On September 29, Yashwant, a 14-year-old Dalit boy, was tied to a streetlight pole and beaten up at Kempadenahalli village in Chintamani taluk of Karnataka’s Chikkaballapur district. His tormentors were upper-caste Reddys, a group of 10 people. When his mother, Ratnamma, tried to rescue him, she was also thrashed.
The boy was at home with his parents that night when the men (all 10 of them named in the FIR filed subsequently) came looking for him. They dragged him out and started hitting him, accusing him of having stolen the earrings of the daughter of one of them. When the mother tried to intervene, they hit her, too, and showered casteist insults on the family; one of them hurled his slippers at her.
The father tried to stop them, but he too was pushed and shoved. Then they tied the boy to a streetlight pole and beat him, while hurling casteist abuses. The victims are from the Dalit Holeya caste. On the basis of Ratnamma’s complaint filed at the Chintamani Rural Police Station, under relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 2015, three of the men were arrested and a search is on for the others.
A somewhat similar incident had taken place on September 8 at Ullerahalli village of Malur taluk in neighbouring Kolar district. Chikkaballapur and Kolar, contiguous districts in south Karnataka, have witnessed atrocities against Dalits over many decades. (Chikkaballapur was carved out of Kolar district in 2007.) Frontline visited Ullerahalli to understand the caste dynamics of the village and to contextualise these continued acts of cruelty against Dalits.
Chetan R., 15, of Ullerahalli is also a Holeya. Around 4:30 p.m. on September 8, he had just returned from the government school in the neighbouring town of Tekal. He was excited: an idol of the goddess Bhootamma was to be carried around in a procession. When the moment finally arrived, as he stood watching, he noticed that one of the poles of the palanquin carrying the deity had fallen. Chetan picked it up and handed it over to Narayanaswamy Gopalappa, one of the palanquin bearers.
Chetan described what happened next: “Narayanaswamy turned and slapped me. While he was hitting me, he said that I had polluted the idol and that the entire ceremony had been spoilt because of my touch.” Recounting the incident, Chetan told Frontline: “How does the goddess become unclean if I touch the pole?”
His mother, Shobha V., who works as a housekeeper in a gated community in eastern Bengaluru, said: “Chetan came home crying and I consoled him saying that these things happen to us [Dalits]. I even asked him why he had to touch the pole.” For Shobha, this was the end of the matter. She was used to the discrimination against Dalits in this village of around 600 residents, about 70 km from Bengaluru, where Vokkaligas are the dominant caste. This was nothing new, she said, as the Gowdas (as the Vokkaligas are also known) did not allow Dalits to even enter their houses.
The Vokkaligas, however, did not let the matter rest. The next day, the panchayat summoned Shobha. The panchayat comprises eight members, five of whom are Vokkaligas. A Brahmin, a Kuruba (a backward caste) and a Dalit are the other members. She appeared before the panchayat, having walked the short distance from her hut. She was told that her son’s action the previous day had violated caste strictures and she would have to pay up to make it right.
“They said that I had to pay a fine of Rs.60,000 before October 1, and the money would be utilised for cleaning the deity and redoing the festival. Until I pay up, my family would be boycotted. They also said that I must leave the village if I don’t pay and they would demolish my house. Even the Dalit member of the panchayat supported this decision. They warned me not to reveal this decision to any outsider,” Shobha said.
Shobha and her family live in a hut abutting fields of corn, ragi, toor dal and groundnuts. But the family owns no land. Her husband, Ramesh, is incapacitated because of an injury. Their hut is the size of a shipping container and is surrounded by the rocky hills and scrubby vegetation that is typical of the dry landscape of Kolar. Leopards and foxes are frequent visitors at night. Alienated from the village’s agricultural economy, which is dominated by the Gowdas who own between five and 20 acres of land, Dalits like Shobha have found menial jobs in Bengaluru and have established tenuous linkages with the metropolis’ service economy. Regular trains ply through Tekal connecting Bengaluru to these villages in the hinterland.
Mavalli Shankar, State convener of the Ambedkar faction of the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti (DSS), explained the plight of Dalits: “Land reforms carried out in the 1970s and 1980s in Karnataka were not effectively implemented in this southern part of the State. Even in cases where the tillers became owners, the move did not benefit Dalits because, as untouchables through history, they were merely bonded labourers in the guise of agricultural labour and were not considered as tillers.”
