Saturday, August 11, 2007

Betrayal of a Mandate

To use violence against people demanding government action on social and economic issues is second nature for a state that deals with such situations as they were only a question of maintaining “law and order”. The gunning down of six left activists in Mudigonda of Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh on July 28 during a bandh called by the CPI(M) and CPI to protest the failure of the government to redistribute land is only the most recent example of the state showing its brutal face when confronted with genuine demands. This has been how governments at the centre and the states have, since the 1950s, responded to movements seeking redistribution of agricultural land.

It is also very common for political parties to promise land reform during their election campaigns, but to very quickly retract on these commitments. In Andhra Pradesh, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), when it came to power for a second time in 1994 with a promise to implement welfare measures, took the path of neoliberalism under Chandrababu Naidu (after he was re-elected in 1999), only to be discredited in the eyes of the people and then drubbed at the polls in 2004. It was the backlash against the TDP’s regressive policies in the state that brought the Congress, led by Y S Rajasekhara Reddy, to power, but the present state government has not shown itself to be very different from its predecessor in the manner in which it has addressed the land issue. The inaction of the state government is a betrayal of the mandate of 2004, for redistribution of land was one of the important campaign promises of the Congress Party in the state assembly elections of that year.

The Andhra Pradesh Assignment Lands (Prohibition of Transfers) Act, 1977 was supposed to enable the state to distribute land to the poor. The Act had been passed to prohibit the sale or alienation of land assigned for distribution, to any third party. But the Congress government has amended the same Act to regularise unauthorised possession of assigned land. From private encroachment of the land meant for redistribution to illegal buying of such land from the poor in the name of “developing the land” and selling it for higher returns, the government has allegedly encouraged all kinds of malpractices. The government claims that it has distributed 4.37 lakh acres of land. However the CPI(M) and CPI allege that concrete steps have not been taken to implement the suggestions of the Koneru Ranga Rao Committee (set up by the Congress government in 2004) that came up with a list of measures to effect redistribution in accordance with already framed laws.

The left parties had demanded that the recommendations made in the Koneru Committee’s report be implemented and an independent authority be formed to monitor the implementation of the redistribution process as well as an ombudsman be appointed for the Indiramma housing project for the poor, which has seen a number of irregularities. The bandh call on July 28 was the culmination of the agitation, which had been going on for nearly three months.

The police were at their most brutal in Mudigonda. The use of AK-47s against unarmed protesters is reflective of what the state really thinks about people’s protests. That the use of firearms must be the last resort and only under extreme duress are rules that are too often disregarded by the police. In the present case, the firing upon the protestors was ordered even as they were being lathi charged. The measures taken by the chief minister after the incident to punish the personnel involved and to compensate the victims will not be enough to mollify the anger that has erupted against this regime.

The drubbing that Rajasekhara Reddy’s predecessor received at the polls should forewarn the Congress Party in Andhra Pradesh. The incumbent government has to demonstrate that it is serious about addressing the issue of land reform. Only that would be a fitting compensation to the activists who lost their lives in the police firing in Mudigonda on July 28. But is the Congress government in the state capable of such action?

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

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