A shameless show of political one-upmanship was on display on Sunday when the ruling Congress and the Opposition Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh tried to outdo each other in displaying concern for the families of the victims killed in Saturday’s police firing. Six people were killed and 19 injured when policemen fired on unarmed protestors who were demanding land reform and redistribution at Mudigonda village in Khammam, a part of the restive and under-developed Telengana region. Chief Minister Y.S.R. Reddy, who won the 2004 assembly elections on the promise that rural Andhra Pradesh would get its due and that land reforms would form an integral part of his policy, dithered before declaring a compensation package and taking action against the local administration. Not to be left behind in the race for earning goodwill, Opposition leader and former CM, N. Chandrababu Naidu, also promised compensation and, unsurprisingly, demanded Mr Reddy’s resignation. The Left, which has spearheaded the land distribution movement in AP, also called for Mr Reddy’s scalp and promised to take up the matter at the Centre.
How much compensation the victims’ families will get and when is anybody’s guess. But in the din over compensation and parties vying with each other to trash the government, the real issue has been missed. The state government declined the demand for booking a murder case under Section 302. It also did not answer why the police used sophisticated self-loading rifles and other weapons to open fire on unarmed people. This is the second time in less than three months that such sledgehammer tactics have been used on crowds by the police — the first one being on May 18, after the Mecca Masjid blast in Hyderabad.
Saturday’s tragedy was an incident waiting to happen and the government failed to read the warning signs. The Left parties have been running a ‘Bhu Poratam’ (Struggle for Land) campaign since May 6. Such agitations have often taken violent turns. Till now, over 35,000 people have participated in the agitation, taking ‘possession’ of over 70,000 acres of land. The police have registered 16,000 cases against the agitators. To avoid such conflicts in the future, the state government needs to look into the main issue: the struggle for land and resources. Despite the rhetoric, Mr Reddy seems to have done nothing much in this direction. Playing politics over such critical issues will only exacerbate matters.