Vitriol under the veil of veli 

In a fishing village of Andhra Pradesh, the practice of social boycott among the Vaddi community has adverse social and economic consequences. With a former sarpanch and his family being isolated because of a misunderstanding that also has political implications, G.V.R. Subba Rao reports on how the deep-rooted custom is making local headlines 

Updated - February 08, 2024 03:50 pm IST

Published - January 19, 2024 08:15 am IST - VIJAYAWADA

Country boats trapped in a dense layer of water hyacinth on the Kolleru lakebed in Sringavarappadu village in Eluru district of Andhra Pradesh. In this almost idyllic landscape, the shadow of veli , or social boycott, casts its ugly net.

Country boats trapped in a dense layer of water hyacinth on the Kolleru lakebed in Sringavarappadu village in Eluru district of Andhra Pradesh. In this almost idyllic landscape, the shadow of veli , or social boycott, casts its ugly net. | Photo Credit: G.N. RAO

At first glance, Sringavarappadu resembles any other fishing village. Canoes made out of hollowed out palms rest idly outside most of the 1,700-odd houses in the island hamlet nestled on the Kolleru lakebed, approximately 20 km from the nearest town of Kaikaluru in Eluru district of Andhra Pradesh. Here, the 3,000-odd residents have a shared lineage: they belong to the Vaddi, officially classified as a Backward Caste, a community that traces its heritage back to Odisha’s Chilika lake region. The remaining inhabitants consist of Mala Dalits (a Scheduled Caste) and a handful of tribal families.

In this almost idyllic landscape, the shadow of veli, or social boycott, casts its ugly net. Those subjected to social ostracisation are not allowed to speak to other villagers and in some cases, compelled to abandon their homes and seek refuge elsewhere. Many times, the veli is motivated by politics, caste, or economics.

An informal grama peddalu (village elders), also called a kula (caste) panchayat, of six or seven members nominated for a year by the community (they are never re-installed), takes a call on veli. Bale Ramulu, a 71-year-old resident, says “The age-old practice of veli has been followed to maintain social order within the community.”

The grama peddalu may also enforce tappu (wrong in Telugu), a monetary penalty against ‘wrongdoers’. In a parallel government, they may impose both or just one, depending on how severe they feel the ‘wrongdoing’ is. The pedda (elder) Vaddi heads this informal panchayat that decides on several matters that the community considers important socially and economically, including marriage and extra-marital affairs.

In the news

A fortnight ago, former sarpanch Anjaneyulu and his family found themselves at the receiving end of the veli. The current sarpanch, Ghantasala Bhagya Lakshmi, decided to widen the road along which Anjaneyulu had owned a house. A part of the house was demolished, and Anjaneyulu claims that he had in fact sold the house before the demolition, but that this was part of a vendetta against him. “The sarpanch and community elders were under the impression that I still owned that property and went ahead with the demolition,” he alleges.

In the village, people generally unanimously support one candidate during panchayat elections, say villagers. In 2013, Ghantasala Jaganatham, Lakshmi’s husband, allegedly asked for proper elections. Anjaneyulu, who is affiliated to the Telugu Desam Party, won. In 2019, villagers voted for Bhagya Lakshmi, from the YSR Congress Party. Jaganatham refrained from discussing the incident, saying that he was away from the village on personal work.

After the veli, fellow villagers and Vaddis across other villages allegedly refused to engage in transactions involving the sale and purchase of vegetables and groceries. They abstained from working in the fish tanks owned by Anjaneyulu, and simply stopped speaking to the family.

Anjaneyulu says information about his veli was passed on by knocking on every door in the village, as opposed to the customary tamuku practice of beating a drum to make a public announcement. This was done under the instructions of Jaganatham, he alleges. Despite officials at the awareness meeting declaring that veli would be considered a crime, Anjaneyulu says no such announcement was made by the grama peddalu.

State administration kicks in

The former sarpanch, who now resides in the nearby village of Kota Lanka where he owns fish tanks, about 10 km from Sringavarappadu, filed a complaint with the district administration on December 17 last year. The social boycott found a brief mention in local editions of vernacular dailies with limited circulation in the area, but it did not make it to mainstream dailies.

In response, the Eluru district administration organised an awareness meeting in the village on December 20. The session had over 100 people in attendance as per the administration, but in fear of ostracisation, villagers claim they were not present. District panchayat officials worked towards reconciliation, with the police intervening to counsel villagers against enforcing such boycotts. Officials even had the villagers take an oath not to engage in the practice of veli.

District panchayat officer Tutika Srinivas Viswanath says the villagers are cooperating with the family that had been boycott. “The villagers have been told that stringent action will be taken if the social boycott practice is followed,” he adds.

