The police said there were no caste atrocities and a minor row on the New Year's eve snowballed into the present situation.
The district authorities have held three peace meetings, yet around 14 families belonging to the Scheduled Caste (SC) community at Shagoti village in Karnataka’s Gadag district live under constant fear of reprisal.
Efforts to dispel their fear have not fructified though the authorities have reiterated that any atrocity against them would be dealt with an iron fist.
The police, however, said the issue was the offshoot of a minor row between two groups.
Speaking to South First, Sharanappa, 24, of Dr BR Ambedkar Nagar spoke about the discrimination they have been facing in the village.
Sharanappa’s sister Meenakshi, 22, was betrothed to one Sharanu Madar, 28, of the same caste and village. “Their wedding was fixed for 26 January at a mass wedding event along with 51 other pairs at a nearby village,” he said.
On 21 January, Madar, his family, and Sharanappa went to the Dyamavva Temple in the village for Devara Karya, a pre-marital ritual. As they reached the temple, they noticed all the shops shut. The temple, too, was closed.
On enquiring with a few villagers, Madar learnt that the upper-caste seniors of the village had ordered them shut. The shopkeepers were told not to sell any provisions, including the rightful ration, to the lower caste people.
“They somehow got to know that we would be visiting the temple and locked it. They also told the shopkeepers to shut shops and if anyone was found selling anything to us, they would be slapped with a fine of ₹2,500,” Sharanappa said, quoting a villager.
“We have phone camera recordings of what shopkeepers told us about the fine,” he added.
Madar informed the district authorities. The District Commissioner’s office instructed Tehsildar Kishan Kalal to visit the village.
The tehsildar visited Shagoti and convened a meeting of villagers including the 14 SC families, who complained of caste atrocities.
“The meeting was called Grama Abhivruddhi and people with grievances showered their problems one after the other,” Sharanappa claimed. All 14 SC families complained to the tehsildar, he added.
The tehsildar was told that the members of the SC community were not allowed into the temple, and no barber would attend to them. They have to travel four kilometres to a nearby village for a haircut, or 14 km to Gadag town, Sharanappa said.
Another villager Honnappa claimed that they were being discriminated against in public places. “The hotels in the village have a separate corner for lower caste people. We have to go eat our food in those corners and then we have to wash the utensils. This is a common practice at the hotels in the village,” he told South First.
The police, however, refuted Honnappa’s claim.
The man further added that lower castes are not allowed to buy even agricultural land. “None of us has a piece of land. Our only possession is the row houses the government had allocated to us ages ago,” he added.
As the complaints piled up, the tehsildar summoned the police inspector and conducted a peace meeting on 21 January, explaining the criminal prosecution and other consequences of caste atrocities. Earlier, the inspector had held reconciliatory talks.
Both the tehsildar and the inspector escorted the lower caste families to the temple and reassured them that no one could stop them from entering the place.
Though the villagers acknowledged that they understood everything, the tehsildar brought the complaints to the notice of the Gadag Deputy Commissioner Vyshali ML who decided to conduct one more peace meeting.
On Wednesday, 25 January, an elaborate peace meeting was held at the Government Senior Primary School where around 200 villagers, including the 14 SC families, in attendance.
Deputy Commissioner Vyshali chaired the meeting, which was also attended by the Superintendent of Police (SP) Babasab Nemagoud, tehsildar, police inspector, district welfare officials, and representatives of Dalit organisations.
The officials warned the upper caste villagers against discrimination and committing any atrocities. The lower caste people were informed about the laws protecting them.
“Senior officials explained to us whom to approach to file a complaint if any atrocities happen,” Sharanappa said.
SP Nemagoud directed the jurisdictional police to beef up regular beat patrolling throughout the village and interact with villagers.
“After the peace meeting, there is no problem. We have been to some hotels and had tiffin and meals, and we are also allowed into the temple. We don’t know what would happen later,” he wondered.
When asked about the caste-based atrocities, a senior police officer attached to the Gadag rural police station said it was an offshoot of a standoff that occurred on New Year’s eve.
“A few inebriated youths from Dr Ambedkar Nagar were painting ‘Happy New Year’ on the road when a few commuters objected to it,” the officer said.
“Though they had a brief quarrel that night, the next day, they engaged in a physical fight. The matter went to the village seniors, who would usually solve the issues, but this one kept simmering and snowballed into caste atrocities, and the police had to intervene and reassure the 14 families,” he added.
“They all have been living in the same place in the same village for over 30-40 years now. Until 31 December, there were no problems, and all of a sudden they started complaining of discriminatory practices against them,” the officer pointed out.
He claimed to have seen lower caste men cooking at hotels and even serving customers.
“Now these people have come up with imaginary allegations that there are separate corners in hotels for lower caste men. This practice could have existed ages ago, but not now, the officer added.
Senior officials in the district administration did not respond to South First‘s call. This report will be updated if and when they respond.