How Vangaveeti-Devineni clans and their blood feud shifted political discourse in Andhra Pradesh

The political alliance between TDP and Jana Sena is being projected as a peace accord between Kammas and Kapus.

WrittenBy:Anjana Meenakshi& E Bhavani
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The decision of the Jana Sena Party to join hands with the Telugu Desam Party for the upcoming assembly and parliamentary elections in Andhra Pradesh is no ordinary political alliance. It is being projected as a peace accord between two politically influential and landed communities – the Kammas and the Kapus – who have been feuding for over four decades.

This feud has seen murders, bomb blasts and riots, which have left dozens dead in the late 1970s and 80s. The memory of those bloody days is still preserved as cultural metaphors for Kamma-Kapu masculinity and caste pride. It has been material for many Telugu films and songs etched in the minds of successive generations.

If the political partnership succeeds, it will give Pawan Kalyan, a Kapu, and Chandrababu Naidu, a Kamma, a historic opportunity to build a constructive social alliance between the two castes. 

Kapus tend to see the TDP as an anti-Kapu party and many continue to blame followers of Naidu for the murder of one of their most iconic political leaders: Vangaveeti Mohana Ranga.  His relevance as a political icon can be gauged from the fact that his portrait adorns many Kapu establishments and is displayed proudly on their vehicles, 36 years after his death.

It all started with a personal feud between two politically powerful families in the city known as Andhra Pradesh’s cultural capital, Vijayawada. The wedge between the families engulfed Kammas and Kapus in the entire Telugu-speaking region, split today between Andhra and Telangana.

The families in question – the Kamma Devinenis and Kapu Vangaveetis – essayed such terrible and dramatic scenes that they stoked the creativity of Vijayawada’s most famous cultural export: film director Ramgopal Varma. His first film, Shiva (1990), as well as later cult thrillers such as Gayam (1993), Bezawada (2011) and Vangaveeti (2016), were inspired by the power games and murders involving these two families. 

Speaking at an event to commemorate his filmography, Ram Gopal Varma said about his film Vangaveeti, “I was just a 1,000 yards away at Benz circle (in Vijayawada) when Gandhi was killed. It was my first-hand experience of human relationships where ego and clashes lead to violence. This (also) inspired my film, Shiva.” 

The ‘Gandhi’ he is referring to isn’t the ‘Mahatma’ but one of the patriarchs of the feuding clans. His official name is Devineni Chandrashekar, and Gandhi was a nickname given by his grandfather, who participated in the freedom movement. The second brother, Devineni Rajashekhar, was called Nehru and the youngest, Devineni Murali, was called Bose.

Gandhi was stabbed to death in broad daylight during student elections at Andhra Loyola College at Benz circle in Vijayawada in 1979. The killers were allegedly supporters of Vangaveeti Mohana Ranga. Gandhi’s murder didn’t go unavenged, and that, in turn, sparked more killings. It was an avalanche of death and destruction which not only hit the two families hard but engulfed Kammas and Kapus across the Telugu-speaking world.

A saga of violence

The bloodshed started in 1972 with the murder of neither a Devineni nor a Vangaveeti but a 46-year-old leader of the Communist Party of India, Chalasani Venkata Ratnam Chowdhury, a Kamma by caste. Those were the days when trade union activism was at its peak, and Ratnam led the CPI’s unions, including the Vijayawada taxi union workers. At the time, Vangaveeti Ranga and his elder brother, Radha, were part of the communist trade union movement led by Ratnam. 

Hailed as a sort of ‘Robin Hood’ character by Kapus, Radha was an ambitious leader with a ruthless streak who wanted to gain control of the trade unions by any means necessary. 

In the pursuit of political dominance, Radha, a Kapu leader allegedly orchestrated and carried out the murder of a Kamma leader, Venkata Ratnam, and started a bitter caste feud which would resonate in violence for decades.

“My father, Venkata Ratnam, was extremely particular about taxi operations in the party. The Vijayawada Taxi Workers Union was dominated by Kammas, who owned and operated private buses while taxi drivers were largely Kapus. Radha, the union secretary, did not always agree with Ratnam's style of functioning, and things came to a head when the senior leader reprimanded Radha over how he utilised union funds. Radha quit the union and then mobilised the taxi workers, which brought him in direct competition and that became the motive for the murder,” explained Venkata Ratnam’s son Chalasani Ajay Kumar, adding that while caste didn’t play a major role, the need for political dominance did. 

