Social inequality and human dignity


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They (the Khairalanji convicts) considered her (Surekha Bhotmange’s) death as a logical outcome to the dishonour she had brought to the village. ‘She dared to lodge a complaint against us,’ they’d assert. She was too outspoken and bold, unlike other Dalits.1

IN an important essay on inequality in India, Satish Saberwal criticizes Indian sociologists for ignoring the growing ‘secular inequalities’ in India.2 While the larger argument is about how sociologists neglected ‘the magnitude of inequality’ in India, Saberwal makes some critical observations on the sociological reading of the caste system. It is assumed that ‘the caste system was the traditional matrix of stratification’ and, therefore, the sociologists focused on mobility and change in the caste system. This interpretation has enabled sociologists to argue that the caste system was weakening. When sociologists shifted their attention to the village in the 1950s, they emphasized the internal changes and the consensual features of the caste system at the local level. In the process they missed studying what Saberwal calls ‘secular inequalities’. Saberwal’s critique of Indian sociology draws attention to the urgent need to analyze caste as secular inequality.

This important essay about the invisibility of new forms of caste and other inequalities was first published in 1979. It is not a coincidence that the incidents of Kilvenmani (1969) and Belchi massacres (1977) happened in the 1970s and caste violence began to attract public attention. Following Saberwal’s arguments, this essay attempts to understand caste as a form of inequality in India. Revisiting the debate on caste in the context of the Dalit massacre in Karamchedu village, it contends that the Dalit movement contested caste power and violence by invoking human dignity based on ‘Dalit’ identity. Turning to Dalit literature, it argues that the arrival of the Dalit subject (new human person) sought to undercut the ascribed untouchable status. Yet, while the invocation and assertion of Dalit identity enabled some Dalits to attain human as well as citizen status, other marginalized Dalit castes such as Madigas remained dehumanized and stigmatized. It is significant that the Madiga assertion in Andhra Pradesh, or by other marginalized Dalit castes in other regions, for caste dignity (as opposed to individual dignity) was another route to ensure dignity to all members of the caste. The notion of caste dignity and politics based on caste identity reveals the complexity of caste as a system of hierarchy of castes as well as a form of inequality.


The case of the Karamchedu massacre of Dalits in 1985 is one of the striking examples to understand and conceptualize the new and contemporary form of caste inequalities.3 The mass killings of Dalits is a contemporary phenomenon that first became routine news from the 1970s and 1980s. These developments problematized not only the sociological thesis of ‘decline of the caste system’, but also the liberal and Marxist understanding of the caste question. A brief review of the debate on Karamchedu and other massacres may help us grasp the new perspectives that began to emerge.

The massacre of Dalits (1985) in a village called Karamchedu in Andhra Pradesh was a turning point not only in the history of Dalit assertion in Andhra Pradesh but across South India.4 The dominant Kamma peasant caste group killed six Dalit men and raped three Dalit women in broad daylight on 17 July 1985 in Karamchedu, a village in Prakasam district in prosperous coastal Andhra. This particular incident marks the beginning of a series of similar massacres in the 1980s and the 1990s and led to large-scale protests all across Andhra Pradesh as also at the national level.


It is not as though the Dalits were not discriminated against and humiliated in day-to-day life in the villages earlier, but what makes the Karamchedu massacre distinct is that the dominant Kamma caste group organized and united on caste lines and targeted Dalits as a caste group. This specific form of caste violence on a mass scale was a new phenomenon. Karamchedu led to a national debate on the forms of caste violence and the role of caste in society. What puzzled commentators was the fact that the incident happened in the rich coastal Andhra region where modern forms of agriculture, such as the Green Revolution, had been successfully implemented. Scholars and civil rights activists argued that the mass killings of Dalits did not happen due to the their condition. Rather that the commercialization of the agricultural sector consolidated the Kamma caste as a dominant social group in the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time, Dalits began to move away from the traditional caste based occupations to the agricultural sector as wage labourers. This relative mobility allowed Dalits to assert their independence in the social domain and send their children to schools and colleges.

