A blow to caste bias

Published : Aug 04, 2001 00:00 IST

The Dalits of an Andhra Pradesh village defy a discriminatory tradition and draw water from a well that was out of bounds for them until recently.

THE Dalits of Guravareddypalem in Andhra Pradesh's Prakasam district have added another chapter to the contemporary history of the struggle against caste supremacism and one of its worst manifestations, untouchability. Defying an age-old tradition created and perpetuated by the upper castes, they have started drawing water from the village well with the support of government officials and social activists. The battle has highlighted the fact that Dalits continue to be subjugated socially and economically 54 years after Independence. Significantly, the struggle has come to light at a time when Dalit activists have been demanding that the issue of caste should be discussed at a United Nations-organised conference on racial discrimination in Durban in August.

The tobacco-cultivating village of Guravareddypalem, 17 km from Ongole, lies on the Chennai-Kolkata National Highway. Members of the upper-caste Reddy community constitute half of its population of about 5,000 and Dalits account for about 25 per cent. The Dalits work in the farms and households of the Reddys. As the well in the Dalitwada is in a dilapidated condition, the Dalits depend on the common well in the village for drinking water, especially in summer. They drew water from the well and carried it to their landlords' houses, but were denied direct access to the water to meet their own needs. They had to get their pitchers filled by persons belonging to the upper castes. "Upper-caste persons normally obliged and filled our pitchers because it satisfied their ego that they were superior to us. But there were many occasions when we returned home with empty pots after waiting for hours begging for their help," said Kotamma, a Dalit woman.

On May 11, Nadella Anjaiah went to the well to get a pot of water after working in the field for many hours. He waited for someone from the upper castes to fill the pot but in vain. He felt so thirsty that he ventured to draw water from the well. Sreenivasa Reddy, an upper-caste person, saw Anjaiah carry water to his home. He objected to that and an altercation ensued.

The Reddys considered it an affront to their authority and decided that they should not allow the Dalits access to the water any longer. They chased three Dalit girls away from the well the next day. After a week without water, the Dalits lodged a complaint with District Collector Sunil Sharma. The Collector directed the revenue and police officials concerned to settle the issue. However, the Reddys did not relent, saying that the well belonged to a private trust. Ignoring the objections, the officials allowed the Dalits to draw water from the well.

The Reddys abandoned the well and drew water from a borewell, which yielded only saline water. They imposed a social boycott against the Dalits. They refused to engage Dalits for farm work. Following their diktat, the village society refused to accept milk from the Dalits. Barbers and washermen declined to serve them.

The Collector convened a meeting to bring about a rapprochement between the two communities. He promised to provide another well to the Dalits. The Andhra Pradesh Dalit Mahasabha opposed the proposal, saying that it would amount to encouraging untouchability. It insisted that the Dalits should be allowed to draw water from the same well. Karanam Balaramakrishna Murthy, a Member of Parliament belonging to the Telugu Desam Party, persuaded the upper-caste people to draw water from the same well so that they could not be accused of practising untouchability.

The Mahasabha, led by its general secretary and Bahujan Samaj Party leader Katti Padma Rao, launched an agitation demanding the arrest of four persons belonging to the Reddy community for having prevented Dalits from drawing water from the village well and for abusing them by their caste name. It also demanded that the government provide them work on the ground that the upper-caste landlords had refused to employ them. Each Dalit family, it said, should be given one acre of land so that they could live independently and with dignity. The Dalits staged a dharna near the Collectorate at Ongole for two days. They also took out a padayatra (march) to Ongole and submitted a memorandum to the Collector.

As a consequence of the agitation, the police arrested four persons belonging to the Reddy community, who were remanded to custody. They came out on bail after 15 days. The Collector sanctioned Rs.1.5 lakh for employment generation in the village. He also agreed to allot land to the Dalits.

THIS was not the only instance of the Dalits of Guravareddypalem being subjected to discrimination. A Dalit, who was appointed a para teacher in a government school managed by Reddys, was humiliated by teachers belonging to the upper castes. He did not even have a chair for himself in the classroom. Unable to stomach the insults, he resigned. In his place a woman was brought in unofficially. The school authorities who comprised Reddys asked him to sign the attendance register once in a month so that they could pay the proxy teacher the salary of Rs.1,500 meant for him.

Dalit children are also the victims of untouchability. Most of them do not go to school because it is located a kilometre away from the Dalitwada. Also, they have to sit separately in the classroom. "So we do not send our children to school," said Mariamma.

The presidentship of Guravareddy-palem panchayat is reserved for Dalits. It is alleged that the Reddys run the panchayat by ensuring that the Dalit woman who heads the elected body does not have the power to withdraw money for the panchayat's expenses.

Katti Padma Rao, who has led the movements against the atrocities against Dalits in Karamchedu, Tsundur (Frontline, August 17-30, 1991) and other places in Andhra Pradesh, visited Guravareddypalem and rallied the Dalits in the village and in the neighbouring areas to fight for their rights. Addressing meetings, he said that both the Telugu Desam Party and the Congress(I) were led by the upper castes. He exhorted Dalits to unite and seize political power in order to put an end to their social and economic subjugation.

Katti Padma Rao said that the policy of economic liberalisation and the mechanisation of agriculture only helped enrich the upper castes at the cost of Dalits. Owing to the crop holiday declared for tobacco, farmers in Prakasam and Guntur districts had switched over to more lucrative commercial crops, leaving thousands of Dalit agricultural labourers in the lurch, he said.

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