Nov 25: Laxmipet Dalit Killings

November 25, 2012

http://www.epw.in/commentary/laxmipet-dalit-killings.html

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A land dispute may have been the immediate cause of the June 2012 attack on dalits in Laxmipet, a village in Srikakulam district, Andhra Pradesh, but the episode signals a potentially explosive situation. The incident was fuelled, on the one hand, by the dalit desire for self-respect and identity, embodied in the increasing assertion of a female dalit sarpanch, and on the other, by the state-level political advancement of the backward caste Kapu community. Particularly disturbing are the participation of Kapu women and children in the killings, and the failure of dalit officials and politicians in preventing the incident and securing justice for the victims.

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This report was prepared after a visit to Laxmipet on 8 and 9 September by K Laxminarayana (klnss@uohyd.ernet.in), K Srinivasulu (srinivasulukarli@gmail.com), Arun K Patnaik (akpatnaik1@yahoo.com), K Y Ratnam and Timma Reddy.

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The sleepy village of Laxmipet in Vangara mandal in Srikakulam district of northern coastal Andhra flashed on news channels on 12 June. In the early morning hours of that day, a large posse of Turpu Kapus, comprising men, women and even teenage children drawn from the village and the neighbouring villages, arrived in tractors, auto­rickshaws and bicycles. This horde gathered and vengefully pounced on the unsuspecting Malas, who live on the other side of the road that separates them from the Turpu Kapus. In the orgy which went on for four hours, five Malas were killed and more than two dozen were seriously injured. This number included women and even children. The fact that 80 Kapus were arrested and jailed shows the scale and magnitude of the riot in terms of planning, motive and participation.

A Resettlement Problem

Laxmipet is a resettled village where the evacuees of the Madduvalasa reservoir were resettled in 2001. The old Laxmipet had a population of 1,500. The major castes in this village were the Malas and Turpu Kapus. These comprised 80 and 120 families respectively. Others like service and artisan castes – Chakali, Mangali and Padmasali – constituted few families. While the Turpu Kapus (backward castes) owned most of the farmland, the Malas (dalits) constituted the bulk of the agricultural labour force.

With the land acquisition for the reservoir and resettlement of the displaced, some of the Kapu and Mala families moved out to other places. All the land thus acquired, except 250 acres, got submerged in the reservoir. Out of these, 190 acres are cultivated by the Kapus and remaining 60 acres have been cultivated by the Malas. Though this land was acquired and due compensation paid by the government, yet in the popular perception, the unsubmerged land is considered to be the property of the erstwhile owners. The dalits negotiated with the Kapus who had settled elsewhere and that is how they came to cultivate the 60 acres of land for almost a decade.

This became a bone of contention. The Kapus in the village began to demand that the dalits vacate the land so that they could take possession and cultivate it. Resisting this, the dalits even petitioned to the district administration to allot these lands to them since they were landless. There were attempts on the part of the revenue divisional o­fficer (RDO) to amicably settle the issue by making the Kapus consent to the status quo. But back in the village, the K­apus remained adamant and kept pressuring the dalits.

Explosive Situation

Though the land dispute is the immediate cause of the conflict, the portrayal of the conflicts in Laxmipet as an economic issue alone would reduce the significance of a caste conflict emerging in the village. The northern coastal Andhra districts, dominated by the Turpu Kapus, have witnessed a sense of assertion from the dalits in the last decade or so. This is largely because of the emergence of an educated class among the dalits. This has resulted in the assertion of dalit youth in different walks of life – education, employment, electoral politics, etc. For instance, the state policy of reservations to the scheduled castes (SCs) could be seen as having resulted in the denial of jobs and promotions to the others, especially to the Turpu Kapus.

Though the Turpu Kapus practise many cultural norms similar to the dalits, such as their liberal attitudes towards widow remarriage and so on, what has, in fact, added to the Kapu’s power is a process of visible change in state-level politics in the post-Rajasekhara Reddy period. The appointment of Botsa Satyanarayana, a man from the Kapu community in this region, as the president of the State Congress Committee has emboldened them politically. Though the Kapus have a significant presence in this region, with the prominence of Botsa Satyanarayana and Chiranjeevi in the ruling Congress Party, there was a perceptible change at the state level in the self-image of the Kapus – the elite as well as the masses – as counterpoint to the Reddys and Kammas, the two communities that have dominated state politics through their hold on the Congress and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) respectively.

Seen in the emergent context of the political economy of the state, the Laxmipet incident cannot be seen as an isolated event but as indicative of a potentially explosive situation. If the dalit desire for self-respect and identity constitutes one part of the emergent reality, then the arrogant expectation of the Kapus that the dalits will continue as their palerus (farm servants) forms the other side.

Laxmipet Gram Panchayat was reserved for an SC woman in the last Panchayat elections. The dominant Turpu Kapus identified a Mala woman by the name of Chittiri Simhalamma and got her elected unopposed as the sarpanch. Out of dependence and ignorance, Simhalamma initially acted at their behest. Once installed in the position, however, she could understand her own power over resources and the need to utilise it for the purposes it was meant for. This meant a substantial material loss to the Turpu Kapu elite, apart from the injury to their pride because, till recently, they had enjoyed unchallenged access and control in the village.

