Dalits, Praja Rajyam Party and Caste Politics in Andhra Pradesh

Dalits, Praja Rajyam Party and Caste Politics in Andhra Pradesh

” The formation of the Praja Rajyam Party in Andhra Pradesh has been received with conflicting attitudes and expectations by the two major dalit castes in the state. While the Malas embraced the party as the champion of social justice, the Madigas opposed it as the party of the Kapus. Rather than seeing the prp in these binary and oppositional lenses, it is necessary to view the party as a new choice for dalits. A brief history of caste politics in Andhra Pradesh is also undertaken in this essay.”

–Sambaiah Gundimeda– 23-05-2009 [SPECIAL ARTICLES] Issue : VOL 44 No. 21 May 23 – May 29, 2009

The arrival of the Praja Rajyam Party on to the political platform of Andhra Pradesh has been received with conflicting attitudes and expectations by the two major Dalit castes in the state.  While the Malas are embracing the Party as the champion of social justice, the Madigas are opposing it as the Party of the Kapus. Rather than seeing the PRP in these binary and oppositional lenses, this article views the Party as a new choice emerging for Dalits to negotiate differently, perhaps even on equal terms.

The mass migration of many Dalit leaders who had previously been outside the spectrum of mainstream political parties and the emerging allegiance as well as opposition of a considerable proportion of Dalit masses, to the recently established Praja Rajyam Party (PRP) – (literally, Peoples Rule) – has become an event of varied interpretation and commentary in Andhra Pradesh (AP).  Of these, three specific comments that are of significant interest are: one, that the PRP is a champion of social justice, and is therefore ‘the political alternative’ that has been long awaited by the Dalits and other marginalized sections in the state;[1] two, that “the PRP is not the praja rajyam (peoples rule), it is the Kapu rajyam (rule of the Kapus)”;[2] and three, the Dalit movement in the state has reached the end of the road.  These comments in the context of a highly fragmented Dalit movement, and also in the context of the continuous marginalization of Dalits by mainstream political parties, compel us to ask: Is the PRP an alternative political platform for the Dalits, and is it the champion of social justice? Why did one section among the Dalits, represented by the Mala caste, ‘positively’ respond, and why did another Dalit section, represented by the Madiga caste, oppose the PRP? What are the implications of the Dalit migration to the PRP for the Dalit movement and politics? Is it true that the Dalit movement has reached the end of the road in the state, or is it just a hiatus in the long road ahead?  Rather than taking these binary and oppositional positions, this paper seeks to analyse the political meaning of this crucial moment in AP politics, especially from the vantage point of Dalits.

Following scholars, particularly from the discipline of political sociology, such as Rajni Kothari (1970 & 1994), Sudipta Kaviraj (1997 & 2000), Ghanshyam Shah (2002) Christophe Jaffrelot (2003) and others, I have deployed caste as a primary analytical category.  Such an exclusive emphasis upon the caste in this paper’s context is simply for one well known reason. The electoral politics in India is definitely dominated by caste equations.  And in the case of AP, its political landscape for a long time – more than six decades – has been dominated by the socially and economically entrenched upper castes.  Such domination is manifested through their domination in the political parties.  For instance, the primary electoral support either for the two established political parties in the state – the Congress (I) and Telugu Desam Party (TDP), or the latest entrant in the political setting – the PRP, emanates from three dominant upper castes, i.e, Reddys, Kammas and Kapus, respectively (as described below).  Even the ‘class’-oriented Left parties in the state – CPI and CPI (M) –are also completely dominated by the leaders that belong to the upper castes only, especially the Kamma and Reddy castes.  It is precisely on account of this domination that the word ‘comrade’ had come to be understood by the lower castes as ‘Kammas’ and ‘Reddys’.  In other words, while the social category of caste is the foundation upon which the structure of the upper castes’ domination over the political sphere is constructed, the political parties merely serve as vehicles through which such domination is maintained.

PRP and context of Dalit politics: The PRP was established by a popular Telugu film actor ‘megastar’ Chiranjeevi in August, 2008 on the birthday of one of his apparent role-models, Mother Teresa.  As is well known he is not the first actor to take to active politics. He is, in fact, a successor of a well established tradition of actors turning into politicians in southern India. Tamil Nadu has a long history of elected rulers from its thriving film industry.  Three of its five chief ministers were actors, while the remaining two wrote film scripts.  Similarly, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in AP was also established by a thespian-turned-politician Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao (NTR), who became the chief minister of the state in less than nine months of his entry into politics.  Now Chiranjeevi, who is hoping to follow the footsteps of NTR, has entered the political arena with an active support from his caste group: the Kapus.  However, what is significant about the PRP, especially for our purpose, is the specific context of Dalit politics in the state and the support and opposition rendered to this party by the two major Dalit castes in the state, Malas and Madigas, respectively.

Since 1995, the Dalit movement in the state has been caught up in the web of reservations oriented activism.  On the one hand, there are certain Dalit castes, such as the Mala and Adi-Andhra, which, owing to their proximity to the Hindu upper castes, a history of Christian missionary and Hindu reform activities, and also largely due to governmental welfare efforts – both in colonial and immediate post-colonial India – have acquired education, become socially and politically conscious and gained employment opportunities in modern spaces. It is this group of castes that has been availing most of the reservations for Scheduled Castes (SCs) in the state and has become dominant among the Dalits.  On the other hand, there are Dalit castes such as the Madiga, Relli and others, which have lacked the initial opportunities and advantages of the former, and are too poorly equipped to take advantage even of facilities extended through the policy of reservation.  This has, in turn, resulted in their continuous incarceration in the traditional caste-based socio-economic relations and occupations (Ramaswamy: 1984, 1985 & 1986).  Such a situation is not specific to AP.  Indeed, this pattern of caste-based domination and marginalization in the Dalit quota of reservations can be seen all over India.  For instance, while Mahars in Maharashtra, Jatavs/Chamars in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab, Paswans in Bihar, Bairwas in Rajasthan, Palayas and Parayas in Tamil Nadu, and Holeyas in Karnataka have been appropriating a major portion in the reservation opportunities (Jodhka & Kumar, 2007); castes like the Mangs, Koris, Mazhabis, Nats, Musahar, Arundhatiyars, and Madigas in the above states, respectively, are blatantly under-represented in the SC quota of reservations (The Times of India, 25 Nov. 2008).

