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Under fire

Print edition : Aug 24, 2007



With the governments consistently apathetic handling of the land struggle, Mudigonda was waiting to happen.

in HyderabadIn Hyderabad, Left

Mudigonda, a nondescript village in Andhra Pradeshs Khammam district, has become synonymous with the suppression of land struggles after a July 28 police firing killed seven workers of the Left parties.

Land struggles are nothing new to the State, which witnessed the communist revolt against the zamindari system and the Nizams feudal rule. But the Congress governments inept responses to the Communist Party of India (M arxist)s Bhoo Poratam (land struggle) has left everyone looking for precedents.

The pre-Independence armed uprisings have been the inspiration for the Left parties in the State to struggle ceaselessly for equitable distribution of land. As much as 42 lakh acres of land (one acre is 0.4 hectare) is estimated to be available for distribution to the poor even after allotting an equal extent in the past 50 years.

Supporters of the CPI(M), later joined by Communist Party of India (CPI) workers, launched a struggle by forcibly occupying identified government lands after planting red flags and braving the lathis of the police. Countless arrests, including that of CPI State secretary K. Narayana, on charges of sedition, marked the struggle, which the Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy government never seemed to treat with the urgency and seriousness it deserves.

The government was complacent in the belief that its programmes such as the development of fallow lands before distributing them to the poor and the restoration of assignment lands to their rightful owners would take care of the problem. Assignment lands were lands given to the very poor for their economic empowerment since the 1960s. Lakhs of acres of these were illegally sold out of dire need or commercial considerations caused by urbanisation and skyrocketing real estate prices.

Chief Minister Rajasekhara Reddys family, which was among the numerous buyers of assignment lands, surrendered about 1,200 acres. His portrayal of this relinquishment as an act of sacrifice cut no ice with the Opposition as it came ahead of the promulgation of an ordinance for government takeover of all such lands.

In the wake of his electoral victory in 2004, Rajasekhara Reddy constituted an eight-member Land Committee headed by senior Minister Koneru Ranga Rao to look into the entire gamut of land-related problems. As time wore on, political compulsions and shifting priorities caused the initial sincerity and zeal to usher in land reforms to get eroded.

Precious time was lost in processing the Committees report after its submission to the government. Vexed by the governments tardy response, the CPI(M) intensified its land struggle in May while the partys State secretary B.V. Raghavulu and Narayana began an indefinite hunger strike on July 22. Stormy scenes inside the Legislative Assembly on the land issue and a bandh call by the Left parties made the government to invite Left leaders to the negotiating table. The talks failed.

The Koneru Ranga Rao Land Committee had prepared a candid and well-drafted report that put the government in a fix. It virtually condemned the Revenue Department by saying that the land administration over the last decade has gradually weakened to a virtual state of paralysis today. The traditional systems of land administration stand diluted. It has been estimated that India loses 1.3 per cent economic growth annually as a result of disputed land titles, which inhibit supply of capital and credit for agriculture.

During the talks, the Left parties put forth 12 demands, including survey of land and house sites for distribution to the poor. A key demand was the implementation of the Land Committees recommendations. Such is their [the governments] arrogance that they refuse to implement the report of a Cabinet Minister. What is wrong with our demand? asked Raghavulu.

The Left leaders also insisted on the constitution of an independent commission with quasi-judicial powers to deal with land issues. The government would settle only for the appointment of a Special Commissioner to deal with land-related issues on the grounds that the Commission would interfere with the Revenue Departments functioning. It was clearly a case of too little too late. It was a different matter that the government issued orders accepting 74 of 104 recommendations of the Land Committee a few hours after several people died or lay dying in Mudigonda.

A pre-emptive action amid the talks further queered the pitch for the government. A few hours before the Left parties Statewide bandh on July 28, the police forcibly removed Raghavulu and Narayana from their hunger strike camp at the dead of night. With an incendiary mix of highhandedness and a stubborn approach on the governments part, Mudigonda was waiting to happen.