In other words, modernization of agriculture, state-led welfare programmes, elections and other initiatives while enhancing Dalit mobility did not eliminate caste distinctions; paradoxically they also widened caste divisions. The central issue that Dalits raised in their movements against atrocities was of self-respect. Dalit intellectuals routinely described Dalit struggles of the 1990s as struggles for self-respect and human dignity.


The social struggles and public debates on Dalit massacres, the issue of reservations, an ‘upsurge’ of oppressed castes in the electoral arena and the renewed interest in Ambedkar and Phule point to two important developments. One, new social groups – Dalits and Backward Classes – had appeared on the stage of Telugu public sphere; and two, the emergence of a new democratic critique was being established. To illustrate the new theoretical understanding as informed by Dalit critique, let us look at K. Balagopal’s self-critical review of a certain Marxist understanding in Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (hereafter APCLC), an organization that had spearheaded the civil rights movement for more than four decades.5 In 1996, K. Balagopal, General Secretary of APCLC, while reflecting on his experience of human rights activity, admitted that APCLC, which was established in 1973, did not take up the caste issue as one of basic civil rights until 1991.

When the Karamchedu massacre took place, an APCLC team went to the village to conduct a fact-finding inquiry. The team held a press conference and demanded the arrest of the perpetrators of the killings. The state-centric perspective of APCLC reduced Dalit killings to an issue of atrocity and demanded state action to deliver justice. Balagopal suggests that this inadequate understanding had to do with the Marxist origins of the civil liberties movement in Andhra Pradesh. In this understanding, Dalit killings reflected the state’s violation of labourer’s rights.6 The APCLC’s initial agenda was to take up issues of the suppression of workers and peasants by the landlords and capitalists. Karamchedu, Balagopal tells us, forced APCLC to rethink the categories of class and other economic categories and to accept caste itself as a basic civil rights issue and thus move beyond merely opposing atrocities. The APCLC had to rethink the presumed status of ‘Harijans’ (the term used in reports then) as citizens in a liberal democracy.


Balagopal draws on Ambedkar to suggest that Dalits are not considered citizens. The denial of civic status to Dalits, Balagopal points out, cannot be addressed within the liberal or Marxist conceptions of democracy. This is where the Dalit movement provided the category of caste and other concepts to analyze and understand the denial of civic status to Dalits. Similarly, it is the Dalit movement that contributed a new understanding that the anti-reservation offensive was an anti-Dalit protest and a display of upper caste arrogance and power. What is relevant here for our argument is that the Dalit movement has been instrumental in establishing the fact that Dalits have been denied ‘human status’ and are not seen as ‘proper citizens’ and that caste is a mode of power in India. Despite their formal status as citizens, Dalits continue to be brutally murdered and marginalized in post-independent modern India. The state-led programmes of modernization have indeed sharpened caste divisions and caste identities. What is the actual status of Dalits in society? How does one theorize ‘the not quite human’ status of Dalits?


The standard but important argument offered to explain the increased incidence of massacres in the 1980s and 1990s is in terms of class polarization (the rise of a new propertied class, feudal culture), the failure of the liberal state (modernization policy, agrarian reforms, civil rights) and the limitations of the representative model of democracy (elections, vote-bank politics). While this explanation is important and helps locate caste conflict in the larger context of economic and political developments, it advances some implied solutions to the problem of the status of Dalits, such as redistribution of resources, representation in institutions, legal protection and other welfare measures. However, in this analysis the question of ‘the not quite human’ status of Dalits is missing.