The village panchayat office is under construction. The panchayat meetings used to be held in the ex-sarpanch’s residence. Later, the meeting was shifted to the primary school building. But the sarpanch used to stand while “conducting” meetings whereas other ordinary members from the Kapu community sat down in the chairs during deliberations. From this servile position in the panchayat, despite being its sarpanch, Simhalamma took independent decisions on the utilisation of the funds and developmental activities in the village. This was seen as sufficient grounds to teach a lesson to the dalits. Simhalamma and her actions were seen as unacceptable to the Kapus. But given her official position, the Kapus found it risky to harm her and instead resorted to other methods.

Several instances point to the tensions that were building up between the Turpu Kapus and the dalits. For instance, a dalit president of the local mahila mandali was attacked and injured. Two months later, she died. The brother-in-law of the sarpanch, Chittiri Appadu, was attacked when he went to cultivate “disputed” lands. Both instances were treated as ordinary cases by local police, by ignoring the written request from victims to book cases under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Most of the police officers were dalits, including the station o­fficer. The casual treatment of these instances by dalit officers, in fact, seems to have emboldened the local Kapus for an attack on a larger scale.

In view of these instances, a police picket was set up in the village to prevent further occurrence of any such incidents. This was lifted on 11 June, after almost six months, on the pretext that there was a bye-election to Narasannapet assembly constituency on 12 June.

Anatomy of the Attack

The attack on the dalits immediately a­fter the lifting of the police picket was not accidental. It indicates the fact that the Kapus were waiting for the removal of the police post. The sharp focus on the targets during the four hour-long uninterrupted attack suggests its well-planned and meticulously executed nature. In this operation, while the local Turpu Kapu men gave the directions, the Kapu men from the neighbouring villages along with the local women and children actively participated.

Specific to the Laxmipet atrocity and deserving of attention as a dangerous development, reminiscent of the Gujarat riots, is the active involvement of Kapu women and children in killing dalits. There are two instances clearly identified by the dalits where Kapu men attacked, but Kapu women and children completed the task. Nivarthi Sangmeshu, who was known for his courage and uprightness, was dragged from his house in the early morning, chased, beaten and floored. Women beheaded him by axing him as he tried to approach his sister’s house. Similarly in the case of Chittiri Appadu, the Kapu women did the final act. The dalit eyewitnesses point to a meticulous execution that almost followed a pattern: the men identified the victim and attacked him as grievously as possible within a short span and moved on for new prey. The women accompanied by adolescents followed them to ascertain and finish the task.

Even to the most cruel, it would appear unbelievable that apart from five gruesome murders, 19 other non-murder victims had their skulls broken and limbs severed. Fourteen of the latter could escape death because they fell unconscious and were found in a pool of blood and were therefore taken to be dead. The remaining five who were not unconscious ran for their lives and hid in all kinds of unlikely places to escape death.

Even in the notorious Karamchedu or Chundur cases, which were as gruesome and large-scale as the present one, there was no direct involvement of women, let alone children. What is alarming is that despite the active participation of the Turpu Kapu women and children in the attack, no enquiry was pursued on this aspect. No cases were filed and no one arrested. This is clear evidence of the shabby work done by the investigating agency and points to a dilution of the cases.

Dalit Representation?

What is of an equal concern is the fact that the Laxmipet atrocity happened at a time when all the local administrative functionaries in charge of law and order – the chief inspector (CI), additional ­superintendent of police (ASP), deputy superintendent of police (DSP) and mandal revenue officer (MRO) – were SCs. Sensing the gravity of the situation, the sarpanch’s husband Chittiri Gangulu informed the local police but the latter arrived in the village only four hours later. The local Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA), also a member of the state cabinet, Kondru Murali, belongs to the dalit community. He is even said to have suggested to the dalits to give up their claims over the land and compromise with the Kapus. That he has not visited Laxmipet, a village in his constituency, even three months after the atrocity is worth noting.

The failure of the officials and politicians in preventing the incident gets further compounded by their inadequate efforts at initiating the justice mechanism – bringing the culprits to book and addressing the grievances of the victims. Anyone who visits Laxmipet would notice that even three months after the atro­city, despite a police camp in the village, the dalitwada is gripped by fear and ­insecurity of life and livelihood. This is only heightened by the suspicious visits of the influential Turpu Kapu men from the neighbouring villages.

The state government has responded by setting up a special court in Srikakulam to deliver justice on a fast-track basis through a government order (GO) issued on 26 September. The dalit organisations demand immediate withdrawal of this GO as it violates the SC/ST Atrocities Prevention Act, which clearly mandates that such a special court needs to be set up in Laxmipet itself where the atrocities happened. It is also reported that dalit organisations propose a four-day padayatra from Laxmipet to Srikakulam, a distance of 90 kilometres, to show solidarity with and instil a sense of security among the dalits of Laxmipet.