A Caste War Erupted On This Day

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India Today reported on this day under NTR’s regime…

A day after the silent, holy night of Christmas, the coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh resembled a battlefield.

On the morning of December 26, the state woke up to the unholy cries of murder and revenge and within minutes the districts – East and West Godavari, Krishna and Guntur-were convulsed by riots following the murder of Congress(I) MLA and leader of the Kapu community, Vangaveeti Mohana Ranga Rao. At the end of the 60-hour-long morbid drama, more than 42 people lay killed, according to official figures, and property worth over Rs 100 crore was destroyed.

Even as the state erupted in violence it was all too evident who had masterminded the murder. On new year’s day Chief Minister N.T. Rama Rao gave a 72-hour ultimatum to party MLA Devineni ‘Nehru’ Rajasekhar, Kamma leader and arch-rival of Ranga, to surrender. Nehru surrendered on January 4. On the same day Home Minister Dr Kodela Sivaprasad Rao resigned, taking full responsibility for the murder and the riots that followed. The pattern of violence showed that the houses and property of Telugu Desam sympathisers who were mostly Kammas were attacked. While a cinema hall owned by Rama Rao’s brother was set on fire, two cinema halls owned by former APCC(I) president Dr Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy were left untouched.

The police were ill-equipped to face the rioters. “The police failed miserably and the violence will leave a deep scar,” laments V. Sobhanadeswara Rao, Telugu Desam MP from Vijayawada. “Every murder is a failure of the police. We were caught unawares,” admits Director-General of Police P.S. Rama Mohan Rao, who later sent in his resignation.

The outbreak of violence was the culmination of years of caste conflict fuelled by both the Congress(I) and the Telugu Desam. Ranga had long been campaigning for the cause of the Kapu community and had built up a sizeable following.

On July 10 last year, he finally emerged as the uncrowned leader of the Kapus at a rally – called Kapunadu – of nearly five lakh people in Vijayawada, rivalling in sheer numbers the Telugu Desam’s Mahanadu rally which the chief minister had addressed in May. Ranga was behind bars but posters, cut-outs and slogans announced the fact that the Kapus had found in Ranga the leader they were looking for.

Inspired by the success of the Kapunadu rally Ranga began the Jana Chaitanya Yatra in a bus after his release in July “to expose the autocratic rule and misdeeds of Rama Rao”. People swarmed around the new ratham and Rama Rao, who rode to power in his van, called the Chaitanya Ratham, began to see strange parallels.

 

 

 

In the race for popularity stakes Ranga was threatening the unquestioned sway of the chief minister in the region. Says Kapu activist and ex-Telugu Desam MLC Madasu Gangadharam: “Rama Rao was evidently envious of the response Ranga got and feared that he would lose the support of the Kapus.”

The Kapunadu rally in a way marked a crucial turn in the caste-based politics of the state. It was an open challenge thrown at the Kammas and in effect against the chief minister who the Kapus felt was the patron of the Kammas. The phalanx of the Kammas under Nehru and that of the Kapus led by Ranga were neatly arrayed on either side in the coastal region. And once Ranga was released on bail, the battle drums sounded.

The first moves in this bitter caste feud were made by the Congress(I) and the Telugu Desam way back in 1983. Both parties patronised gangs in the trading town of Vijayawada and other coastal districts.

Ranga was then just a local leader trying to mark out his domain by muscle power and rhetoric. He exposed numerous brutal acts of the police, including deaths in custody, and soon the halo of an anti-hero appeared around him.

His activities often landed him in jail and it was while behind bars that he contested the municipal elections from the Krishna Lanka division in 1981. The Congress(I) saw his potential and made sure of his victory by pulling out its official candidate. From then onwards Ranga’s has been an enviable rise in the political firmament.

The Telugu Desam groomed Nehru, a Kamma, to counter Ranga’s growing influence. Nehru had been elected to the assembly from the Kankipadu constituency skirting Vijayawada in 1983 and 1985. Ranga had by then turned into a staunch campaigner for the rights of Kapus and the Congress(I) put him up as the candidate for the Vijayawada east constituency in 1985.

The Kamma-Kapu conflict was symbolised by the Nehru-Ranga rivalry which left a trail of blood and violence and came to a bloody end in the shamiana opposite Ranga’s house where he was on a hunger strike. Apart from caste and political rivalry, Nehru had a score to settle with Ranga. On March 10 last year, Nehru’s younger brother, Murali, was killed – allegedly by Ranga’s henchmen.

At that time Ranga was away in Delhi for treatment, but he was wanted by the police in connection with Murali’s death. He surrendered after the high court refused to give him anticipatory bail. After his release on bail Ranga went on a hunger strike to demand protection.

The outbreak of violence was the culmination of a Kamma- Kapu caste conflict fuelled by the Congress(I) and the Telugu Desam. The rivalry left a trail of blood and violence.

He had written to the Union Home Ministry which had endorsed the request to the state Government which in turn gave him two gunmen. The bodyguards remained mere spectators as another bloody act in the state’s macabre drama of power-politics was played out.

Within hours of Ranga’s murder while on hunger strike, the Congress(I) made it clear that it intended to make political capital out of the incident. Union Minister for Human Resource Development P. Shiv Shankar, who was in Hyderabad, said: “This is a clear case of collusion and conspiracy of the administration with the Telugu Desam goondas to unleash violence and terror.”