Chalasani Ajay, who is now an advocate in the Andhra Pradesh High Court, said Radha’s actions directly benefited the Congress in the region then dominated by the CPI. “My father was contesting elections at that point, and the Congress party had no hold in Vijayawada because of the CPI’s dominance. How can a mere union worker in his early 20s commit a murder and get away with it, if not for political reasons?” he sought to know. 

Radha was among 17 people who were convicted in a lower court and were accorded life imprisonment. But the case was overturned in the High Court as witnesses turned hostile before the case finally went cold. 

Shortly after the acquittal, Radha and his brother Ranga, started consolidating the factory workers and drivers in Vijayawada. On the other hand, the Devinenis – Gandhi, Nehru and Bose, who were educated and better off economically – took control of student politics. The Vangaveeti duo eventually joined hands with the Devinenis and formed the United Independent Organisation.

But Radha did not live long to benefit from this alliance. He was murdered by Ratnam’s comrades in 1974.

Vangaveeti Mohana Ranga.

Radha’s murder saw the rise of Ranga. A regular man employed at Vijayawada’s cycle stand, Ranga metamorphosed into a powerful working-class hero with immense sway over young men struggling to be gainfully employed in a changing economy with fewer protections for workers.

Till date, several posters of Vangaveeti Ranga portraying him as an angry moustachioed man clad in white with a blood-red vermillion on his forehead are found on autos and motorbikes across Vijayawada. Ranga took charge of UIO and allegedly transferred funds to an organisation called the Radha Mitra Mandali (Friends of Radha). This did not go down well with the Devineni brothers, who quit the party, fracturing it. The Kapus stayed with Ranga while the Kammas followed Gandhi and Nehru.

 Ranga’s associates allegedly killed Gandhi in Vijayawada’s Andhra Loyola College in 1979. Local reports stated that in retaliation, one of Ranga’s supporters was dragged out of a bus and murdered in 1980 allegedly by Nehru and his younger brother, Bose. 

Aside from small-scale conflicts, Ranga and Nehru busied themselves with building up their political empires by joining Congress and TDP respectively. Nehru won as MLA from Kankipadu constituency in 1983. Ranga won as an MLA from Vijayawada (East) constituency in 1985. The next eight years were relatively peaceful.

But Bose’s murder in March 1988 reversed the tide of calm Vijayawada. When the youngest Devineni was returning to the city from Nellore, 20 armed men sprang from a truck and hacked Bose and four of his co-travellers to their deaths. With that, the turf wars commenced again. Shops were shut, and Nehru’s followers carried out a series of protests pinning the blame on Ranga, who was reportedly recovering in Delhi’s Ram Manohar Lohia hospital at that point in time. The Kamma-Kapu divide deepened. 

The final murder in the saga took place in December 1988. Ranga, a sitting MLA of the Congress, was on an indefinite fast protesting against the NTR-led government in Vijayawada when 40 men got off a bus armed with bombs and knives. Ranga, who attempted to flee, was repeatedly stabbed. His murder threw coastal Andhra into chaos, and a month-long curfew ensued with Nehru blamed for the murder.

It was reported that the violence over three days claimed 42 lives and property of over Rs 100 crore, a mind-boggling sum for that time, was destroyed. The then Home Minister Kodela Sivaprasad Rao resigned. The state government was forced to demand that Nehru surrender to the police. In 2002, a court acquitted all 33 accused, including Nehru, of Ranga’s murder, by which time Nehru had won as a TDP MLA thrice. “Congress leader and former Chief Minister YS Rajasekhar Reddy played a key role in mobilising the public and cadres belonging to the Kapu caste to agitate against the TDP government for Ranga’s murder,” political analyst Telakapalli Ravi said. 

Ranga’s glory, however, did not diminish. The song ‘Idi Vangaveeti kathi, Kapunu kaase shakti’ (The Vangaveeti sword is where the Kapu community derives its strength from) is still popular and often employed as a rallying cry at various Kapunadu (social-political movement established by Ranga for Kapu rights) meetings.

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The Devineni descendants

The Devineni clan over the years started joining different political parties. Nehru’s son, Devineni Avinash, is with the YSRCP, while Nehru’s cousin, Devineni Uma, stands with the TDP. Devineni Avinash is a YSRCP MLA aspirant from the Vijayawada (East) constituency and at loggerheads with his uncle Devineni Uma. 

Avinash lost in the last two assembly elections. After his loss, he quit the TDP and joined the YSRCP in 2019, earning his uncle Uma’s disapproval. “The minute he joined YSRCP, Avinash marked the end of his political career,” Uma told the media then. 

Uma too, faced defeat in Mylavaram in the 2019 Assembly elections. He contested on a TDP ticket.

