Factionalism, Violence and Politics in Andhra Pradesh's Rayalaseema

The leader of one of Rayalaseema’s notorious factions may be dead but the politics of the region continues to revolve around caste and violence.

Paddy fields near Kadappa, Rayalaseema. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Paddy fields near Kadappa, Rayalaseema. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Kurnool: The malevolence of the Rayalaseema factions did not spare Bhuma Nagi Reddy, a MLA from Nandyal in Kurnool district, even in death. When he died of cardiac arrest on March 12, it gave room for another volley of brickbats between his detractors in the opposition Yuvajana, Shramika Rythu Congress (YSR Congress) party and his newfound fans in the ruling Telugu Desam Party (TDP).

A condolence resolution for the late MLA was passed by the ruling party on March 14, an event boycotted by the opposition. The reason? Bitterness over Bhuma’s switch to the TDP after being an important leader of Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSR Congress.

Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu used the opportunity to slam the YSR Congress. “The YSR Congress boycott of Bhuma’s resolution in assembly speaks volumes for their factional politics. Sorry that they carried political vengeance even after the death of political opponent,” he told reporters on the sidelines of the assembly session earlier this week.

Naidu though appears to have conveniently forgotten that it was in fact he who had opposed a similar condolence resolution in 2014 for Shoba Nagi Reddy, Bhuma’s wife, who had died in a car crash. After she was declared the winner with a majority of 18,000 votes over the TDP candidate, the election commission announced a bypoll in Allagadda in which her 24-year-old daughter, Akhilapriya, was elected to the state assembly.

The YSR Congress justified its decision to boycott the resolution. “The TDP moved the resolution to get sympathy votes in the MLC polls,” said YSR Congress MLA Chevireddy Bhaskar Reddy.

Meanwhile, YSR Congress chief Jaganmohan said that Bhuma was a controversial Rayalaseema leader who had jumped over to the TDP to escape political ostracisation. “Though a sitting MLA who had three assembly and three MP terms till now, six cases – a murder and also a case on SC/ST Act (Prevention of Atrocities) were hoisted besides a rowdy sheeter page,” claimed Jaganmohan.

Who is Bhuma Nagi Reddy?

The arid, backward area of Rayalaseema in Andhra Pradesh is home to violent factional families that clash frequently. Bhuma was one such leader, while Jaganmohan is another. After getting a medical degree, Bhuma, who hailed from Kurnool district, returned to the family avocation of factions, when his father was brutally murdered by opponents.

Bhuma was well known for maintaining a private army that followed him even to Hyderabad and Delhi. He hit the national limelight when he contested as a TDP candidate against the prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in the Nandyal parliament bypoll. He left the TDP and joined Chiranjeevi’s Praja Rajyam Party in 2006 and lost in the 2008 bypolls. He later joined the YSR Congress. While he was in the YSR Congress, the TDP slapped him with six cases, including murder and an SC/ST case.

Bhuma Nagi Reddy with his wife Shobha Nagi Reddy. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bhuma Nagi Reddy with his wife Shobha Nagi Reddy. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In February 2016, Bhuma became a prize catch for the TDP, when he returned to the party on the promise of a cabinet berth. Veteran legislators of Rayalaseema, however, say that Bhuma’s tragic end should be an eye opener to all faction leaders and politicians in the area. “Factions will always lead to a tragic end when it takes the shape of political opportunism,” said a senior legislator who did not wish to be named.

Rayalaseema’s murderous families

The word Rayalaseema will likely run a chill down the spines of members of Andhra Pradesh’s business community. Government officials and teachers have dreaded postings in interior towns of the region. Rayalaseema is a law unto itself, a region of violent factions and gangs whose words reign supreme.

Rayalaseema’s bloody history has also been brought to screens by Ram Gopal Varma through the Rakta Charitra series. According to police records, in the last 35 years, nearly 8,465 civilians, including 970 Congress and 560 TDP workers have been killed due to factional violence in this region.

Crude country bombs, hackings and gory murders are part of Rayalaseema’s culture. Since the 1980s, violence has been on the decline in the districts of Chittoor, Kadapa, Anantapur and Kurnool, although factionalism still rules large. In 2015, state police had identified 69 factional groups and also seized 3,600 weapons. “But now most of them are not active in street violence, but come to the fore during elections and during the excise bidding season (for liquor licences),” said a senior police official.

Violence may have abated to an extent, but the region is on the boil. And politicians, deeply rooted in the region, are now engaged in capitalising on the issues present, with each party wooing a specific powerful forward caste in the area.

Resurgent forward castes

TDP leader Naidu hails from Chitoor, Rayalaseema. YSR Congress chief Jaganmohan is also a Rayalaseema native, hailing from Kadapa. The latest entrant to the political minefield of Rayalaseema is actor-turned-politician Pawan Kalyan, who announced that he would contest the 2019 assembly elections from Anantapur as the leader of his brand new party, Jana Sena (People’s Army).

