Elections

No Toilets For Dalits In A Karnataka Village

Marginalised residents of Rottigawad village in northern Karnataka’s Dharwad Lok Sabha constituency claim to be facing caste-based discrimination, even as caste equations remain a dominant part of politics across the southern state.

Vikram Sharma/Outlook
Dalit women of Rottigawad village suffer in the absence of toilets in their neighborhood. Photo: Vikram Sharma/Outlook
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A large hoarding with the photograph of Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar marks the entrance to the segregated colony named after him at the end of the little village of Rottigawad. Located 34 kilometres from Hubbali, the second largest city in Karnataka after Bengaluru, Rottigawad has a population of about 2,500, out of which about 270 adults are Dalit and live in tenements in what they call the “Ambedkar Colony”. “Babasaheb would not have believed that despite all his efforts, untouchability continues to exist today,” says village resident Jasyshree Kali.

The 31-year-old mother of two infants lives in a house with no toilet. A patch of wilderness behind her two-room tenement serves as a toilet as well as garbage dump. The women who do not have the luxury of a patch of barren land next to their homes walk out every morning and evening with little mugs in their hand to relieve themselves in the peripheries of the cotton fields, owned by “upper caste people”. “Most of the homes in this colony do not have toilets or regular supply of drinking water,” Jayshree adds. Out of the 40-odd households in the colony, just a handful have toilets that residents have managed to build privately.

There are newly-installed taps under the government’s Har Ghar Jal scheme, but most do not get any water.

Across the street from the Ambedkar colony is the rest of the village of Rottigawad with its majority Lingayat population. The households in this part of the village have working taps and toilets inside their homes. “That is because those houses are owned by upper caste. We do not have the space to build toilets or the money,” Jayshree’s husband Ashok Kali, a daily wager in the cotton fields, adds.

Despite untouchability being outlawed in the country for decades, the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe residents of Rottigawad allege discrimination by the Lingayat residents of the village. Mahadevappa Elappa, another resident of the village, adds that the Dalit villagers do not even have place to properly dispose of the dead. “We earn our food by working on fields or as migrants every day. Yet, no resident in the SC colony owns even a gunta of land. We do not even have dignity after death,” Elaappa states. “We cannot use areas outside this colony since we are SC and do not have permission. So we bury the bodies in nearby ditches and quarries. When it rains, sometimes the bodies float up to the surface,” Elappa adds.

Until last year, marginalised residents could not get haircuts at the local barber shops run by upper caste people. Villagers claim that they were not allowed to enter the 'devasthan' (temples) where the upper caste prayed. They even had to pay extra to sit on chairs in local restaurants. “It cost Rs 500 to get a haircut or people had to go out of the village, all the

way to Hubbali” a local said. “We protested against these practices last year and the local administration had to intervene,” says Gangadhar Jademmanavar, another local resident and scribe.

On December 15, 2023, Kundgol tehsildar Ashok Shiggavi and other officials visited the village where he spoke with Panchayat leaders. The Panchayat head, who belongs to the SC community, was assured that such practice would not continue and locals claim that there has been an end to discrimination since then.

Caste, nevertheless, remains a pertinent issue across Karnataka, where two dominant communities—Lingayats and Vokalligas—have, for years, controlled socio-political, economic and cultural power. Ahead of Lok Sabha 2024 elections that took place in two phases in Karnataka, caste once again emerged as a dominant driver of political equations, even as voters from marginalised communities remained on the sidelines. “No politician came to our village to seek our support or see what condition we live in,” Ashok Kali stated.

The Lingayats and Vokalligas

The Lingayats and Vokalligas are both agricultural, land-owning communities that wield considerable power across Karnataka.

Lingayats refer to those who follow the teachings of the 12th-century philosopher and rebel social reformer Basava.

They are predominantly found in regions like Dharwad, Belagavi, Vijayapura, Bagalkot, Bidar, and Gulbarga in North Karnataka and also in Central Karnataka districts like Davanagere, Haveri, Chitradurga, and Chikkamagaluru.

An eminent pre-independence group, Lingayats emerged as a politically influential community in Karnataka after independence. Leaders like S. Nijalingappa, a prominent Lingayat politician and former Chief Minister of Karnataka have played a significant role in state politics. Nijalingappa has held important positions in the Indian National Congress. By the 80s, following a split in the Congress party, Lingayats, who found themselves unrepresented in the dominant Indira Gandhi camp, started looking for alternatives.

In the 1980s and 1990s, amid the Ram Janmbahoomi movement in north India when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) began to gain prominence in Karnataka, Lingayats became a crucial support base for the party. Leaders like B S Yeddyurappa, a Lingayat politician, rose to prominence within the BJP and served as the Chief Minister of Karnataka multiple times. “The Lingayats have been key to the BJP’s success in Karnataka, one of the only southern states where the party could consolidate power for a long period of time,” says senior Dharwad-based journalist and activist Shankar Halaghatti.

In the north, similar power has been held by the Vokkaligas. A predominantly rural community and dependent on agriculture as a source of livelihood, the Vokkaligas are largely splintered across Mysore, Mandya, Chamarajnagar,

Hassan, Bangalore, Ramanagara and Tumkur districts of South Karnataka. They are key to any party’s electoral performance in the region and often influence other communities in the villages they inhabit. Former prime minister and JDS Supremo Deve Gowda is arguably the tallest Vokkaliga leader alive in the state. His had won 25 Vokkaliga constituencies out of 48 in 2018 but slumped to 11 in the 2023 Assembly elections.

