The long journey of Venkatayapalem Dalits to an inadequate justice

A dominant caste politician of YSRCP, Thota Trimurthulu, was convicted in a 28-year-old case for assaulting Dalits, but it continues to be an unfinished story for the victims.

Published : Apr 19, 2024 12:39 IST - 7 MINS READ

Thota Trimurthulu leaving court after attending proceedings of the tonsuring case against him.

Thota Trimurthulu leaving court after attending proceedings of the tonsuring case against him. | Photo Credit: C.V. Subrahmanyam

For nearly three decades, five Dalit men of Venkatayapalem village of Ramachandrapuram mandal in Andhra Pradesh have fought relentlessly to get justice in a case of assault, forceful tonsure, and humiliation by a dominant caste politician. A Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act case, the trial should have seen a speedy hearing and conviction but was dragged on by Thota Trimurthulu, the prime accused. The victims also withstood further discrimination, including from the government and various departments. One of the victims, witnesses, and an accused, died during the inordinately delayed trial.

On April 16, a Visakhapatnam Special Court for SC & ST Prevention of Atrocities cases convicted Trimurthulu and others in the case. Merely hours later, he got bail and continued his electoral campaign for the Mandapeta Assembly Constituency. The Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) has yet to issue an official statement.

“It’s sickening to see the accused getting back to their lives on the very day of the judgment. In contrast, the victims were left in a haze of the judicial interpretations and ramifications of the judgment,” Y. Rajesh, an advocate and general secretary of the Human Rights Forum (HRF), told Frontline.

Currently a YSRCP MLC and prospective MLA candidate, Trimurthulu was a young, independent MLA back when he and nine of his men assaulted Dalits. He belongs to the powerful Pedda Kapu caste, a landed gentry with a political and financial stronghold in the erstwhile East Godavari region. Local political observers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Trimurthulu amassed wealth and a coterie over the past few decades via real-estate settlements, involvement in sand mining, and other such businesses.

What happened in December 1996?

In 1994, Trimurthulu was a 35-year-old independent candidate from Ramachandrapuram Assembly Constituency. On the day of voting, his men intimidated Dalit youth who fought back their “rigging” attempts. The Dalits were Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP) campaigners and polling agents. The victims contend that this incident led to Trimurthulu and his mendeveloping a grudge against them. He won the election. Over the next two years, tensions escalated owing to the bruised egos of dominant caste men. In a region where most Kapusboasted agrarian wealth and most Dalits agricultural labourers, the defiance of five Dalit youngsters had a fallout beyond the elections for the accused.

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Challapudi Pattabhiramayya, one of the Dalits assaulted by Trimurthulu and his men, spoke to Frontline narrating the ordeal. First, a false case of trespassing was booked against some of them. When it didn’t have enough evidence, a false case accusing the Dalits of “eve-teasing” a dominant caste woman was booked (both were quashed before the forceful tonsure case came to hearing).

For days leading up to the forceful tonsure, the MLA’s men assaulted Dalits multiple times. When two of them attempted to escape arrest, they were forcefully brought back.

“On December 29, 1996, Trimurthulu presented Chinnaraju and Venkataratnam with two options for punishment: amputation of legs, arms, and removal of eyes or a tonsure,” Pattabhiramayya recalled speaking to Frontline. The MLA had apparently claimed that he preferred the former, leaving the Dalit hamlet of about 50 houses terrified. Families pleaded with the MLA to spare their young.

About 100 people from the village, including the families of the victims, gathered outside the gate of the MLA’s barn, where victims were being forcefully held. A few people climbed on to the boundary wall and witnessed the tonsuring of heads and shaving of their eyebrows and mustaches. The MLA and his men also assaulted three other Dalit men: Pattabhiramayya, Kanikella Ganapati, and Puvvala Venkataramana. They were part of the BSP campaign.

Delayed proceedings

As the Dalits left his barn, the perpetrators warned them to stay home until the hair regrew. The incident came to light after a Telugu journalist wrote an article on January 4, 1997, and an FIR was registered against Trimurthulu and nine others. A chargesheet was filed, and the accused were in remand for nearly 90 days. Once out, Trimurthulu did everything he could to stall the trial and water down the case.

