Located in Varuna Hobli, 25 kilometres away from Mysuru city in Karnataka, Kuppegala is a village that, at a cursory glance, has nothing to distinguish it from most other villages. With a population of 2,865 people, including 1,054 Dalits, its sole identifier not too long ago was that it fell under Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah’s constituency. In recent times, however, the village has been under constant scrutiny due to sustained episodes of caste-related clashes that flared up for the first time in August last year.
A month back, on 19 March 2015, I went to Kuppegala for two days upon hearing of a spate of fresh tensions. Upon reaching the village, at 11 am, I made my way to the Dalit colony near the its entrance. Both the Dalits and the Savarnas—those belonging to a caste that is not Dalit, and whom Ambedkar referred to as caste Hindus—I spoke to seemed to agree, albeit for different reasons, that the current state of polarisation in the village had been catalysed by the incident in August.
The source of this row was the Dalits’ demand that a woman from their community be appointed for the vacant position of an assistant cook at the midday-meal programme in Kuppegala Government Higher Primary School. The demand stemmed from the fact that, despite the provision for the reservation for a person belonging to the Scheduled Castes among the three cooks in the school, all of those employed for the post had been from upper castes until the vacancy came up. As VD Manjunath, the leader of the Dalit Jagruti Samiti in Kuppegala and a member of the School Development and Monitoring Committee, told me, “We petitioned the tehsildar [revenue administrative officer] and the district administration. Earlier, all three working—at the school—under the scheme were Lingayats [a distinct sect that worships only Shiva in the linga form]. All we asked was that even if they don't want the Dalit appointee to cook, they could at least let them do the cleaning.” While this petition was being considered by the district administration, reports also surfaced of a confrontation between the residents over Dalits offering prayers at the Anjaneya Swamy temple in the village, due to which the Savarnas had decided to boycott the place of worship.
In October, the school authorities conceded, and hired a Dalit woman as the third cook. By the end of November, the simmering conflict had reached the surface once again as the Savarnas started withdrawing their children from the school because their meals were being cooked by a Dalit. Siddaiah, a sixty-one-year-old Dalit farmer I met said, “There had been opposition to this suggestion even earlier. We knew that they would not be very happy if the demand was met.” Out of the 150 students at the school, 37 skipped classes for over a week. A public outcry followed, leading to interventions by religious leaders—who partook in a meal at the school—and the chief minister. Their efforts appeared to have helped, reflected through the attendance in the school that had improved in December.
However, this respite was temporary. On 16 March 2015, Dalits in Kuppegala were reportedly denied entry into a new burial ground to conduct the funeral of a woman who had passed away on the same day. Although the land for the burial ground had previously been identified by Naveen Joseph—the tehsildar—and other officials, the five upper caste owners of the land refused to let the Dalits use it for the burial, claiming that they had not received the promised compensation from the authorities. The Dalits decided to go ahead and bury the woman on the land regardless of the hostility, sparking off another round of polarisation.