An Election in the Time of Caste Killing
Dust from the repair work on the town’s main road had formed a thin film on election posters, painting them brown. Along this road, campaign rallies inched along, with residents rallying for the small stipend offered by the political parties. On the median, statues of political leaders were covered with cloth, as per the election code of conduct. Even Dr BR Ambedkar had his face covered. Miryalaguda, a town 40 km away from Nalgonda district headquarters in Telangana, was getting ready for the big elections.
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Just across the street, at the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) office in Miryalaguda town, Balaswamy, a higher-grade assistant, is busy with customers. It has been little over a month since he returned to work, after the daylight killing of his son outraged many across the country.
After the murder, some political leaders had met Balaswamy and pledged their support. But, as the Telangana Assembly Elections gain momentum in town, this brutal caste killing is forgotten by some, and conveniently ignored by others.
With less than two weeks to the Telangana Assembly elections, there is a glaring lack of focus on issues of caste, both within the parties and in the community. The major parties continue to make the familiar promises of better roads and water supply, while dismissing the caste killing as a personal matter. But again, despite the town’s large Dalit population, almost every candidate from major political parties are from one of the upper castes, some of them even had links to Maruthi Rao and his community.
Caste Killing? No, It’s a Personal Issue
On the last day of filing nominations, a suspense thriller was reaching its climax outside the district revenue office in Miryalaguda. With a large mob of party workers and members of the public waiting for the candidates to come out, the local tea shop was finding it difficult to match the demand.
‘So, how will you solve the issue of caste violence in your district?’ When The Quint posed this question to candidates from different parties, the answers were outright dismissals. TRS candidate N Bhaskar Rao said: “This (caste killing) is not a political issue. This a problem between two families.”
Ranga Reddy, former MLA from the CPM, ignored the question and there was a reason for it. A few days after Pranay’s murder, Ranga Reddy’s association with Maruthi Rao was questioned by the local media. “As a sitting MLA, Reddy had helped Rao to remove the occupants from a disputed property. But he denied the allegation,” said B Kartheek, a journalist from Miryalaguda.
When asked about the prominence of the caste killing in the election, BJP’s candidate Karanti Prabhkar said: “No chance. It is personal problem.” Prabahakar was in the Vysya Samaj Joint Action Committee, which supported Maruthi Rao, after the murder.
The Congress candidate was unavailable for comments.
A Non-Issue Even for Dalits
Even at the Harijan Vada in Gandhi Nagar, the caste killing failed to find resonance among Dalit voters. Daida Vijaya Kumar, a 23-year-old MSc graduate said he would vote for Chief Minister KCR’s TRS party. Even though KCR had faced criticism for his silence over the caste killing, Vijaya Kumar wanted the party to return to the power.
A few blocks away, Daida Shiva Kumar, another youngster from the colony, dismissed the murder as a personal issue. “It is wrong that someone was murdered. But it is between two families, I don’t see a reason for it to be a political issue,” said Shiv Kumar, who is a student of Osmania university.
According to observers, traditionally, the Dalit votes in the Nalgonda district have been split among the several political parties and a change in trend is not expected this election.
A Murder in the Name of Honour
But Pranay’s murder was anything but mere personal issue. For more than 8 years, Balaswamy’s family was living in fear of threats from Maruthi and his associates, who didn’t want a Dalit to be in a relationship with his daughter. “Maruthi Rao started his business by leasing my younger brother’s ration shop,” said Balaswamy. “Even though he is a big real estate broker, even our family is financially well off. We have a big house and property. So, he didn’t like Pranay because he was not rich enough to take care of his daughter, but because Pranay was a Dalit,” Balaswamy said, while going through his mobile phone.
On his mobile phone, Balaswamy had two call recording – the last call from Pranay and a frantic call from Amrutha screaming for help. He took a pause and continued, “Death threats were not new for us. Since Pranay and Amrutha met in school, we have been receiving death threats,” he said.
After the threats, both Pranay and Amrutha were taken out of school. But two years later, Pranay and Amrutha rekindled their relationship, while studying engineering in Hyderabad. Once again, Maruthi Rao’s goons paid a visit with death threats. But the couple continued to meet, and they were caught watching a movie by Amrutha’s uncle, leading to her being kept under house arrest.
“Three months later, I got a call from the police about a missing complaint filed by Amrutha’s father Maruthi Rao. I soon learnt that Pranay and Amrutha had registered their marriage at the Arya Samaj in Hyderabad,” he said.
As Maruthi and his men were on the lookout for the newlyweds, Balaswamy shifted them to a house in Hyderabad. But despite the threat to their lives, the couple took the bold decision to return back to Miryalaguda.
“But as the threats continued, I made their passports, so that I could send them abroad, but by then Amrutha was pregnant. This changed everything. As they were staying back, Amrutha told me that as only few knew about their marriage, people would question her pregnancy. She asked for a wedding reception to announce their wedding,” he said.
Balaswamy sold one of his properties for a grand reception, knowing the reception was important for the couple. Close to Rs 2 lakhs for the marriage hall and approximately 1 lakh was spent on the photography. But little did he know that these photographs would change their lives.
Soon after the reception, Amrutha posted their marriage photos and videos on social media. This angered her father, Maruthi Rao, who was still hoping that he could bring her back home. Rao, then gave a contract of Rs 1 crore to a gang to murder his daughter’s husband.
A Hero’s Welcome For the Father
While Pranay’s family was mourning his death, just 10 days after the murder, the Arya Vysya community in Nalgonda took out a rally praising Maruthi Rao as a hero. More than 500 people from Arya Vysya Samaj went to meet Rao in the district jail and expressed their solidarity with him.
After the meeting, Bhupati Raju, a member of the Vysya Samaj Joint Action Committee told media: “We condemn the murder, but we know the circumstances under which it happened. We know how hurt Rao is and we went to assuage his feelings,’’
According to a report by The News Minute several people on Facebook changed their profile pictures to Maruthi Rao’s photo, while several others have decided to spend their time commenting on updates about the case, with messages of ‘Jai Maruthi Rao’, and ‘Jai Maruthi Sena’. Some even questioned Pranay’s caste status as a Dalit, saying he had converted to Christianity.
The rally got the support of a majority of the upper castes in the town and candidates in the election too come from the same community.
A Fight For Pranay’s Memory
Back at the LIC office, Balaswamy says he is a changed person. “When they threatened me earlier, I was scared. But I am not anymore. If any Dalit boy or a girl wants to marry anyone from another caste, I will support them. If my younger son wants an inter-caste marriage, I will stand with him,” he said.
According to him, a change in rotten mindsets is needed. “I have economic equality, because of my job and ancestral property, I have the money to live a good life. But I don’t have social equality,” he said.
Balaswamy is now fighting to get a statue of his son installed in the town as a symbol of caste unity. But the move has been opposed by the Vysya community. Balaswamy, who has approached the Hyderabad High Court said he will fight till the dream is realised.
But as the election madness sets in, the brutal caste killing and Balaswamy’s fight for a statue, have clearly become non-issues in this town.