In 1998, during the Telugu Desam Party (TDP)’s regime, Trimurthulu even got the government to issue a government order dismissing the case against him and the other accused. Chandrababu Naidu was the then Chief Minister. The victims approached the High Court (HC) and got the case reopened. HC rebuked the government.

Dalit organisations staging dharna at Ambedkar statue near Gokavaram bus stand demanding immediate arrest of Thota Trimurthulu in 2013

Dalit organisations staging dharna at Ambedkar statue near Gokavaram bus stand demanding immediate arrest of Thota Trimurthulu in 2013 | Photo Credit: RAMBABU S

Over the next 15 years, Trimurthulu delayed the proceedings through various means, at times challenging the appointment of judges and a special public prosecutor, claiming he had doubts about their fairness.

In 2017, the accused brought a new argument challenging the victims’ Scheduled Caste status. The victims had to approach the HC yet again as the local revenue officials refused to issue caste certificates.

In 2018, the accused misled the court by falsifying evidence and attempting to establish the victims as Christians and not Dalits. The accused got his men to put a plaque with the name of Chinnaraju’s (Dalit victim) mother on a Christian grave in the village, took a photo, and submitted it as evidence in court. On the other hand, despite an HC order, officials delayed issuing the caste certificates till 2021. In 2024, the HC ordered the trial court to accept the certificates as evidence.

At each stage of this trial, Trimurthulu’s attempt to stall the case was resolutely fought back not only by the victims but also by the several Dalit organisations of the district. Over the past three decades, they held several demonstrations, relay hunger strikes, and even fact-finding missions.

Where’s the outrage?

The conviction finally came ahead of the filing of nominations. In an Assembly and Lok Sabha election-bound State, the sentencing of a ruling party MLC and prospective MLA candidate in an atrocity case should have led to political outrage, condemnation, or calls for suspension. However, most leaders of the BJP-TDP-JSP alliance have chosen a studied silence on the judgment. Political observers state that no party can claim a high ground in the case.

Trimurthulu’s political journey is a testament to how most parties of Andhra Pradesh treated the case of an assault on Dalits as an inconsequential matter. He had a long association with the TDP, a short stint with the Praja Rajyam Party (which was merged into Congress), and eventually YSRCP; throughout, Trimurthulu remained as close to the power centers as he could. During the past three decades, he won three more times as an MLA of the Ramachandrapuram Assembly Constituency. He brushes aside the case as a conspiracy by his rivals to bring him down.

Victims and activists contend that the sentences were not commensurate with the severity of the crimes. The sections under which Trimurthulu was found guilty have a provision for a punishment of up to five years. But he received eighteen months of simple imprisonment.

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“A two-year sentence for any one of the offenses would have rendered Trimurthulu disqualified from his membership as an MLC and made him ineligible to contest in the upcoming elections, for which he received a ticket from Mandapeta,” Rajesh told Frontline.

Mandapeta was carved out in the 2008 delimitation exercise and has remained a TDP stronghold. The TDP won in 2009, 2014, and 2019, and Kammas(a landed dominant caste of Andhra Pradesh) are said to have an edge over the Kapus. Even when the TDP got routed in the 2019 Assembly Election, the party retained the constituency. Fielding Trimurthulu from Mandapeta is said to be YSRCP’s attempt to disrupt the TDP dominance.

Mandapeta falls in the B.R. Ambedkar Konaseema district. The Kapus of the district had steered violent protests against naming the district after Ambedkar (in 2022). Casteism and anti-Dalit violence and attitudes are deeply entrenched in the region’s socio-political ecosystem. In most such instances of casteist violence, Dalits and Dalit organisations have remained assertive and fought back.

Thrimurthulu and other convicted men have announced plans to approach the HC. Activists demand that the government should appeal to the HC and seek enhanced punishment. However, it is uncertain whether the ruling YSRCP will take such a recourse. The victims are bracing themselves to appeal to the HC.

For now, Trimurthulu and his affiliates are back in the election game, and barring a little anxiety about the continuation of his candidature, it’s all normal in his camp.

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