In the immediate context of an atrocity, the focus expectedly is on the violation of rights and the legal proceedings. Justice to the victims and their families is articulated in terms of relief and punitive action from the state and its institutions. Nevertheless, local conflicts in everyday life, claims of honour and pride, counterclaims of humiliation and assault at the sites of violence also need to be examined in order to understand the ‘human’ status of Dalits. The pre-history (the anecdotes of caste tensions, the triggering incident etc) prior to the massacre reveal the centrality of caste conflict in Karamchedu and other sites of violence.

What happened in Karamchedu? It all began on 16 July 1985 with an initial altercation. While two Kamma youths were feeding and bathing buffaloes in the village tank that lay close to Madigapalle, Suvartamma, a Madiga woman, came to collect drinking water. She objected to the youths bathing their buffaloes in the tank, pointing out that it would dirty the drinking water. This led to a heated exchange. When one of the Kamma youths turned to whip her with a plaited rope, she raised her pot to protect herself.


This minor dispute between individuals was not reported to the police. However, it roused much passion among the Kammas. What angered them was that a Dalit woman had not only dared to talk back, but also ‘raise(d) her arm.’ The Kamma caste described the Madiga woman’s protest as misbehaviour. ‘Normal’ behaviour would have required her to keep silent and accept the caste superiority of the Kammas. In order to reaffirm Kamma pride and authority, the Kammas (about 3,000 of them) were mobilized from seven neighbouring villages and en masse they attacked the Madigas. Six Madiga men were killed and three women raped in this assault. All but twenty of the 300 Dalit families left the village to take shelter in a church in Chirala, a nearby town.

Suvartamma, the Madiga woman, had violated caste norms and ‘talked back’ to the Kammas. She asserted her human dignity in arguing for the community’s right to unpolluted drinking water from the tank. She challenged upper caste authority that imposed a lesser human status on her and expected silence by equating Dalits with buffaloes. This violation of caste norms by the Dalits was cited in the prosecution story of the massacre: ‘Members of the Kamma community were having grievances against the Madigas as they were not giving due regard and not extending courtesy to them which was being extended since time immemorial.’7 The justification for the massacre was that the Dalits did not follow the traditional norms and restrictions of the Hindu social order (extending ‘courtesy’ to the upper castes).


In the case of Chunduru (1991), another incident of atrocity, a Dalit student Ravi bought a chair class ticket and sat next to some upper caste Reddy boys. This ‘encroachment’ into the privileged space angered the Reddys and led to a brutal massacre. In other words, the Dalits had begun violating traditional caste norms on a number of fronts: practices of untouchability, ordained labour practices, bonded servitude, sexual and economic subordination. They were no longer dependent on the Sudra/upper caste groups for work as they could earn wages from the surrounding villages. What is more, they had become conscious of their dignity and rights. It is rightly observed that ‘the Karamchedu massacre shows, more precisely, a further intensification of caste as a structural phenomenon in which class and political power provide a clear possibility of using violence.’8

One immediate consequence post-Karamchedu was the consolidation of untouchable castes as Dalits with the formation of the Andhra Pradesh Dalit Mahasabha (DMS) in 1985. After the 1960s, the term ‘Dalit’ emerged in different parts of the country as a collective identity of social revolution. Following Ambedkar, it is argued that Dalits were denied human status and dignity. Dalit writer Bagul puts it thus: ‘Dalit is considered mean, despicable, contemptible and sinful due to his past deeds in his past life; he is seen as sorrowful in this life, poor, humiliated and without history.’9


According to modern Hinduism, caste divisions and hierarchies are created by God, and the caste order is therefore divine. The idea of ‘Dalit’ breaks with the ascribed Hindu identities (panchama, harijan etc.) and offers a new liberating identity. The DMS constructed a positive Dalit identity and rejected the imposed identity as stigmatized . The modern category of ‘agricultural labourer’ by the left parties was found inadequate to analyze the specificity of untouchability, caste discrimination and inequality experienced by the untouchables. For instance, bonded labour was not viewed as a question that combined untouchability, graded inequality and human dignity.

