On 14 November, the day of Diwali this year, Dalit residents of Guvvalegi village, in northern Telangana’s Siddipet district, tried to install a statue of BR Ambedkar at a central spot in the village. The spot where they wanted to erect the statue lay between a Dalit settlement and a settlement of the Mudiraj community—a preponderant agrarian caste in Telangana categorised as Other Backward Classes in the state. That day, a group of Mudiraj men stopped them from entering the village commons, arguing that they were going to place a statue of the Hindu deity Ganesha there instead. The Bharatiya Janata Party has been actively courting the community in the state, including giving several Mudiraj candidates tickets in the Hyderabad civic polls held four days later, on 18 November.
Ganesha is a deity that was not widely worshipped by many non-Brahmin communities in South India, but has been recently popularised by the BJP and other Hindu nationalist organisations. The Mudiraj demand for a Ganesha statue reflects the spread of Hindutva politics among some OBC communities in Telangana. The state has also witnessed a concomitant rise in OBC assertion, which has frequently led to anti-Dalit violence.
Jangapalli Sailu, an activist of the Dalit Bahujan Front—a Telangana-based Dalit-rights organisation—from Guvvalegi told me that the families in the village had pooled together Rs 35,000 for the statue. He said that when they assembled to erect it, he heard a Mudiraj man say, “If you want an Ambedkar statue, place it in your colony, because he belongs to you. This is a Scheduled Caste statue, so it cannot be in the centre of the village.” Sailu told me that on the next day, leaders from both communities visited the village, as did the police. As tension prevailed, Sailu told me that a mob of Mudiraj men charged the Dalits and a brawl ensued, which was brought under control by the police. By all accounts, no one was seriously injured.
When I visited Guvvalegi, on 20 November, there still was mild tension in the village. A small police force stood stationed there. A meeting of community leaders and villagers had been arranged by the district police on 20 November to broker a compromise. A Hyderabad-based civil liberties lawyer, who wished to remain anonymous, told me such agreements were common. “There is no legal standing, it is more like an out of court settlement by the police and I don’t find it surprising,” she said. “The police do it all the time, in case of inter-caste and inter-community marriages. The police station becomes a site for negotiation.” The lawyer would not comment on the particulars of the Guvvalegi case.
After grievances were aired, they reached an agreement that neither statue would be installed at the contentious spot, and that they would instead use the land for a bus stop. According to the agreement, Sailu said, the Ambedkar statue would be installed ten feet away. They agreed that no Ganesha statue would come up. “Ambedkar is a symbol of pride for us, but we didn’t know that the issue would flare up so much,” Sailu told me. Boini Ravi, the deputy sarpanch of Guvvalegi from the Mudiraj community, said they were not opposed to Ambedkar. He said the fight was because the Dalit community tried to install a statue without consulting the other communities or seeking permission of the authorities. He added that he had no links with the BJP.