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December 5, 1997


The killing fields of Rayalaseema

K Sunil Kumar in Hyderabad

The volcanoes of rivalry keep erupting in Rayalaseema, Andhra Pradesh, and the lava of hatred, powered by fiery politics, continues to claim countless lives.

More than 200 years old, the bloody faction wars show no signs of let up. On the contrary, they are getting bloodier and bloodier with warring groups pumping sophisticated weapons into the mindless wars.

Earlier, four districts -- Ananthapur, Chittoor, Cuddapah and Kurnool -- were known for their country bombs. Even a trivial argument was enough to bring a shower of explosives in these districts. Now the rivals are bringing in massive hi-tech remote-controlled bombs, like the one used in Hyderabad recently in an attack on Rajya Sabha member and film star Mohan Babu and ruling Telugu Desam legislator Paritala Ravi who is believed to be a former Naxalite. Both leaders escaped with injuries, but 24 people died in the explosion.

There are still doubts about which of the two leaders was the real target. But hardly any about how deep the Rayalaseema rivalries run. Ravi's case itself throws ample light.

The police believe that Ravi's rival Maddela Cheruvu Suryanarayana Reddy masterminded the blast. Both Reddy and Ravi hail from Ananthapur district, and the police believe they harbour ''second generation'' rivalry.

Giving a brutal turn to the Paritala-Reddy rivalry -- Ravi's father Paritala Sriramulu, a former MLA, was a rival of Suryanaryana Reddy's father Narayana Reddy -- was Ravi who allegedly killed Suryanarayana Reddy's family by planting a bomb in their television set in 1993.

How did he manage this? Waiting till the day the television set developed a snag, Ravi allegedly asked a mechanic to plant a bomb in it. Suryanarayana Reddy survived, as he was not at home when the explosive went off.

Suryanarayana Reddy, however, is not the only one who is gunning for Ravi's blood. The legislator allegedly organised a ''dramatic shootout'' in 1991 to kill S Chinna Reddy, the father of former MLA S V Ramana Reddy. A group of armed Naxalites, dressed as policemen, descended on Chinna Reddy's home and shot him dead at point-blank range.

As such killings increase, the police are quite often caught napping. The rivals are not only using hi-tech devices to decimate their rivals, but also fine-tuning their strategies so well that the police have been left clueless.

Unlike in the 1980s, when rival gang members were directly involved in the killings, hired hitmen are now assigned to execute the crime. This makes the task of tracing the killers virtually impossible.

''In a bid to deflect the needle of suspicion which would most certainly point at them, the rivals now prefer to use hired killers,'' said a senior police officer who has been closely associated with the region.

Last year, when the demand for hired killers peaked, the police launched a crackdown. In all, 80 such hitmen were identified in Anathapur, Cuddapah and Kurnool districts.

The rivals have also been targeting each other at unexpected locations and occasions: marriages and film muhurats. Unable to zero in on their rivals at other times, when they keep changing travel plans to keep others guessing, the faction leaders have been choosing such auspicious occasions to carry out a hit.

'Bombula' P Siva Reddy was killed at a marriage in the posh Srinagar area of Hyderabad in 1985. The TDP MLA from Jammalamadugu died instantly as his rivals unleashed a rain of country bombs.

Another faction leader, too, succumbed at a marriage in Hyderabad. Despite the huge crowd's efforts to stop the criminals from carrying out their operation, crude bombs were hurled at Kedarnath Reddy of Kurnool.

There has, however, been a slight decline in the number of factional killings in the region. In Chittoor, while 114 people were killed in 1995 in factional rivalries, 93 were killed in 1996. Eightyseven people have been killed so far this year.

In Ananthapur, 16 people were killed in 1995, 10 in 1996 and seven this year.

In Kurnool too, there has been a downward trend. While 38 people were killed in 1995, 26 died in 1996 and 13 this year.

The exact figures of those killed in factional feuds in Cuddapah district were not available. A senior police officer, however, said the number would be about 20 per cent more than Chittoor's. Cuddapah is the hot-bed of such rivalries.

In recent times, the police have stepped up their drive against faction leaders. A senior officer, involved with the operation, however, said the law enforcement authorities could not take all the credit for a lower death toll.

"The youth now realise that violence could destroy all of them. They want peace and have been preferring courses in engineering and medicine," the officer said.

It may be true that the youth now feel ''enough is enough''. But the fact remains that the police have been ruthless with smaller faction leaders.

All the superintendents of police in these districts are hitting these smaller faction leaders where it hurts most. Besides beating them up in police stations and in public, the leaders are being booked under the Prevention of Disruptive Activities Act.

As the police started seizing licenced and unlicensed arms, the faction leaders have surrendered more than 3,000 weapons.

Factionalism, however, continues to raise its ugly head time and again. Prominent factional leaders still have scores to settle. In all, 69 such leaders have been identified in the four districts.

Prominent among the faction leaders in Kurnool district are a senior Congress leader who has a rivalry with former minister K E Krishnamurthy. The rivalry dates back to their fathers's generation.

Krishnamurthy also has a running feud with another faction leader, Challa Ramakrishna Reddy.

In Cuddapah, the main faction leader is Congress MP, Dr Y S Rajasekhara Reddy. Among his rivals are former state minister M V Mysoora Reddy and M V Ramana Reddy.

In Ananthapur, it is former minister J C Diwakar Reddy who holds the sway. S V Ramana Reddy and Suryanaranaya Reddy are Paritala Ravi's rivals.

More than 100 faction-ridden villages have been identified in these districts, where the rivals seem to be generally against the political parties. "Their principal objective is to kill rivals,'' the police said, adding that violence is their ''only ideology''.

These leaders's blood boils even if a vehicle overtakes them.

Just how large their egos are is indicated by the killing of a lorry driver. He was shot dead at point-blank range after he did not allow a faction leader to overtake his vehicle.

In Rayalaseema, it is said, ''Even an angry look can attract a bomb attack.''

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