A life convict at the Cherlapally jail until a fortnight ago, Madugula Mallikharjuna Reddy is now a key campaigner for the YSR Congress Party in this village in Guntur district, about 350 km southeast of Hyderabad.
The village falls under the Vemuru assembly and Bapatla Lok Sabha constituencies of Seemandhra (term used to refer to coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema jointly). Both are reserved for Dalits.
Jaladi Moses, whose father was killed in the Tsundur massacre, receives a pamphlet from the YSR Congress campaigners. (HT photo)
Reddy is free today because of an April 21 verdict of Andhra Pradesh high court acquitting him and 55 others convicted by a lower court for their alleged role in the August 1991 Tsundur massacre case pertaining to the murder of eight Dalits, allegedly by upper caste people.
Dr Ravi Kumar who conducted the post-mortems committed suicide a few days later. The horrifying sight of the mutilated bodies is suspected to have depressed Dr Kumar, but those in the position to know are not willing to speak about it.
Dr Kumar's brother and former Telugu Desam Party (TDP) minister JR Pushparaj neither participated in the protests which broke out across the state after the high court verdict nor is he willing to comment on the transformation of Reddy from a convict to a political campaigner.
Here's more irony: Reddy is campaigning for YSR Congress’ Vemuru candidate Meruga Nagarjuna, former chairman of the state SC/ST commission. Nagarjuna was one of the leading campaigners in the Justice For Tsundur Victims campaign.
Asked how a man he sent to jail is now his campaign manager, Nagarjuna said, "No, no... I don't know. Maybe... hello? Hello?" He cut the line and did not receive further calls from HT.
What's more, many of the others acquitted have also joined various political parties.
An attempt to approach Reddy for comment was abandoned after hostile behaviour by him and a group of his supporters.
Thilasamma (70), who lost both her sons in the Tsundur massacre, is supporting YSR Congress. (HT photo)
A YSR Congress flag sticks out of the thatched roof over the house of 70-year-old Thilasamma who lost both her sons in the massacre. Asked how she supports a party for which Reddy is campaigning, she said curtly, "As if the other parties are championing our cause!"
The response to the high court verdict, delivered during peak election season, is a study in extremes. The state government, under pressure from Dalit groups, is going on appeal to the Supreme Court.
However, MP and MLA aspirants in Seemandhra — where Dalits form nearly 20% of the population — have maintained a stubborn silence on the latest development in one of the state’s bloodiest chapters.
In Vemuru and Bapatla, the TDP, Congress, Aam Aadmi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party have fielded Dalit candidates.
"They all visited the village but none spoke to the families (of the victims), except the Congress candidate," says Jaladi Vikas, 32, a survivor of the massacre nearly 23 years ago.
Jaladi Moses, who lost his father in the massacre, had organised a meeting of Dalits in Tsundur on April 25. He had called on the 1,600 Dalit families in the village to boycott the elections. "They refused. Some have already accepted bribes from political parties. Others are scared that such a show of aggression might lead to another massacre," he said.
According to him, the fear factor has grown after those acquitted returned to the village where prohibitory orders have been imposed for three months.
Guntur-based lawyer G Sivanageshwar Rao, who represented the Tsundur victims in the lower court, charged many Dalit activists who participated in the struggle for justice with changing colours.
He said many of them used the visibility they got from being in the Tsundur agitation to build political careers. Many of them are now MP and MLA candidates of parties in both Telangana and Seemandhra.
"The Tsundur massacre has surely resulted in upward mobility for some Dalits," Rao said caustically, adding, "When parties sideline these opportunist Dalit leaders, they again take up some Dalit issue and start an agitation or two."
Meanwhile, Dalits in Guntur and neighbouring districts continue to face some subtle and some not-so-subtle forms of discrimination, according to Moses. He claimed that in Tsundur itself, Dalits were prevented from buying property in areas dominated by the Reddy landlords.
Speaking to HT in Hyderabad, Dalit intellectual Brahmaiah explained why the Dalit cause did not interest parties despite the numerical strength of the population.
He said the Dalit movement was cohesive and powerful until the 1990s. However, the demand for internal reservations created a deep divide between the two largest Dalit groups — the Malas and the Madigas.
The more backward Madigas formed the Madiga Reservation Struggle Committee. And the Malas responded by forming the Dalit Mala Mahanadu, which opposed internal reservations. These organisations too further broke into smaller subgroups.
Today, the only way these groups survive is by pledging unconditional support to one or the other political party. "The biggest loss resulting from the fragmentation is that many Dalit groups have lost their militant edge. The core anti-caste ideology is no longer the driving force.
“One day they are with the Congress, one day with the communists and another day with (BJP prime ministerial nominee) Narendra Modi," said Brahmaiah.