POLITICAL murders are on the rise in Andhra Pradesh and encounters with the dreaded Naxal outfit, People's War Group (PWG), are on the upswing. An incredible 55 Congress leaders have been killed in well-planned attacks since the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) took over the reins in November 1994. And the question political observers are asking is: "Do the killings have anything to do with Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu's boast that he is going to rule the state for the next two decades?"
Congress Legislature Party (CLP) leader P. Janardhana Reddy says there is a link between Naidu's claim and the steady elimination of the TDP's rivals at the grassroot level. "If that is not the case, then why are only Congressmen being targeted for Operation Annihilation?" he asks. Adds former chief minister and Congress strong-man Kotla Vijayabhaskara Reddy: "The Naidu government is bent upon eliminating the TDP's political opponents. I have gathered enough proof for my charge."
The latest victim in a growing list is 83-year-old Madduru Subba Reddy, a former member of Parliament and a minister in P.V. Narasimha Rao's state cabinet in 1973. On June 20, this year, Reddy, who had undergone a bypass surgery three years ago, got off from a bus in Kurnool, when a bomb was hurled at him and hired killers attacked him with iron rods and knives. His head splintered into pieces. The killing was initially attributed to the ongoing factional fight between landlord families in the Rayalaseema districts. But soon it took on political overtones.
The needle of suspicion swung to the rival faction leader in Kurnool, Byreddy Rajasekhara Reddy, who had joined the ruling Naidu clique, deserting the Lakshmi Parvathi faction, just two days before the killing of the octogenarian. Rajasekhara Reddy had stood by N.T. Rama Rao at the time of the split of the TDP, and later extended his support to his widow. He even managed to get the NTR-TDP ticket for his father Seshasaina Reddy to contest against P.V. Narasimha Rao from Nandyal in the recent Lok Sabha elections.
Sensing trouble, Naidu quickly issued a clarification, dissociating the TDP from the incident. "He (Rajasekhara Reddy) is yet to be admitted into the party," he said. But far from clearing the air, the chief minister's stand only strengthened existing doubts in the minds of Congressmen. "We might have accused Rajasekhara of involvement in the killing," said state Congress chief K. Rosaiah. "But where was the need for Naidu to clarify? What does it mean?"
The Congress demanded a CBI inquiry into the murder, as also into the killing of other party leaders like Kedarnath Reddy and former MLA Seshi Reddy in Kurnool, and party activist Sundarami Reddy in Adilabad recently. Said Vijaya-bhaskara Reddy: "Be it the case of Kedarnath Reddy or Madduru Subba Reddy, the police played their role to perfection." A week before Subba Reddy was bumped off, six members of a Congress faction were murdered in a village in Ongole district.
The Naidu Government's view is that the killings are the result of clashes between factions in the Rayalaseema districts. The friction between the Vijayabhaskara Reddy-K.E. Krishnamurthy families and the Byreddy Rajsekhara Reddy-Madduru Subba Reddy families in Kurnool, the Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy-Ramana Reddy factions in Cuddapah, and the Diwakar Reddy-Piratala Ravi families in Anantapur, are existing and evident. All faction leaders, barring Vijayabhaskara Reddy, have criminal charges against them.
But the Naidu Government has been hard-pressed to explain why the killings have only involved leaders of the Congress, and not the two Left parties, which are allies of the ruling party, or the BJP, which is yet to gain a toehold in the state. (It lost the lone Secunderabad seat it held.) Also, if factional feuds are the cause, how come the killings have spread to the northern Telangana and south coastal Andhra regions, which so far had reported only gang wars or Naxal attacks? There have been 25 political murders in south coastal Andhra, 17 in Rayalaseema, and 13 in Telangana during TDP rule.
Congressmen bluntly accuse the TDP of perpetrating brutalities on their activists. Vijayabhaskara Reddy says the government has failed to check growing political violence in his native Kurnool district. As chief minister, Reddy annulled gun licences in the identified faction zones of Rayalaseema to curb clashes. Irrespective of party affilia-tions, police were given a free hand to deal sternly with such cases and a separate police force was cobbled together to deal with factional rivalries. Laments Vijayabhaskara Reddy today: "Unfortunately, the same police outfit is being used by the TDP to settle scores with Congressmen."
CLP leader Janardhana Reddy, who has taken up the onerous task of shielding Congress cadres from attacks by political rivals, contends that Naidu, shorn of the charisma of his late father-in-law NTR and deprived of the traditional base that the communist parties command, is envious of the Congress support at grassroot levels. That few TDP men have fallen victims in the clashes, he says, buttresses the point. The last recognised TDP man to meet a bloody end was MLA Perugu Siva Reddy, in Hyderabad in 1993.
The Congress leadership is gearing up to face the purported threat to its cadres from the ruling party. As a first step, it is likely to organise and, if necessary, intensify the agitation to bring the culprits, who are directly or indirectly involved in crimes against party workers and leaders, to book.
The first head to roll, in all probability, will be that of Byreddy Rajasekhara Reddy, whose hand in the killing of Subba Reddy, many Congressmen feel, is evident.
Congressmen, irrespective of which faction they belong to, say the well-planned attacks have the patronage of the lower-rung policemen. The police allegedly disarm the victims-to-be before the attack. For instance, former MLA P. Seshi Reddy was campaigning for Vijayabhaskara Reddy during the recent general elections in Gone-gandla village in Kurnool, when the attackers struck. In spite of complaints, police didn't rush to his help. In another incident in the same district, police had screened Kedarnath Reddy's supporters and stripped them of arms when the attack took place.
The Congress contends that its workers and leaders are paying a price for the free hand Naidu has given to his legislators in the postings of lower-rung policemenbelow the rank of deputy superintendent. The objective is to keep the TDP MLAs happy. But, says CLP leader Janardhana Reddy: "By doing so, Naidu is facilitating easy monetary returns from such nefarious activities as bootlegging, and easy political returns from the elimination of political opponents."
Ironically, the state government provides armed gunmen to most MLAs in Andhra Pradesh because of the Nax-alite threat in Telangana and factious violence in Rayal-aseema and Andhra regions. But the murder last year of Congress MP from Ongole, Magunta Subbarami Reddy, in spite of his security cover, showed there was no deterrent to determined killers. Subbarami Reddy's killing was dismissed as the handiwork of the PWG, but many Congress leaders now suspect the TDP's 'hidden hand' behind it, too. For Naidu, things may just be hotting up.