The battle lines are drawn severely along the lines of caste, specifically forward castes. Naidu is wooing the Kammas, who constitute 22% of the population, the caste to which he belongs. Reddys, another powerful caste in the region who account for 34% of the population, are looking to the YSR Congress. Kalyan is targeting the Kapu vote, which constitutes 27% of the populace.

Of the 52 MLAs and eight MPs of Rayalaseema, the majority are the Reddys (27 MLAs and four MPs), Kammas (eight MLAs) and Kapus (ten MLAs and two MPs) form a sizeable chunk of these leaders as well.

Rayalaseema has contributed six chief ministers in the past – Neelam Sanjiva Reddy (Congress), Damodaram Sanjivaiah (Congress), Kotla Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy (Congress), Naidu (TDP), Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy or YSR (Congress) and N. Kiran Kumar Reddy (Congress). Sanjiva Reddy also served as India’s president, while Narasimha Rao also hailed from Rayalaseema.

Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu. Credit: PTI

Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu. Credit: PTI

In June 2016 and January this year, Rayalaseema witnessed violent protests by members of the Kapu caste, demanding backward caste status for the community. In January, protests quickly turned violent, ultimately resulting in a passenger train, a police station and police vehicles being burnt in Tuni in East Godavari. Although the violence and protests have simmered down, tensions continue within the Kapu community, something that Pawan Kalyan is hoping to tap for political advantage.

Water is also at the forefront of unrest in Rayalaseema. The region is famous for a variety of crops – Anantapur is known as Groundnut City, Kurnool district provides Sona Masuri rice to the country and Madanapalli is renowned for its bumper tomato crop. But irrigation continues to remain a long neglected issue despite the 300 kilometre long KC canal and the 406 kilometre long Telugu Ganga projects consistently proving to be thorns in the feet of farmers who clash with the neighbouring states of Karnataka, Telangana and Tamil Nadu over water sharing. A large part of this region is arid, rocky and has little in terms of irrigation projects and therefore high in poverty rates. The rivers Penna, Kundu, Handri, Neeva, Tungabhadra and Krishna flow through Rayalaseema.

Naidu’s much publicised Pattiseema Lift Irrigation Scheme was launched to bring 100 tmcft of Godavari water to the Krishna basin. But the people of Rayalaseema are doubtful and farmers in the arid land are angry that there is no water in the KC canal or in the Telugu Ganga. They allege that the Krishna water allocated to Rayalaseema is diverted to coastal Andhra. “Naidu has diverted Godavari for building Amaravati state capital,” said former minister C. Ramachandraiah, a Congress leader hailing from Kadapa.

Other politicians are quick to capitalise on the tensions over water as well. “Had YSR lived and completed the Rs 12,000 crores worth irrigation schemes, he would have made Rayalaseema evergreen,” said former Congress minister P. Ramachandra Reddy. Farmers though say that five irrigation projects worth Rs 12,000 crores, including the Handri-Neeva and the Galeru-Nagari are languishing without water.

A farmer plants peanuts on a field in Kurnool. Credit: Reuters/Files

A farmer plants peanuts on a field in Kurnool. Credit: Reuters/Files

Another prominent politician from Anantapur, M.V. Mysura Reddy, former home minister of united Andhra, echoes the sentiment in the region. “Though we had several Congress chief ministers, Rayalaseema is ignored due to domination of coastal Andhra,” he said.

That perhaps sums up the resentment, both historical and new, in the region. Like the people of Telangana, Rayalaseema residents too detest the perceived domination of the rich farmers and business magnates of coastal Andhra Pradesh. When the first Andhra state was formed in 1953, Kurnool was made state capital as a compromise. Rayalaseema leaders made coastal Andhra leaders sign the Sree Bagh pact, for equal share in development funding. But with the merger of Telangana into the erstwhile state of Andhra Pradesh, the capital was shifted to Hyderabad and the pact thrown to the winds.

Rayalaseema natives have not forgotten this and complain of step-motherly treatment in terms of development, as compared to coastal Andhra. Successive chief ministers have pampered their home turf but development and infrastructure has eluded the whole region overall – for instance, when Congress leader YSR became chief minister in 2004, he spent over Rs 300 crores on flyovers and roads in his home town Kadapa. In 2014, both the YSR Congress and TDP assured equal share development for Rayalaseema as a major point in their election manifesto in order to convince local leaders and factional groups that the region should stay with Andhra Pradesh.

Factions rule the roost

Development, according to most leaders from the region, eluded Rayalaseema for decades, thanks to the deep rooted violence between factions in the area. R.P. Meena, a former inspector general of police in Rayalaseema, was specially tasked by YSR in 2005 to eliminate factional violence. In his report submitted in 2007, Meena said that the violence created by factions was worse than that of the caste gangs of Bihar. “They hacked, maimed and beheaded their opponents just to create terror,” he said in his 210-page report to the government.

