Halleshappa, headmaster of the government-aided high school in Kumsi, a village in rural Shimoga, is excited. One of his students from the extremely backward Madiga community has scored near perfect marks in preparatory tests for Class X exams. The headmaster, also a Madiga, is sure the boy will bring honours to the school.
For the SC Madigas of Karnataka, still battling caste discrimination and untouchability, and who traditionally skin leather for a living, such moments in the mainstream have been few and far between. Despite being the single largest community at nearly nine per cent within the umbrella of Dalits who make up nearly 20 per cent of the state population, the Madigas have not got the political and social push needed to ensure upward mobility.
As Karnataka goes to polls on May 12, they remain poor, uneducated and on the sidelines with limited access to common resources like water and village temples. Most of the Madigas are daily wagers, mainly working on farms.
“The upper caste Hindus in our village will allow members of all communities, even Muslims, to enter their homes but they will keep us out. We are barred from the temple and treated worse than criminals if we go near their source of water,’’ says Lankesh, 38, a former bus conductor who now lives in Tyjvahalli village.
Around 30 km away in the growing city of Shimoga in central Karnataka, it’s not very different. “People are not willing to rent their homes when they realise we are Madigas,’’ says Lakshman, a high school teacher.
“Most of our people still lead backward lives. They don’t know anything about the modern world. We have not even got 0.1 per cent of the benefit of reservations. It has all been hogged by other Dalit communities like the Holeyas, Lambanis and Bhovis,’’ says H N Chandrappa, Shimoga district president of the Madigas Forum.
Congress supporters for generations, the Madigas now blame the party for allowing other Dalit groups to “corner the benefits” accorded by the Constitution. They say the party is dominated by Holeya leaders, such as Mallikarjun Kharge and state Congress chief G Parameshwara, and those from Scheduled Tribes like Lambanis and Bhovis.
“In all villages, the funds allocated to Dalits under Congress schemes like the Ambedkar Development Fund have been cornered by Lambanis or other Dalits because they have representation in local governments,’’ claims activist and Shimoga resident M Nagaraj.
“The Congress government came up with a scheme to reserve contracts for jobs worth less than Rs 50 lakh for SC contractors. But the majority who have benefited from this scheme are Bhovis because they have the resources to be contractors,’’ says Nagaraj.
The Madigas are also angry with the Congress for not making public the results of two recent studies which, they believe, indicate their “true plight”. Despite expressing intent on several occasions to table the findings of the Justice A J Sadashiva commission on the socio-economic situation of castes and a similar survey from 2013, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has failed to do so, they say. “The reports were suppressed at the behest of Dalit leaders in the Congress who feel they will reveal where all the benefits have gone,’’ claims Nagaraj.
Since the Congress released its list of 218 candidates on April 15, there has been heated discussion over the fact that only eight of 36 seats reserved for Dalits have gone to the Madigas while the Holeyas have got 17 tickets, the Bhovis five, the Lambanis four and Budajangama one — one seat is yet to be announced. “The Congress has given 18 tickets for the backward caste Kuruba community who have a similar population number as Madigas,’’ says Chandrappa, Shimoga Madigas Forum chief.
The Congress is heavily dependent on Dalit consolidation and has been nervous about the Madigas this time. “The government has shown concern for our situation and we must be united,’’ says Social Welfare Minister H Anjaneya, a Madiga.
The consolation for Congress is the greater concern that other political parties have less regard for Dalits. “There are fears that the BJP intends to do away with reservations. We feel the Constitution will be changed over a period of time. We see this as a bigger danger,’’ says Halleshappa, the headmaster.
“The existence of a stringent Dalit atrocities law is a deterrent against attacks on people of our community who are still treated as untouchables. Changing the law will encourage more attacks on Dalits,’’ says Lankesh, 38, from Tyjvahalli.
Madiga leaders claim they view visits to Dalit homes for meals by BJP leaders like Yeddyurappa and Amit Shah as “mere gimmicks”. “Yeddyurappa has travelled on these roads but he never stopped even once at our homes to speak to us,’’ says Dhyanesh, a Tyjvahalli resident.
“If we enable the defeat of Siddaramaiah, it will be the equivalent of spitting on ourselves. Yes, there have been injustices, and others have benefitted more than Madigas but we also think that Siddaramaiah has helped us more than even a Dalit chief minister would have,’’ says Madiga activist, N Srinivas.
But when it comes to elections, say community leaders, the strategy adopted by the BJP, JD(S) and even the Congress of fielding Dalits other than Madigas in most constituencies to attract all groups is a key factor in the Madigas remaining on the fringes.
A case in point, they say, is the reserved Shimoga seat, one of the eight constituencies where the Congress has given a ticket to a Madiga. Here, despite the constituency having nearly 75,000 Dalit voters among a total of 2 lakh, the Congress candidate, Srinivas Kariyanna, the son of former MLA Kariyanna, will find the going tough.
“The upper caste Lingayats who number 65,000 will not vote for a Madiga. As a result, the BJP and the JD(S) have fielded Lambani candidates although they are only 25,000 in number while Madigas are 36,000 in number. This will split the Dalit votes and the party that gets the support of the Lingayats will win,’’ says Madiga leader Chandrappa.