In the midst of turmoil

In the midst of turmoil

In The Midst of Turmoil, Gouthu Latchanna, NGOs’ Strike. The year 1972 was a very turbulent one for Andhra Pradesh. On the Telangana side was the...

The year 1972 was a very turbulent one for Andhra Pradesh. On the Telangana side was the simmering disappointment of the stalemate of the Telangana movement of 1969, and on the Andhra side the brewing opposition to the Mulki rules safeguards in force at the time and upheld by the Supreme Court. The students of the Andhra area felt their interests had been jeopardised while Andhra’s political class contended they were rendered second class citizens in Hyderabad city. All this crystallised into the highly fraught “Jai Andhra” movement, its goal being the formation of a separate Andhra comprising the Coastal and Rayalaseema regions.
In the midst of turmoilThis tumultuous movement was characterised by the large scale participation of the students and the youth; the arrest and detention of senior leader Gouthu Latchanna; resignation by the Deputy Chief Minister and half the Andhra ministers in the AP cabinet; the NGOs’ strike; police firing in which eight persons died and the death of senior minister and leader Kakani Venkataratnam on the December 25, 1972 which saw miles and miles of a traffic gridlock starting from Gannavaram; as the movement peaked even the gazetted officers joined the strike. The breakdown of law and order and governance in the Andhra area was complete.
Taxes were not paid or collected but irrigation water and fertiliser distribution went on smoothly! Public order was so bad that travellers by road in the Andhra area paid small donations to the movement’s organisers to be allowed passage. Indian Airlines planes could not land in Gannavaram while the rail movement through Vijayawada from the north and east to the south was affected. While the entire region was affected, the university town of Visakhapatnam was particularly so.
It was, however,Vijayawada, the political and media capital of the region, and neighbouring Guntur that provided the muscle to this movement. There was also a powerful undercurrent of the coastal landed class supporting this movement opposed as they were to the Land Reforms Act and bent on destabilizing chief minister Narasimha Rao who had ushered it in at the instance of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The popularity of Indira Gandhi, at the zenith of power following India’s triumphal 1971 war, plunged precipitously.
I was witness to this eruption even as I managed to tour the area as Director of Social Welfare, secretly savouring my luck of not having to face this civil war-like situation directly in the field. Little did I reckon that such extraordinary history spares none. However, as the situation built up I was spoken to by a minister from Guntur to persuade me to go as Collector to her district. This was ignored by me but within the next couple of days I was called by the Chief Secretary (CS) in mid-January, 1973 and told of the Government decision to send me as Collector to one of these districts. To my astonishment I was told I could choose either Krishna or Guntur! This by implication clarified to me the nature of the task in front of me; otherwise why would I have this embarras de choix! Since I had already worked in Guntur I decided to opt for Krishna.
The CS wanted me to move at once and late on the evening of the January 16, 1973, I left Hyderabad for Vijayawada by car. As I tuned into the AIR’s praantiya vaartalu (regional news) on my transistor en route I heard that Narasimha Rao had resigned and President’s rule was being imposed on AP. I assumed charge as Collector, Krishna at Vijayawada the next morning. With even the gazetted officers on strike the only civil officers I had working was the Joint Collector S Narayanan, the Municipal Commissioner GP Rao, the Superintendent of Police and the police force. The police was fatigued but perhaps a little affected as well in the lower ranks. We had the army, the BSF, the CRPF and police drawn from most of the states of India. There was a brigadier stationed in Vijayawada.
This was another case of embarras de richesses! I had everything to assist me except civil power, especially magistrates! My first step therefore was to empower GP Rao as a magistrate of the first class so I could have at least two magistrates including the Joint Collector. Thus strengthened, accompanied by these two outstanding IAS officers, I ventured incognito in a dhoti to Vijayawada’s most happening place, the Ajanta Centre, to gauge the life of the land before me. As we made conversation eating peanuts with a few young men, I heard the vox populi about the new Collector. Unprintable. An extremely disturbing thing I noticed was that the precondition for army jawans buying a cigarette at paan shops was their having to say first “Jai Andhra, Jai Jai Andhra”.
In the midst of turmoilThe next four days were the calm before the storm. While students and youth wings of political parties fight for a cause, anti-social elements bent on fishing in troubled waters infiltrate their ranks. I understood during these days the validity of what Jawaharlal Nehru had said about crowd behaviour. The psychology of a mob is that of its lowest component. As tensions mounted, clashes with the law enforcement machinery became inevitable and leaders of the agitation demanded withdrawal of forces from crucial places of potential trouble.
My brief was to restore order in the sense the educational institutions must resume their legitimate mandate of teaching and the forthcoming examinations must be held on schedule. Principals were warned against violations of law within and outside the premises of institutions and when the head of a renowned institution responded saying the very presence of the police near schools and colleges was a grave provocation, it was made clear to him that any protection to schools hinged on students and teachers conforming to what was expected of them as alumni and educators.
One of the student groups I was negotiating with warned me that any harm to them would “bring their elders into the arena with unpredictable consequences”, a warning I rejected while assuring the group that no harm would visit the law abiding. As for reports about the anti-socials, we found that their preferred strategy was the use of soda water bottles filled with acid and needles and withdrawing into the several radial lanes of the town difficult for the forces to follow. In the ensuing confrontation first the CRP and then the army had to be called out to restore order. Most regrettably, there was loss of life.
To minimise violence curfew was imposed and within a week peace prevailed in Vijayawada and curfew was lifted. It was not a scenario any civil servant wishes to be in but it falls to the lot of civil servants to deal with such extraordinary situations.
Restoration of order was also imperative to enable an environment for negotiations between the agitating leaders and the Central government, which alone is competent under the Constitution to decide upon these momentous issues. This was largely achieved by the end of the month and regular governance was resumed paving the way for withdrawal of the Union’s armed forces and those drawn from other states in the following weeks. I had to face the inevitable magisterial inquiries as required under the law. Similar normalcy returned all over the region though President’s rule was terminated only on the December 10, 1973 with Jalagam Vengal Rao becoming Chief Minister.
The moral I drew from this rush of events was about the value of cumulative experience. Firstly, the experience I had gained in handling serious law and order situations during the steel plant agitation of 1966 including the deployment of the army in aid of civil power while I was Sub Collector, Rajahmundry; conduct of the highly fractious Panchayat elections and the general elections while Collector, Warangal in 1970-71 involving the deployment of the army; and observing events affecting the changing patterns of the movement for a separate Telangana state while Joint Collector, Hyderabad and Collector, Warangal – all these came to be invaluable in facing a situation that mimicked civil war like conditions in Vijayawada.
Secondly, working with H.C. Sarin ICS, formerly India’s defence secretary, whom Prime Minister Indira Gandhi hand-picked as adviser to the AP governor, gave me insights into how to stop, then roll back and finally dominate a law and order situation. Thirdly, the decisive importance of a thorough knowledge of the procedural law relating to the use of the army and the union’s armed forces when called in to aid the civil power in maintaining law and order, throughout a civil servant’s career. Fourthly, the import of close coordination with counterpart administrators routinely like the Superintendent of Police taking care not to interfere with the working of the internal economy of those departments. Fifth, the lesson that you can buy anything in life off the shelf but not experience and therefore never hesitate to learn from your own past experience and that of the others. Sixth, institutional memory is invaluable for a civil servant. Finally, a decisive and timely political mandate is a sine qua non for good governance, especially in times of crisis. That is the duty and responsibility of the political class. Is that in deficit?
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