TNM visited Pittala Koteshwar Rao’s house in Putta Kota village and spoke to his family to understand the allegations of police violence behind his death.

One death many questions Did police highhandedness cause AP farmers deathAll images: Charan Teja
news Ground report Thursday, February 28, 2019 - 12:12

An hour’s journey from Guntur town in Andhra Pradesh takes one to Kothapalem village aka Putta Kota. The village, which falls under Edlapadu mandal, appears to sit in the lap of giant hills as it is situated close to Kondaveedu, a historic heritage site.

Until last week, the village, which has less than 600 families whose primary occupation is agriculture, was going about its regular chores. However, on February 18, they suddenly found themselves at the centre of attention after the death of a farmer in his field, right before Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu’s visit to Kondaveedu Fort.

While the family has alleged that 45-year-old Pittala Koteshwar Rao was beaten to death by the cops for “questioning and confronting the misbehaviour of the police” in his farm under the guise of security arrangements for the Chief Minister, the police and government have denied the charges. This has led to the opposition parties jumping on the bandwagon and levelling several allegations.

Last Sunday, when TNM visited Putta Kota, a few bystanders showed the way to the victim’s house. Koteshwar Rao (also called Kotaiah) was a tenant farmer who had cultivated the land belonging to Vengal Reddy of Guntur for the past 8 years along with his son Veeranjaneyulu.

As we reached Kotaiah’s house, Veeranjaneyulu sits silently near his father’s portrait while his relatives are seen consoling Kotaiah’s wife Prameela who had taken ill.

This reporter visited Kotaiah’s house along with two activists from the Human Rights Forum (HRF), which has set up a fact-finding committee.

What exactly happened?

According to Veeranjaneyulu, his father had agreed to the local SI’s request to use a half-acre piece of land for temporary accommodation in view of the CM’s visit in the first week of February. However, the CM’s scheduled visit on February 9 and 10 was cancelled and moved to February 17 and 18.

According to Kotaiah’s family, by the 16th evening, police tents had been erected in the permitted half acre. On the 17th morning, a day before the CM’s visit, an altercation allegedly broke out between Prameela and the police who had reportedly ventured into the family’s papaya plantation and plucked fruits.

Pointing to his mother, who is in an inner small room, Veeranjaneyulu tells us, “After she and my father saw the police entering the papaya plantation, she urged them not to enter since the plant is sensitive and also refused to allow them to pluck fruits free of cost.”

Veerajaneyulu says his father had asked his mother to guard the papaya plantation while he grazed a pair of buffaloes and oxen on the other end of the 14-acre farm.

He further says, “The police had sought permission to put tents for the local police but there were as many as 300-400 stationed. While a few policemen took the papayas after paying for it, many ventured into the plantation by threatening my mother that they’re police and how can we not let them go inside and take the fruits.”

Later, both Prameela and Kotaiah also saw policemen allegedly cutting down leaves from the papaya trees to use them to sleep on. After a commotion, both went home. Meanwhile Kotaiah decided to report his “bitter encounter” to the village elders.

In the evening, on learning that Civil Supplies Minister Prathipati Pulla Rao was visiting his farm, Kotaiah rushed there. Kotaiah’s family claims that he saw the minister instructing police officials to use the “total land for parking purposes”.

According to the family, he went back home thinking that he would call the village elders in the morning to sort out the issue.

Around 6 am on February 18, Kotaiah went to his farm along with 28-year-old Punna Rao, who has been working as a labourer at the farm for the past two years. When they both reached there, the family says that Kotaiah saw tens of police vehicles like cars, jeeps and special battalion buses on the field. Soon after seeing a few police personnel venturing casually into the papaya plantation, an agitated Kotaiah asked them to come out of his plantation since he had agreed only to give an unused half acre for their use, his son said. The police then allegedly threatened him saying “this is the CM’s programme and the Minister gave us permission to be here, you have no business here”.

Punna Rao was said to be the witness to the alleged exchanges between Kotaiah and the police personnel.

After this, Kotaiah went to the village and informed a few elders. According to Veeranjaneyulu, his father informed the local TDP leader who asked him to come over, adding that he would speak with the police and sort out the matter.

It was soon after this that the developments took a mysterious turn.

Around 10.30 am, Kotaiah called his son and told him that he was waiting at the farm as the local TDP leader had said that he would come and sort out the issue. Breaking down, Veeranjaneyulu says, “My father said Babu Rao (the local TDP leader) was on the hill-top (where the celebrations were taking place). He said once the leader came down, he would sort out the matter. Meanwhile, he said he was going to give drinking water to the livestock at the farm.”

Those were the last words uttered by Kotaiah before he went into the papaya plantation, the family claims.

