Laxmipeta: Deadly Combination of Caste and Political Power
The killing of five Dalits in Laxmipeta village of north coastal Andhra Pradesh again illustrates that the dominant communities are ever willing to use the most extreme forms of violence, even killing of innocents, to preserve their monopoly over land, privilege and status. The political powerlessness of Dalits, despite token representation in the administration and government, has also been exposed by the vulnerability of the Dalits of Laxmipeta. An account based on visits after the massacre.
Take any place, be it Belchi, Pipra, Deoli-Sadhupur, Kilavenmani, Villupuram, Kanchikacherla, Karamchedu, Chundur, Laxmanpur-Bathe, Bathani-tola, Jajjhar, Khairlanji, Kambalahalli, any name. The story is the same. Dalits are massacred, their huts razed and set ablaze, the women raped, children cut to pieces. Names and numbers can change. The pattern and the power structure remains the same.
Laxmipeta, a tiny remote village of Srikakulam district in Andhra Pradesh (AP) joined these ranks of massacre of helpless and hapless Dalits who were demanding either self-respect or land. Laxmipeta has now become an adjective or an adverb, no more the mere name of a village.
It is a resettled village of the oustees of an irrigation project -- “Madduvalasa Project”. The entire original village of Laxmipeta got submerged in the project and was relocated to its present place. There are two major communities in the village. One is the “Kapu”. Though listed as a backward class, they are a politically and economically dominating caste in the north coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh. The other main community in Laxmipeta is “Mala”, a scheduled caste who have been landless agricultural labourers. The Kapus of Laxmipeta owned land and houses, and hence got full compensation for their property. In addition, they got government jobs. The Malas did not own any land, hence got no compensation. They owned only small huts or houses and received a token amount towards compensation for their houses. Not even a single job was given to them.
Since the Laxmipeta is a resettled village and house-sites were provided by the government, the two communities constructed their houses adjacent to each other. They were compelled to stay side-by-side, with only a small road dividing their houses, in spite of the prevalence of the practice of untouchability. After the completion of the irrigation project, about 250 acres of land acquired by te government remained surplus. It was of no use to the project. Since there was no chance of its submergence even with full tank capacity of the reservoir, the villagers of Laxmipeta started cultivating this land, which, prior to acquisition, belonged to them. Legally it was no longer their land. The Kapus started cultivating about 190 out of the 250 acres. The Dalits joined them and started cultivating the remaining 60 acres. These 60 acres were left by the Kapus because that land was not owned by them earlier. Out of the 60 acres, 40 acres belonged to cultivators from Devakavada village and the owners, after receiving compensation, settled far away. The remaining 20 acres belonged to Kapus of Laxmipeta, but these owners too, after receiving compensation, left the village and settled elsewhere. The 60 acres were thus left fallow, without any erstwhile claimants. The government did not object to the cultivation of this left over land. The Kapus also did not, initially, have any objection to Dalits cultivating this land along with them.
Political Power of Caste
The last three years have seen a change in the political scenario of Srikakulam district. The already powerful community of the Kapus found their political power further strengthened in the region of the north coastal districts as the president of the state Congress, Botsa Satyanarayana, belongs to their caste. He is also a minister in the state cabinet. Further, it is rumoured that he controls, through benami accounts, a large number of liquor shops in the north coastal belt. Laxmipeta village falls in Rajam constituency of the Legislative Assembly, which is reserved for scheduled castes. The member of the Legislative Assembly from Rajam Konduru Murali, is also made a minister in the state cabinet. He however has been an obliging partner to the dominant communities of the district and would not dare go against their wishes. The inability of the SC representative to stand his political ground is an addition in the armour of the dominant communities. The Kapus have found further support in the rise of Chiranjeevi, actor turned politician, who was recently elected to the Rajya Sabha. Even the president of the Mandal Praja Parishad belongs to the Kapu caste. Ironically, the lowest rung of state-administrative power – village sarpanch – was occupied by a scheduled caste woman, thanks to reservation. Of course she could not wield any real power, not even being allowed to sit in the chair of the sarpanch during the entire period of her term. That is the difference between the two “political powers”.
A similar example, though with no fatal consequences, is from Amalapuram, in the coastal district of East Godavari where four statues of B R Ambedkar were desecrated in one night. The suspicion was on a person who belongs to this same caste, the Kapu, and even here, the MLA is a scheduled caste and member of the cabinet. However, just like in Laxmipeta, he could not but defend the alleged culprits since otherwise he would have incurred the wrath of the Kapu community. When there is a clash of interests, ministers representing reserved constituencies are unable to stand up against the dominant community. Fearing loss of political power, they remain silent.
Given this larger context where the Kapu dominant caste was finding its political power strengthened day by day, in Laxmipeta, the Kapu landowners started threatening the Dalits to leave the 60 acres of land that they had been cultivating. The Dalits refused. They pointed out that the land does not belong to the Kapus of the village. Further, the Dalits were also paying lease amount to the erstwhile owners of the land, even though they were not obliged to since this land had been acquired and now belongs to the government. The Kapus, having found that oral pressure did not work, started attacking them, in the beginning at a smaller level. In an attack by Kapus, three women including the sarpanch, received grievous injuries and one of them succumbed to her injuries, but there was no police case despite complaints by the Dalits. On the other hand, the Dalits were implicated under section 107 of the criminal procedure code for breach of peace. This further emboldened the perpetrators.
