Ground Report: Macherla has lost its smile as politics reeks of blood and flesh

The ECI has identified Macherla Assembly constituency as sensitive, and 151 of its 299 polling stations as hypersensitive.

ByBhaskar Basava

Published Apr 30, 2024 | 10:00 AM Updated Apr 30, 2024 | 10:00 AM

Beyond folklore and factionalism, Macherla has been facing an acute water shortage, an issue that has been remaining unaddressed.

The Naguleru River is famished, its bed visible at several places. Garbage that clung to rocks further suffocated the river struggling to keep breathing and stay afloat.

In the town, the statues of Palnati Verulu, or the heroes of Palnadu, lined the street, a stark reminder of the bloodshed on the banks of Naguleru.

Most statues are painted in golden hues, dull and dust-coated, to celebrate the valour of a gory past in which two stepbrothers fought each other for dominance. The golden colour, however, did little to hide the blood that soaked the banks of Naguleru in 1182 CE.

The battle between the blue-blooded brothers — Nalagama Raju, the Haihaya king of Gurazala, and Malideva Raju, the Haihaya king of Macherla — parallels Mahabharata.  There was gambling in both, exile of the defeated, refusal to return the land and war.

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The Andhra Mahabharata

The lore is that Malideva Raju was forced into exile for seven years after his minister Brahma Naidu lost a high-stake cockfight to Nalagama Raju’s woman minister Nayakuralu Nagamma.

The statues' of 'Palnati Veerulu' in Macherla.

Statues of ‘Palnati Veerulu’ and freedom fighters in Macherla.

After seven years, Malideva Raju returned and was denied the kingdom. A war that followed led to the almost decimation of the Haihaya clan.

The Palnati Yudhdham (War of Palnadu) is also known as the Andhra Mahabharata due to its similarities with the epic 18-day war.

Years later, the war heroes remain in statue-stillness on their mounts with blood-thirsty swords drawn. Layers of posters stuck to the pedestals of statues hid their identities from the newcomers in the town.

At a distance, Naguleru, still and putrid, bred swarms of mosquitos.

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Bloodshed: A Macherla legacy?

Macherla’s legacy of shedding blood for supremacy did not end with the Haihayas. Centuries later, the fear over the possibility of a sharp, cold weapon swishing at their neck unexpectedly still haunts the residents.

The residents are caught in a turf war between two political rivals, the TDP and YSRCP. Their fear is palpable, as unlike their counterparts elsewhere in the state, they are reluctant to discuss politics and the impending elections to the Assembly and Lok Sabha.

Macherla is an irony where democracy is drowned in blood. It is where Article 19 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and expression, is muffled with an iron hand.

The political violence in Macherla has claimed at least 10 lives since 2019, and 60 pro-TDP families were forced to flee and relocate. They are now hoping for a TDP win so that they can return to their roots.

A TDP victory, they felt, could assure stability and an opportunity to exact revenge. If the ruling YSRCP retains power, they will have to lie low, far from their homes.

Taking cognisance of the law and order situation, the Election Commission of India identified the Macherla constituency as a “sensitive” zone. Out of the 299 polling stations in the Assembly constituency, 151 have been declared “hypersensitive”.

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Exodus from Macherla

On 23 May 2019, after the TDP had lost power, party leaders in Macherla fled the constituency to escape the wrath of local political rivals.

Several TDP leaders and workers fled the village fearing physical assault by YSRCP activists. (South First)

Several TDP leaders and workers fled the village fearing physical assault by YSRCP activists. (South First)

The TDP had anticipated such a situation. It had readied camps in the neighbouring Guntur district to accommodate leaders fleeing Macherla, especially from Atmakur.

A ‘Chalo Atmakur’ move was eventually planned to facilitate the return of the TDP leaders. The plan was dropped after the YSRCP also announced its ‘Chalo Atmakur’ move to highlight the atrocities of TDP leaders against its workers.

