Rayalaseema: law, order, crime

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M.A. Mannan, Kaveree Bamzai, December 21, 2013: India Today

Rayalaseema in Andhra Pradesh turn into a lawless land

A lax arms licensing policy fuels the formation of private platoons and pushes up violence in the four faction-ridden districts of Rayalaseema

It's an hour past midnight on August 19. Armed with sickles, axes and crude bombs, a 50-member force marches towards the panchayat office in Chakralla village of Kurnool district.

Overpowering the police picket, the mob storms the two-room tenement and hacks to death Telugu Desam leader Boya Rampalli Lakshmana and his three followers. Before they leave, they hurl eight bombs into the office. The police have registered a case against the leader of his rival faction, Puli Ranganna of the Congress(I), and 40 others.

On the map of Andhra Pradesh, the jagged contours of Rayalaseema are marked in blood. In the four districts of Kurnool, Cuddapah, Anantapur and Chittoor, collectively known as Bombulaseema, bomb-making is a thriving cottage industry. As for Kurnool and parts of Cuddapah, landlords-cum-legislators have organised private platoons to carve up spheres of menace and mayhem.

Much as in the badlands of Bihar and in the increasingly lawless fief of Punjab, powerful men - with cases ranging from assault to murder pending against them - have carried over decades of hostility with rival families to divide villages into factions, aligned loosely to political parties. Whether as a result of land disputes or a desire to gain political influence, the settlement was always violent.

But now the battles have taken on frightening implications, with the Government liberalising its arms licensing policy since 1990. In Kurnool district alone, since 1990, the authorities have issued 200-odd licences for a range of weaponry - rifles, revolvers, single and double-barrel bridge and muzzle loading guns - causing a six-fold increase over the previous years.

The nature of crimes has also changed and from a motley crew of goondas, mercenaries have made murder an organised business - some even use sten guns. In the past two months alone, there have been six brutal killings in these districts.

Nowhere is this phenomenon as much in evidence as in Kurnool district, which tops the state in crime figures. Hemmed in by a 20-member private army whenever he steps out of his fortified house in Allagadda, 120 km from Kurnool, Telugu Desam MLA Bhuma Venkata Nagi Reddy, who was booked under tada for a year in 1989, admits he spends about Rs 2 0,000 every month to maintain what he calls part of his family.

Says he: "Armed squads are for self-protection." The 37-year-old chain-smoking homeopathy drop-out probably needs all the armoury around him, what with the rival faction, allegedly led by Congress(I) MP Gangula Pratap Reddy - who vacated the Nandyal seat for Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao - breathing down his neck.

The feud between the Bhuma and Gangula clans is a long-simmering one, but it came to a boil when Pratap Reddy's father defeated Nagi Reddy's father in the 1978 assembly elections. Says Katasani Rambhoopal Reddy, 33, another warlord who carries on a feud - with the Bijjam Satyanarayana Reddy clan, whom the police accuse of murdering his father in 19 77: "To have a faction is considered a privilege.”

In fact, each of Kurnool's 13 assembly segments has two factions. Five of the seven assembly segments in the Nandyal constituency - Allagadda, Koilakuntla, Atmakur, Nandikotkur and Panyam - are particularly criminal.

For over three decades now, the district has passed into history for its continuous revenge killings over long-standing disputes. Says Deputy Superintendent of Police B. Malla Reddy, who led a yearlong crackdown on Allagadda warlords in 1989: "Taking revenge is considered almost a right by the people and politicians alike.”

It is this philosophy that is breaching the parameters of law. Take the number of bombs and firearms seized by the police during massive crackdowns: in 1987, the police unearthed 50 unlicensed pistols and rifles and hundreds of home-made crude bombs.

In 1989, the catch went up to nearly 1,000 crude bombs and 500 firearms, and last year, after the Nandyal parliamentary election, the police recovered 200 bombs during the raids in the villages. The number of unlicensed weapons in the four districts has gone up to 1,000 this year.

Few people have any alternative to this rough justice. In order to protect their own interests, contractors of official schemes, licensed as well as illegal arrack dealers and villagers attach themselves to one faction or the other. Men like Challa Ramakrishna Reddy, 45, have a long memory and they have fuelled it with money and muscle. Protected from the wrath of his enemies by a posse of rifle and machete-wielding men, the former Telugu Desam Panyam MLA's name is splashed on the walls of Owk, 80 km from Nandyal. Says Kondamidi Puli ('Tiger Atop a Hill', as he is known):' 'Now a faction leader does not talk about his schedules in advance.”

The recent Government order to permit arms licences in the name of family members, has encouraged landlords to raise jeeploads of rifle-wielding toughs. But Home Minister M.V. Mysoora Reddy denies that arming "factionists" is harmful: "Possession of licensed arms will inculcate a sense of responsibility among them and curb possession of illicit weapons." Most of the gang members are unemployed youth, for whom these private armies are useful spin-offs of feudalism. As 22-year-old Jayaraju of Bhuma Nagi Reddy's squad says: "I get Rs 500 and two bags of rice every month."

Meanwhile, the police have finally begun to cry a halt to the mindless bloodshed. In a recent move, those of the rank of sub-inspector and above have been asked to make night halts in 15 faction-prone villages to re-assess the problem.

But with the Government continuing its policy of arms licensing, it seems that the Telugu saying - even a crow from my neighbour's house cannot perch on my roof - will determine the lay of the land for a long time to come.

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