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.
“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.