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YSR ‘Shock deaths’ – Facts & politics అక్టోబర్ 27, 2009

Posted by Telangana Utsav in Congress, Hyderabad, In News, politics, Telangana, TRS, Warangal, YSR.
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Economic & Political Weekly, October 24, 2009 vol xliv no 43
Commentary

YSR ‘Shock Deaths’ in Andhra

C Ramachandraiah

Over 450 people were reported to have died of “shock” following the death of Andhra Pradesh chief minister, Y S Rajasekhara Reddy. While the high-pitched media coverage may have contributed to some of these deaths, it also appears likely that eager Congress workers gave money to poor people asking them to claim that the natural deaths of members of their respective families were due to “shock” at the death of YSR. This was a cynical move to pressurise the Congress leadership to make his son, Jaganmohan Reddy, the chief minister.

Over 450 people are reported to have died of shock in the days following the tragic death of the former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh (AP), Y S Rajasekhara Reddy (popularly known as YSR) in the helicopter crash on 2 September 2009. Though the helicopter carrying YSR and four others is now known to have crashed around 9.30 am on 2 September, the news of their death was telecast only on the morning of 3 September, i e, after a full 24 hours of suspense about the fate of the chief minister. That the helicopter was missing was itself confirmed only late in the afternoon of 2 September by the then finance minister (present chief minister) K Rosaiah.

YSR had emerged a mass political leader in AP after his padayatra during April-June 2003. Aided by a booming economy, a slew of welfare/populist measures and distribution of patronage through public work contracts and other means, he became a popular chief minister. His personal traits of helping those who approach him and taking care of the needs of his followers earned him supporters across the state.

The intriguing question is whether YSR’s personal popularity as well as the popularity of his welfare measures can explain the unusually large number of deaths in the state that were reported soon after YSR’s passing. The largest number of deaths (227) was reported on 4 September, the day of the funeral and on 5 September (107) a day after the funeral. Comparatively there were fewer “shock deaths” (62) when his death was confirmed on 3 September, after a 24-hour media-fed frenzy and suspense over his missing helicopter . Of the 289 deaths that were reported to have occurred on the 3 and 4 September, 91% (263) were due to heart attacks while the rest (26) were suicides.

The non-stop live coverage by television news channels of YSR’s disappearance and search operations could be one reason explaining such a large number of deaths. Breathless “breaking news” and high pitched “debates” raised curiosity and kept matters on the boil. The steady build-up of search operations, which soon came to be touted as one of the biggest such operations in recent history added to this mix of curiosity and tension. Since all this was happening towards the dawn on 2 September many might have watched TV throughout the night, and more so on 3-4 September until the funeral.

There are nearly 20 Telugu TV channels of various types, which continuously broadcast the events. In their ugly competition for viewership, these channels fuelled confusion and mystery till the death of YSR became irrefutable and some even peddled rumours after confirmation of this death. Once the deaths were confirmed, they started competing to telecast live visuals of wailing followers and archival footage of YSR’s speeches and actions. As life came to a standstill across the state, it is possible to argue that such continuous footage on the visual media might have had a numbing effect on the minds of his followers and also many others. Further, these TV channels played tragic film songs as background music, along with eulogies of YSR as a “god” and “saviour of the downtrodden”. By the time the funeral was over on the evening of 4 September, 33 hours had already passed since the confirmation of the deaths and more than 48 hours since the helicopter was confirmed missing. Once the funeral was over, these channels started telecasting the visuals of the crash site and the gathering of the mangled dead bodies into sacks and lifting them into the rescue helicopters above. These visuals, showing the gory nature of the deaths, might have further added to a feeling of depression.

Several relatives of those who died in the aftermath of YSR’s death told the media that the deceased were not eating properly since the news of the helicopter crash was confirmed and many of them collapsed after continuously watching TV visuals of YSR’s death. The role of the visual media (in inducing the deaths) in the events of this nature should surely be a matter of concern.

Faking the Number of Deaths?

Given this role of the media, there still remains a suspicion about the number of “shock deaths” attributed to YSR’s death. In simple language, it can be argued that the number of deaths has been faked; that many deaths which occurred due to varied reasons have been attributed to YSR’s death. It appears that many Congress leaders and government officials induced bereaved families to make false claims in a well organized manner. The victims’ families are known to have been promised financial help, at some places, including family pensions on the lines of widow/old age pensions, if they put out the story that the person died while watching footages of YSR’s death on TV. At some places, amounts ranging from Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 were reported to be distributed by the followers of YSR’s son, Jaganmohan Reddy, and more was promised once he became chief minister “As if tutored, everybody said that the person died while watching the funeral scenes on TV” . This should be seen in light of the fact that the ugly chorus of “Jagan for CM” was started by Congress leaders even before YSR’s body reached Hyderabad. The swelling “shock death” numbers were probably meant to show, YSR’s popularity and to convey that Jaganmohan Reddy, as YSR’s son, was the only person capable of taking on that mantle and fulfilling the aspirations of the people.

The age of the victims and the regional distribution of deaths gives further credence to the suspicion on the number of “shock deaths”. Of the 289 deaths that were reported during 3-4 September, age details were available for 249 persons. Of these, 76 victims (31%) were 60 years and above including 24 persons of 70 years and above. Of the 289 deaths, the largest number was from Warangal district (37) in Telangana followed by East Godavari district (33) in coastal Andhra whereas the number was very small in YSR’s native district of Kadapa (8), where his patronage was at its maximum. Warangal is a centre of the separate Telangana movement whereas YSR was a staunch supporter of an integrated Andhra Pradesh. Rangareddy district, which surrounds Hyderabad city, reported only two deaths on 3 September and none on the day of the funeral. This district has witnessed an unprecedented real estate boom, while many information technology parks and special economic zones are located in it and many fortunes here were directly linked to YSR’s rule. The two very poor districts in Telangana, Mahbubnagar and Adilabad, together reported only 10 deaths. The three north coastal districts of Srikakulam, Vizianagaram and Visakhapatnam reported only three deaths on the first day and 13 deaths the next day (during 3-4 September). This skew surely indicates that it was not only the shock of YSR’s death among those who benefited under his chief ministership and where he was most popular which accounts for these deaths.

AP has witnessed a large number of suicides of farmers and the rural poor over the years due to crop failures, rising debts and rural distress. YSR tried to temporarily ameliorate some of the problems through welfare/populist measures. Any small help that reaches them was hugely welcomed by these distressed people. Equally so, any perceived loss of those benefits (as might have been felt by them after YSR’s death) could have led to fear and depression These distress situations, aided by the continuous footage of the TV channels, might have resulted in a few deaths, but reports of such a large number raises doubts and needs deeper probing. In addition to the above, it is also worth investigating the linkages between the reporting of a large number of deaths from a few districts only and the overenthusiastic activism of the Congress Party functionaries and government officials in those districts.

In the end, it appears that the normal deaths of many common people came in handy for YSR’s (and his son’s) ardent followers to make political capital for their “Jagan for CM” campaign, oblivious to the rather sombre occasion of mourning.

C Ramachandraiah (crchandraiah@gmail.com) is with the Centre for Economic and Social Studies, Hyderabad.

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