A POLICE CASE & A CONVERSION
It was impossible for Shobha to defy the panchayat’s diktat but it was also beyond her limited financial capabilities to pay the fine. Fearing the Vokkaligas, she was apprehensive about reaching out to the police. At this point, she happened to meet an independent journalist who runs a YouTube channel. Her interview in this forum attracted the attention of local members of the DSS. At their behest, Shobha complained to the police and a first information report (FIR) was registered on September 20 at Masti Police Station. Members of the DSS also revealed that it was only their intervention that led to the filing of cases against 10 people in Kempadenahalli.
According to the FIR in the Ullerahalli incident, cases were registered under relevant provisions of the IPC and the SC/ST Act against eight people who were subsequently arrested. Seven of them were members of the panchayat, and three of them were part of the procession.
The arrests attracted intense media attention for Ullerahalli. The local MPs and MLAs and the tahsildar of Malur came visiting, met Shobha’s family and arranged a public event where Dalits were called to visit the temple. The temple walls were freshly painted with the slogan, in Kannada, “Let everyone live in harmony without caste and religious differences”.
For Shobha, it was too little too late. “I went to the temple because it was such a publicised event, but in my heart I had no faith. My family has been praying to Hindu gods all our lives but where were they [gods] when we were abused and assaulted for being Dalits? Only Ambedkar came to help us,” she said.
Back home, she and her family removed the pictures of gods that adorned a shelf on one wall of the single-room hut. In their place now sit garlanded pictures of B.R. Ambedkar and Gautama Buddha, along with a copy of the Constitution of India.
Whether or not the conversion of Shobha’s family was motivated by theological conviction is hard to ascertain. Symbolically, the move has been earth-shattering for the social dynamics of the village and the broader region of the undivided Kolar district. More than 5,000 people attended a protest march by the DSS on September 27 from Tekal to Ullerahalli.
A.K. Venkatesh, Kolar district convener of the DSS, said: “We encounter such cases every few weeks because of systematic discrimination in these villages where a feudal mentality prevails among the upper castes.” M.C. Halli Venu, Anekal Taluk convener of the DSS, pointed out how this mentality had not changed over many decades and recalled other incidents of violence against Dalits in Kolar district—the murder of Sheshagiriappa in 1980 in Hunasikote and the Kambalapalli massacre in 2000 when seven Dalits were locked in a house and burnt alive.
Venkatesh and Venu had just returned from Kempadenahalli when they spoke to Frontline. They said that Yashwant and his mother, Ratnamma, were beaten up so brutally that they had to be admitted at the government hospital in Chintamani. “Ratnamma was so distraught that she told us if she did not get justice she would consume poison and die,” Venu said.
While the culprits have been arrested in Ullerahalli, only three of the 10 people involved in the Kempadenahalli incident have been arrested. In fact, a countercomplaint has been filed against Yashwant and his mother accusing them of theft.
Meanwhile, a long judicial ordeal awaits Shobha. Her immediate concern, however, is to follow up on the multiple promises made by the parachuting politicians. “S. Muniswamy [MP from Kolar] assured me that a house would be built for my family so that we can live in the village, but while a site has been allotted, no work has taken place since then. There is a ready building; a Samudaya Bhavan (community centre), which no one has ever used. I wish that is provided for my family,” she said.
The visiting politicians, under the intense scrutiny of independent Kannada media channels and Dalit activists, also assured her that she would be compensated with a government job in the village so that she would not have to make the trek to Bengaluru every day. This promise, too, remains unfulfilled.
In the completely caste-ridden village societies, said Mavalli Shankar, Dalits stood no chance against the upper castes: “Even in cases where we intervene, the judicial system is stacked heavily against the Dalit victims who are poor and illiterate. These gestures of compensation are merely temporary and there is no permanent solution for the plight of the Dalits in these villages.”
- Two Dalit boys beaten in separate incidents in Karnataka’s Chikkaballapur and Kolar districts.
- In one case, a Holeya boy is accused of theft and beaten up and his mother is also thrashed when she tries to intervene.
- In the second incident, panchayat asks the boy’s mother to pay Rs.60,000 so that the deity defiled by his touch can be purified.
- Flutter created after mother records the family’s plight in a YouTube video.
- There are attempts to assuage hurt feelings but boy’s family decides to stop calling itself Hindu.
- Cases were registered in both cases only after the Ambedkar faction of the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti (DSS) intervened.