Ground report: The fragile calm and violent political history of Palnadu

It’s hard to miss the road that leads to Atmakur village in Andhra Pradesh's Palnadu region. Several police barricades dot the entrance on one side, and huge political banners have been set up next to the bus stop on the other end. "The police were swarming here until a few days ago, but now they are limited to inside the village. You can go till the church but a police picket will stop you there," a local resident says, pointing in the direction of the road.

The village was in the news earlier this month, after a call for 'Chalo Atmakur' given by the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) president N Chandrababu Naidu. Alleging that TDP supporters have been driven out of their villages by YSRCP workers after Jagan Mohan Reddy’s party came to power in May this year, Naidu had called for a public rally on September 11. The YSRCP, too, had given a competing call for a rally, making the same allegations against the TDP. However, the police were quick to foil the protests, detaining both TDP and YSRCP workers.

Now, the politicians have gone back and so the media glare has faded. The residents in the village meanwhile are wary of any outsider, and say that the real story in Atmakur is as much about personal, familial rivalry, as politics.

A board at the entrance of Atmakur

What ails Atmakur

"It was not a political clash. It was personal enmity between the two groups within one powerful Madiga family, that is behind this entire drama," says one resident, close to the SC colony, as others nod in agreement. "If anyone tells you otherwise, you can be sure that they are affiliated to either TDP or YSRCP.  All of them are maligning our village," he adds. 

At the centre of the conflict are a former village Sarpanch, Yesobu, and his nephew Charles. Yesobu and Charles are part of a powerful Madiga (SC) family in the village, and four years ago, the two of them had an altercation over distributing family assets amongst themselves. The family split in two after this, with one faction supporting Yesobu, and the other backing Charles.

According to people in Atmakur, Yesobu, a TDP sympathiser, had directly taken the issue up with Chandrababu Naidu when he was the Chief Minister. Meanwhile, Charles and his supporters took the help of the Reddy community, who were backing the YSRCP.

And so, the lines between personal and political blurred. While the TDP was in power, Charles and his supporters were allegedly forced to leave the village in 2015. And when Jagan Mohan Reddy came to power in the state a few months ago, Charles is said to have returned. 

Fearing backlash, Yesobu’s family fled in June, and was briefly lodged in the TDP’s rehabilitation camp in Guntur. On the day the ‘Chalo Atmakur’ rally was supposed to take place however, the police moved Yesobu and his family back to the village. 

"Ever since we brought the family back, we have managed to keep them largely indoors unless unavoidable,” says one of the policemen posted in Atmakur, “Things have been peaceful. No one else gives us trouble here. It is only them."

While that may be the case in Atmakur, this is not to say that there is no political violence in the Palnadu region, which covers parts of Guntur and Prakasam districts.

Barricades at the entrance of Atmakur

On-the-ground party battles

In villages like Manchikallu in Gurazala mandal, and Pinnelli near Piduguralla town, both of which TNM visited, there have been cases of ostracisation based on party affiliation. 

In Manchikallu, a few families returned to their village only on Friday night, with a police escort, after they said that they were forced to flee. In the village, YSRCP logos on electric poles back the claim of the residents that the ruling party is asserting its presence in a region that has traditionally been considered a stronghold of the TDP. 

In Pinnelli too, residents say that workers of the TDP and YSRCP frequently clashed before the polls, and when Jagan won, TDP sympathisers were forced to leave.

"There were fights, injuries and even police cases that were filed. We were very close to having murders also take place. Now everyone is back here, but normalcy is still slow in returning," one resident remarks, when asked about the heavy police presence that continued to be in place.

A history of political violence

The history of Palnadu is one marred with factionalism. Residents tell stories of living in fear. Each election that approached, meant a fresh cycle of violence. 

Ex-Andhra Speaker Kodela Siva Prasada Rao, who recently killed himself in Hyderabad, was referred to as “Palnati Puli” (Tiger of Palnadu) by his supporters and 'Bombula Siva Prasad' (a name suggesting that he was an expert in using bombs) by his critics. 

