In Telangana, rising OBC-led anti-Dalit violence points to Hindutva’s inroads in the state

Raja Singh, a BJP legislator from Telangana, at an inauguration festival for a statue of Shivaji in Telangana’s Narayankhed town, in 2017. In the BJP’s reading, Shivaji undergoes a transformation from an egalitarian king to a rallying cry for Hindu majoritarianism.
08 December, 2020

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.  

On 25 October, a more violent incident occurred in Ramojipeta village, around 70 kilometres to the north of Guvvalegi. Following a fact-finding mission, Round Table India, the Ambedkarite online portal, reported that in 2013, the Ramojipeta gram panchayat had decided to install a statue of Ambedkar at the centre of the village. However, in the past seven years, the panchayat never erected the statue. In August this year, Ramojipeta’s Mudiraj community performed a bhoomi puja—ground-laying ceremony—for the installation of a statue of Shivaji, a 17-century Maratha king, at the same spot the Ambedkar statue was meant to go.

“It is the BJP which is behind this,” Idulla Balaiah, a 60-year-old from Ramojipeta’s Dalit community, told me. “Mudiraj youth campaigned for the BJP in last year’s elections, and got influenced by their ideology and at the appropriate time tried to install the Shivaji statue.” In response, on 4 September, the Dalit residents of the village performed a similar ceremony for an Ambedkar statue. “It is because of Ambedkar’s teachings that our consciousness has developed,” Bejanki Ramesh, a 30-year-old from Ramojipeta, told me. “That is why we want to install his statue.”

Balaiah said a Mudiraj mob had tried to stop the Dalit ceremony saying, “How can you place an Ambedkar statue in the centre of the village, keep him in your homes.” Arguments broke out between the two communities after that and first information reports were lodged against ten Mudiraj men under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 for using casteist slurs. Balaiah told me that the incident was followed by negotiations between the two communities, during which it was decided that a statue of Ambedkar and Jyotiba Phule—an anti-caste crusader and OBC icon—would be installed at the spot. Balaiah also said that the Dalit complainants agreed to withdraw the FIRs once the statues were installed.

Despite the communities reaching a compromise, several Dalits of Ramojipeta told me they faced renewed hostility from the Mudiraj community in the following weeks. A majority of the Dalit community in Ramojipeta are from the Madiga sub-caste, whose ancestral occupation includes playing the dappu—a traditional leather drum—at traditional festivities. Balaiah told me that in the week before 25 October, when the village was celebrating Bathukamma—an annual floral festival in Telangana—the Mudiraj community refused to allow the Madigas to play the dappu. The Round Table fact-finding report noted that on 25 October, during the festival of Dussera, the Mudiraj community did not allow Bejjanki Srinivas, the vice president of the panchayat who is from the Madiga community, to break a coconut at the festival. They also prevented any Madigas from visiting the village temple. The Madiga community then began celebrating the festival in their own neighbourhood in the village.

At 6 pm, a mob of around fifty men from the Mudiraj and Yadava communities, both OBCs, attacked the Dalit hamlet. Round Table reported that the mob was led by the husband of the village’s sarpanch Pendela Mundiah and the village headman Choppari Bhumiah. Several residents of Ramojipeta told me that the mob was carrying sticks and other weapons and proceeded to attack people and property. I verified this through a video of the incident. They broke windows and doors, upturned a dozen motorcycles, threw stones and chilly powder into homes in which Dalits hid. After terrorising the Dalits for two hours the mob melted away.

Balaiah was hit on the forehead, an injury that he told me required thirteen stitches. Balaiah said that four other Dalits were injured severely. The fact-finding team, which visited Ramojipeta two weeks later, concluded that the attack was a calculated conspiracy. The News Minute reported that several accused in the case were later arrested by the police under the Prevention of Atrocities Act.

Pendala Meghamma, the Mudiraj sarpanch of Ramojipeta, denied that her community was involved in the violence. However, later in the same conversation she contradicted herself. She told me that the Dalits were causing a ruckus on Dussera evening and when her husband had gone to plead with them to stop, he was attacked, following which her community reacted. “Our youth decided to install a Shivaji statue and after that they decided to put up an Ambedkar statue,” she said. The fact-finding report entirely contradicts Meghamma’s claims. Calls to other Mudiraj leaders in Ramojipeta went unanswered.

