May 01, 2016

125-ft Ambedkar Statue OK, What about Burial Grounds for Dalits?

V Srinivasa Rao

ISSUES concerning social justice surfaced strongly during the celebrations of 125TH birth anniversary of B R Ambedkar. This emerged in response to BJP and Sangh Parivaar's ongoing efforts to reinstate predatory and obscurantist opinions and ideology, and out of the struggle against these efforts. The concrete expression of such a resistance is visible in the movements in University of Hyderabad (UoH) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi among others. The Sangh Parivaar formulated its strategy of social engineering with the purpose of electoral gains. In this strategy they pitched Dalits against Muslims, whose reflection we continue to see in the communal riots in some parts of the country. The Modi government's planned suppression of the voice of Dalits and downtrodden in university campuses across the country found its horrific expression in Rohith Vemula's suicide in UoH. The government's disdain towards achieving social justice was also evident in the union budget which saw huge cuts, up to 50 per cent, in the allocations for sub-plan, welfare and development activities. TDP, which is an ally of BJP, is following the same path in Andhra Pradesh. Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu, in his electoral speeches, had claimed himself to be a coolie and a Madiga (a sub caste in Dalits). But his actual facet came out after coming to power when he recently stated publicly that no one would prefer to be born as a Scheduled Caste person. His utterances, at a time when there is a vibrant discussion on social issues on the occasion of 125TH birth anniversary of B R Ambedkar, were politically counter-productive. It was in this background that he announced installing a 125-ft Ambedkar statue in the new capital, Amaravati. But in the same Amaravati region, the government mandated that recruitments by Capital Region Development Authority will not follow reservation policy. This is their commitment to social justice! The incidents of discrimination against Dalits still continue in the state and the chief minister’s failure in taking effective measures for social justice are blatantly visible. Let us look into the case studies in two districts where this writer had the opportunity to take part in the resistance movement. STILL WAITING FOR JUSTICE Lakshimpeta of Srikakulam district had joined the long list of places where Dalits were brutally massacred. On June 12, 2012, five Dalit villagers were hacked to death and 19 others seriously injured in a midnight attack by a mob led by landed and oppressive casteist elements. Normalcy still eludes in the village even after four years. Neither the assurances of rulers about justice to the victims were fulfilled nor relief measures initiated. Recently, a public meeting was organised in the day and an interactive meeting with those injured and family members of the deceased was held in the night. The reluctance to speak out gave the hint about the terror atmosphere still prevalent. Many of the villagers are still haunted by the nightmares of the attack. There were some efforts by some district officials to instill confidence in the villagers, but those also came to a naught when those officers were transferred in a short while and those who favour the oppressors were put in charge. Initially, four police outposts in four corners of the Dalit hamlet were set up. Today, there is only a nominal presence of police. Also, the behaviour of police is not instilling any confidence among Dalits. A special court was set up one year ago, after three years were lost in sanctioning and constructing a separate building to house this court. Now, after all this delay, the court lacks occupancy of a permanent magistrate, staff and caretakers. It opens only on the days of hearing, which is usually once in two months. The accused come to the court, mark their attendance and are allowed to leave immediately. Those who do not attend hearings more than four times are not even issued summons. The accused have hired advocates at high remuneration, while the prosecution side is weak to say the least. The body language, attire, and bestial behaviour by the accused in the court premises are only aggravating the fear of the terror-struck Dalit victims. All this happens in the vicinity of judiciary and in the presence of police personnel. Post hearing, there is a festive celebration by the accused in the nearby fields, often with liqour and food. Job for one family member each of the deceased was provided by the government. A separate order was issued to give government job to one member in the family of those who were badly injured in the attack. This has not happen till date and the state government continues to procrastinate even after four years. This issue has its roots in the struggle for land by the landless Dalits. Lakshimpeta village lies adjacent to the submersible areas of MadduValasa reservoir project. Of the total land acquired for the project, 240 acres that did not submerge fall adjacent to Lakshmipeta and Dalits started to cultivate in 60 acres of land with oral approval of revenue officials. This drew the ire of the landed and oppressive communities, who were already cultivating the remaining 180 acres of unsubmerged land. With