Kodela entered politics in the 1980s, on a call given by former Chief Minister NT Rama Rao, when the region was already seeing violence due to factionalism. Kodela, who was quick to give up his avatar of a renowned doctor to don the role of a politician. Kodela and the TDP would often go head to head against the powerful Kasu family from the Congress, and all of them were allegedly involved in booth capturing in some cases. Kodela and his supporters have also been accused of indulging in violence.

On June 26, 1987, the village of Dechavaram near Narasaraopet witnessed large scale violence, looting and destruction of property, dividing the village into two hostile groups – Reddys and Kammas. 

The Reddy community saw their houses and properties being burnt, and bombs being hurled at them. A man was even killed as his daughter watched on, as per proceedings of the Assembly at the time. While Kodela was accused of being involved in the attack, his name never figured in the FIR.

In the 1999 general elections, a bomb blast in Kodela's house when he was a sitting Minister, killed four of his supporters, triggering a massive row and a CBI enquiry. While Kodela blamed the opposition and Maoists for carrying out the attack, the Congress had alleged that he had been storing the bombs in his house when they exploded. 

Kodela is also said to be an accused in the brutal murder of Kapu leader and Congress strongman Vangaveeti Ranga in Vijayawada, and was forced to step down as Home Minister, after Ranga's death sparked riots in the city. 

Kodela's funeral procession. Image: TDP

Speaking to TNM, a senior police official from the region who did not wish to be named, narrates, "The violence began after Independence when certain communities, especially the Kammas affiliated to the TDP and the Reddys, then affiliated to the Congress, began asserting their power at a village-level. When this power structure was challenged, they would resort to violence, brutally suppressing any dissent that emerged." 

And in most cases, the ones who suffer due to these political clashes are people from marginalised communities. "What issues will the Kammas (who back TDP) and Reddys (who back YSRCP) have? They will fight politically but will still attend weddings in each other's households. The ones who suffer are us marginalised castes," one resident remarks, before refusing to comment further and rushing back into his house.

"This (constant political violence) was unsustainable as a practice, and soon Maoists grew strong in the region as they found support among the marginalised communities and also due to the proximity of the region to the dense Nallamala forest. Now, both these things have subsided, but there is a void of leadership, which political parties recently exploited," the police official adds. 

A possible solution?

Seeking to change that, police officers in the region have been adopting villages, making sure to visit the residents frequently and solve their problems, while urging them not to turn to violence. 

"The main reason for most violence in the Palnadu region is its backwardness. Education and employment are not a priority here. We wanted to address that first to ensure some material change," says Gurjala DSP Srihari Babu, who has adopted Atmakur, as we chat at a fortified police station in Durgi. 

"We try to visit the villages at least two to three times a week, and ask them about their problems. We are trying to address issues like water, sanitation, electricity, healthcare; making sure there is a well-equipped Primary Health Centre (PHC) nearby, making sure teachers are present at school, making sure everyone has a toilet," he adds.   

The Station House Officer (SHO) of Durgi, who has adopted Jangameshwarapadu village, is quick to pipe in and shows photos of a water pump that they arranged for the residents. "They were very happy and were thanking us. Hopefully, we will continue activities like this," he says.  

Police inaugurate a water pump at Jangameshwarapadu

With this move, the police hope to build trust among residents, so that they call the authorities in case of a dispute.

"We don't want them to take law into their hands. We want them to trust us and for that, we will have to first show them that we care. We have been coordinating with various government departments and even Mandal and Zilla level elected representatives, to make sure that works are sanctioned, and that they get help," Srihari Babu adds.

While the police are optimistic, observers say that the peace might be temporary. "The violence here can be attributed to inflated egos here, especially of men. Fights break out even over trivial issues, which then snowball into dangerous acts like murders and crude bomb attacks, that endanger public safety," a political observer tells TNM. 

"What the police are doing is a step in the right direction and will definitely help, but to think that this will completely overturn the violent history of the region is naive. The changes will help, maybe until the next elections which will be held in the region," he quips. 

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