Instances of brutal attacks against poor and landless Dalits have been reported more intensely and frequently in North Andhra Pradesh, in areas where the Dalit population is concentrated. On June 12, the socially, economically and politically powerful Kapus launched a cruel and violent attack on the poor landless Malas of Lakshmipeta village, in Vangara mandal of Srikakulam district, over the submerged land of the Madduvalasa reservoir. Five people belonging to the Mala (Dalit) community died in the attack and several others were injured. The assailants, backed by the Ex-Mandal Parishad President who belongs to the same community, went to the Dalit colony armed with sticks, axes, spears and country made bombs and killed four of its residents in broad daylight, and severely injured many others. During the rampage, which lasted for more than 4 Hrs, the Kapus did not spare even women and children.
According to the Dalit leaders, the Police did not arrive in time despite several phone calls to them. The Dalits of Lakshmipeta Village have been waging a bitter struggle for the past two years to get back their lands, but in vain. Some decades back, the stage government procured about 260 acres from the farmers for Madduvalasa reservoir. After completion of the reservoir, it was found that the land was safe from submergence, and the villagers started tilling the land again. While the Kapus (dominant caste) were cultivating about 200 acres of land, the remaining 60 acres have been under the possession of the Dalits.
The dominant caste (Kapu) at Lakshmipeta was not willing to see the poor Dalits till the land along with them. In recent years, the Kapus, who are financially and politically strong, have started claiming rights over the lands that the Dalits had tilled for years. This led to a conflict in the village and both started representing their cases to officials and politicians of all hues. Following some clashes between them, the Dalits had lodged atrocity complaints against the Kapus under S.C., & S.T., Act, which exasperated the latter to no end. The June 12 incident was the culmination of the violence perpetrated systematically against Dalits, who had for the first time showed tremendous courage in resisting the oppressors. The resistance surprised Kapus, who had not anticipated any form of protest by the traditionally exploited Dalits. Chitri Gangayya, a 32 year old leader of the Dalit community took the lead in asserting community rights. He gave written complaints to the Sub-Divisional Magistrate. The dominant caste felt offended and took on the Dalits, subjecting them to abuses and threats.
After a few stray incidents of individual abuses, the Kapus accosted Mr. Gonela Ravi when he was proceeding to the nearby village, Kottisa, in his daily search for livelihood. As is the case in most of rural north Andhra Pradesh, Malas, the most vulnerable community in Lakshmipeta having been historically exploited, continue to be trapped in a vicious circle of poverty. This is also the reason that the land they had used for years is their only source of livelihood. Most of the Malas are landless and work as farmhands in the fields of Kapus. The Dalits have been forced to take up menial jobs in Visakhapatnam city of Andhra, whenever the Kapus were angry and allegedly ordered socio-economic boycott of them.
In north Andhra Pradesh, the Malas and other Dalits are forced to live on the margins of Villages. Lakshmipeta is no exception. Conflict in villages can take a vicious form in villages already plagued by an exploitative caste system, as in Lakshmipeta. The incident in the village proves that enacting laws alone cannot be the solution for ending the power-driven caste system, as Bojja Tharakam, Senior advocate of AP High Court and other Dalit activists have been saying. It is also interesting to note the Lakshmipeta Massacre occurred on the same day as the State Assembly by-elections. When I, along with Dalit activists, visited Lakshmipeta on 17th June, we saw three in every four Mala family residents seriously injured, some of them had their arms or legs broken or had suffered major skull injuries. Nivarty Venkatamma, a 40 year old Dalit woman, said 'they dragged me out of my house and hit me in the stomach and arms with iron rods and spears'. 16 Dalits are still in King George Hospital, Visakhapatnam, as they were attacked with spears and rods. They may take years to recover.
Women, who are easy targets in every act of violence and suppression, gave an account of the brutal treatment meted out to them that day. Even today Mala women suffer verbal abuse with ugly connotations every day. With safety in view, the Dalit women move around in groups.
The other main reason for the attack was that the village Panchayat President was a Mala Dalit woman. Government at the centre and in the states declared that the empowerment of Dalits by providing them reserved seats in Panchayat Raj institutions would lead to the abolition of untouchability in the years to come but the reality is that much more has to be done to achieve this.
Chitri Simhalamma, ex-Dalit woman Sarpanch of Lakshmipeta Village, lamented that she was not allowed to sit in the Sarpanch's chair. A recent study by Gowthami Foundation, a North Andhra based organization working on Dalit issues, has documented a series of discriminations against Dalit Panchayat Presidents spread over three districts, (Visakhapatnam, Vizianagaram and Srikakulam). Almost all Dalit Panchayat Presidents complained of discrimination by powerful dominant castes. The study shows that the Majority of Panchayat Presidents are ignorant of the need to fight untouchability. This tells us that the real improvement of Dalits lies not in merely providing constitutional status to Panchayat Raj institutions.
The Government must revive the practice of conducting capacity – building classes for Dalit Panchayat Presidents, if it is really interested in further empowering elected Panchayat functionaries and facilitating the under privileged to fulfill their commitments to the people. Government has to strengthen their capabilities for independent thinking and for standing up to their oppressors. What is needed is to equip Dalits with what they need to ensure the achievement of the twin objectives of economic development and social justice. Only education and knowledge, and proactive interventions by emancipatory socio-political movements, can help achieve this.
After the Jan 12 incident in Lakshmipeta, the administration deployed police force in the village to prevent further violence. Bojja Tharakam, Dalit intellectual, has mentioned in his findings that police are monitoring the Dalits more closely than the Kapus! The claim may not be far off the mark because the police failed to arrest the main person behind this massacre.
However, Dalits with the support of various Dalit and leftist organizations, organized a convention for the first time to pledge that they would continue to fight against such injustice. Dalits are planning to appeal to all the high officials until they get their lands back.
Ch. Das is Inspector in A.P.State Excise Department and Founder, Gouthami Foundation, which is a North Andhra based organisation working on Dalit issues.
Pictures courtesy: Dalit Camera and Dr. Kathi Padma Rao, Andhra Pradesh Dalit Mahasabha.