Just before the Karnataka Assembly election dates were announced, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai declared a slew of changes in the reservation list for Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes. As per the new reservation policy, Holeyas (Right-Dalits) were given 5.5 percent reservation within the SC list and Madigas (Left-Dalits) were given 6 percent reservation.
Moreover, Lingayats and Vokkaligas who fall within the BC list were each given an additional 2 percent reservation. Responding to fresh quota announced by the BJP, the Congress too has promised implementation of Sadashiva Commission report which had recommended sub-caste reservation.
While the overhaul of the reservation list and the debate around it seemed to have been aimed at drawing votes from various caste groups, what seems to have gone unnoticed is caste atrocities faced by Dalits across Karnataka.
As the dance of democracy continues in the state, with polling scheduled to be held on 10 May, The Quint visited two Dalit families in Kolar and Chikkaballapur who have faced atrocities and whose plight seems to have gone unseen till date.
Scheduled Castes form 17.5 percent and Scheduled Tribes form 6.95 percent of Karnataka's population. Lingayats and Vokkaligas are around 17 and 16 percent of the state's population. In the state, 36 Assembly seats are reserved for SCs and 15 for STs.
Two Similar Cases of Boycott
In September 2022, two cases of atrocities on Dalits had surfaced from Kolar and Chikkaballapur districts. In both cases, the victims were teenage boys from the Holeya caste.
While both cases had drawn media attention and First Information Reports (FIRs) were registered against the accused, their families have continued to face caste discrimination in their villages. The Quint met these families to know what political leaders from the region should have already taken cognizance of.
Here's what we saw and heard.
Surrounded by rocky hills, a brick house stands next to a dirt road in Kolar district’s Ullerahalli village. Small dynamite explosions can be heard from nearby quarries.
A 15-year-old Dalit boy steps out of the house in a floral shirt to explain why his family was charged Rs 60,000 as fine by the village panchayat.
Nearly 160 km away, another Dalit boy, 14, uses a trowel to cement brick walls under a tree. Traumatised from a thrashing by upper caste men from Kempadenahalli village, Chikkaballapur, he fears talking about the night when he was dragged to a pole in the village and beaten for over an hour.
Dalits in Karnataka are classified into 101 castes. But broadly, there are two groups: the Madigas and the Holeyas.
'Villagers Don't Look at Me'
In Ullerahalli, the boy's family was asked to pay Rs 60,000 by the panchayat after he picked a fallen pole of a palanquin and entered the temple during a procession. The boy was slapped and the procession cancelled.
Speaking to The Quint, the 15-year-old said, “Villagers don’t look at me or my family anymore. For four months till the panchayat members were in jail no one spoke to us. Not even people from our caste are speaking to us. Things have somewhat improved after the accused were released on bail.”
With the help of Dalit Sangharsh Samiti (DSS) activists, the boy's mother had filed an FIR against eight people, including Panchayat members, under relevant Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections and the Prevention of (SC/ST) Atrocities Act.
Speaking to The Quint, a DSS activist, who goes by the name Mourya, said, “When reservation has enriched the Other Backward Classes (OBC) which includes the dominant castes of Vokkaligas and Lingayats, then attacks will increase on Dalits as OBCs become stronger. At the same time, there are progressives in these communities who stand against caste atrocities. But what can be done if the law and order structure favours the dominant castes.”
At his home the boy's family has replaced idols of Hindu deities with that of Dr BR Ambedkar and Buddha. “Gods are not helping us. So we replaced them with photos of Babasaheb Ambedkar and Buddha,” the boy said, adding he wants to become a police officer when he grows up.
‘They Are Trying To Evict Us’
On 29 September 2022, a similar incident happened in Chikkaballapur where a 14-year-old was dragged out of his house at night by 10 upper caste men. He was then tied to a pole in the village and beaten after the men accused him of stealing.
When The Quint visited Kempadenahalli village, the minor boy was hesitant to speak to the media personnel.
Barely audible, the boy explained that he was accused of stealing a girl's jhumka.
“There were five of us playing while catching fish. While playing, a girl’s ring/jhumka was taken but was left there itself when we all left. After that, I came home with the fish and we cooked and ate it.”
He was later dragged out of bed, tied to a pole and beaten on his face and chest, he alleged. The mob also allegedly hurled casteist abuses at him and attacked his mother with knives.
His mother Rathnamma, who still has knife inflicted scars on her arms, said, “He can’t sleep at night and keeps walking. Sometimes he gets nightmares and starts shouting, 'Leave me, leave me.' Currently holidays are going on but he does not go out anywhere because he is terrified.”
The boy's father Anand told The Quint, “The upper caste people in the village are threatening us and forcing us to move out. Villagers also threaten the boy whenever he goes out, which is why he is scared.”
“They say they will run him over with a car,” his mother repeated the alleged threats.
The village comprises nearly 70 Vokkaliga families, 30 Kuruba, and 15 Schedule Caste (SC) families, Anand tells The Quint. “Even the SC families are forced to boycott us. Entire village is against us.”
“Our family elders used to help with funeral services in the village. After the incident, we are not even allowed to do that. Even if someone dies in the village, our family elders are not allowed to go to the funeral,” he adds.
While both the teenagers have continued their lives and dream of a future, their families remain concerned over threats of exile from the villagers.
As the Supreme Court continues hearing a plea challenging Karnataka government's decision to scrap 4 percent BC reservation for Muslims, the question remains – will a new government, which will get elected to power on 13 May, change the lives of Dalits who are still facing atrocities in Karnataka?