N. Janaradhan Reddy, president of the APCC(I), warned that the party would launch a ” civil war” to throw out the Rama Rao regime. The Congress(I) sponsored state bandh on December 27 was total. And for the first time after the shameful dismissal of the Rama Rao Ministry in 1984, the Congress(I) had got a chance to hit back.

The Congress(I) delayed the funeral for 50 hours to await the arrival of a high-profile delegation comprising Union ministers Sheila Dixit and Mohsina Kidwai besides Congress(I) general secretaries Ghulam Nabi Azad, Jagannath Pahadia and treasurer Sitaram Kesari. At the post-cremation meeting, Kesari said: “N.T.Rama Rao is a fake Krishna. He is a Kamsa.”

At one stage it seemed that the convulsions caused by the murder would crack the foundations of the Telugu Desam and cause a Kamma Kapu polarisation. Chegondi Venkata rama Jogiah, a former minister in the Rama Rao Cabinet, resigned from the party accusing Rama Rao’s administration of incompetence and inefficiency. He lamented that his Kapu community which had backed the Telugu Desam since 1983 now had “a low opinion about Rama Rao and its hopes in him were shattered”.

Soon however, Maganti Ravindranath Chowdhury. prominent Congress(I) leader, film producer and arrack contractor from Jogiah’s native West Godavari district, quit the Congress(I) “disgusted with its sectarian and casteist politics”.

Ranga (far right) with Shiv Shankar; and (left) rioters destroy an NTR hoarding

Not one to be beaten on political skulduggery, Rama Rao promptly invited a team of MPs of non-Congress(I) parties – including Janata Dal leader Madhu Dandavate and the BJP’s L.K. Advani – to visit Vijayawada for an appraisal. The team also condemned the murder.

Predictably the Kapus are sore about the Ranga murder. They see it as part of a continuing onslaught on their caste by the chief minister. On May 28 last year another Kapu minister in the Cabinet, Mudragada Padmanabham, had resigned as he was peeved at some remarks Rama Rao had made about him to another minister.

“The death of Ranga and the manner in which a reputedly honest politician like Padmanabham was upset by Rama Rao’s behaviour has hurt Kapu sentiment,” says former Congress(I) minister K. Keshava Rao.

Rama Rao, aware of the strength of the Kapus, tried his best to persuade Padmanabham to remain in the ministry. The Kapus in Padmanabham’s East Godavari district helped the Telugu Desam win 20 of the 21 seats in the region in the 1985 assembly elections.

Said another minister from the deltaic district: “The loss of Padmanabham and the murder of Ranga erodes the support we had among voters in the coastal districts. The massive margins will no longer be possible.”He and other Telugu Desam activists are, however, hopeful that Kapu ire will not tilt the balance in favour of the Congress(I).

But electoral arithmetic proves that the Kapus – there are 22 Kapu MLAs excluding Padmanabham and Jogiah in the 294-seat Assembly – can influence the results in about 80 constituencies. Says Keshava Rao: “The Kapus are a power in electoral politics but not yet a force.”

Accounting for about 15 per cent of the state population, the Kapus are the single largest community in the state.

But they are known by different names and only some of them are listed as backward classes. The Kapus, concentrated in Guntur, Krishna, West and East Godavari districts are listed among the forward castes. In Rayalaseema they are known as Balijas.

Those in Visakhapatnam are known as Thoorpu (eastern) Kapu and those living in the Telengana districts are called Munnuru Kapu – both listed as backward castes. In fact one of the objectives of the Kapunadu in Vijayawada in July was to demand that all Kapus be listed as backward classes.

Victims of police firing

The Kapus are predictably sore about the Ranga murder. They see it as part of a continuous onslaught on their caste by Chief Minister N.T. Rama Rao who is a Kamma.

The Kammas on the other hand account for only 6 per cent of the state’s population and are an educated, progressive caste. Many are farmers of fertile land and a local joke is that the Kammas go wherever water leads them. They are highly mobile and buy or take up land in other districts to tap good water sources. Many Kamma doctors and engineers h ave settled down in America.
The anxiety of Rama Rao, the first Kamma chief minister, to pick up Kammas for key jobs makes him vulnerable to the charge of Kamma bias. The former home minister Sivaprasad Rao, the Director-General of Police P.S.Rama Mohan Rao, the Telugu Desam Chief Whip K.V. Narayana Rao, State Planning Board Vice-Chairman Butchaiah Chaudhury (Rama Rao himself is the chairman) and the Andhra Pradesh Dairy Development Corporation Chairman Rajendra Babu are all Kammas.

The appointment of the chief minister’s son-in-law Chandra-babu Naidu as Rastra Karshaka Parishad chairman was struck down twice by the high court. There are 48 Kamma MLAs (including six from the Congress-T).

Both the Congress(I) and the Telugu Desam are trying hard to soothe the feelings of the Kapus and the Kammas. But leaders of both castes are trying to assert their power and rights. “We are an awakened caste and we will fight to the last.” says Gangadharam.

During the days of the Congress(I) rule in the state it was the Reddys who swung the electoral balance and it was the Kammas who propelled the Telugu Desam to power. But the emergence of the Kapus has added another dimension to the murky casteist politics in the state.

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