He had also suggested disarming all private armies belonging to both TDP and Congress leaders, and denying party tickets to faction leaders for all elections. Successive governments though have ignored this advice. “Seemandhra leaders scuttled Rayalaseema development in the name of factionalism, same as they did for Telangana in the name of extremism,” said former TDP MLA Byreddy Rajasekhar Reddy, a staunch campaigner for a separate Rayalaseema.

Many of the killings were showcased to spread terror among opponents to stay away from auctions of liquor contracts, road building and also for extortion from local business units.

Elected representatives like Mahabaleswar Gupta, Madduri Subba Reddy, Sheshi Reddy, Siva Reddy and Paritala Ravi were all victims of such violence.

If earlier rivalries were confined to Congress leaders, the advent of the TDP in the early 1980s prolonged and deepened factionalism. Political links are fragile in many cases and many switch loyalties with a change of government. “During the 2014 polls Chandrababu Naidu admitted many Congress leaders and gave them assembly and parliament tickets, as it brought him the support of their factions,” observed senior journalist K. Srinath Reddy, who is based in Kadapa. After the 2014 general elections, two MPs and 12 MLAs of YSR Congress from Rayalaseema quickly switched sides to the TDP chanting the development mantra. In Kurnool district, K.E. Krishnamurthy (former Congressman), now deputy chief minister in the TDP government, and Bhuma of Allagadda, continually changed sides and always chose the winning parties. “We have changed parties for the sake of development of our region which is our priority,” Bhuma had said when he formally joined the TDP for a second time.

Former Chief Minister YSR Reddy (right) handing the Nandi award to J. Subba Rao. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Former Chief Minister YSR Reddy (right) handing the Nandi award to J. Subba Rao. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Basic concerns ignored

Illiteracy, barren lands, lack of irrigation, unemployment and a basic lack of security for the people living in the poverty-ridden region have gone ignored by powerful politicians and policymakers, claim residents. Literacy level in Rayalaseema is only 42% as compared to 66% in coastal Andhra and a 62% national average. Poverty levels here are above 76%, while coastal Andhra does far better with 47%, with the national average being 51%. Unemployment rates in Rayalaseema is an astounding 82% – compare this with 49% in coastal Andhra and 62% in the country. These figures are part of a 2014 UNDP report.

Despite heat wave conditions, villagers in the region do not sleep inside homes, but on their terraces, fearing sudden violence between factions. Women move around with packets of chilli powder and men hold crude country bombs in tiffin boxes and handbags – violence and a need for self protection is a way of life here.

Villagers of Banganapalli in Kurnool district recount terrifying tales of lawlessness. They travel in groups and in buses, rather than in private vehicles. In 2014 and again in 2015, buses were attacked several times in this village with crude bombs by faction soldiers in an effort to kill rivals. “While faction leaders are safe in their homes with gunmen, we the poor suffer for either supporting them or opposing them,” said Sana Chengal Reddy, a government school teacher in Banganapalli.

Prathibha Reddy (32), a government clerk in Badwal town of Kadapa district, says that she sent her children to district towns of Karnataka to study and stay in hostels as she was not sure when faction battles would erupt in her town. “I had to wait with fingers crossed whenever my children went to school,” she explained. At least 13 persons were officially declared killed in faction fights since 2014 in this town dominated by the YSR faction.

In towns like Nandyal in Kurnool district or Prodattur in Kadapa, hotels do not give rooms to strangers except to those recommended by faction leaders. All rooms have a separate entry and exit, and large free areas for gunmen of faction leaders to sleep. In the Owk town of Kurnool district in 2011, local faction leader the late MLA Challa Ramakrishna Reddy had issued a diktat that no one could walk with chappals on the street leading to his vast home spread over two acres. He had also imposed a road tax for motorists to use the 20 km stretch of road up to the district headquarters.

Since contracts for civil works, liquor licences and every industry or business is allowed only with the blessings of the faction leaders, a culture of kow-towing prevails, boosted by the entry of these factions into politics. “Today’s opposition is tomorrow’s ruling party in this region and hence all businessmen and contractors make peace on both sides and pay off in the ratio of 60:40 to buy immunity,” said Radhakrishna Rao, a senior journalist based in Kurnool.

“What we need are more officials like Thomas Munroe (a tough officer in British India who broke the faction groups of Kadapa),” said T.G. Venkatesh, former Congress minister, now in TDP and a prominent campaigner for a Green and Peaceful Rayalaseema.

“Faction politics is not dead but has taken the shape of party politics in Rayalaseema,” said K. Rampulla Reddy, a senior journalist based in Kadapa. “Though it is richly endowed with natural resources and a politically conscious leadership, the region is unable to step out of its traditional faction cult.”

Political analysts say that the problems being faced by the people of Rayalaseema had, and continues to have, its roots in the vested interests of politicians. “Had our political leadership encouraged enterprise and industrial activity instead of promoting factional violence, Rayalaseema could have been been far ahead of other regions,” said veteran political analyst R.H. Vidyaranya.

G.S. Radhakrishna is a senior journalist who has worked in Hyderabad for over two decades. He is an independent journalist with The Lede.