Dalit and Adivasi Students' Portal
(First published in the 'Dalit and Adivasi Students' Portal' in 2010)
Advocate Karthik Navayan, age 33, is one of our mentors for law students. Based in Hyderabad, he is an activist-scholar who is instrumental in organising various campaigns on the issues of Dalit students, child labour, land rights and caste-atrocities and has authored two books on the above issues. In this interview, he is sharing with us his life struggle and his ideals that kept him motivated to not only excel in studies but also to contribute towards the empowerment of our community.
Please tell us about your background.
I am from a village Morriguda, in Adilabad district of Telangana region in Andhra Pradesh. Both my parents are agricultural labourers. We are five brothers and sisters. My elder brother is an activist whereas two younger brothers and sister are still studying.
What about your schooling?
I did my schooling from a government school in Telugu medium, living in Scheduled Caste Welfare Hostel, not very far from my village
How did you get admission in this SC welfare hostel?
SC welfare hostel is run by state government and provides residential facilities for our students at very minimum expenses. There were many Dalit families in the village that had sent their kids to this hostel as they were unable to bear the expenditure of their studies. Probably my father came to know about this through them and decided to admit me and my elder brother together. I was in the 2nd std then.
How old was your elder brother?
He was two years older than me and was in 4th std. However, while being admitted there, I was put with him together in the same class.
You were also put in 4th std directly!
Yes, we both got admitted in 4th std together though I was two years younger and was studying in 2nd std. Actually this happened because my father went to the principal and requested so, as he was unable to purchase a separate set of books for me. So we both studied together till 10th std from the same hostel.
How was the SC Welfare hostel?
We were together 100 students and all of us were from similar socio-economic background from nearby areas. The facilities were all provided by the AP Social Welfare Department and worked fine with us as it gave us the opportunity to at least complete our schooling without much trouble. The hostel was 2 km away from the school and we all used to walk from hostel for our classes.
How much did you score in class X exam?
I scored first division with more than 60% marks and took commerce for my intermediate but could not pursue it seriously as just a year before my father left for gulf to work as labourer but for two years there was no trace of him.
In the meanwhile, I and my brother had to leave the hostel as it was up to Xth std only and for further studies we needed to live outside on our own. So I started working as a salesperson in a local medical shop to continue my Intermediate.
By that time my elder brother got involved with PDSU (Progressive Democratic Students Union), politically affiliated with a Marxist Leninist group, and left his studies in between to work as a full timer and could not complete his intermediate. I also failed my intermediate.
What exactly happened to your father?
My father was cheated by agents as they promised him some work in Kuwait but sent him to Lebanon instead. He took around Rs 1 Lakh loan from relatives and other sources to be able to go to Kuwait but was left stranded in war-zone of Lebanon on his own and without any means of communication.
He stayed there for almost two years and we had lost all hopes for his return. During this time gulf war broke out and he landed up working with some Indians who helped him to purchase the air-ticket and return home.
These were the most difficult times for us and it was my mother’s earning as a daily wage labourer that we could manage ourselves till I took up a part-time job at a medical shop that was in a local nursing home.
But things were very bad financially at home so I came back to the village and started practicing as a doctor using my knowledge of working earlier at the medical shop (laughs).
What about your studies then?
After some time gap when things became a little better at home, I got myself readmitted in Intermediate and managed to pass with II division and then joined college for my graduation. But then I also got influenced by a Marxist Leninist group that was active in my area. My elder brother left his studies and went underground but I worked in the party’s publishing wing while pursuing my studies. My job was to compile all the articles and publish.
I worked there for more than one year. Then I got disenchanted while my brother went on working with the party but I started taking my studies more seriously and wanted to complete my graduation.
What made you to join this group?
In early 90s Telangana, there was no option other than joining naxalite groups if anyone wanted to fight against caste discrimination. Being from a rural background I was acutely aware of the problems which we face as Dalits and the thought of fighting back/resisting the oppression was very dominant in the area I grew in.
There were many people who were working in and around our school area who were able to influence us. One of them was a charismatic Dalit activist known as Parshuram who later on became the leader of PDSU (Progressive Democratic Student Union).
What motivated you to leave the naxalite group and come back to studies?
There was an incident where a senior Dalit leader K.G Satyamurthy was expelled from the party by the Naxalite leaders as he started talking about caste issues and Dr BR Ambedkar. This left an impact on us.