The new Dalit identity has enabled untouchables to claim self-respect and human dignity. The victims of atrocities are represented as martyrs who died for ‘a fistful of self-respect.’ It is in the domain of Dalit literature that the subjective sense of human worth and dignity is expressed in a powerful manner. ‘Dignity’ is invoked here as a term to mean ‘a sense of pride in oneself.’ In the famous song, ‘Dalita Pululu’, Gaddar, the people’s poet and balladeer, captures the essence of Dalit assertion in Karamchedu village. Referring to Dalit youths as tigers, he says:

Youngsters built like weightlifters

Well versed in martial arts, as well as education;

Ask those who belittle and denigrate them

to mind their language.

They wear sparkling white clothes,

move in their hamlet like jasmines.

‘We may not own property,

but we have self-respect,’ they say.

When we sip coffee sitting on a chair,

rich lords seethe with anger.

‘We are not living off someone else’s father;

We are spending our own money; it is our right,’ they say.10


In this extract, the educated Dalit youths are assertive, confident and self-conscious about their clothing and appearance. They are sipping coffee sitting on a chair in Madigapalle. They are spending their hard earned money for a living. This picture of the Dalit youth is in sharp contrast to the untouchable boys who are not allowed to wear the dress of their choice and also not eligible to sit on a chair and drink coffee. The strong and defiant Dalit youths represent new human persons with self-respect. Dalit poet Satish Chandar recollects a similar image of a Dalit youth during his visit to Chunduru village after the massacre: ‘The parents of one Chunduru boy who had been killed, brought out his photograph to show me. "Look how handsome he is; he never wore unironed clothes; never ate beef; insisted on mutton. He ate breakfast in the village tea shop along with the Reddy children. That is the reason why he was killed." So, you see, you will be beheaded only if you hold your head high.’11 The representation of Dalit as a human person is complete in another brilliant poem by Satish Chandar on the murders of Dalits in Chunduru:12

Crime to have two hands.

They break them to prevent

begging for work.

Crime to have a mind in the head.

They fix a crown of thorns,

so he may not write the Constitution

again and again.

Crime to have a radiant face.

Spat on it to prevent

any mother kissing it.

Above all crime to have a throbbing heart.

So they pierced it with spears.

What use love for the son of a slave?


Invoking the idea of resurrection of Christ after crucifixion, the mutilated and the injured body of the Dalit is contrasted with the human figure (Dalit, Ambedkar, Christ) with able hands, a thinking mind and a beautiful face and a sensitive heart.

Dalit self-representation as human and the mobilization for civic status integrated the untouchable castes into a single community and marked their difference from the caste Hindus. But the new Dalit community is not based on any specific caste identity; it is abstract and open-ended. In other words, the conception of Dalit as a human figure is a notion based on the principle of one person one value. It is significant to note that Dalit identity assigns dignity to self-conscious Dalits and rejects caste identities including Hindu-imposed identities (such as panchama, chandala, harijan, and so on), gender and other minority identities. Specific caste identities of the untouchable castes such as Mala, Madiga, Holeya, Arundhatiyars and so on, were also not recognized in this Dalit identity. The Dalit/human figure is gendered and Dalit women are represented as Dalits. From the time of Ambedkar, Dalit movements had held up this identity and proposed a programme of caste annihilation to create a democratic society.

Dalit assertion of human dignity (equal worth) in civil society has no doubt undermined, though in a limited manner, their caste ordained status as dehumanized untouchables. But this notion of dignity is self-generated and based on unequal positioning and conflict between the upper castes and Dalits. The principle of ‘one person one value’ allowed some sections of Dalits to achieve a dignified life at the social as well as institutional level.