One death, many questions

When TNM visited the field where the mysterious death took place, at least three to four papaya trees were seen fallen to the ground as though they were hit with force or some heavy weight was pushed on them. The family alleged that Kotaiah was beaten up by policemen when he had questioned their behaviour.

Veeranjaneyulu alleges, “My father was beaten to death by the police in our farm. Police brutality is the definite reason for my father’s death. There was no reason for my father to commit suicide, we are living happily, we don’t have any financial problems either.”

He also tells us that days before his father’s death, they conducted Veeranjaneyulu’s wife’s seemantham, a ritualistic pre-birth celebration, for her fifth month of pregnancy.

The family claims that at around 12 noon, Punna Rao came into the village and informed them over the phone that Kotaiah was dead.

By the time the family and villagers reached the farm, the police were seen carrying Kotaiah to a vehicle. The family also got into the vehicle and took Kotaiah to a hospital in Phirangipuram, where the doctors declared him ‘brought dead’. When Veeranjaneyulu checked with the doctor, he apparently said that there were no signs that pointed to consumption of pesticide, as claimed by the police.

When TNM tried to reach out to Punna Rao, it was learnt that he and his family had left the village as the issue had blown up.

“He was threatened and taken away,” alleges one of Kotaiah’s five sisters.

Grief overshadowed by contradictory reports

As the incident was picked up by television channels and social media, opposition political parties joined the villagers and the family in protests, and demanded justice for the family.

When family members tried to contact Punna Rao to find out what exactly happened, his phone was switched off and he seemed to have gone missing. Veeranjaneyulu and another youngster allege that Punna Rao was held in a police vehicle when the villagers were protesting. Punna Rao reportedly told a few village elders that the police were not allowing him to leave.

In the meantime, Kotaiah’s body was brought home to a huge crowd of relatives and villagers, with the local police surrounding the house. The local DySP and RDO visited a few elders in the community and allegedly offered them Rs 3 lakh to hush up the matter.

Veeranjaneyulu says, “They said that a mistake had happened, it wasn’t necessary to make it bigger, that the police department would give Rs 2 lakh and the revenue department would give Rs 1 lakh.” However, it was reported that CM Naidu on hearing about the case announced Rs 5 lakh as ex gratia for the family.

The family claims that community elders were given Rs 2.40 lakh. The family also alleged a conspiracy, pointing out that Kotaiah was a member of the YSRCP since the party’s inception.

When asked about the contradictory reports over his father’s death in a section of the media, Veeranjaneyulu says, “We are disgusted by such reports and rumours, it is even more hurtful to hear rumours spread in a reckless manner about my father’s death.”

Gaps in the due course of action?

On February 19, the day after Kotaiah’s death, as his family was awaiting the cremation, the village continued to simmer with tension and several police checkpoints were erected in view of possible protests.

With the incident, which was widely reported by the media, leaving the police at the centre of accusations, the body was taken to the Chilakaluripeta government hospital, where a post-mortem was conducted following an inquest.

Based on a complaint by Veeranjaneyulu, police registered a case under 174 CrPC (Death under Unnatural Circumstances). The case is being investigated by Narasaraopeta DySP Rama Varma.

Veeranjaneyulu, meanwhile, said that his complaint was “twisted” by police officials.

He claims, “I complained saying that my father died after being beaten up by the police, but the complaint taken by the police suggested that my father committed suicide after being vexed due to police beating.”

A two-member fact finding team of the Human Rights Forum which visited the village and Kotaiah’s family raised several questions over the police ‘narrative’ with regard to the incident.

G Siva Nageshwar Rao, HRF Andhra Pradesh state vice president, said that the police behaviour pertaining to the case is suspicious. In a statement, he demanded a CBI investigation into the case along with a video recorded re-autopsy. 

The HRF also stated that even going by the alleged “twisted” complaint, the police should add sections 427 (Mischief causing damage to the amount of fifty rupees or upwards) and 306 (abetment of suicide) of the IPC to the case.

While raising questions about the reported injuries on Kotaiah’s face and other parts of the body, the HRF also demanded that the Rs 5 lakh announced by the CM should be given immediately to the family.

Denying the charges against them, police officials reiterated that Kotaiah had committed suicide by consuming pesticide. When TNM reached out to the police about the family’s allegations regarding Kotaiah’s death, they said they are waiting for the Forensic Science Lab (FSL) reports.

DySP Rama Varma says, “We are still awaiting the post-mortem report along with reports on some tests that were conducted in the FSL. They are expected to come in a few days and we will take action accordingly.”

When asked about possible addition of IPC sections as per the complaint, the police official said that they would take legal opinion after the test results to understand if any more additional charges have to be added in the case.

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