Then there was an organization called Darakame (Dalitha Rachayithala Kalakarula Medhavula Ikya Vedika) or 'United Forum of Dalit Writers, Artists and Intellectuals' that started publishing pamphlets and booklets on Dalit issues.
All this made many among us to start realizing that naxals totally neglected many of our issues. By then I also got to read about Babasaheb Ambedkar and I had no other option than to leave the group I was working with and start working for my own people, but more importantly to complete my graduation.
You were doing your graduation from where?
I was doing my B.Com from a town known as Mancherial. I was supposed to finish my graduation by 1998 but took two more years and was able to graduate only in the year 2000.
Why is it so?
Mostly because of our financial conditions, I had to work besides studying. During my entire graduation period I did a lot of petty jobs right from being a newspaper hawker to a xerox machine operator to be able to sustain myself. I spent much of the time working rather than studying for my graduation.
You were quite good in studies in school and even scored first division in X std. This is a time when we all start dreaming about our career. What was your dream then?
Yes, I quite enjoyed my studies at school as I was living in the SC welfare hostel without any financial worries. My school dream was to grow up and become a Collector but after leaving the hostel, I gradually realized that my dream is unreal and unattainable. I would never be able to become a Collector.
What you did after your graduation?
As soon as I finished my graduation, I left for Hyderabad and took admission in LLB course. This was in the year 2000.
Why did you choose Law when you were a commerce student?
By the time I finished my graduation, I was totally inspired by the life and struggle of Babasaheb Ambedkar. One of my Dalit friends in college introduced me to Babasaheb’s literature and after this there was no going back. He became my role model. He was my primary inspiration for pursuing law. Also due to my political work earlier I was acutely aware that most of our problems are related to legal issues. So I wanted to become a lawyer and fight.
Did you ever face caste-discrimination/untouchability at a personal level?
I never faced much caste-related problems till I went to Mancherial for my graduation. At my home, untouchability was never an issue because my village only comprised of scheduled castes households. At school also, I lived in a hostel that was only for Dalit students. In the class also, the hostellers were treated very well as our hostel was considered a centre of progressive politics so no one could ever dare to say anything to us.
But in the urban area things were quite different. It was during my graduation that I realized that my caste is a big issue here while taking rented rooms, developing friendships etc.
Any particular incident you want to narrate?
Yes, there are a couple of incidents that I want to narrate about how caste plays a role in moulding the behavior of a person who is even a complete stranger to you. The first incident happened when I was at my village on summer vacation after finishing my intermediate exams.
I was reading the newspaper sitting near a Tank Bund just outside my village, on the way to another village known as Murimadugu. One middle aged man from another village, wearing a white lalchi (shirt) and a big dot on his forehead, approached me and asked, “Who are you?” I kept silent.
Then he again asked, “Whose son are you?” “I am son of Battula Dubbaiah”, I told him. Immediately he looked very agitated and said very curtly, “Oh, you belong to manne caste!” and left the place. I was hurt as I felt this is not the best way to treat someone who is one of the most educated people in the village that time (laughs).
Similarly, while pursuing my LLB, I had to go and pay a visit to my sister’s house in another village known as Buttapur. I went to the village and started searching for her house as this was my first visit after her marriage there.
I saw a women standing in front of a house. I asked her about Mamidi Gangarajam (my brother-in-law) house. She got very angry and said, “Why you are here, go, go from here. Go to the other side of the village.” I got very angry with her but then I thought there is no point talking to ‘human beasts’ and I left the place.
Then another one I want to narrate that happened in my LLB classes. During one of the classes on Constitutional Law, the professor teaching that course started making very nasty remarks on Dr Ambedkar’s scholarship including that he was not the one who wrote the Indian Constitution. The manner he took on Dr Ambedkar left a deep impact on us.
When did you complete your LLB?
I got the degree in 2004 with II division marks and immediately started practicing as a lawyer. After a year of practice, I started focusing on the issue of child labour and joined Human Rights Law Network as a child rights advocate and later worked with Young Lives Project of Save the Children.
Why did you choose to work on this particular issue?
I belong to rural area where this practice is rampant. More than 90% of the child labourers are from Dalit households. Many of my childhood friends had worked as child labourers. I felt being part of the Dalit movement, this is one issue we need to work on more and contribute more concretely.
