The Karamchedu Massacre — and the aftermath

In his book ‘The Weapon Of The Other’, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd terms the 1980s as a Landmark Decade in Telugu history. One of the catalysts being the Karamchedu incident that occurred on 17July 1985 — 35 years ago to this very day.

A couple of Kamma boys had taken their buffaloes to the drinking water tank of a Madigapalle. They fed the buffaloes with washings of rice from a bucket and began washing the buckets in the drinking water tank. A Dalit boy objected, which angered the Kamma youth. When they were about to attack him, a Madiga woman who had come to the tank came to his aid — an act of defiance that the Kamma youth could not tolerate. They go away and mobilize Kammas from the nearby 7 villages and morning of 17th of July swoop down on the Madigapalle to beat,stab,axe and rape. At least six Dalits died (two more were secretly buried by the police).

400 odd dalit familes left the village, reached the nearby town of Chirala and established a rehabilitation camp and began a protest campaign to get new jobs and houses. This was when the chief minister of the state was Kamma N.T. Rama Rao. In fact NTR’s son-in-law Daggubati Venkateswara was the MLA from that area and his father Chenchuramaiah was one of the main accused (Katti Padma Rao writes that sometime before the incident, Chenchuramaiah sent for the Dalits and asked them to vote for his son. The Dalits had replied that they would think about it. While the voting was taking place, Kammas began to suspect the Dalits were voting for the congress and tried to obstruct the poll. However, the Dalits went ahead with their voting and the Kammas could not tolerate this defiance). Chenchuramaiah was later assassinated by the People’s War Group (K. G Satyamurthy one of the two protagonists of Sujata Gidla’s ‘Ants Among Elephants’, was one of the founders of this group). Incidentally after 26 years of trial 3 of the accused from PWG were acquitted due to lack of evidence.

A trial court in Ongole convicted 159 Kammas involved in the atrocity to life imprisonment, but this was later struck down by the AP high court. A special leave petition was filed in the Supreme court in October 1998, and ten years later a bench in the apex court upheld the conviction. However it sentenced the main accused Anjaiah to a life term and 29 others to three years of jail. (Presumably the other murderers and rapists were let go)

Prof. Kancha Ilaiah, writes that it created a rupture in the communist discourse — especially since the communist movement in Andhra was also lead by the upper castes and there was an attempt to portray it as a class conflict instead of the caste atrocity that it was. But the Dalitbahujan activists did not allow them to set the narrative and instead ensured that people saw the event for what it was. The Dalit camp not only criticized NTR’s Kamma government, but also the Dalit leaders who were toeing the line of the ruling parties. They also rejected the term ‘Harijan’ that people used to refer to them — “If we are the sons and daughters of God, which God is that? What about the Hindu upper-castes? Whose sons and daughters are they?”

Quoting some more lines from Prof. Kancha Ilaiah’s book — “Sitting on the dias, addressing the audience, chairing small or big meetings, all began to acquire new meanings. The upper-caste communist cadres did ask if it was wrong to be born in a Brahman family or a Kamma family or a Reddy family. Did one choose the family in which one was to be born? Was not birth in a family accidental and for that should one be banned from occupying a dias? Should an upper-caste person’s speech become not worth hearing? These and other such questions began to be asked.

The answers that the Dalit communist discourse threw were very interesting. Did the Dalits choose their caste to have been born in it? Was it not the very accident of birth in Dalit families that had kept them untouchables and unheard all these years? Why was it that the communist and the revolutionary parties did not take up a campaign against the caste system, which was determining the socio-political and economic placements of people? Why were the platforms not available to Dalits before they began to raise these questions? If merit of speech-making was the criterion, why was it that the Dalits on their independent platform could prove themselves as equally good speakers? How was it that the Dalit movement began to produce good writers and speakers who began to get all-Andhra visibility only after they established their own platforms? The upper-caste communist leaders had no answer to these questions.”

Prof. Kancha Ilaiah says that a Dalit mass consciousness sprung up in Andhra -and they organically produced their own leaders such as Bojja Tharakam and Kathi Padma Rao. When they discussed communist leaders in Andhra Pradesh, they began to think of them as Reddy & Kamma landlords who turned communists — they came from bungalows and could afford cars. More Dalits came to know about Phule who could get the title of Mahatma and they learnt more about Ambedkar. Karamchedu also naturally makes an appearance in Dalit poetry that sprung about in the aftermath of the incident — including in two my favourite ones:

Sikhamani while poking fun at the upper caste poets of his time writes in his poem ‘Pardon’ -

“About heroic Vietnam, the Red Square,
Berlin wall, starvation in Somalia-

about those I can write.
But how can I write about

the suppurating sore of Chunduru,
the pounding pestles of Karamchedu,
the still-live fire of Neerukonda?”

Kalekuri Prasad in his poem “For a Fistful of Self-Respect” writes -

“I was Shambuka in the Treta yuga

Twenty-two years ago, I was Kanchikacherla Kotesu.

My birthplace is Kilvenmani, Karamchedu, Neerukonda.”

He doesn’t mean the physical birth of course (he was born in Kanchikacherla). He means the birth of Kalekuri Prasad the poet and activist was in the aftermath of Karamchedu.

As atrocities against Dalits continue unabated in the lockdown, perhaps it is worth remembering the lessons of Karamchedu, even as 35 years have passed since the incident itself. The lessons of solidarity, of agitation against the state, the debates that followed on the path to be taken and the organic emergence of leaders through the whole process. There could be a lesson too in PWG’s assassination of Chenchuramaiah perhaps. While the utility of an armed rebellion is debatable, since at some stage the rabid but powerful Indian state will get involved, why shouldn’t Dalits have weapons to aid in their self-defense?