Renaming of AP’s Konaseema district exposes caste faultlines

Andhra Pradesh is staring at a new controversy in the newly formed Konaseema district. Trouble began with the Jagan Reddy-led YSRCP government announcing on May 18, the plan to rename the new district as Dr B.R. Ambedkar Konaseema district. The Konaseema region was one of the 13 new districts announced by the YS Jaganmohan Reddy-led state government when it concluded the district reorganisation exercise in April this year.

For long a part of the erstwhile East Godavari district, the fertile delta region is a picture of ubiquitous canals, lush greenery, and never-ending paddy fields. The region is often compared to ‘God’s own country,’ Kerala. But even before the people of the Konaseema delta in Andhra Pradesh could celebrate the fulfillment of their long-pending demand for a seperate district, protests and violence have erupted over renaming it after the architect of India’s Constitution.

May 24 onwards, the region has been tensed after violent protests erupted in the district headquarters of Amalapuram. Several police personnel were injured in stone pelting incidents and protesters set fire to the homes of a local minister and MLA. The state government responded by rushing in more forces, clamping curfew, and suspending internet services in the region. So far, 111 persons have been arrested in connection with the rioting and arson, a senior police officer said.

The state government’s move was apparently influenced by representations from Dalit organisations in the region. Although the Kapu and Balija Setty castes dominate here, there is a substantial Dalit population too in the region. The Lok Sabha constituency of Amalapuram, the district headquarters, is an SC reserved seat. Three of the five assembly seats in the district are also reserved for SC candidates. A Dalit activist from Konaseema said, “Former Lok Sabha speaker Balayogi represented Amalapuram seat. This area has a strong Dalit identity which should be respected. It is a befitting tribute to the Father of our Constitution.”

Ruling party representatives have alleged that the protests are the handiwork of Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena Party (JSP) which has strong support in the Kapu community which dominates here. Meanwhile, opposition parties have accused the ruling party of stoking the controversy to attract Dalits and alienate them from JSP.

A Kapu community member Pedda Babu asks, “Some of the other districts have been renamed after leaders like NTR, and Alluri Seetarama Raju who belong to Andhra Pradesh. We respect Dr Ambedkar but why should the state government bring his name here? Konaseema has a distinct identity that should not be diluted.”

Considering the emotional hold Dr Ambedkar has on Dalits who are a sizeable vote bank, the issue has put the opposition parties like the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and JSP in a quandary. Especially, for the JSP which has a strong support base among Kapus, it cannot afford to antagonise the Dalits even as it has to be sympathetic to Kapu and other castes’ sentiments.

While making it clear that he is not against renaming the new district after B.R. Ambedkar, JSP chief and actor Pawan Kalyan has blamed local rivalries in the ruling YSRCP for the outbreak of violence. “The state government was aware of the trouble brewing in the area but did not bother to step in,” he said on Saturday.

Although, normalcy seems to be settling in, an air of unease prevails as the one-month period for objections and suggestions over the new district is drawing closer. After the Amaravati fiasco that is only resolving now, Andhra Pradesh is staring at yet another controversy that it cannot afford.

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