The local police inspector belongs to a scheduled caste while the additional superintendent of police is from a scheduled tribe community. But both failed to protectto the Dalits. The cabinet minister who represents Rajam constituency also failed to render any help to the Dalits in getting the land assigned to them. On the other hand, he dissuaded them from cultivating the land against the wishes of the Kapu landowners. The president of the mandal praja parishad, though his term was over, continued to wield political power and warned the Dalits, when approached, to leave the land. He warned them that otherwise they would have to face grave consequences. The non-interference of the local minister, the public support of another local political leader and finally the reassuring political protection the state Congress chief encouraged the dominant community to to take matters in their own hands.
Sensing the danger, the Daltis of Laxmipeta approached the police for help and a police picket was posted in the village. A conspiracy appears to have been hatched, with the former president of Mandal praja parishad, to attack the Dalits, and terrorise them in a manner where they would dare not cultivate the land. Since June had arrived and the monsoons were advancing, the Kapus decided not to allow the Dalits to start agricultural operations on the land this season. Probably, as per the design and conspiracy, the police picket was removed on the pretext that forces are needed for bye-elections. There was only one bye-election to in the entire district and there was no dearth of police personnel. The lifting of the picket clearly seems to be a ploy.
A day prior to the attack the Dalits observed some movement in the Kapu locality in the village. On the 12th June morning, sensing danger, the husband of the former sarpanch, informed the police inspector and requested for immediate help. The police station is hardly three to four kilometres from the village. The expected police help did not come. Perhaps, this was also deliberate. Soon, a violent group of Kapus, armed with spears, axes, sticks and bombs swooped on the Dalit habitation, hurling bombs. Shocked by the sudden sound, the Dalits came out and the assailants attacked them. The mob entered the houses from both sides and attacked. Most people were either taking breakfast or attending to their daily chores. Women were not spared either. People who were trying to escape were also not spared. The attackers swung their weapons and inflicted multiple injuries on legs, hands, heads. They speared eyes and aimed at breaking limbs – the only “property” of the Dalits. When women pleaded with folded hands, their hands were broken. A woman was trying to give water to her dying son had her hands broken. Doors were smashed, household articles broken. This mayhem went on for a few hours. In the process four people died there itself and a fifth succumbed to injuries after five days. About 50 people have received injuries, of whom about 20 have been grievously hurt and may not be in a position to do manual work even after they are treated. For Dalit agricultural labourers, who survive on their toil, this may be worse than death. Almost each Dalit family has one or more person injured. Out of the five dead, three belong to one family.
Under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, the district magistrate and the superintendent of police should immediately visit any place where scheduled castes or tribes have been attacked, assess the damage, render immediate help and relief, and send a report to the government. None of the two main district functionaries visited Laxmipeta. Under the Act, it is also the duty of the district magistrate to identify the atrocity prone area and take all necessary precautions to avert any attack on the SCs and STs. He should also identify the possible attackers and if necessary extern them from the district. Nothing of this happened. For the last two years attacks on Dalits have been a regular feature and were increasing in impunity. Despite the death of one person who had been beaten earlier , no action had been taken. Such is the nature of the political domination of the Kapu community in the area.
As is usual, after the killings the government announced some compensation according to the rules governing the Act. Even the amount of relief announced by the Chief Minister, Kiran Kumar Reddy, has not paid in full. The government has not assured the Dalits about the land for which five lives have been lost and several people received injuries. The Dalits were so brutally attacked and killed because they refused to follow the dictat of the dominant community and persisted in cultivating government land despite threats. Same story unveils everywhere. Only the names are changed and the numbers. Dalits are beaten, butchered, massacred for the only reason that they demand for human rights or for land. If the Dalits do not insist either of the two, there will be no attacks, no killings, no rapes, no house burnings. On the other hand if they are docile and dormant, they will be patronaged with a pittance and allowed to live at the outskirts at their mercy.
Under the Act, the investigation has to be conducted by an officer not below the rank of deputy superintendent of police. In fact, for this case, the additional superintendent of police has been appointed as the investigation officer. He has to record the statements of witnesses and complete the investigation within 30 days. Contrary to the statutory mandate, the investigation is being carried on by the police inspector and sometimes by the sub-inspector. Both are not competent to conduct investigation. The blood-stained clothes in the houses were not taken as evidence, even after four days. Blood stains were visible on the road, drain and walls. The police inspector continued with his investigation, even after these defects in the investigation process was brought to his notice. If the charge sheet is filed and the case is prosecuted with such defective investigation, the whole case will collapse. Probably this is also a part of the game.
The whole incident veers round the 250 acres of government land. The Dalits demand that, since they are landless poor they are entitled for assignment of that land. The Koneru Rangarao Land Committee, which was appointed by the AP government, made some recommendations for land distribution for the poor, which were accepted by the government. One such recommendation is that surplus land which had been acquired for various projects and has remained unused, can be assigned to the poor. The Supreme Court also said that such land need not be reverted back to the original owners and can be distributed to the poor. There is no impediment upon the assignment of the 250 acres of land to the poor. The Dalits of the rehabilitated area are all landless. But the Government has remained silent. It did not make any promise on that. Probably, it does not want to incur the wrath of the Kapu community who are presently emerging as a political power in the politics of Andhra Pradesh, like the Reddys and Kammas.
After the carnage, the Dalits and other democratic forces started agitating for justice to the victims. The Dalits further demand that a special court should be established in Laxmipeta village itself. The law provides for this. The Dalits should get justice at the same place where their blood was sprinkled and should get the land for which they have lost lives. That is the proper way to render real justice to the victims.
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