Thanks so much for sharing this. Meanwhile, what happened to your elder brother?
My brother went totally into the naxalite movement and remained underground for more than 10 years but after that he came out very disillusioned. He left his studies unfinished while doing his intermediate and could never pursue it afterwards. After investing so much time, he realized that naxalism is not working out for our community very well.
Dalits cadres are being treated very badly there. They remain ever as cadres only even after investing their whole life in the movement and are never given any chance of leadership which remains firmly with the ‘upper’ castes - most of whom live comfortably in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore whereas the Dalit cadres are left fighting, with a number of criminal cases against each one of them, their whole lives.
My brother came out with 6-7 criminal cases against him and he is still fighting all these cases. He has a family now as he married a tribal girl and now has two kids. They got married while working together in the Naxalite movement.
He is unemployed at present with most of his time invested in visiting court for his cases. He is supported by his wife who now works as a manual labourer and some of us, including some of his very close friends, support him financially in fighting the court cases.
I don’t want to say more about naxalism. It has certainly given some relief in the Telangana region. One incident I witnessed was when they shooed away a landlord out of his village in my area but they don’t seem to bring focus on Dalit issues, most of the time.
Apart from this, there is a very strong Telangana movement that has left a deep impact on Andhra society, particularly on the Dalits too. What are your views on this?
This is a very genuine issue and I support it on the grounds of principles. This is a fact that people from Telangana has suffered a lot due to the hegemony and monopoly of coastal Andhra people. Not everyone from coastal Andhra but the domination of kammas and reddys from that region.
I am not physically involved in this movement at present as I am too tied up with my activities in the Dalit movement. Initially I did participate directly for about a year but I found out that a lot of politics is involved here which has nothing directly to do with the cause.
But most importantly I find various methods of protests used in Telangana movement to be very brahminical, very Hindu and I get repulsed. I believe that a separate Telangana will be beneficial for everyone living there, not only Dalits. There will be more employment opportunities and the state could focus much on areas that have remained backward.
Then there is sub-categorization issue between Mala and Madiga – two different Dalit sub-castes. What are your views on that?
This issue is really about inner reservation that is reservations within reservation. Due to historical reasons, the coastal Andhra Malas are much ahead in education and therefore are able to garner much of the reservation benefits as compared with other Dalits.
As far as I feel, this issue was first raised by coastal Madigas and the movement started from Nellore district in coastal Andhra, although its leader Krishna Madiga is from Warangal district. I belong to the Mala sub-caste but I feel this is also a very genuine issue and the reservation benefits need to be shared among all the Dalits.
Mala-Madiga issue is much talked about even outside state and has deep implications within the Dalit movement too. It is seen as division within the Dalit movement. What you have to say?
Yes I would surely say that this issue did have a deep impact on the Dalit movement and there is a sense of disunity among different sub-castes but I still feel that Dalits from different sub-caste groups do come together for the larger cause.
Recently in Kadapa district the statue of late Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy (Ex- chief minister, Andhra Pradesh) was to be erected just alongside Babasaheb Ambedkar’s statue but there was a huge protest against that by various Dalit groups cutting across sub-castes.
Presently what are you engaged in?
At present I am working with National Dalit Forum (NDF) and its campaign on Special Component Plan for Scheduled Castes. According to this plan, various ministries have to spend a certain amount of their budgetary allocation exclusively on Dalits but there is a big farce going on where none of the ministries actually spend any money but are diverting somewhere else in the name of Dalits.
It is unfortunate that there is not much awareness on this issue and probably this is one of the biggest scams of the country and cuts across the political spectrum.
Apart from this I am also involved in mobilizing, fact-finding and fighting a number of caste atrocity cases and also in raising awareness about the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
I travel a lot and try to attend and also organize meetings on different Dalit issues across the state. In my free time, I try to write in different magazines and newspapers on our issues. I have published collections of my articles on various topics like child labour, Khairlanji, Buddhism, land rights, atrocities, Dalit Student issues etc. The collections are now in Book form: Dalit Awaaz- I and II. Right now I am working on my third book which is soon going to be published.
I am also keen on carrying forward my higher studies as I have already completed my LLM in 2006.
Thanks so much for sharing your life journey with us. We wish you great success in all your endeavors. We are sure that many among us will draw huge inspiration from your struggle, achievements and your deep involvement with our cause.