Caste identities and the caste order pose a problem to the revolutionary idea of ‘Dalit’. ‘Dalit’ became an alternative identity for the untouchable castes (literally ‘Scheduled Castes’). Some marginalized Dalit castes have successfully managed to access political gains from this identity – human dignity in civil society as well as welfare benefits in institutions. Nevertheless, the abstract and revolutionary idea of ‘Dalit’ faces a crisis and in the course of time loses its universal character. It becomes reduced since it identifies Dalit (seen as a privileged grouping) castes with certain untouchable castes. This development can only be explained in terms of the nature of the caste order and its hierarchy. The case of Madiga Reservation Porata Samiti is one example to think through this issue.13

Treating all untouchable castes as equal actually reproduces disparities. The assumption that the caste order is only that which is imposed by caste-Hindu society obscures the well entrenched caste disparities and discrimination among the Dalit castes. As the Madiga struggle demonstrates, a reservation policy that did not recognize disparities among the SCs of Andhra Pradesh actually reproduced the disparity. The Madigas proposed a revision of the Dalit social revolution by valourizing a Madiga identity (practices like attaching Madiga as a suffix to the name, and invoking Madiga history and culture). In addition, the post-1990 movements add a new dimension – that of cultural identity to the notion of caste. The world of untouchables, once stigmatized and banished from public account, reappears. This is made possible by shifting the discussion from the goal of equality of individuals to equality of castes, viz, by claiming that it is the dignity of the Madiga caste that will ensure dignity to the individual Madiga, his or her identity and culture. Interestingly, it is proposed that this fashioning of a distinct oppressed caste identity is part of the Dalit struggle for fighting the indignities and inequalities of the caste order.


But the new Dalit identity does not confront the entrenched disparities between the untouchable castes; it facilitates individual dignity. It was proposed that the notion of caste dignity enables individual as well as caste equality and therefore captures the complexity of caste as a system of hierarchy of castes as well as a form of inequality. This complexity of caste inequality was noted by Ambedkar when he observed that ‘the system of graded inequality prevents the rise of general discontent against inequity. It cannot, therefore, become the storm centre of revolution. Secondly, the sufferers under inequality becoming unequal both in terms of the benefits and the burden, there is no possibility of a general combination of all classes to overthrow the inequity.’14



1. Arun Ferreira, Colours of the Cage, 2014, p. 33.

2. SatishSaberwal, ‘Sociologists and Inequality’, in K.L Sharma (ed.), Social Inequality in India. Rawat, New Delhi,1999.

3. For a detailed account of the massacre see, Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee, ‘The Karamchedu Massacre: A Report’, Guntur, 22 July 1985; K. Balagopal, Ear to the Ground: Selected Writings on Class and Caste. Navayana, Delhi, 2011, pp. 64-69.

4. ‘Harijans’ was the term used to refer to Untouchable castes at the time of the Karamchedu massacre. The term ‘Dalits’ is used in this essay for convenience.

5. K. Balagopal, op. cit, 2011, pp. 377-399.

6. The Communist parties initially described the massacre as an attack on the Harijans by the landlords.

7. See the Supreme Court judgement on Karamchedu massactre at http://indian

8. Dag-Erik Berg, ‘Karamchedu and the Dalit Subject in Andhra Pradesh’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 48(3), 2014, p. 390.

9. See Arjun Dangle (ed.), Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature. Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 1992, pp. 289. Some forms of dehumnization are codified and outlawed in the SC/ST Atrocity Act 1989.

10. Karamchedu Porata Katha, JNM (Jana Natya Mandali) Publication, 17 July 1995, p. 23.

11. K. Satyanarayana and Susie Tharu (eds.), From Those Stubs, Steel Nibs Are Sprouting. HarperCollins, New Delhi, 2013, p. 562.

12. Ibid., p. 570.

13. See K. Satyanarayana and Susie Tharu, 2013, pp. 43-49 for details on this issue.

14. B. R. Ambedkar, ‘Untouchables or the Children of India’ Ghettoo’, in Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Writings and Speeches, Vol. 5. Government of Maharashtra, Bombay, 1989, pp. 101-2.