who had certain revenue and administrative powers. In 1985, the Congress with its default Reddy base came down heavily on the TDP for abolishing the Patel-Patwari system by accusing it of “political motivations”, as the move aimed to shift the power structure from the hands of the Reddys. 

A decade ago, at the peak of the separate state movement, each subaltern section that took to the streets under different banners did not merely want a geographical state but had imagined a “Samajika Telangana” (Telangana with social justice), which would reserve their stake in the political power in parliamentary institutions. However, in a decade or so, their radical aspirations which could defy the feudal social order of Telangana were crushed as the power continues to shuffle between the two ‘Dora castes’, that is, Velama and Reddy. 

Here, one could also heed the warning by the Justice BN Srikrishna Committee, which was appointed to study the situation prior to state bifurcation, that the upper castes will maintain the status quo by resorting to “politics of accommodation”, by negotiating with and allowing other rising castes but retaining power with themselves. The Committee noted that given the population dynamics that favour lowered castes and minorities in Telangana, they may feel they can overwhelm the upper castes to get a larger share in political power.

Professor Ghanta Chakrapani, prominent public intellectual, sociologist, and former chairman of the Telangana State Public Service Commission (TSPSC), commenting on the trajectory of state politics said, “As long as there is no active political consciousness among Dalits and other lowered castes or the so-called Dalit-Bahujans that drives them towards political power, the politics in the state will continue to remain as a power tussle between the dominant castes. In fact, historically Telangana politics has always been dominated by these regional elites. Now, after the formation of the state, they have been merely reconfigured or reactivated.” A recent attempt to breach this elite political domain by former cop-turned-politician Dr RS Praveen Kumar Swaero by consolidating Dalits and OBCs (Other Backward Classes) with the slogan of ‘Bahujana Rajyam’ has proven to be futile.

Hindutva’s inroads

In this period, the BJP – in whose student outfit Akhil Bharartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) Revanth Reddy was active during his undergraduate studies between 1989-1992 in AV College, Hyderabad and was said to be with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as well – too rose to prominence by a show of strength in the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) elections in 2021 and by winning two Assembly bye-elections. The BJP’s long-term Hindutva project, fuelled by the hate speeches of the likes of MLA Raja Singh and MP Bandi Sanjay too yielded results, as its vote share in the state doubled to roughly 14%.

The BJP’s consolidation in Telangana did not take place in a linear manner, especially in the last few years. The mobilisation of OBCs around political power and of upper caste youths along the iconography of Maratha ruler Chatrapathi Shivaji to “otherise the Muslims” and flexible handling of Dalits, in which they either instigate the attacks on Dalits or appease them. For example, in a series of attacks on Dalits in Telangana in the past, including the one recently on Dalit Christians in Shankarpally, the accused were largely from OBC castes and fringe organisations affiliated with Hindutva ideology. Additionally, the BJP has also been posturing, pitting Adivasi icons like Komaram Bheem as revolting particularly against the Nizam of Hyderabad, choosing to ignore that they fought the local landlords as well.

A pro-right-wing ecosystem on Telugu social media too is playing a vital role in forcing people to rally along religious lines and the recent discourse over the Ram Mandir Pran Pratishtha (deity consecration ceremony) has aided the BJP and its affiliates to push themselves more aggressively. In fact, recently KCR too taunted the BJP for seeking votes by offering akshintalu (ritual preparation of rice grains with turmeric). Though this was postured as a spiritual act by the BJP, narratives around the Ayodhya temple have definitely left an imprint on the psyche of the people. Besides this, the saffron makeover of the countryside with the omnipresent slogans of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ too have had an impact.

Professor Ghanta, who sees the rivalry between the Reddys and Velamas in Telangana as a perpetual process, stressed that there is a surge in the BJP’s political Hindutva project in the state. “BJP is hoping to increase Parliament seats here. It is not only banking on poor electoral mathematics like the Congress but also on its own groundwork across rural areas with its Jai Shri Ram networks, which consist of even non-BJP members. These networks might side with them, as the state’s politics will continue to be dominated by the two feudal castes with a layer of aggressive Hindutva.”

Notably, after the recent win in the Assembly elections, the BJP instantly favoured Reddys’ Congress over the Velama-led BRS, upsetting the conventional political calculations that these two parties have banked on since the formation of Telangana. 

Will Congress’ Lok Sabha miscalculations help BJP?

The Congress’ inability to walk the talk when it comes to ‘social justice’ as far as distribution of portfolios is concerned is something that the BJP is trying to use. Following its win, the Congress sidelined veterans and Dalit leaders like Damodara Rajanarsimha and Bhatti Vikramarka to make Revanth Reddy the CM. Other than the CM post, the top three portfolios – Irrigation & Civil Supplies, Roads & Buildings, Cinematography, and Revenue & Housing, Information & Public Relations – in the cabinet are held by Uttam Kumar Reddy, Komatireddy Venkat Reddy, and Ponguleti Srinivas Reddy respectively. Three other portfolios – Ministry of Prohibition and Excise, Agriculture and Marketing along with Information Technology, Industries & Commerce – are held by Jupalli Krishna Rao, Thummala Nageshwara Rao, and Duddilla Sridhar Babu respectively, who belong to Velama, Kamma, and Brahmin castes whose population is negligible.

Launching attacks on KCR and disparaging the BRS regime as ‘gadila palana’ (rule of gadi) and claiming its rule as ‘praja palana’ (people’s rule) while propping up the state cabinet, bureaucratic paraphernalia, and state-level corporations with Reddys may not augur well for the Congress.

The Congress’ own ranks acknowledge the highly skewed distribution of Lok Sabha seats in favour of Reddys while ignoring castes like Madigas and OBCs. This is another flaw that the BJP is definitely using, as it has fielded two Madigas and one Nethakani caste candidate in three SC reserved constituencies of the state. Motkupalli Narasimhulu, Congress leader and Revanth’s long-term colleague, went on a hunger strike alleging injustice to Madigas. He accused Revanth of acting like a jagirdar (feudal landlord). Mandakrishna Madiga, president of the Madiga Reservation Porata Samithi (MRPS), who announced his support to the BJP for its promise of SC classification, is taking shots at the Congress accusing it of “cheating Madigas”.

Such non-consideration of the potential of candidates and social equations will not only dent Congress prospects but may also give an edge to the BJP. It is also seen as a shot from the wrong angle for the Congress to continue to condemn a former CM with lesser stakes while disregarding a major opponent, that is, the BJP, in the Lok Sabha elections.

CharanTeja is a journalist and researcher who predominantly writes on rural affairs, caste, politics, and forest/environmental rights from both the Telugu states.

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