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The JD(S) party usually fields a majority of its candidates from the Vokkaliga community and has been known for its focus on the rural poor and farmers’ issues. However, the party has also struggled with internal family issues. “The party is filled with its own contradictions,” says Lakshman Cheeranahalli, an advocate and activist in Mandya.

JD(S) Supremo Devegowda and other members of the party have often criticised the saffron party and its activities in the state in the past, and vice-a-versa, he says. But the saffron party too realises that it cannot win a majority on its own without the support of the Old Mysore region – which is dominated by Vokkaligas. Hence, both parties found an ally in each other for this election, just to survive, Lakshman says.

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The Number Game

Lingayats and Vokkaligas have dominated the political space of Karnataka for several decades, be it in terms of reservations or cabinet positions.

While Lingayats claim to be close to 17 per cent of Karnataka’s estimated seven crore population, making them the single-largest caste in the state, Vokkaligas claim to be 15 per cent of the total population, occupying the second-largest caste spot. However, the official numbers can only be determined when the findings from the socio-economic and education survey that was commissioned in 2015 are released.

The census, ordered during Siddaramaiah’s first tenure as chief minister, was carried out at a cost of Rs 169 crore. Though it was expected to be submitted by 2016, it was delayed on technical grounds. The indecision over the submission of the report over the years has largely been attributed to opposition from MLAs from the dominant Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities. A leaked version of the caste census report released in 2018 showed that Scheduled Castes and Muslims may be the largest communities.

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The chairperson of the Karnataka State Backward Classes Commission, Jayaprakash Hegde, submitted the final caste census report in March this year. Although the report was expected to be released during the assembly elections held across five states last November, it was yet again delayed after opposition to its release by Vokkaliga and Lingayat communities. Earlier this year, the Vokkaligara Sangha, in a meeting attended by Deputy Chief Minister and state Congress chief D K Shivakumar, who is also Vokkaliga, urged the government to not accept the caste census report. Shivakumar was among the signatories to a letter opposing the release of the report.

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While the census is only an enumeration of castes and does not include recommendations, these communities fear that the numbers could be used to decide quotas in government, effectively putting them in a position of disadvantage.

Anti-caste activists nevertheless claim that caste census would definitely held marginalised sections as it would reveal not only reveal the real numbers of “user caste” communities but also provide a roadmap to communities within the larger “Dalit” category. “There are 101 castes under SC in Karnataka. Fifty per cent of that population ekes out a living by doing menial or temporary jobs. But the rest of the people who fall under the “original untouchable” category even today find it hard to find employment, be it as agricultural labour or urban migrant labour,” says Laxman Bakkayi, general secretary of Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar Samudaya Pragati Samaste.

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Inside Ambedkar Colony of Rottigawad village in Karnataka. Photo: Vikram Sharma/Outlook
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“Reservations or special schemes for marginalised castes should be tailored according to the needs of the castes and sub castes,” he adds. Non-Jatav castes in Karnataka as well as other SC-dominant states like Uttar Pradesh have shown increasing pro-BJP trends in the past few years with critics like Bakkayi attributing the rise in its SC support base to the party’s “divisive caste politics”. The activist from Dharwad adds that there is lack of caste consciousness among certain sections of the Dalit population, especially the non-Jatav castes like Bhovi, Bajanthri, Koramas, Lambanis, Korachas, Vaddas, among others as they were not part of the Ambekarite socio-political Dalit emancipation movements in other parts of the state. “They remained neo-feudal slaves,” Bakkayi states.

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In coastal Karnataka, which has become a stronghold of the BJP in recent years, the party draws support from Other Backward Caste (OBC) communities like Billavas, Bunts, Vishwakarmas, Thigalas and Balijas, among others. The OBCs are also key in north Karnataka with a considerable number of Kuruba and Eediga voters. Kurubas will most likely support the Congress as Chief Minister Siddaramaiah belongs to the same caste.

Caste equations also play a role in candidate selection for elections. In the ongoing Lok Sabha elections from Dharwad constituency, the Congress has fielded Kuruba community leader Vinod Asuti, who belongs to Congress leader and Karnataka CM Siddharamiya’s caste. Non-Lingayat, non-Vokkaliga and Non-Kuruba voters are likely to side with the BJP.

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The BJP has fielded Brahmins in several seats, including Tejasvi Surya in Bengaluru South with a high Brahmin population, and incumbent minister and MP Prahlad Joshi in Hubbali. Joshi, who has a background in Sangh Parivar, is believed to be close to Lingayat religious, even though there were murmurs of discontent within the community against the BJP, allegedly over the distribution of tickets. In Bengaluru Central, the party has fielded P C Mohan, who belongs to Balija community.

Meanwhile, many Dalit voters claim they remain politically neglected. In Honnapur, 35 km from Dharwad, villagers belonging to the SC communities claim discrimination in receiving compensation or rehabilitation. Between 1978 and 80, about 450 families were relocated from Hukkeri Taluk of Belagavi district in North Karnataka to Honnapur village during the construction of the Hidkal Dam under the Ghataprabha irrigation project.

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“Each of these families was allotted four acres of land for rehabilitation. But villagers claim about 150 families have not received any land or compensation yet. “Almost fifty of those households are Dalit households,” says local resident and activist Prabhavati Daddomoni, who moved to Honnapur in 1978. She claims that there has been systemic discrimination against Dalits in the region. “The land allotted for Dalit households was never given to many of the evacuees,” she says.

Instead, authorities built an agricultural centre on the land,” she adds. Locals claim they cleared out portions of reserved forest land to make space for themselves. “If our rights are not given to us, we have to resort to other methods to ensure marginalised people like us get our due,” the 58-year-old states.

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