Kapus In Andhra Are Agitating For Reservations, But Can Their Leaders Really Help Them?

Posted on February 3, 2016 in Politics, Society

By Nijam Gara:

A rescue worker tries to douse out the flames of a blazing train coach at a railway station in the northern Indian city of Allahabad October 3, 2007. Two coaches of the Mumbai-bound Tulsi Express caught fire at the railway station, but no casualties were reported, a railway official said on Wednesday. REUTERS/Jitendra Prakash (INDIA) - RTR1UJCB
Representation only. Source: Reuters/Jitendra Prakash

Eerily resembling the Patel agitation for Backward Class (BC) status in Gujarat, a massive stir has been created with the same demand by the Kapus in Andhra Pradesh. Though there are similarities between the two demands, the socio-political differences are aplenty. While Patels are well-entrenched in the political class and have independently led the state of Gujarat, for the Kapus, the political throne in Andhra has remained out of reach. Patels have strong connections with their diaspora while Kapus are actively dreaming of such a nexus. One thing that ties the groups together and perhaps explains the massive scale of these movements is the umpteen number of unemployed or under-employed youth belonging to these castes. But is that a good enough reason to claim reservations?

Kapus are historically an agrarian caste. In the Manuvadi order, they are shudras. However, they gained access to land ownership eons ago. In the quintessential step-ladder caste system, they inched towards ‘upper’ caste status and tended to align themselves ideologically with the Brahminised order. At the village level, being land-owners, they are more often beneficiaries of Dalit labour rather than victims of caste discrimination.

Even in post-colonial India, the Kapus have gained notoriety for their excesses against the downtrodden Dalits rather than being known for their camaraderie with the lower castes. For example, in the infamous 1991 Tsundur massacre, they actively engaged in violence against Dalits along with the feudal Reddys. In 1996, a Kapu MLA (from the Telugu Desam Party) from East Godavari beat up and forcibly tonsured 2 dalit youths for allegedly campaigning against him in the elections. As recently as 2012, Turpu Kapus (a section of Kapus who, in fact, are already BCs) killed 5 Dalits in a North Andhra village in a farm dispute caused by the ‘arrogance’ of Dalit farmers who were ‘supposed’ to stay meek labourers.

But to understand the history of this current Kapu agitation, other socio-political aspects of Andhra Pradesh also need to be kept in mind. The state, either in its current form or in its previous undivided form, has caved in completely to the sway and unmatched money power of perhaps two of the richest castes in India (let alone Andhra) – Reddys and Kammas. Such is their clout that some of the biggest industrialists and entrepreneurs heading major projects in the country and even certain parts of the world today belong to these two Telugu castes.

Unlike in many other states, where typically numerically strong castes have taken up the post of Chief Minister in recent electoral history (Yadavs in UP, Bihar, Patels in Gujarat, BCs in Tamil Nadu, Vokkaligas in Karnataka, etc.), these two castes comprising only 4-6% each of the state population have ruled unopposed for the past 60 years with brief interruptions from Congress-appointed puppets from other castes. Kapus, on the other hand, reportedly constitute at least 18-20% (exact figures unknown; last caste-based census in 1921 pegs their figure close to this after excluding/including certain Kapu sub-sects) of the population if not more. Yet, they have never ruled the state. Many Kapus feel it has been long overdue it is their turn now.

Kapus are a diverse group in the state which adds to the complexity. While members hailing from this community have made a big name for themselves in a variety of fields, there is a vast underbelly of lower-middle class and even poor Kapu families, a fact accepted even by their bitter critics both up and down the caste ladder. Much to their chagrin, Kapus as a group have been betrayed both by leaders of their own community as well as other castes more often than once. Historically, they had a tussle with Kammas and allied with Reddys only to be ignored by Reddy CMs in election after election.

Anybody with even a cursory knowledge of Telugu and Tamil politics will understand the deep nexus between cinema and electoral fortunes. Kapus have always been proud of Chiranjeevi, the once reigning king of Telugu Cinema. His rise in the film industry that was dominated by Kamma stalwarts such as N T Rama Rao (NTR, the founder of TDP) and Akkineni Nageswara Rao (ANR) was a shot in the arm for the Kapu community. Kapus across the state pinned their hopes on him in 2009 when their ‘Megastar’ Chiranjeevi formed a political party of his own. His Praja Rajyam Party (PRP) polled an impressive 18% vote share but quickly closed shop after the elections because his vote share garnered him only 18 seats out of the 294-member assembly. Kapus felt as if their much-awaited meal ticket had been siphoned off.

In 2014, another Kapu film star Pawan Kalyan took up the political mantle but did quite the opposite of his brother Chiranjeevi. He campaigned for the rival Kamma party, TDP, and did the unthinkable. He was instrumental in transferring Kapu votes en masse to Chandrababu Naidu’s TDP. It is widely felt in the state that Kapus snatched victory for the TDP from the jaws of defeat in an atmosphere where rival Jaganmohan Reddy was riding high on the sympathy wave of his father Y S Rajasekhar Reddy’s untimely death. After the election, Kapus started realising that they were still miles away from the corridors of political power and that their beloved star may have taken them for a ride (again). It is this angst that has boiled over on the streets of coastal Andhra Pradesh this week.

So, the issue is much bigger than reservations. Kapus are in an ideological flux where they are too comfortable with their upper caste history and social role yet want a ‘BC’ tag to leap out of the problems of unemployment and lack of opportunity. But the right way for this single largest caste of Andhra Pradesh is to take the lead and align with the true ‘backwards’ in Telugu society, i.e., Dalits, Muslims & some of the OBCs and aim for the bull’s eye of political power. That eventually can herald a victory for other classes of Telugu society that have so far only been palanquin bearers for the mighty Kammas and Reddys. Going by early signs, however, such an alignment seems utopian given the fact that Kapu leaders had no time to even shed crocodile tears for Rohith Vemula who was killed just a few days ago in the same state. Finally, to tie it back to the Patel agitation, today’s Kapu movement is evidently disparate because the projected leaders seen on screen are spent forces who already betrayed their cause years ago as opposed to Hardik Patel, a brand new force!