Debating India


Turf Turns Turtle

Savitri Choudhury

Monday 4 October 2004, by CHOUDHARY *Savitri

’Political killings’ rage on in an Andhra district as Congress wrests control.

It’s been four months since Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy replaced Chandrababu Naidu as chief minister in Hyderabad, but in rural and small-town Andhra Pradesh, a bloody tug-of-war for political supremacy still rages. Following the change in government, there have been about 40 political murders. Most of the victims belong to the Telugu Desam Party, which is accusing the Congress of launching a systematic attack on its supporters. It alleges that 35 of its workers have been bumped off. The Congress says the TDP is trying to discredit it by putting a political spin on every local or personal feud.

The truth lies somewhere in between. "There could be a discrepancy of numbers but the fact is a lot of TDP people are being killed. Nine years is a long time to be out of power and the Congress wants its revenge," says human rights activist K. Balagopal. The worst hit district is Anantapur where the TDP claims 16 of its followers have been bumped off, followed by five murders in Reddy’s own stronghold Cuddapah, where four people travelling in a bus were lynched. Mahboobnagar has also witnessed four killings, including a double murder last week in Ajilapur.

Naidu has visited Anantapur to protest the killings. He insists this is a macabre plot with the new government subverting official machinery to finish the TDP. Says Naidu: "The message going down to the Congress workers is ’do what you want, the government will take a soft stand.’ The biggest problem is the CM’s own background. Being a faction leader himself, he supports such politics," says Naidu.

War between factions (feudal mafias) is a gruesome subplot to the spread of political murders in the state. Factions have always played a key role in Andhra politics and their importance can be gauged from the fact that even Reddy’s clout is built around his position as an unrivalled factionist from Cuddapah. Reddy’s father Y.S. Rajareddy was killed in a faction feud in the ’90s. A few years earlier, the present CM himself almost met a similar fate when a rival fired on him in the state secretariat. Reddy escaped but an official he had gone to meet died in the attack.

Factional rivalries is a phenomenon peculiar to Rayalseema or the region comprising the state’s four southern districts-Anantapur, Cuddapah, Kurnool and Chittoor. The origins of such factions can be traced to the Vijayanagara kings of the 16th-17th centuries who encouraged groups of local landed gentry or factions to raise their own armies to collect taxes and maintain order. Initially, a faction held sway over a village or taluk but over the years their influence grew far beyond. Modern politics learnt to lean on these power centres, with leaders seeking the support of these local arbitrators. Over the last three decades, the ’community’ of faction leaders itself has yielded the majority of Rayalseema’s MLA’s and MPs.

During the TDP regime, Anantapur was dominated by one man-Paritala Ravi, a dreaded faction leader and TDP MLA from Penukonda. "Over the past decade it wasn’t government rule but TDP rule here. All contracts were routed through them and any opposition eliminated, often with police help. The victims’ families were too scared to register cases," says a senior policeman who worked in Anantapur.

Ravi’s rule over Anantapur extended up to the last elections. "It was the Paritala Ravi image, together with the TDP’s, that won the party six seats in Anantapur. The Congress is now trying to eliminate me to finish the TDP here," Ravi says. The MLA has accused the chief minister’s son, Jaganmohan, of personally masterminding attacks against him to wrest control over Rayalseema. In the last election, the TDP cornered six seats to the Congress’s eight in Anantapur. This was the TDP’s best showing in all of the state’s 23 districts, which otherwise saw the party’s decimation across Andhra Pradesh.

It’s no wonder then that Naidu himself is at the forefront of a campaign to "save" Ravi. However, closer scrutiny reveals that while half the victims were obvious supporters of Ravi, in the other cases local disputes were the prime motive for murder. In one instance, a TDP follower was allegedly killed in an intra-party feud. "Importantly, all victims were criminals with a history of anti-social behaviour so if anybody takes sides or supports these people on political lines it’s most unfortunate," says R.P. Meena, Rayalseema I-G.

The TDP is unconvinced and Naidu in turn accuses the Congress of appointing officers "biased against the TDP". However, when in power the TDP was itself guilty of misusing the police to settle political scores, says Balagopal. "The Congress is killing its opponents today but when the TDP was in power it usually used the police to do the dirty work by killing opponents in fake encounters," he says. Now alarmed that the TDP is gaining undue political mileage out of the recent killings, Reddy has ordered a crackdown on the factions. The government is also considering imposing punitive taxes on faction leaders for deployment of extra troops.

However, with local body elections coming up in a few months, all indications are this violence will continue. It’s also probably impossible to wipe out faction violence without tackling the endemic poverty in Rayalseema, which has been a big factor contributing to the hold of such feudal mafias. Rayalseema is chronically rain-starved and for two years in a row Anantapur has recorded the lowest rainfall in the country after Jaisalmer. Farming is in perennial crisis and debts have driven 450 farmers to suicide in the district over the last six years. While Andhra Pradesh accounts for two-thirds of farmer suicides in India, Anantapur alone accounts for almost half these deaths. With nothing to fall back on, desperate people hang around the factions in the hope of finding sustenance for their families and become easy pawns in these bloody battles of political one-upmanship.


in "Outlook India", Monday, October 4, 2004.

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