An hour’s drive from the town of Tenali on the coast of Andhra Pradesh, Tsunduru is an idyllic village surrounded by lush rice fields. But a few steps bring the visitor face to face with an indescribable mound of black earth overgrown with shrubs and piles of rubbish – a reminder of the macabre history of the village.
Weed and the graves show up, eight of them side by side with a sign in the background that reads, “Johar, Tsunduru Dalitha Mrutha Veerulaku” (A Tribute to the Dalit Martyrs of Tsunduru). Below, a question for the visitor in Telugu: if all the killers are innocent, who is responsible for this carnage?
This makeshift memorial, known as the Raktha Kshetram (Place of Blood), testifies to one of the worst anti-Dalit massacres since independence. Early on the morning of 6 August 1991, members of the Reddy and Kapu communities reportedly attacked the local Mala community, a Dalit sub-caste, with sticks, axes, knives and weapons.
Dalits fleeing to nearby forests were hunted down, beaten, their lifeless bodies stuffed in jute bags and thrown into the Tungabhadra canal that runs through the village. A team from the local police station reportedly kept watch and observed the attack on Dalitwada (colony). Eight men died instantly and three others died of their injuries later, one of whom was reportedly the target of police fire.
The bloody crime sent shockwaves through a country on the cusp of liberalization and a whole generation was shaken. But back in Tsunduru, the besieged Mala community braced for a long struggle, uniting to build a movement from the ground up and determined not to let caste hostility hamper their economic and social progress.
Thirty years have passed since. Today, a new generation of Dalits is leading the outbreak: the roughly 750 Mala families have their children in schools and colleges, and many have moved to the nearby towns of Tenali, Guntur and even Vijayawada.
“The Dalits in the village have come a long way in the past 30 years and live with their heads held high, but the wounds are not healing yet. They continue to rage unless we get final justice, ”said Jaladi Moses, 47, whose father Jaladi Mathaiah and uncle Jaladi Immanuel were among the eight killed.
Many young Dalit men and women have found employment in government services, as clerks, teachers, agents, bank officers and even software engineers. Protected from the daily discrimination that their parents and grandparents took for granted, they flourished and built a life for themselves. With the money and confidence of secure employment, many Mala families built houses and cleaned up roads and sewers.
The dilapidated Dalit settlement has now evolved into a separate panchayat named Ambedkar Nagar, a statue of the reformer and constitutional drafter BR Ambedkar towering over their rooftops – in itself a signal of defiance and new-found confidence.
“The approximately 750 Dalit families, who worked as farm laborers and sharecroppers in the fields of the upper castes, all received farmland ranging from half an acre to an acre, in addition to houses in the surrounding villages. “said Suresh, a local Dalit leader.
Politics is a key source of power in India, and ruling caste communities often feel secure in significant political representation.
But in Tsunduru, Dalits have also become politically active. And what helped them is that the constituency of the Vemuru assembly, of which Tsunduru is a part, is reserved for registered castes, and now represented by Congressman YSR Merugu Nagarjuna. Anyone in the locality, even if they are from the dominant caste, should come to him for any job – a source of pride for the local Mala community.
There is also a noticeable change among young Dalits, the majority of whom are well educated and have jobs. “In the old days, there was a two-glass system in tea stalls and restaurants (one glass for advanced castes and the other for Dalits). We never used to walk their streets with shoes on. But now the young people go to restaurants and sit next to the upper caste, ”said Moses.
The Mala community of Tsunduru has succeeded in galvanizing the entire state for their legal fight. The legal team received contributions from all over the state and the case became a milestone in the state’s civil liberties history, with protests staged in many cities, including the capital Hyderabad. Much of this work was done by senior lawyer and Dalit activist Bojja Tharakam, who died in 2016.
Residents have been helped by the state government, which has developed sub-plans for the listed castes, making separate budget allocations that cannot be transferred to other departments. In addition, land was allocated to many SC families without the multi-year delays that are common in other states, and a network of boarding schools, colleges, and colleges exclusively for Dalit students helped spread the word. education within the community.
“The Tsunduru Dalits managed to make the incident a national problem. Dalit organizations and social activists from across the country visited the village and raised awareness. The government was forced to set up a boarding school and college in the village, which allowed more and more Dalits to get an education. Today, nearly 80 percent of Tsunduru Dalits are educated and work as teachers, lecturers, bank officers, government employees and even software engineers. This was only possible thanks to the sustained struggle of the Dalits, ”said Suresh, the local activist.
But prosperity has not completely erased the old fault lines. A road in the middle of Tsunduru separates the Dalit colony from that of the dominant castes. “The limit still remains now,” added Suresh.
The ruling castes say they have evolved. “It was one of those unfortunate events. Why do you want to pick it up again? Was the response of an upper caste man, whose father was one of the people named in the indictment as the accused.
The fate of the court case continues to shake up older men and women in the Mala community. Many of them say they witnessed the carnage and continue to fight the trauma. “The police shot my youngest son in front of me just because he spoke out against the murders. My wife has become mentally disturbed. What pains us is that the court acquitted the police who killed my son, ”said K Raja Rao, son of Anil Kumar, in whose memory the Dalits built a stupa next to his house.
Local villagers say the immediate argument was sparked by a skirmish in the local movie theater: the feet of a Dalit boy had touched a Reddy woman; the village condemned this and ended the boycott of the Mala community, a majority of which are Christians. Tension mounts over the following days, culminating in the killings of August 6.
Sustained advocacy over the next three years prompted the administration to set up a specially constituted trial court for the Tsunduru massacre and the trial began in December 1994. Of the 219 people from the Reddy and Kapu communities who Charged with murder and under the SC / ST Atrocity Prevention Act, 33 people died during the 13-year trial. The trial court handed down its judgment in July 2007, sentencing 21 defendants to life imprisonment and 35 to one year in prison.
The defendants challenged the verdict of the special court in the high court in Hyderabad, which acquitted them all in 2014 after hearing the case for nearly seven years, citing insufficient evidence. During this protracted trial, prominent lawyers and human rights activists such as KG Kannabiran, K Balagopal and B Chandrasekhar died of ill health.
“We moved the Supreme Court, which suspended HC’s order. The case is still confined to the courtroom, ”said lead lawyer Y Koteshwar Rao, who was one of the advocates in the Tsunduru victims case. The case is still pending before the Supreme Court.
Anger boils in Tsunduru over the fate of the trial. “The High Court acquitted the accused on technical grounds – such as the lack of clarity on the timing of the deaths, the delay in filing a complaint with the police, inconsistencies in the testimony of witnesses. But eight Dalits were killed; who killed them? asked Moses.