The under-representation, which is evidently one of the primary reasons for their overall marginalization, compelled the Madigas in AP to organize under the banner of the Madiga Reservation Porata Samithi (MRPS) in the 1990s.  Through the MRPS they have not only questioned the over-representation of the dominant Dalit castes in the quota of SC reservations, but have also demanded caste-based re-distribution or categorization of that quota.  This method of categorization is to enable every caste within the Dalit category to access their ‘due share’.  But the Malas and the Adi-Andhras rejected this demand on grounds that warrant serious concern: first, they argued that the Madigas lacked the merit to compete against the Malas; and second, that the categorization would destroy the unity of the Dalit community.  They even formed the Mala Mahanadu, a counter-caste association, and organized a “no holds barred” campaign against the MRPS (Balagopal, 2000:1078).

The significance of these caste-based movements must be properly recognized here. To my mind the advent of the MRPS indicates a growing consciousness of rights and a consequent political activism among the hitherto marginalized Dalit castes.  In fact, it has infused such great courage and confidence in them that they now stand up for their rights and their legitimate share, not merely in the Dalit quota of reservations, but also in the opportunities, resources and wealth of the nation – a further indication of the unfolding of the process of the new democratic revolution at the bottom of the social hierarchy. If the arrival of the MRPS signifies a welcome growing political consciousness, the coming of the Mala Mahanadu, however, clearly represents its reversal.  By its adamant insistence on the continuation of the group-based distribution of the Dalit reservations, the Mala Mahanadu has not just been seeking to perpetuate the domination of the Malas and the Adi-Andhras in reserved domains.  It has also been forcing the marginalized Dalit castes to remain in their caste-based boundaries and occupations.  By implication, it has stepped into the shoes of the upper castes and become an overseer of the caste system (Gundimeda, 2006).

Three consequences of the caste-based mobilizations both by the Madigas and Malas around the question of categorization must be clearly recognized here.  First, as the economic gap is continuing to grow between the dominant and marginalized Dalit castes, (Malas and Madigas in our case), the former is continuing to become more dominant among the Dalits, while the latter is further marginalized. Second, as every Dalit caste is affected by the categorization issue, for the past fifteen years the social community of Dalit is divided against itself, and wasting precious energies of the community – both men and material. And third, politically the caste-based conflicts have been a great blow to the Dalit unity.  That is to say, while Dalits have always been a marginalized group in AP political scenario, the caste-based rivalries further fragmented the Dalit politics, which has, in effect, delivered the Dalits more clearly into the hands of the upper caste-led political parties.  While the TDP absorbed the Madigas by extending its support to the categorization demand, the Congress has absorbed the Malas by accommodating them in the positions of power.  For example, Jupudi Prabhakara Rao, leader of the Mala Mahanadu, was made a Member of the Legislative Council of AP. Such developments lead one to argue that such incorporation and accommodation has taken Dalit politics back to its pre-1980s phase and turned the Dalits into, once again, vote-banks to the upper caste-led political parties.  In a context such as this, the migration of Dalit leaders to the PRP seems to come as an enormous setback both to caste-based politics (such as the MRPS) as well as the SC group-based Dalit movement as a whole.  But, is the PRP a champion of social justice, and therefore an agency of the Dalit emancipation?  These are tall claims for any political party to bear, (including the Dalit-based Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), perhaps).  The PRP, as asserted by Krishna Madiga, leader of the MRPS movement, is neither the champion of social justice nor the emancipator of Dalits.[3] It is simply a political manifestation of the Kapus to attain power.  I agree with this assertion and justify the same from two standpoints, which are discussed below. However, rather than being completely dismissive, I would also want to see certain negotiating spaces opening up for Dalit groups in AP politics with the emergence of PRP.

Dominant Castes and Political Power: The political space in AP is dominated by five dominant castes, which are: Reddys, Kammas, Kapus, Velamas, and Goudas.  Although these castes have been locked in a fierce caste-war against each other for political power, they also ensure that the reins of power remain within their collective hands. This is done by the method of co-opting and accommodating the members of other castes and communities in the political power structure of the state. This argument can be delineated from a brief examination of the contours of political power in the state.

Table 1: Caste backgrounds of Chief Ministers of Andhra Pradesh

S.No. Name Party Tenure Caste
1 N. Sanjeeva Reddy Congress (I) 01-11-1956 – 10-01-1960 Reddy
2 D. Sanjeevaiah[4] Congress (I) 11-01-1960 – 11-03-1962 Dalit-Mala
3 N. Sanjeeva Reddy Congress (I) 12-03-1962  – 28-02-1964 Reddy
4 K. Brahmananda Reddy Congress (I) 29-02-1964 – 29-09-1971 Reddy
5 P.V. Narasimha Rao Congress (I) 30-09-1971 – 18-01-1973 Brahmin
President’s Rule 18-07-1973 – 10-12-1973
6 J. Vengala Rao Congress (I) 11-12-1973 – 05-03-1978 Velama
7 M. Chenaa Reddy Congress (I) 06-03-1978 – 10-10-1980 Reddy
8 T. Anjaiah Congress (I) 11-10-1980 – 24-02-1982 BC
9 B. Venktram Reddy Congress (I) 24-02-1982 – 20-09-1982 Reddy
10 K. Vijay Bhaskar Reddy Congress (I) 20-09-1982 – 08-01-1983 Reddy
11 N. T. Rama Rao TDP 09-01-1983 – 16-08-1984 Kamma
12 N. Bhaskararao TDP 16-08-1984 – 15-09-1984 Kamma
13 N. T. Rama Rao TDP 16-09-1984 – 02-12-1989 Kamma
14 M. Chenna Reddy Congress (I) 03-12-1989 – 17-12-1990 Reddy
15 N. Janardhan Reddy Congress (I) 17-12-1990 – 08-10-1992 Reddy
16 K. Vijay Bhaskar Reddy Congress (I) 09-10-1992 – 12-12-1994 Reddy
17 N. T. Rama Rao TDP 12-12-1994 – 31-08-1995 Kamma
18 N. Chandra Babu Naidu TDP 01-09-1995 – 11-10-1999 Kamma
19 N. Chandra Babu Naidu TDP 11-10-1999 – 14-05-2004 Kamma
20 Y.S. Raja Sekhara Reddy Congress 14-05-2004 — Reddy

