A day after the silent, holy night of Christmas, the coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh resembled a battlefield. On the morning of December 26, the state woke up to the unholy cries of murder and revenge and within minutes the districts – East and West Godavari, Krishna and Guntur – were convulsed by riots... At the end of the 60-hour-long morbid drama, more than 42 people lay killed.
This is how Amarnath K Menon, a journalist from India Today described what he saw in Andhra Pradesh in December 1988.
What he witnessed was the aftermath of the assassination of Congress MLA and Kapu leader Vangaveeti Mohana Ranga Rao.
In the early hours of December 25, 1988, 'Ranga', as he was more commonly known, was on an indefinite fast in Vijayawada, setting up a camp near the Raghavaiah Park, where his statue stands today.
That was 28 years ago. Today, his story is again drawing attention ahead of director Ram Gopal Varma's film 'Vangaveeti', based on Ranga's life.
Born in the 1940s, Ranga had four elder brothers, and is said to have migrated to Vijayawada around 1970.
At the time, the city was already a hotbed of political violence.
Author Ratnakar Sadasyula, outlining the backdrop in which Ranga entered the city, writes:
Auto Nagar established in 1966, saw the growth of auto ancillary industries in the city. It was around this time that the Communists became powerful in the city, controlling the trade unions there. Soon the city was witness to a fierce turf war between the Congress and Communists over the various trade unions located in the city. It was simple – the one who had control over the unions in Vijayawada, controlled the city. With both sides not hesitating to resort to strong arm tactics, soon the city became a hot bed of political and gang violence.
Ranga, along with his brother Vangaveeti Radha, initially worked under CPI city secretary Chalasani Venkataratnam, but Radha soon tried to forge his own way.
The two brothers, who were Kapus, split with Chalasani, a Kamma by caste. They began their 'rowdyism' in an auto stand and, rounding up a group of autorickshaw drivers, reportedly began by colonising bus stands to control all custom there. They quickly graduated to organising youth groups, peopled by cinema ticket touts, pickpockets, and so on.
Concerned over the growing influence of the gang, Chalsani tried to take steps to stop their growth.
But it was too late. On March 19, 1972, Chalsani was brutally murdered after he was stabbed almost 72 times, allegedly by Radha.
The Left groups saw blood, and retaliated by killing everyone accused in the murder, including Radha, who had become a 'gangster' by 1974.
After a lot of bloodshed, a peace deal was brokered between the two sides.
In the backdrop of this conflict, Ranga continued to grow and soon took over the mantle from his deceased brother.
Soon after this, Rajasekhar 'Nehru' Devineni and his brother Gandhi, the Kamma strongmen, walked out of Ranga's group, triggering off a feud between the families that claimed Gandhi’s life in a murder on the Andhra Loyola College campus in Vijayawada.
The city witnessed another round of bloodshed between these two factions, and Murali, another Devineni, was killed and Ranga was arrested for the crime.
It was here that the feud made its way into politics.
In 1981, Ranga contested the Krishna Lanka municipal polls as an independent candidate, while behind bars. The Congress saw the support he enjoyed and pulled its candidate out of the race, ensuring his victory as a corporator.
Ranga, the party hoped, would help counter the growing influence of Nehru as a TDP party man.
In 1982, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) had been formed under the leadership of NT Rama Rao, who had declared that the Congress would have to go from the state.
By January 1983, NTR was sworn in as the first non-Congress chief minister to take power in the state.
In the same elections, Nehru ran on a TDP ticket, and was elected to the assembly from the Kankipadu constituency.
In 1985, Ranga was elected as an MLA for the Congress in the Vijayawada East constituency.
While the Kammas backed the TDP, Ranga soon started emerging as the leader of the Kapus.
By the late 80s, even as NTR was mulling over the idea of constituting a committee to look into the reservations for the Kapus, Ranga was holding massive rallies and had emerged as a poster boy for the cause.
Following this, an alleged state crackdown began on Ranga, and he was reportedly put under house arrest, with his home under constant surveillance by the Intelligence Department.
In March 1988, the same year that Ranga was killed, another of Nehru's brothers was killed, with Ranga and his aides being the prime suspect.
Ranga spent a brief spell in jail, following which he went on the hunger strike.
After his murder, there was unprecedented violence in Vijayawada and other parts of Krishna district as well as neighbouring districts.
While more than 40 people were killed, property worth over Rs 100 crore was damaged.
According to a report in The Hindu,
Unable to digest the brutal murder of their leader, supporters and sympathisers of Mohan Rao (Ranga) targeted theatres, shopping malls, bars, restaurants, business complexes, government offices, bus depots and public and private vehicles and set them afire... The poisonous effluvium emanating from the fire engulfed the city for several months and the nostrils inhaled harmful gases.
The violence abated after NTR forced Nehru to resign. Then Home Minister Kodela Sivaprasada Rao also had to resign, taking the blame for the riots that ensued.
At the time, a Kapu minister in the NTR cabinet, Mudragada Padmanabham, also resigned.
He would later go on to fill the vacuum left behind by Ranga, and keep alive the Kapu reservation struggle till today.