Eluru district Collector Prasanna Venkatesh says an inquiry has been initiated, and facts about the veli are being verified. Eluru District Superintendent of Police Prashanti Mary did not respond to calls or text messages.

In Sringavarappadu, villagers are tight-lipped. “The grama peddalu has instructed us not to discuss anything about the veli with outsiders, especially those from the media,” says a villager, requesting anonymity.

Shadow of social boycott

Until 1976, residents of Kolleru led a peaceful life, sustaining themselves through fishing in the lake. They were largely cut off from the mainland, resulting in low social and economic indicators. Literacy continues to be low, despite a growing number of double graduates and postgraduates since the 1970s.

Traditionally engaged in agriculture, animal husbandry, and rural livelihoods, the Vaddi community holds sway not only in Sringavarappadu, but also in neighbouring island villages such as Prattikollalanka, Penchikalamarru, Kolletikota, and Chatakai around Kolleru lake.

The Vaddis claim a few families were boycotted in Odisha over a century ago, which is why they migrated to Andhra Pradesh, where they found this area suitable to carry on fishing: This is the story the eldest in the community tell. Subsequently, more of their relatives migrated, drawn by Kolleru’s rich biodiversity and ample fishing opportunities. These families have steadfastly held onto their customs and traditions, including the practice of veli.

Why the custom thrives

In 1976, then Chief Minister Jalagam Vengala Rao allocated 50 cents of land (about half an acre) to each fishing family, asking them to form cooperatives. This marked a turning point as the Vaddis turned businesspeople. They began to maintain and lease fish tanks and worked as labourers on agricultural lands, thereby earning dual incomes. Thatched-roof mud houses gave way to concrete structures, and families acquired modern appliances, with some children being enrolled in private schools.

The fish tanks, known as banta, are now particular important for economic stability. During the summer when Kolleru lake dries up, villagers construct bunds in the middle of the lake to create these fish tanks, a practice that is illegal. The bunds are built, and mechanised trawlers operate stealthily after dusk. Due to the lake’s shallow depth that reaches only 20 feet at its deepest point, building bunds is a relatively straightforward process, with some villagers completing it overnight. The heads of the fish tanks oversee maintenance, fishing, and sales.

Other than the tanks that are leased out, the ones maintained by the community ensure that incomes are distributed to the male members. Earnings amount to lakhs of rupees annually, fetching families more than ₹50,000 to ₹1lakh per acre of a fish tank, say some villagers. Since there are minimal input costs, no rent or lease payments, and no taxes, the entire income is a profit.

Males, like Anjaneyulu, who have migrated are also entitled to a share, and even newborn boys are eligible for a portion of the proceeds from the sale of fish in the community tanks. A father of two girls who was unwilling to be named, says this is true, but “It is a custom and we have to follow it.” When the veli kicks in, the share from the fish tanks is stopped.

This economic implication give rise to tensions. In 2014, Ghantasala Mahalakshmi Raju, a leader of the Vaddi caste panchayat, in Prattikollalanka, a village located approximately 8 km from Sringavarappadu, was subjected to social boycott. Members of the caste expelled him and his family from the village, alleging fraud in distribution of proceeds from fishponds leased annually within the community. Irate villagers raided and vandalised his house.

Raju was accused of embezzling crores of rupees collected from fishpond leaseholders, funds that were supposed to be equitably shared among all male members of the village. A large group of fishermen from Prattikollalanka held a protest in front of the Collectorate, urging the administration to enforce the boycott by sending their leader away until he repaid the embezzled money to the villagers. The matter was finally resolved in a community meeting.

Caste conflicts and boycotts

In 2012, a family faced confinement within the Ramalayam (Rama temple) in Chataki village of Eluru district for defying the directives of the grama peddalu in a boundary dispute between two families.

Some years ago, Komatilanka, situated on an island in the heart of Kolleru, became a battleground for a caste conflict over a piece of government land. The Malas from the village, who are Scheduled Castes and the Vaddis of Sriparru village, located about 20 km away, both claimed it, with the Malas being boycotted.

In a related incident at Prattikollalanka, another Kolleru habitation, a rift between the two communities resulted in a social boycott of the Malas for a few years. Vaddis allegedly decided not to hire autos driven by the Malas for over a month.

In Iskapalli village of Aluru mandal in Nellore district, fishermen leaders imposed a durai (penalty, another word for tappu) of ₹10,000 on those who openly engage with TDP leader Beeda Ravichandra. This action came in response to Ravichandra’s alleged derogatory comments against the fisherfolk and the village in 2020. The TDP leader is also barred from entering their village.

“The community elders pardon the person or family if they tender an apology and pay a fine. The veli is then lifted,” says a villager close to Anjaneyulu.

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