Source: K. Srinivasarao, 2002: Telugu Verdict 1952-2002: Fifty Years Political Analysis (in Telugu), Hyderabad: Prajasakthi book House.

Table 2: Caste-wise break of CM’s of AP

S.No. Caste
1 Reddy –     7
2 Kamma –    3
3 SC-(Mala) – 1
4 Brahmin –   1
5 Velama –    1
6 BC        –    1
Total            –    14

As has been clearly reflected in the above two Tables, the political power in AP since its formation in 1956 until today has largely been controlled by the elite classes that belonged to the Reddy and Kamma castes through the two main political parties in the state: Congress (I) and TDP, respectively.  The Reddys, who belonged to the Sat-Sudra category in the traditional Hindu social structure, constitute about 8 to 10% of the State’s population and are spread throughout the three regions of AP: Telangana, Rayalaseema and Coastal Andhra. They found themselves in a fierce competition for leadership positions in the Congress Party against the Brahmins, who were in dominant positions both in the party as well as government in the early 1950s. But by the mid 1950s the Reddys had succeeded in wresting the reigns of the Congress Party from the latter and from then onwards until today are continuing to steer the wheel of the political power in the state through this Party. Not surprisingly such domination of the Reddys led the critics to view the Congress as the Reddy Raj (Prasanna Kumar, 1994:158).  But how did they manage to consolidate their political power and how are they able to cling on to it? Political power, creation of new institutional structures, and some of the techniques employed by them while in power, especially the technique of accommodation, are said to be forces at work that have not only consolidated their power, but also continued to facilitate their continuous domination in the political sphere.  In a way, the possession of state power through the Congress Party is the key factor that afforded the Reddys to deploy that power for their perpetuation in that domain.

Of all the policies and programmes undertaken by the Congress Party in the immediate post-Independence India, the most important policy was land reforms. In addition to land reforms, another programme, which is specific to AP, is the introduction of the Panchayati Raj system towards decentralization of governance at the grassroots under the leadership of Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy in 1957.  It was by using both the land reform policies and the new administrative structures that the Reddys succeeded in consolidating their political power in the state. One of the crucial aspects in the entire process of consolidation is that of the preservation of the socio-economic and political powers of the dominant castes. For instance, the maximum land allowed per family under the Andhra Pradesh Land Reforms Act of 1972 was 10 acres of cultivable land and 25 acres of uncultivable land.  But the Agricultural Census of 1988 revealed that there were 2000 upper caste farmers in the state holding 100 acres and above (Ratnam, 2008:7).  Further, in the Andhra region the land under the possession of small, medium and semi-medium farmers during 1955-71 was decreased, while the number of medium and larger farmers has increased (Ram Reddy, 1989:293-94).  Such decrease and increase of the number of the small farmers and medium farmers, respectively, clearly indicates two things. First, the beneficiaries of the land reforms in the state, as elsewhere in India, were farmers or peasantry, but not the landless labourers.  It is important to recognize here that when we say farmers we imply the members that belong to the upper castes, particularly the Reddy, Kamma and Kapus castes.  For a majority of the lower castes, especially those castes that come under the current category of the Most Backward Castes (MBCs), and almost entire Dalit category were landless labourers, particularly during the duration of the land reform process. It may be mentioned here that while the upper castes have been allowed to appropriate thousands of acres of cultivable and uncultivable land by the Congress government under the Reddys leadership, the landless Dalits, who were cultivating the wastelands, were forcefully evicted even from those wastelands. In fact, their crops were destroyed by the upper castes with the help of the police (Ratnam, 2008:7). Second, the land reforms by removing the gross and wide differences between the landed gentry and the peasantry have, as argued by K. Srinivasulu (2002:8), brought about a certain homogenization of agrarian propertied classes. And it is this homogenization that led the other rich peasantry, particularly the Kamma and Kapu castes, to become the core supporters of the Congress Party under the leadership of the Reddys.

If the land reforms have facilitated the homogenization of the upper class-base of the upper castes, which in turn, led to their becoming the core support base for the Reddy dominated Congress Party, the Panchayati Raj system paved the way for the penetration of their (Reddys) power into the grassroots. The Panchayati Raj system has a three-tier structure, consisting of the village Panchayat at the bottom, the Panchayat Samithi in the middle (the block/Taluq level), and the Zilla Parishad at the top (district level).  This system is, for our purpose, significant for two main reasons.  First, it had become a fresh avenue of power and prestige to the upper castes in general and Reddys in particular.  The political aspirants from the Reddy castes were accommodated through this system.  For instance, an examination of the first three Panchayati Raj elections conducted in 1959, 1964 and 1970 reveal that the Congress Party captured all Zilla Parishad chairmanships (except that of Nalgonda in 1964, which went to the CPI) and most Panchayat Samithis. It is important to note here that all the chairmen of the Zilla Parishad were handpicked by chief ministers; thus, perpetuating the domination of the Reddys domination through these handpicked chairmen (A. Narasimha Reddy, 1979: 210). A study on the social backgrounds of the leadership at the level of Panchayat Samithis in the Telangana region indicated that in 1970-06 out of 112 Samithi presidents, the proportion of the upper castes, particularly from the Reddy and Kamma castes, was 92.4 percent (Ram Reddy, 1989:307). Second, as the system had become a mechanism to provide access to funds and control over their distribution for development, the Reddys (and other upper castes) utilized the government machinery, resources and patronage in exercising control and commanding loyalty from the lower castes, which eventually became the ‘traditional vote banks’ to the Reddy dominated Congress Party (Gray, 1968; Suri, 2002:17).