While in the mid-90s, the Devineni clan was divided with Nehru on one side and his cousins Ramana and Uma on the other, currently, the split in the family is between uncle and nephew. 

If Uma doesn’t contest on a TDP ticket in 2024, this would be the first time TDP goes to elections without a Devineni. 

Irrespective of their current status, the Devineni legacy is still relevant in Vijayawada. The fact that Avinash is Nehru’s son isn’t lost on people. “Nehru lost two elections in a row at the end of his career. It is only fair we give Avinash a chance to see what he can offer,” Satya Prasad, a resident of the Krishnalanka area in Vijayawada (East), told TNM, echoing the sentiments of a section of Kammas we spoke to in the region. 

The last of the Vangaveetis

In the Vangaveeti family, Ranga’s son Vangaveeti Radha Jr was elected from Vijayawada (East) assembly constituency on a Congress ticket in 2004. Later, he joined the Praja Rajyam Party, founded by Chiranjeevi, a Kapu and popular Telugu actor. The party did well and sent 18 members to the Assembly with over 16 percent of the total vote share.

“After Ranga’s death, the community mobilised throughout the state and wanted political dominance. However, Chiranjeevi merged the party with Congress in 2011. It left the Kapu community upset,” a former MLA of the PRP told TNM. 

A miffed Radha then joined the YSRCP in 2014 but lost the Assembly elections.   

In 2019, Radha quit YSRCP and joined TDP due to differences in the allocation of tickets but did not contest elections. Currently, there is speculation that Radha might return to YSRCP as party leaders Kodali Nani and Vallabhaneni Vamsi support him.  

Sources close to the family told TNM that there is bitterness as Ranga’s legacy has been used by every party to woo Kapu voters with the help of Radha. However, no party has offered him any significant position. He hasn’t been given a ticket by any party in either the Lok Sabha or the Assembly elections. 

The criticism that Radha joined the TDP, the party responsible for his father’s murder, often comes up in political discourse. However, Radha seldom gave in to the idea. “Many people who were endorsed by my father are now MLAs in TDP and YSRCP. I want to be balanced to avoid clashes. My family has faced the repercussions of the past because of Devineni Nehru. Even the CBI investigation into my father’s murder was watered down. Several people betrayed us and turned hostile. It is enough that I am identified as Ranga’s son, no one needs to suffer further,” he said in an interview with TV9.

At the busy Vangaveeti Ranga junction, Madhu Kumar, an auto driver from the Kapu community, said that he would extend unconditional support to Radha. “In the current politics, I extend my support to Jana Sena headed by leader Pawan Kalyan. But Radha will always have my support as Ranga’s son,” he said without any irony considering the two Kapu leaders are on opposite sides.

Mobilisation against the Reddy chief minister

With a Reddy occupying the top spot in both Telangana and AP, there appears to be a shared resentment between Kammas and Kapus towards the ascendancy of the Reddy community. The TDP-Jana Sena alliance is seen as emerging against this backdrop. 

Historically, Reddys have supported the Congress, while Kammas initially sided with the Communists and later moved towards the TDP. Until NTR formed the Telugu Desam Party, the Reddys dominated united Andhra politics. The current conversation is painted with similar strokes, considering both the Telugu states are dominated by Reddy Chief Ministers, continuing a pre-Independence culture of ‘dora’ (feudal) domination. 

While caste is still a marker which dominates elections across Andhra Pradesh, the discourse has shifted considerably from the 90s. “The job crisis and lack of investments in Andhra Pradesh are issues new voters are saddled with. Family politics make for interesting stories but aren’t serious considerations,” remarks University of Hyderabad’s political science professor, E Venkatesu.

A major reason for Jagan-led YSRCP’s victory in the 2019 Assembly elections was the assurance of welfare-ism. Welfarism as an idea caused the SC/ST/BC communities to rally behind Jagan. 

Further, Chandrababu Naidu’s promise of 5% horizontal reservation under the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) for the Kapu community, ensured that Backward Class groups (BC), especially smaller groups among them like the Chakali and Mangali communities extended support to the YSRCP. 

The BC community ahead of the 2024 Assembly elections is divided, with some still supporting Jagan and some rallying behind the TDP-Jana Sena alliance as a result of a huge wave of anti-incumbency and the alliance’s promise of ensuring 33 percent reservation for BCs in the state legislature. Time will tell how Kapus will respond to Pawan Kalyan’s move to work with Naidu, who is the undisputed leader of the Kammas.  

This report was republished from The News Minute as part of The News Minute-Newslaundry alliance. It has been lightly edited for style and clarity. Read about our partnership here and become a TNM Member here.

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