In January, Rajasekhara Reddy upbraided the Khammam Police for failing to act when CPI(M) activists laid siege to the Collectorate, bringing work inside to a halt for two days. An opportunity to prove their mettle had arrived by way of the bandh in the district, a stronghold of the CPI(M) and the CPI. In Khammam town, women were mercilessly beaten up with batons, leaving one of them battling for life.

About 12 km away, in Mudigonda, the police rushed in reinforcements led by Additional Superintendent of Police M. Ramesh Babu to end a rasta roko. Instead of waiting for the roadblock to fizzle out, the police used force. The govern ment version is that the mob attacked the Additional SPs jeep. Angered, the police, including gunmen of the Additional SP, opened fire with AK-47s and self-loading rifles. About 140 rounds were fired at the crowd whose number did not exceed 500. Six people lay dead and one died of bullet wounds a week later. Over a dozen were grievously injured. The target of the police apparently was Bandi Ramesh, a former Maoist, who enjoyed mass support locally.

Amnesty International described the firing as excessive and unnecessary use of force of police against farmers, political party workers and others.

The human rights organisation further observed that the crowd was not given any warning that the police were about to open fire. Photographic evidence showed victims with bullet wounds in the abdomen, waist and head. Amnesty International regarded the use of AK-47 assault rifles as a particularly inappropriate method of policing on such occasions.

Nationwide uproar against the firing forced the Chief Minister to suspend the Additional SP, a Circle Inspector and a Sub-Inspector; transfer Superintendent of Police R.K. Meena; institute a judicial inquiry by a retired High Court Judge; and announce a compensation of Rs.5 lakh to each family that had lost its members in the firing and Rs.50,000 each to the injured.

Mourning relatives with

The Mudigonda firing is reminiscent of a similar tragedy at Basheer Bagh in the heart of Hyderabad in August 2000 when the Telugu Desam Party was in power. Three communists died in police action to foil an attempt to reach the Assembly in order to protest against the World Bank-assisted power sector reforms. The CPI(M) vehemently opposes any comparison of the Mudigonda incident with the violence at Nandigram in West Bengal as the latter was essentially a clash between armed gangs and the police.

Although the Congress government has attributed the Mudigonda firing to the overzealousness of some trigger-happy policemen, it reflects poorly on the administration. Rajasekhara Reddys admission that his instruction to exercise restraint in handling Left activists were disregarded exposes the lack of a cohesive mechanism to translate orders issued at the highest level into realities on the ground.

Ironically, a large body of far-reaching land reform legislation was passed in Andhra Pradesh between 1956 and 1973. The Land Committee noted that despite the efforts of the government, only a small percentage of the poor are landowners. Scheduled Castes (S.C.), it said, constituted 16 per cent of the States population but controlled only 7.5 per cent of the operated land. Only 22 per cent of the 43 lakh acres of government land distributed so far had gone to the S.Cs though a lakh of them had lost land ownership between 1961 and 1991.

In spite of such a huge burden of unredeemed pledges on its back, the government refused to give independent status to the Land Commission on the grounds that it would become a body parallel to the Revenue Department. There is a provision in the Tenancy Act for constituting a commission, which existed even when the all-powerful Board of Revenue used to function, argued Raghavulu.

The government, he said, lacked political will to implement land reforms. It was not ready to issue pattas for about 25-30 lakh acres that the poor were already cultivating. Moreover, it recently amended the A.P. Assigned Lands (Prohibition of Transfer) Act, to take over assigned lands not in possession of the original assignees. But it undermined the legislation through the backdoor by stating in the rules that such possession could be regularised, said Raghavulu.

The Koneru Ranga Rao panel observed that it has been the Committees experience that the issue of land continues to be the single most emotive issue in rural areas. There is no other issue which people connect with as issues of land. Left leaders insist that the sooner the Rajasekhara Reddy government understands this harsh reality, the better it is for its political health.



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