The Kammas, just as Reddys, are also belongs to the Sat-Sudra category and constitute about 4 to 5% of the state’s population.  Unlike the Reddys, the Kammas are mostly concentrated in the fertile coastal Andhra region, especially the rich Guntur, Krishna and Godavari districts.  As has been mentioned above, the Kammas are one of the highly beneficial upper caste groups through the land reforms in the state.  But by dominating in the utilization of the Green Revolution facilities such as high-yield variety seeds, chemical fertilisers and easy availability of banking capital to agriculture, they proved to be more enterprising than the other upper castes.  By using their land wealth they spread into numerous commercial activities such as rice mills, tobacco, sugar production, film industry, hotels, and newspapers, etc.  This changing economic base not merely strengthened their social status and political power at the grassroots, but even gained them additional ministerial positions in the Reddy dominated Congress governments. And yet, it did not secure them the position of chief minister, a fact that was resented by every Kamma. “The growing disjuncture”, as observed by Atul Kohli, “between economic power and the failure to capture the highest political office – with all the symbolic and the real gains that involves-alienated the Kammas” from the Congress.  And when NTR, a Kamma, made his move from the silver screen to the political stage by launching the TDP in 1983, a majority of the Kammas, irrespective of party affiliations, ideological differences and class positions, rallied behind him and wrested the power from the hands of the Reddys (Kohli, 1988:996).  Since then the pendulum of political power in the state has been oscillating between the Kammas and the Reddys.

The Velamas and the Goudas, despite their socio-economic domination in the Telangana region – relatively speaking – were politically marginalized during the heyday of the Reddys.  They found a political messiah in NTR and became the key supporters of the TDP ever since its inception.  In recognition of their power in the Telangana region and the importance of that power for its own survival, the TDP accommodated members of the Velamas and the Goudas in a number of prominent positions in the party as well as in government structures.  For instance, K. Chandrasekhar Rao, a Velama, was given the position of deputy speaker and T. Devender Goud was facilitated in various powerful capacities, such as revenue and home minister, during the TDP’s rule between 1994-2004.  In fact, the latter was allowed to rise even to become the party’s second-most powerful leader.  But these castes are also acutely aware that they can only climb up to a certain level in the party’s ladder and are strictly forbidden from the privilege of reaching top of the ladder, a privilege that is exclusive to the members of the NTR family, or at the most to a Kamma (Andhra Jyothi, 13 Nov. 2008).[5] Such awareness coupled with increasing political ambitions led the Velamas and the Goudas to question the domination of the Kammas.  Interestingly they did this in the name of Telangana self-respect.  Eventually they deserted the TDP, one after the other, to build their own political formations.  While the Velamas launched the Telangana Rashtriya Samithi (TRS) under the leadership of K. Chandrasekhar Rao; the Goudas have put their weight behind Devender Goud’s Nava Telangana Party (NTP).  Currently these parties are occupied in mobilizing the people in the Telangana region for a common cause: a separate Telangana state.  Irrefutably the demand for separate Telangana statehood is genuine, for it is in response to the “systematic and widespread discrimination against the region” and its culture and language by the ruling elite of Andhra Pradesh (Kodanda Ram, 2007:90).  And yet, one should bear in mind that the demand for separate Telangana state, in its present form, has been articulated to realize the political ambitions of the dominant castes in that region.  Therefore one cannot rule out the possibility of the appropriation of political power by these two castes (along with the Reddys) in the event of actualization of the Telangana state.

The Kapu, which is another Sat-Shudra caste, amounts to 10 to 12% of the state’s population.  Although they are spread throughout the state, they remained as one of the dominant castes in the coastal Andhra region, especially in the ‘rice-bowl’ districts – East Godavari and West Godavari.  Their traditional rivalry against the Kammas for socio-economic dominance as well as political power in the region is well known.  Thus far, the power relations that emerged out of this rivalry favoured the Reddys, who were given an opportunity to play one against the other and keep them in check.  Such a mechanism of check was achieved by accommodating both the castes in the Congress party as well as government structures, and thus forcing them to compete against each other for positions of power.  This strategy was, however, challenged in 1983 when the Kapus, under the leadership of Mudragada Padmanabham, lent their support to the fledgling TDP and joined the TDP-led government.  Of course, the Reddys have struck back by inducting another Kapu leader in the region, V M Ranga into the Congress.  With Ranga, who had by then become a thorn in the flesh of the Kammas and their party, rivalries between the two castes reached a dramatic height. Murders and violence against each other became the order of the day, an order that had culminated in the murder of Ranga himself in December 25, 1988 (Parthasarathy, 1997:162).  Although this murder was a huge setback to the Kapus, it did not dampen their political ambitions.  In fact, their regular public lament has been, “every caste, including the Dalits, had become chief ministers in this state.  Only the Kapus are deprived of that position”.[6] Somewhat surprisingly they clung even more closely on to the Congress party, particularly after the death of their leader.  To my mind this was to achieve two purposes: one, to remain in the power structure of the state, so that they could continue to enjoy the social prestige that entailed, and to secure economic interests, and thus also earn enough power to challenge their rival; and two, to mount pressure internally on the Congress party to include them in the state’s Backward Classes (BC) category.  The latter aspect, which has a political agenda with larger ramifications, requires a further delineation.