Incidents like the ones in Ramojipeta and Guvvalegi have become increasingly frequent in Telangana as the BJP grows its electoral and social footprint in the state. Together, they point to changing caste dynamics in rural Telangana, in concurrence with the state’s rapidly shifting politics. Harathi Vageeshan, a professor of political science at the NALSAR University of Law in Hyderabad, told me that the landed upper castes have largely moved out of rural Telangana over the last four decades and the space vacated by the older hegemonic power was filled by the OBCs. Combined with this, rampant privatisation of public services in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, including in education, has left no space for communities to mingle together. “The common school system was a knitting ground for communities to meet, those are gone. This has ensured that the fault lines are ready to explode,” Vageeshan said.

“In united Andhra Pradesh, the Congress was the party of the big landlords—mostly Reddys, Brahmins—and poor Dalits,” Anant Maringanti, the director of the Hyderabad Urban Lab, a research organisation based in Hyderabad, told me. “The OBCs did not have much of a place in that scheme. When Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao”—commonly known as NTR—“came to power the Kammas and Rajus, two other dominant castes who are not numerically strong, along with the OBCs, formed the support base of the Telugu Desam Party. Now that the TDP is a marginal presence in Telangana, a section of the OBCs—including Mudirajs—have gravitated towards the BJP.”

I previously reported for the The Caravan how the BJP recently won a by-poll in Telangana’s Dubbak constituency, largely with support from OBC youth. A section of OBCs—including Mudirajs and Yadavas—have started to aggressively adopt an assertive Hindutva, commonly associated with the BJP. In my travels in northern Telangana, I witnessed new temples, statues of Hanuman, Shivaji and other religio-cultural iconography dotting the rural landscape. These shifts in the social space translated into four parliamentary seats for the BJP in 2019, three of them in northern Telangana.

Vageeshan told me that in Ramojipeta too, the political shift the BJP brought within OBC communities was visible. “The compromise initially in Ramojipeta was that there would be statues of Ambedkar and Phule, but the BJP fellows brought in Shivaji,” he said. “The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is working overtime in Telangana and OBCs don’t have any big leaders. The TDP is dead and gone and the Congress has lost its capacity to mobilise.”

Shivaji being used as a symbol of OBC pride is a historical oddity in Telangana. In Who was Shivaji, a best-selling Marathi biography of the seventeenth century king, rationalist Govind Pansare posited that Shivaji was a peasant king, a ruler who ended exploitation by the landlords and ensured fair rates of taxation for farmers. This is in contrast to the portrayal of Shivaji by the BJP and other Hindu nationalist organisations, as a king who protected the Hindu religion and fought Muslims.

“Shiv Sena was founded in the sixties,” Pansare wrote. “This party invokes Shivaji’s name in whatever it does, against non-Maharashtrians or against Muslims. These forces have founded many more outfits: Hindu Ekta, Maratha Maha Sangh, Patit Pawan Sangathana. All of these chant Shivaji’s name. When they opposed reservations the slogan they raised was Shivaji Maharaj ki Jai”—Hail king Shivaji. “When Dalit hamlets were attacked in Marathwada, again the slogan used was Jai Shivaji.

In this reading, Shivaji undergoes a transformation from an egalitarian king to a rallying cry for Hindu majoritarianism. Pansare was assassinated in 2015, in what many believe was an attempt to silence a voice that emphasised a different interpretation of Shivaji. The portrayal of Shivaji as a militant Hindu icon in Maharashtra was followed by increased OBC militancy in the state, often leading to violence against Dalits or calls to remove constitutional protections for Dalits. The BJP’s entrance into Telangana suggests that the same social climate is in the offing in the state.

तुषार धारा कारवां में रिपोर्टिंग फेलो हैं. तुषार ने ब्लूमबर्ग न्यूज, इंडियन एक्सप्रेस और फर्स्टपोस्ट के साथ काम किया है और राजस्थान में मजदूर किसान शक्ति संगठन के साथ रहे हैं.