Often dubbed as the ‘Kerala of Andhra’, the newly-carved Konaseema district woke up to a horrendous eruption of arson and violence on May 24, 2022. The widely-held reason for this ruckus is the Andhra Pradesh government’s decision to rename the district as Ambedkar-Konaseema district. Following the violence, the people of Andhra Pradesh have expressed sorrow to see the idyllic and serene region go up in flames.
Idyllic, yes, but whether it has always been a serene and harmonious region is a matter of debate. The unflinching adherence to caste hierarchy has often resurfaced like the Lernaean Hydra – not just in Konaseema, but across India. G. Kiran Kumar records the atrocities on Dalits by the upper castes in East Godavari (Konaseema was earlier a part of this district). The atrocities range from public humiliation, mob lynchings, tonsuring of heads, police brutalities, rapes, etc, and most of these cases were reported from the areas such as Amalapuram, Atreyapuram, Uppalaguptham, Sakinetipalli, Ramanchandrapuram – all of which are now part of the new Konaseema district.
The recent attack by miscreants on the houses of one Dalit minister – Pinipe Viswaroop and an MLA from a backward caste – Ponnada Satish (both from the ruling YSRCP Party), over adding B.R. Ambedkar’s name, speaks volumes about the deeply entrenched malady of casteism and anti-Dalitism. This attack has shown that no place, including the allegedly peaceful one like Konaseema, is immune to the diabolism of caste. The storm in Konaseema has made the people of Andhra witness how deeply society is stratified based on caste hierarchy and how unabashedly one can express his/her disgust towards Ambedkar and the values he stood for.
This incident could be understood as a significant moment in the political history of Andhra Pradesh which has the potential to initiate a dialogue on issues such as caste politics, anti-caste struggles, Dalit assertion and consciousness, the importance of Ambedkar and so on. The state has been reeling under caste-based politics and the Konaseema incident only served to manifest the long-repressed odiousness towards what Ambedkar’s ideology stands for. As James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Let’s see what this incident has to offer for bringing the change that Ambedkar has always fought for.
To begin with, several decisions and schemes taken up by the Jagan Mohan Reddy-led government in Andhra Pradesh have been met with castigations from his adversaries. Although Jagan, like most of the other leaders, represents the reprehensible system of caste-based and money-based electoral politics, he has taken an uncompromising stance on decisions such as making English the only medium of instruction in government schools without forfeiting Telugu language and also prioritising the underprivileged sections in all of his welfare schemes, including allocation of cabinet positions to those representing these sections.
Still, there is good scope to argue that Jagan views the poor only as a vote bank without any genuine concern for them. Nevertheless, the gains that would be made with the above decisions cannot be seen as insignificant. Whatever ulterior motives he has in his mind, he had begun to accept the fact that the long-suppressed socio-political upliftment of the downtrodden cannot be ignored any longer.
The recent decision in this vein was the renaming of the Konaseema district. The demand to have Ambedkar’s name has been a long pending one, emanating primarily from Dalit sections who form a sizeable chunk of the district. One of the arguments made in the aftermath of the arson was that the government was prioritising Dalit-Bahujan communities at the expense of other non-Dalit and non-Bahujan communities, by deciding to add Ambedkar’s name to the district. The implication of this argument would raise the question: Can we confine and associate Ambedkar only with Dalit-Bahujans? The answer is a definite no.
Whoever thinks that Ambedkar fought for only Dalits is wilfully withholding themselves to come out of the quagmire of casteism. By doing this, they (the upper castes) are distancing themselves from being involved, in the first place, in the resultant injustices of the caste system. The same YSCRCP government has put the names of prominent leaders like N.T. Rama Rao (from a dominant Kamma caste), Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy (dominant Reddy caste), and Alluri Seetharama Raju (upper Kshatriya caste) to districts that also inhabit people from different castes and communities.
No one, including the opposition, has objected to these names even though their caste status is discernable right from their names. This leads to an unfortunate implication that only Ambedkar has caste and other upper-caste leaders are casteless. This rings a bell with what Supreme Court Judge D. Y. Chandrachud observed, “Castelessness is the privilege only upper-castes can afford.”
No matter how deeply intellectual and globally influential Ambedkar is, the upper-caste mindset would never miss an opportunity to reduce Ambedkar as a mere representative of the Dalit struggle. Of course, it is an indisputable fact that Ambedkar fought against the inhumane caste-ridden society. But more emphatic is the fact that Ambedkar envisioned an India which honours the principle – ‘one man – one value’.