The Kapus, despite their economic power and social domination, have until recently had neither the numerical strength to tilt the electoral fates either of candidates or parties, nor the good fortune to have a charismatic leader, who could appeal across a wide range of castes, communities and groups.  These limitations are not specific to the Kapus alone; the other four dominant castes are also equally constrained by them. But each has a way of overcoming them.  For instance, while the Reddys depended upon their traditional political power and the charisma of the members of the Nehru family, the Kammas depended both upon the legacy of NTR as well as popular film actors, particularly those actors that belong to the NTR family.[7] It is interesting to note here that the TDP has depended upon the legacy of NTR so much that even Chandrababu Naidu, the man who led the coup against NTR and took over as chief minister in 1995, would not dare to address a public gathering without chanting the ‘mantra of NTR’.  The Velamas and the Gouds base their politics exclusively upon the Telangana plank and depend heavily upon Telangana folklore in their mobilizations.

The Kapus also have a two-pronged strategy.  First, under the aegis of their caste association, the Kapunadu, they have been demanding inclusion of the Kapu caste in the state’s BC category so that reservation facilities applicable to the latter are available to the Kapus as well (The Hindu, 25 March 2005).  Although the economic, educational and employment opportunities gained by the caste group from such inclusion seems to be the motivating factor, the real impulse is, as charged by the BC leaders, political power.  The BCs who constitute 45 percent of the state’s total population are a major vote-bank that can either engender or endanger the electoral providences of candidates and their parties.  It is this vote-bank that Kapus aim to take control of by claiming a socio-economic status that is akin to the BCs.  Although a majority of the BCs are objecting to this demand, some of the prominent BC leaders, such as R. Krishnaiah, whose motivations and personal political interests are unclear, extend their support to the demand (U. Sambasivarao, 2007).

Second, there have been efforts to bring famous Kapus in the film industry into politics, and thus, overcome the lacuna of a charismatic political leader.  For instance, Dasari Narayanarao, who directed about 150 successful films and was an energetic critic of NTR and the TDP, was urged to launch a political party as early as the 1990s.  On his part, Dasari made arrangements to establish a party in 1997, and even chose ‘Telugu Talli’ (literally, mother of the Telugus) as the name of that party (The Indian Express, 20 Dec. 1997).  However, he dropped the idea at the eleventh hour and ultimately joined the Congress.  After Dasari, the leaders of the Kapu caste turned towards Chiranjeevi, and have been persuading him for almost ten years to join politics and realize the dreams of the community.  Although Chiranjneevi’s own political ambitions were unknown, as he had always maintained ‘studied neutrality in politics’ (SV Srinivas, 2005), it has recently been argued that the main objective of Chiranjeevi’s social service activities, such as the ‘Blood Bank’ and the ‘Eye Bank’, was simply to earn public support for his future political career.  One cannot establish the real motive behind Chiranjeevi’s social services, but one can assert that the success of these activities has added to his film fame, and eased his path into politics.

In a way, while it is the energy of political ambition of the Kapus that has driven the PRP into the state’s political arena, electoral calculations, turned the party towards the BCs.  Clearly, we need to understand that the recruitment of Dalit leaders is also determined by such electoral arithmetic.  Of course, apart from electoral calculations, the recruitment of the leaders from the Dalits (and BC, Adivasi communities as well) also serves a different purpose. Their presence helps the party not only to overcome its caste image, but importantly also to acquire an image of a secular party, which represents a wide range of castes and communities across the social hierarchy.  To put the same in the words of a Dalit intellectual K. Satyanarayana: “PRP is a clear Kapu party. But as a party it has to have a secular face and casteless identity. Induction of the leaders from Dalit, Adivasis and Bahujans communities is undertaken simply to acquire a secular mask and identity”.[8]

PRP’s Social Justice: Although the PRP is yet to formalize its objectives, policies and programmes, it is clear from the speeches of its leader that ‘social justice’ and ‘rooting out corruption from public life’ would be the guiding principles of the party.  But what does the PRP mean by social justice? From the way the concept is being employed by the PRP it is clear that social justice is equated with political representation.  Two aspects must be noted: first, minimizing inequalities and enhancing equality of opportunities are the twin objectives of social justice (Mahajan, 1998:255-256).  And although political representation, which is part of the latter objective, is an essential vehicle of social justice, it is not a sufficient condition for its realization.  It provides political rights to individuals and communities to take part in the political process but cannot provide equal opportunities to exercise those rights and the pleasure in the freedoms they provide.  From this standpoint the PRP’s concept of social justice is narrow and there is thus no substantial difference between the PRP and other mainstream political parties.

Second, while the Constitution of India has already ensured representation for Dalits and Adivasis by reserving a certain percentage of political positions for them, the upper castes have been enjoying an indefensible proportion of political representation in the non-reserved quota. If there is one particular social category, whose representation has neither been enshrined in the Constitution nor ensured by the political parties, it is the Backward Castes.  Of course, even among this group there are some upwardly mobile castes, such as Goudas, Padmasalis, Kurmis and Yadavas.  Compelled by the demands for political representation made by these castes in recent years, parties in the state, particularly the Congress and the TDP, have been accommodating them both in the party as well as government structures.  The Congress’ appointment of D. Srinivas, who is a BC from the Telangana region, as the Chairman of the Pradesh Congress Committee; and the second-highest rank in the TDP of Yarram Naidu, again a BC from the north coastal Andhra region mirrors the politics of caste-based assertions and accommodations.  Viewing the political representation from this vantage point, the castes that require representation are not the BCs as a whole but the Most Backward Castes (MBCs) among them, such as Katipapala, Nakkala, Pamula and Dommara etc.  As the representative positions are highly sought after, provoke competition and are already occupied by dominant castes, providing political representation as a measure of social justice to these much-neglected MBCs is not a simple issue.  In fact, to my mind, the only way that one could ensure social justice among the MBCs would be by wresting some positions of representation from the dominant castes and redistributing them among the former. Can PRP swim against the current of dominant caste self-interest?  And, can Chiranjeevi play Robin Hood in real politics, as he did in many of his films?  These questions cannot be answered just yet. One has to wait and see the pattern in the PRP’s distribution of its tickets at least in three to four elections.  Interestingly, by allotting 110 out of 220 General seats for the BCs in the current assembly elections the Party, at least for time being appears to be committed to its slogan of social justice in the political arena.  Of course, what we must recognize here is that measures for the economic development and caste-based representation to a large extent would herald a new ear of social justice both among the BCs and MBCs. But similar measures, as historical evidence clearly points out, cannot ensure justice among Dalits.  Their problem is much more complicated and complex than the relatively straightforward problems either of the BCs or of the MBCs.