a plan to evict Dalits, the accused launched a scathing attack in the early hours on the Dalit hamlet. After the massacre, the then government promised to give one acre of land to Dalits, which still hangs in air. The then leader of opposition and the current Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh had, immediately after the incident, assured to fight till justice is done to Dalits. But after assuming office, he has put this issue in cold storage and the accused enjoy his benevolent embrace. NO SPACE TO BURY THE DEAD The second issue relates to Ananthapur district which falls amongst the least of the least developed districts in India, and in which Dalits rank amongst the poorest of the poor. On the occasion of Ambedkar’s 125TH birth anniversary, DSMM had called for a nationwide campaign on the issues of Dalits. Responding to this call, KVPS, an organization fighting against caste discrimination, has conducted a survey in Anantapur district from April 1 to 6. The survey was conducted by 40 teams comprising 160-odd members, covering 560 villages in 54 mandals. Of the findings in the survey, most important was the issue of burial grounds. A memorandum on the issues from the survey was submitted to the district collector. The collector also got the information through the officials whom concurred with the findings of the survey on the burial grounds issue. Only 339 villages out of the total 2,054 have burial grounds, i.e. 1,705 villages in the district do not have a burial ground for Dalits. What is even more staggering is that there are 16 mandals in which not even a single village has a burial ground. Even in the villages where burial grounds have been alloted, they are very small, varying between two to fifteen cents of land. In many of the villages, the landlords have occupied the burial grounds. There have been instances of attacks when Dalits resisted this land grabbing. Even the villages from which ministers and MLAs hail do not have burial grounds. The non-existence of burial grounds forces Dalits to complete the last rites of their dear ones on the roadside, or on the banks of canals, and at times they are forced to bury in the nearby villages where there is a burial ground. After a struggle led by KVPS in the unified state of Andhra Pradesh, the then government issued a government order, making it compulsory for the authorities to either allot government land or procure private land of two acres in every village exclusively for the purpose of Dalits burial ground. The order further mandated construction of a boundary wall, digging of a borewell and constructing a shelter in the burial ground. Despite this order, we still find hundreds of villages in the district of Anantapur which do not have burial grounds. Recently KVPS has taken up a two-week agitation programme for the implementation of this order. Conventions and dharnas were held in all the mandal headquarters on April 2. Due to the lack of any response from the government, a call was given to picket district collectorate offices. This writer, along with hundreds of Dalits and activists under the banner of KVPS, participated in a picketing programme. Though Monday being a Grievance Hearing Day, where officials would hear the public on their issues, a large contingent of police prevented people from entering into the collectorate. While the district secretary of CPI(M), Rambhoopal, was forcing his way into the collectorate along with the agitators, the police caught him by his throat and pushed back, injuring him severely. It took a while for him to recover and continue with the protest. The police arrested this writer, the district vice president of KVPS, Obulu, and bundled them into a jeep. The people resisted this arrest, by surrounding the jeep and did not allow it to move an inch. Bowing to this resistance, and noting the fighting mood of the agitators, the police retreated and released the arrested leaders. The leaders, along with people, then went ahead with the picketing. The district revenue officer was forced to come out of the collectorate and negotiate with the leaders on the demands in the presence of people outside the gate. He promised to form a monitoring committee for the procurement and allotment of burial grounds to Dalits. He further promised to allocate 380 acres of government land for this purpose. He also promised to evict the illegal occupants from the burial grounds. On the demand of the protestors, the DSP came out and apologised for the police excesses during the protest. The representatives from the villages met after the picketing and resolved to continue this struggle till all the villages are allotted a burial ground. These incidents, apart from being a testimony to the oppression of Dalits in general, glaringly expose the insensitive, negligent and even hostile attitude of the State in dealing with the issues concerning Dalits. Whatever might be the promises made by the ruling parties, the State and the ruling parties continue to stand by the oppressors. Dalits, who are subject to discrimination at every step, will have to join with all the others who are socially oppressed and economically exploited, to isolate the oppressors. It is only through such an alliance and united struggles that the dream of social justice envisaged by Ambedkar will be a reality.