After the TDP dropped its plan, some of the leaders settled in the neighbouring constituencies. Others left the state, hoping to live in peace.

From their safe houses far away, the TDP leaders watched almost 86 villages and 31 wards electing YSRCP candidates unopposed in the 2020 and 2021 local-body elections.

Now, with the implementation of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) on 16 March, a few TDP leaders have started returning.

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TDP leaders trickle back to Macherla

Thota Chandraiah of Gundlapadu village was 42 when members of the ruling YSRCP killed him in January 2022.

Thota Venkataramaiah has now returned to Gundlapadu. (South First)

Thota Venkataramaiah has now returned to Gundlapadu. (South First)

Eight people were arrested in the case, but it did not deter 20 people, including Chandraiah’s brothers, cousins, and party sympathisers from leaving the village.

Thota Venkataramaiah was one among those who had fled. Now back in Gundlapadu, he was about to have lunch when South First met him.

A dozen men stood guard, several eyes fixed on this correspondent. Venkataramaiah’s two little daughters served rice, and offered the first plate to a photograph of the slain Chandraiah.

The girls seemed too young to understand the political rivalry that has left their uncle confined to pictures.

Venkataramaiah said someone started something that he did not want to recall. The unwarranted act forced him undergo the trauma, the 40-year-old man said while slowly mixing rice with pickle.

One of his aides added that only one party would remain in the village post-election. The party that would win the polls, he said without mentioning any name.

Venkataramaiah had hardly finished his lunch when two police constables arrived. They picked him up and a few others for an ‘inquiry’.

The little girls stood transfixed as the police vehicle sped away with their father.

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YSRCP ‘ready’ at Macherla

The YSRCP leaders at Gundlapadu were cautious. “No recording,” a leader said while requesting anonymity.

Thota Chandraiah of Gundlapadu village was 42 when he was killed. (South First)

Thota Chandraiah of Gundlapadu village was 42 when he was killed. (South First)

He spoke after getting the promise that the conversation would not be electronically recorded. The leader said he was prepared to face the poll outcome, whatever it may be.

“The Gundlapadu village is dominated by only one community, the Perika BC (B),” he gave a glimpse of the village. “It’s not a rivalry between two different community groups. All are relatives,” he remained grim throughout the conversation.

Power struggle, he said, has been on for the past 40 years. “It has come down a bit. Earlier, men and women used to hurl locally-made explosives at each other during street fights,” he said.

He seemed to be in a hurry to wind up the conversation. “The violence increased exponentially after 2019,” he said with an expression of stoic resignation.

“I was falsely implicated in two criminal cases when the TDP was in power,” he nodded to announce that the conversation had ended.

It suddenly crossed the mind that none of the people South First spoke to had smiled. Even Venkataramaiah’s daughters had their lips pursed.

The only person who smiled — albeit a forced one — was Chandraiah. He looked from a garlanded photograph that sat on the floor.

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Macherla’s secret weapon

People in the neighbouring villages spoke in hushed tones. However, they preferred to keep opinions to themselves rather than airing them in public.

Development seldom became a talking point. The political rivalry was all they spoke about.

A man, who also requested anonymity for apparent reasons, revealed the secret of survival. Whenever YSRCP workers visited the village, people acted as if they were supporting the ruling party. They said the same to visiting TDP leaders also.

He replied in the negative when asked if he had ever approached leaders to raise local issues. The man reasoned that it was of no use to raise issues with the leaders.

A 45-year-old woman at a Dalit colony in Macherla leaned closer when asked about the issues she has been facing in the constituency.

“There are issues, but I can’t speak about them,” she looked deep into the eyes as if searching to know whether she was understood.

The fear has spared none. From journalists to auto-rickshaw drivers, to tea-shop, and roadside vendors, all were reluctant to share information with the media or ‘outsiders’.

However, a 50-year-old man spoke of a weapon he has to fight fear.