Political Opportunism Vs Jati Interests: Perhaps one should also look at the factors that motivated or forced the Dalits both to support and oppose the PRP.  I shall take up the cases of two prominent Dalit leaders, Katti Padma Rao, a Mala by caste, and Krishna Madiga, to understand this development comprehensively.  Katti is one of the main leaders of the Dalit movement in the state. He became the founding general secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Dalit Maha Sabha (APDMS), an organization that was established after the massacre of the Madigas in Karamchedu village by the Kammas in 1985.  Through this organization he mobilized not only the Dalits, but also the Adivasis and the BCs against caste-based atrocities and oppressions.  He was convinced that violence and inhumane treatment meted-out against the Dalits and other marginalized sections in Indian society are due to the hegemony of the Hindu culture.  And that culture can be changed by replacing it with an alternative Dalit culture, a culture that draws from the Charvaka’s materialism, Buddhist Sanga philosophy and humanism, and thus, recognising fundamental human “equality, fraternity and dignity” (Katti, 1995:143).

In 1991 when the Reddys of Chunduru organized carnage against the Malas, the APDMS under the leadership of Katti, provided unstinting support to the victims and their families.  The APDMS’ activism was significant for two reasons: first, it has insisted that the bodies of the butchered Dalits be buried in the heart of the town.  For the Rudhira kshetram (land of blood), as the burial place was named, was to serve as a daily bleak reminder of the barbarity of the attack.  Second, on account of its demand and campaign the government has agreed not only to set-up a Special Sessions Court under the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, but importantly also to shift the venue of the sessions from the AP High Court to Chunduru.  As Kalpana Kannabiran observes, “for people who have undergone enormous suffering and loss, when required by the court to recount the loss in accordance with norms that are completely alien to them, norms that do not make space for trauma of the experience, the physical location of the court become(s) vital in reassuring survivors…” (Kannabiran, 2007: 3916).

Further, what is significant about this massacre is the Dalit realization of the nexus between social dominance and political power, and perpetuation of the former with the help of the latter.  When the Kammas massacred the Madigas in Karamchedu it was the Kamma led TDP that was ruling the state, and again, when the Reddys killed the Malas in Chunduru it was the Reddy-dominated Congress that was in power.  And in both the incidents the state infrastructure, especially the police, were used by the ruling castes not only to harass the victims, but importantly also to protect the victimizer.  This recognition has led the APDMS to shift its focus from alternative culture to political power. Katti Padma Rao was the facilitator of this shift.  Apart from the lessons taught by the caste-based atrocities against the Dalits, he was profoundly influenced by the writings of Babasaheb Ambedkar.  Following Ambedkar, he, as Kanshi Ram in Uttar Pradesh (UP), came to conclude that the Dalit problem is a political problem and political power is the master key.  In order to attain this ‘key’ he launched the Poor Peoples Party (PPP) on the eve of the elections to the state legislative assembly in 1989.  The debacle of this party at the electoral level, according to his own admission, compelled him to move towards the BSP in the early 1990s.[9]

The BSP, whose coalition with the Samajwadi Party on the basis of an explicitly anti-Hindutva campaign in 1993 led to its astonishing victory in UP, created a storm among the upper castes and euphoria among the lower castes when it entered the political arena of AP in 1994 (Balagopal, 1995:139).  However, contrary to the expectations of many political commentators, the Party failed rather miserably in the 1994 state assembly elections.  One fundamental factor that was at the heart of this electoral debacle, (a factor that is pertinent to our discussion) is the dark reality of casteism among its victims.  Unlike in UP, the BCs or the so-called Bahujan communities in AP did not become the part of the Party.  For joining a Party of the Harijans and working under the leadership of the Malas is lowering their caste status.  Most shockingly, even the Dalits, whose supposed social mission was to establish a casteless society, were caught-up in caste competitions and antagonisms.  Despite the presence of the Malas in the state BSP’s leadership structure, a majority of the Malas did not even join the party.  For it was a Party of the Madigas and not of the Malas (Madigas, whose traditional occupation was leather-making, were equated with the Chamars, who were also engaged in the similar occupation in northern India) (Manda, 1999:100).  Interestingly, the Madigas, who were kept away from the Party’s leadership positions, also themselves stayed away from the Party.  And their movement for categorization, which has emerged immediately after the BSP’s electoral disaster, was said to be triggered both by a lack of representation for them in a Dalit-based Party and also on account of that explicit casteism of the Malas. Although Katti seems to appreciate the justness of the Madigas’ demand and agrees with the categorization in principle, he neither did support the demand openly nor oppose the counter-claim of the Mala Mahanadu.  Such position of studied neutrality made him vulnerable to attacks from both the castes.  While the Madigas attributed his ‘neutrality’ to his Mala caste background, the Malas criticized him for not taking-up the ‘cause of the Mala Jati’.  Whatever the justifications for his position on the issue, that position has alienated him from both the caste groups, which, in turn, pushed him away from the centre of Dalit politics and social activism and for the last ten years he has been occupied with literature.  Through his contributions in the form of essays, poetry, and books he not only enlarged the Dalit literature, but also enriched Telugu literature.  This active engagement helped him to retain his position as a Dalit leader without actually engaging with the Dalit politics.  Thus, when the PRP leadership needed Dalit leaders who could appeal beyond their respective caste group, it was to Katti that they turned, and made him the ‘ideological spokesman’ of the party.  Such attention for him, from any conceivable angle, is an opportunity of a life-time, and it is this opportunity that he set to avail rather pragmatically.  There were criticisms that he joined the PRP “only for his personal gain and not for the sake of Dalits or society”.[10] Such criticism, especially viewed in relation to the political ambitions of the Kapu-based PRP, appears to be valid.  But given the ever growing caste antagonisms, and a bleak possibility for unity among the Dalits, leaders like Katti are left with no choice but to be absorbed by the upper-caste led political parties.  Now, let’s see the case of the other Dalit leader, who is opposing the PRP.