He struggled to inculcate anti-caste consciousness which would eventually create a society based on rationality, equality and fraternity. As Gopal Guru argued, Ambedkar’s nationalism goes beyond the borders of a nation to achieve all-humane and all-inclusive societies devoid of “manav-droha”. Denying to have a share in the legacy of such a universal figure like Ambedkar illustrates the contempt of upper castes for the consciousness that has originated out of the Dalit struggle.
Pawan Kalyan, one of the political leaders in Andhra Pradesh, has unceremoniously questioned the government whether it would be willing to put Ambedkar’s name in Kadapa district (the home district of Jagan Mohan Reddy). Couldn’t we say that Mr Pawan Kalyan has stooped to the baseness of those arsonists who could not digest the fact that they have to associate their district’s name with Ambedkar? Having Ambedkar’s name for villages, colonies, universities, etc is common across India. However, be it erecting the statue of Ambedkar or naming places, the demand, maybe not solely but definitely comes from the Dalit-Bahujan communities. The only question is whether other communities are ready to own Ambedkar as he is owned by Dalit-Bahujans.
Sudhir Mehra discusses how the act of installing Ambedkar statues signifies Dalit assertion in reclaiming their right to the public sphere which has been denied to them traditionally. Contrasting this, he also talks about how for the upper castes, these statues represent intrusion and transgression by Dalits. Similarly, the reluctance to own Ambedkar manifested as the violent uproar in Konaseema could be understood as “disgust” felt by the upper castes, as they are addressed now as inhabitants of the Ambedkar district. Usually and not necessarily, the localities having Ambedkar’s name and statues are concentrated with Dalit communities and now the upper castes of Konaseema are agitated as their superiority might be in danger.
Instead of highlighting the need to own Ambedkar, the political parties of Andhra Pradesh, including the ruling party, as casteism cuts across party ranks, have tried to capitalise upon false apprehensions and caste pride of the upper castes. The intensity of the violence could also be traced to the fact that the Dalit sections of Konaseema have attained better education and economic prosperity and this might have been seen as a challenge to the superiority of the upper castes.
Another question that has come up after this incident is, doesn’t it diminish the national stature of Ambedkar and even insult him by putting his name in a small district? I would like to answer this by suggesting the very opposite of what that question intends to ask. In post-Independent India, particularly with the Dalit Panthers movement in the 1970s, the Dalit struggle has been radically made explicit in the form of literature, visual arts, activism, etc. by Dalit artists, writers, and scholars. Their aim is to fight for Dalit emancipation and more importantly, their agenda is to instil and expand Ambedkarite consciousness that would address the major predicaments of India such as poverty, caste, exploitation, corruption etc.
Their ideology is rooted in the ideas of Buddha, Marx, Phule, and Ambedkar whose emancipatory ideals are thought to be indispensable for reforming India as a progressive, liberal and humane nation. India has witnessed waves of Dalit movements and Andhra Pradesh, in particular, has been a fulcrum for spreading the Dalit movement since the 1985 Karamchedu incident where a number of Dalits were massacred by upper-caste people.
Drawing from this, I would like to view the demand to name Konaseema as Ambedkar district as an indication of Ambedkarite consciousness-expanding across India. It isn’t diminishing Ambedkar’s name, rather, it shows the extent of influence Ambedkar has on the contemporary society of India. One needs to observe the fact that those who demanded Ambedkar’s name wanted the whole district to have his name instead of a particular locality with a particular community. District inhabits people from all castes and communities and so that demand was in fact a call for all people to unhesitatingly own Ambedkar and his ideology.
Despite this, the enthusiasm to name places after Ambedkar should not make Dalit communities blind to the other pressing issues like socio-economic upliftment, a share in political power, proper implementation of SC/ST welfare schemes, issues of Dalit women and other marginalised communities within the Dalit community, atrocities against Dalit communities, etc. The governments, no matter how accommodative and inclusive they might seem to appear, can always be capable of suppressing the downtrodden with their demagoguery and chicanery.
Hence, besides accepting the fact that India needs Ambedkar more than anyone and more than ever, not to fight casteism alone but also for envisioning a better, freer, and inclusive future for India, we should stop fighting among ourselves over the names of districts and instead strive to live by the ideals and values professed by visionaries like Ambedkar.
Sivatejaa Kahul is a research scholar in the Department of English, Osmania University, Hyderabad.
Featured image: B. R. Ambedkar delivering a speech about conversion to a rally at Yeola, Nasik, on 13 October 1935. Photo: Wikimedia Commons