“We have one thing: At the time of voting, we will have our say. Right now, we are being pressured into not expressing our views. So on 13 May, it’s not just a vote for a candidate, but also for our freedom of speech,” the determined villager said.

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Macherla’s woes

Granite slabs covered the front yard and a drain in front of a partially plastered small house at the Srigiripadu village in Veldurthi Mandal. The house was painted yellow, the lightest hue in the spectrum. Naked bricks at the unplastered portions have lost their redness to time.

Water scarcity is a major issue for the women of Macherla. (South First)

Water scarcity is a major issue for the women of Macherla. (South First)

About 1o women crowded under a neem tree in the courtyard. Two of them sat on a charpai — or cot —  while the others stood around them. They have just returned from work at the chilli yards and are dividing their day’s wages.

They looked at each other when South First joined them for a conversation. After initial reluctance, they started speaking.

Water scarcity is a major issue for them, they said. No politician has come forward to address the issue.

The Varikapudisela Lift Irrigation project, intended to provide water to drought-hit areas near Nagarjuna Sagar, has been pending for over six decades. There is a severe water shortage, especially in the upland areas of the Macherla constituency.

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Dependent on tankers

“We get water once every two days from tankers provided by the private cement manufacturing company. We don’t know what will happen if the tankers stop coming one day,” Pitta Lakshamma, one of the women, said.

Lakshamma said she often had to fight with neighbours for water, something she never wanted to do.

Some villages have water, but the levels are fast depleting.

Macherla residents struggle with water scarcity. (South First)

Macherla residents struggle with water scarcity. (South First)

“We are installing a borewell motor along with our neighbours. It might stop working soon if the rainfall remains poor,” R Krishna said, while others nodded in silence.

Farmers, too, are struggling due to the declining water levels in borewells. Installing a borewell would require lakhs of rupees.

“The state and central governments are not compensating or supporting us in dealing with the water scarcity,” Koirkkaya Arumulla said.

Besides water scarcity, the villagers said they lack a multi-specialty hospital.

The current government hospital lacks advanced facilities, such as scanning equipment.

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In need of a panacea 

“There is a shortage of staff. The hospital is okay for childbirth, but if there is an accident or severe injury, patients have to travel almost 90 km to the Narasaraopet Hospital. If someone survives the 90 km journey, it’s due to sheer luck,” a patient at the hospital said.

Additionally, another family member of a patient mentioned that even pregnant women must go to private scanning centers to get scan reports because the hospital doesn’t have any facilities.

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Fight for supremacy

YSRCP MLA Pinnelli Ramakrishna Reddy is seeking a fifth term from the Macherla constituency. The TDP has been alleging that the MLA was responsible for the murders in the constituency.

In the wake of its 2019 defeat and preparation for a face-off against Ramakrishna Reddy, the TDP introduced a new leader, Julakanti Brahma Reddy, the son of former TDP MLA Julakanti Durgamba.

Macharla Assembly Constituency. (South First)

Macharla Assembly Constituency. (South First)

Brahma Reddy has been accused of killing seven Congress workers in 2001 while they were en route to a police station to sign as part of their bail conditions in a case. Brahma Reddy’s associates chased them down, allegedly due to a feud between the two groups, in daylight.

The Congress candidate backed by the communist parties has fielded Yeramala Ramachandra Reddy. He had unsuccessfully contested in 2019.

TDP’s Brahma Reddy is contesting with the backing of the BJP and Jana Sena. The Opposition parties believe that the anti-incumbency factor would ensure their win.

Meanwhile, Ramakrishna Reddy is confident that the welfare schemes will help him in the election. The Congress is lagging far behind the TDP and YSRCP.

Interestingly, all leaders hail from the forward Reddy community, while the constituency has a significant number of OBC and SC community voters.

The constituency has 1,27,332 male, 1,32,035 female, and 22 third-gender voters.

(Edited by Majnu Babu).