Krishna Madigas, whose original name was Eliya, comes from Warangal district in the Telangana region.  As a young boy he was attracted to the class-based slogans of the communist parties and was fascinated by the Naxalite movement and its ideology.  He joined the Peoples War Group (PWG), and rose from an ordinary worker in the organisation to become a member in the Central Organising Committee.  But an incident in his native village appears to have destroyed Krishna’s faith in the Naxalite ideology and their work. A Madiga rickshaw-puller, who owes some money to a person that belonged to a Shudra category, was badly beaten-up when the former requested extra time to repay the debt.  The rickshaw, the only source of his daily income, was also confiscated by the money-lender. When Krishna came to know about the incident, he called the money-lender to the People’s Court (praja court) and made him apologise to the rickshaw-puller.

This incident seems to have caused uproar among the local Shudras, who in certain pockets of the Telangana region are oppressors of the Dalits. A Shudra apologizing to a Madiga by the order of another Madiga is considered as a great humiliation to the entire Shudra category. Although they were afraid to take any action against the incident as Krishna was part of the PWG, their ‘humiliation’ was avenged by their fellow Shudras among the Naxalites. Calling Krishna as a ‘police informer’ and accusing him of ‘mobilizing the Madigas against the Group (PWG),’ he was simply beaten-up by the Shudra Naxalites and forced to leave the group.  Recounting the incident, Krishna said: “There was no enquiry on the charges levelled against me. They simply came and beat me up; and warned me that I should not conduct praja courts in the village”.[11] It was clear that Krishna was beaten up not because of those false accusations but because he made a Shudra apologise to a Madiga. This incident, it appears, left a lifelong influence over Krishna.  When he was recovering in a hospital Krishna was, for the first time, introduced to Ambedkar’s philosophy through a Dalit youth organization (Ambedkar Yuvajan Sangam) in Prakasam district; and it was here that he converted from Naxalism to Ambedkarism: “After learning Ambedkar I have realised that revolution is possible not through the bullet but by the ballot.”[12] Incidentally, it was during this time Kanshi Ram entered AP, as mentioned in the above, with the slogans of ‘Dalit share in political power’.  Krishna Madiga joined the BSP and even actively campaigned for the Party during the 1994 Assembly elections.

While campaigning for the BSP Krishna was presented with a pamphlet that detailed the differential rate of the Madigas and Malas in accessing the reservation facilities by the Arundhati Bandhu Seva Mandali, a Madiga association that has been demanding categorization since the early 1970s.  It was after reading this pamphlet he was forced to rethink on the very idea of ‘the Dalit share’ in the political power of the country. Two questions appear to have set the agenda for the future mobilization and politics of the Madigas: first, what is the moral basis for demanding equality with the upper castes in the absence of equality among the Dalits themselves?; and second, in the eventual realisation of political power for the Dalits, would the power be distributed equally among all the Dalit castes or simply usurped by the Malas, as they have been doing in the SC reservations? After engaging in prolonged discussions with the Madiga youth Krishna was convinced that the demand for political power for the Dalits should be preceded by internal equality within the Dalit category. And such equality would be realized only when there is an equitable distribution of reservations among all the Dalit castes on the basis of the categorization principle.[13] It was with this conviction that he along with Krupakar Madiga launched the MRPS in 7 July, 1994 for the categorization of SC reservations.  But why is he opposing the PRP?

Although the categorization is a question of social justice for the Madigas as well as other marginalized Dalit castes, the PRP, which has declared social justice as its objective, did not spell out its stand on this question. Chiranjeevi, when confronted by the Madiga youth, simply said that ‘the Party is examining the matter and will declare its stand in due course’ (Andhra Jyothi, 10 January, 2009).  For me one aspect is very clear from this statement. Irrespective of their mobilizational strategies, all the four major political parties in the state – Congress (I), TDP, CPI and CPI (M) – have agreed to the categorization demand as a matter of social justice.  And even the two enquiry commissions on the categorization issue: Justice Ramachandra Raju Commission and Justice Usha Mehra National Commission – constituted by the TDP government in 1996 and the current Congress (I) government, respectively, have clearly shown the inequalities among the Dalits, especially between the Madigas and Malas, and recommended categorization as a matter of social justice. Despite these clarified positions on the categorization on the part of the other four major parties, the PRP’s current stand is obviously motivated by the electoral calculations.  In the sense, as every political party, except the PRP, stand for the categorization, the Malas and the Adi-Andhras are not only resenting that position, but clearly waiting for other political platforms, the platforms that do not support the categorization demand. It is precisely on account of this the PRP is not declaring its stand on categorization issue, and thus, is openly courting the Malas and the Adi-Andhras. The leadership positions given to the Malas such as Katti Padma Rao in the Party is a clear indication of this strategy. Interestingly, this strategy appears to be already working as a substantial number of Malas and Adi-Andhras have openly pledging their support to the PRP. In a way, the PRP is simply following what the other political parties have been following: the age-old strategy of divide and accommodation. It is this strategy of the PRP that forced Krishna Madiga to oppose it, as he stated, in order to safeguard his ‘Jati (caste) interests’.[14]

