Violence Subsides in Coastal Andhra But the Caste Fire Still Simmers

The growing demand for including the prosperous Kapu community in the list of Other Backward Castes is a growing headache for state chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu

Agitators belonging to the Kapu caste set fire to the Ratnachal Express when it halted at Tuni railway station in East Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh on Sunday. The mob was demanding inclusion of the Kapus in the list of 'Backward Castes'. Credit: PTI

Agitators belonging to the Kapu caste set fire to the Ratnachal Express when it halted at Tuni railway station in East Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh on Sunday. Credit: PTI

Coastal Andhra Pradesh was peaceful on Monday after the arson and violence the day before when former minister Mudragada Padmanabham revived his decades-old demand for inclusion of the Kapu community in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category.

He suspended the massive protests after the shock and widespread condemnation evoked by the torching of the Ratnachal Express train, besides 25 vehicles and a police station. However, the maverick leader, now camping in his Kirlampudi village, threatened to launch an indefinite fast that he would end only after the government issued orders giving reservations for the Kapus.

Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu was busy campaigning for his Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) polls when violence suddenly erupted in Tuni in the East Godavari district and spiralled out of control by evening, indicating woeful intelligence gathering by police.

It brought central coastal Andhra down on its knees by paralysing rail and road traffic on the crucial Kolkata-Chennai route. Terror-stricken passengers, particularly women, jumped out of Ratnachal Express to save their lives as protesters set bogie after bogie as well as the engine on fire. 

A shaken Naidu rushed to Vijayawada to take stock of the situation and indirectly blamed YSR Congress president Y. S. Jaganmohan Reddy for instigating the violence which was apparently pre-planned. “A criminal was behind this”, Naidu said and hinted that the Congress too had a hand in it.  “They planted mischief mongers amidst the crowds (to burn public property),” he claimed.

TDP failure

But Naidu should also apportion the blame to his partymen for their abject failure in sensing the discontent brewing among the Kapus when Mudragada gave the call for ‘Kapu Aikya Garjana’ on January 31. They were perhaps lulled into complacence by the TDP’s good performance in the 2014 elections, when it bagged 28 out of 34 Assembly seats in Kapu-dominated East and Godavari districts. The party had belied forecasts that Kapus would plump for Jagan overwhelmingly.

Though a past-master in the game of mobilising for political rallies and launching fasts, Mudragada gave no advance notice of a rail or rasta roko agitation this time round. He simply gave a call to block the roads and railway lines after addressing a meeting. Giving it back to Naidu, Mudragada accused ‘bad elements’ enjoying TDP’s patronage for burning the train. “Never in the past have my agitations turned violent. My supporters won’t lift a finger without my orders”.

Mudragada may enjoy the unflinching loyalty of his supporters but his image as an upright and uncompromising Kapu leader has been dented over the years. In his four decade-long career, he has performed many political somersaults by swinging back and forth from the TDP to the Congress, depending on which way the wind was blowing.

Traditional Kapus-Kamma rift

Kapus and Kammas have not enjoyed a great political equation over the years and the former’s support to the TDP led by Naidu, a Kamma, in 2014 came as a surprise. Violent clashes between the two communities swept swathes of Andhra following the assassination of Vangaveeti Ranga, a Kapu leader in Vijayawada in December 1988. Both are influential land-owning communities, with Kapus, who can boast of stars like Chiranjeevi and Pawan Kalyan, accounting for 28% of the state’s population.

Kapus are comparable to the Gujjars of Rajasthan and Patels of Gujarat not merely because of their common demand for reservations but also for being agrarian communities. The shrewd politician that he is, Naidu promised reservations for Kapus and a Rs.1,000 crore fund annually for their welfare to woo the community.

These promises were forgotten once Naidu became chief minister. He constituted a Kapu Welfare and Development Corporation with a Rs. 100 crore corpus – a far cry from the sum he had promised. Subsequently, under pressure, he instituted the Manjunath Commission to suggest guidelines for the inclusion of Kapus in the OBC category with the caveat that it should submit its report within nine months.

Reservations for Kapus is easier said than done because of the cap enforced by the Supreme Court. At the fag end of its term in 1994 after which it lost power to the TDP, the Congress government issued vague and imprecise orders for introducing reservations for Kapus.

“I can also issue such orders tomorrow. Will the Kapu leaders take the responsibility if these reservations are struck down by a court or if protests are raised by communities pre-existing in the OBC list? Moreover, how can the government allot Rs.1000 crore for Kapu welfare when it doesn’t have money to pay salaries to its staff”, Naidu said.

‘It’s all lies’

Mudragada retorted that all this was a fabric of lies since the government had spent a whopping Rs. 1400 crore on Pattiseema, a project for diversion of Godavari water into the Krishna basin, and when Naidu was travelling lavishly within India and abroad on chartered jets. “We don’t want to deprive BCs of their quota (29%). We demand reservations from the general category”, he said.

It won’t be long before the conflagration assumes political dimensions as parties begin jockeying to capture the Kapu vote bank. The BJP has kept a distance from the incendiary caste conflicts in coastal Andhra. Union Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu said the violence would only harm the Kapus’ cause.

Down and out since voters delivered it a knockout punch in 2014, the Congress will extend support to Mudragada in the hope of revival. It would be interesting to track Jaganmohan Reddy’s moves as he has the most to benefit from the fresh churning in the Kapu community. After Hyderabad, where parties exploited caste divisions to the hilt after Rohith Vemula’s suicide, it is Andhra’s turn now to become the battleground for caste politics.