Coda: The PRP might deploy the slogan of social justice for its own political ends, and the Dalit leaders might migrate to that party due to a lack of opportunities in other political parties. They may also do so to fulfil their own political ambitions or oppose it in order to realize certain interests, such as categorization.  Whatever the driving reasons, these developments will have a profound impact upon the Dalit movement and politics.  Although this requires further investigation, here I shall merely point out three dimensions, which might be mutually contradictory, of this process. First, so far a hope had been entertained by the progressive elements in the state that Dalits would find a viable solution to the question of categorization and they, especially the Malas and Madigas, would join hands in order to acquire political power, the historic ambition of the Dalit politics. This might be the idealism of imagining a united Dalit movement which meaningfully represents the most marginalized among Dalits themselves taking political power.  However, the exodus of the Dalit leadership to the PRP has not only destroyed that hope, but importantly wiped-out the space of possibility for the emergence of Dalit-based political party, at least in the near future.  This also implies that Dalits would continue to organize around individual caste-based issues and politics, and thus, continue to be part of the political parties, which are led by the upper-castes.  Many Dalits, including scholars of Dalit politics and culture, would view working in upper-caste political parties as ‘replication’ of caste-based relations in the democratic political arena (Gorringe, 2008).  But “The language of replication is”, as commented by Sudipta Kaviraj, “misleading, because they (Dalits) are not becoming reconciled to social replication; they are being ‘reconciled’ to the legitimacy of democratic institutions.”[15]

Moreover, unlike the Dalit leaders in the Congress and TDP, especially those Dalit leaders who joined these parties prior to the emergence of the MRPS, the present Dalit leaders entering the PRP enjoy a certain advantage.  They had been part of the group-based Dalit movement as well as individual caste-based movements and politics.  As such they not only represent the assertiveness of these movements, but also enjoy the support of their castes and communities.  It is precisely the latter reason why the PRP had inducted them into its fold.  This would in turn provide a measure of power and status to the PRP Dalit leaders in their everyday dealings with the party and its leadership as equal partners, rather than locating them at the receiving-end in a political venture.

While this has taken away the opportunity of the idealistic imagination of the formation of a Dalit party, we need to remember that the primary task of Dalit politics is not to run parallel caste-based politics, but to destroy the present upper caste-base of that politics.  And Dalit migration to the PRP is perhaps one small step towards achieving that task in the contemporary moment.  The emergence of this third front in A.P politics, in the form of the PRP, is also a new choice emerging for Dalits to negotiate, hopefully in different, perhaps even equal terms.  That is, acquiring a substantial presence in this upper-caste led political party, a presence, which is a necessary evil for the upper-castes, would inevitably, if not annihilate caste, at least corrode the caste base of upper-caste politics. Thus, though with reservations, this is a moment to be celebrated – not as the magical Robin Hood of Dalits emerging, but as the emergence of a new democratic space, necessarily a space for negotiation and therefore choice for Dalits.  Yet, it is to be understood that the specific instance of PRP itself might bring its own contradictions for Dalits in its wake.



* I am grateful to Srivatsan of Anveshi, Research Centre for Women’s Studies (Hyderabad), Bindu K C (Charles Wallace Fellow, SOAS, London) for helping me to fine-tune my arguments, and Zeba Ghory (LSE, London) and Erin Anastasi (LSHTM, London) for commenting on earlier drafts of this paper.

[1] Statements made by Katti Padma Rao, a prominent Dalit leader and founder General Secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Dalit Maha Sabha (APDMS), cited in N. Venugopal, ‘Evari Kosamee Prajarajyam Party?’ (The PRP – for whose sake?), Veekshanam, Vol. 6, No. 10, p. 28.

[2] Krishna Madiga, leader of the Madiga Dandora, in Andhra Jyothi, O8 October, 2008.

[3] Some people that belong to the other upper castes are also of the same opinion.  For instance, Kesineni Srinivas, a business tycoon that belongs to Kamma caste, joined the PRP immediately after its establishment.  However, he resigns from the Party criticising it as ‘the Party of the Kapus’ – The Hindu, 03 February, 2009.

[4] The installation of Damodaram Sanjeevaiah, a SC candidate, as the CM of the State was not because he was democratically elected by the Congress Party, but simply because he was selected as a consensus Harijan candidate in order to avert an impending power conflict between the two Reddy candidates –Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy and Kasu Brahmananda Reddy (Elliot, 1970: 152).

[5] Andhra Jyothi, one of the leading Telugu newspapers, describes the TDP as the ‘family (NTR) private limited’, on account of the domination of NTR family over the party.

[6] K. Veerabhadra Rao, Chairman, Kapu Sadbhavana Sangam (The Kapus Welfare Association, Kakinada) in a public meeting in Kakinada, (Andhra Jyothi, 17th September, 2005).

[7] Two sons and three grandsons of NTR – Balakrishna, Harikrishna, Jr. NTR, Kalyan Ram and Taraka Ratna, respectively, are popular film actors with a huge fan following.

[8] My personal communication with K. Satyanarayana, CIEFL, Hyderabad.

[9] My personal communication with Padma Rao, January 2005, Ponnuru.

[10] K. G. Satyamurthy, a former naxalite leader, The Hindu, 20 Oct. 2008.

[11] MD Yakub Pasha’s interview with Krishna Madiga in Adivaram Andhra Jyothi (Sunday news magazine) September 11, 2005, p. 13.

[12] My personal communication with Krishna Madiga in Hyderabad on 20th April, 2004.

[13] Interviews with Krishna Madiga and Krupakar Madiga

[14] My personal communication with Krishna Madiga on 24 February, 2009.

[15] Kaviraj’s comment on Hugo Gorringe’s paper (see, reference below), (italicized addition and italics are supplied.)


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Filed under For Social Justice

3 responses to “Dalits, Praja Rajyam Party and Caste Politics in Andhra Pradesh

  1. Ajnaantha

    Hi Sam,

    I would like to see if you compare Jupudi Prabakar with Manda Krishna, instead of with Katti padma rao
    as these 2 gentleman are leading their caste organizations.

    I don’t think Malas are much interested in what Katti is doing.

  2. yvs reddy

    nice work..onething you need to correct..anjaiah was not BC . He is from reddy community . We never had CM from BC coomunity

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