Pinkadimi village in Andhra Pradesh’s West Godavari district is famous for its astrologers. The nearly 200 families of the Jangalu community here once dabbled in palm-reading and astrology at local temples. Over the years, many converted that into riches, supplementing the money earned telling fortunes by investment in real estate.
As the land rates in several areas of West Godavari and Krishna districts including Vijayawada, 65 km from Pinkadimi, went up to Rs 1 crore per acre, among those who benefited the most were the Butham and Gandam families. Now, the two find themselves at the centre of a blood feud that has a trail going all the way to London and Delhi, and has left four dead and seven behind bars, with more arrests likely.
Investigators trace the feud to a tussle for dominance in local politics, made worse by a matrimonial alliance that the families agreed to only after much persuasion, but that eventually went wrong.
At the two ends of the fight were Butham brothers Govindu, Srinivas Rao and Durga Rao, and the Gandham family’s Nageshwara Rao, 70, his son G Maraiah, 30, nephew P Maraiah, 40, and Rao’s cousin Kurapati Nagaraju. On April 6, Durga Rao was killed. On September 24, Nageshwara, his son and nephew were killed sensationally, on a busy highway in Vijayawada in broad daylight. The Andhra Pradesh Police will seek Govindu’s extradition from the UK.
Sometime around 2006, Govindu’s daughter and Nagaraju’s youngest son Sivaramakrishna fell in love. While both Nageshwara and Govindu initially opposed the alliance vehemently, after a few months of persuasion, they relented. In 2006, the couple got married.
“Contrary to reports, they did not elope but waited for consent of their families,” says Vijayawada Deputy Commissioner Tafseer Iqbal, who led the investigation that led to the arrest of four hired killers in New Delhi for the murders of the Gandham family members.
After two years of the marriage though, Iqbal says, differences cropped up between the couple and they separated. While Govindu’s daughter went back home, a case under Section 498A (dealing with marital cruelty) was filed against Sivaramkrishna.
“This development and the growing dominance of the two families in the village resulted in skirmishes. Arguments and quarrels were common as both tried to assert themselves, gain political dominance and control the village panchayat,” DCP Iqbal says.
Govindu accused the Gandhams of “spoiling” his daughter’s life.
“The rivalry reached a peak during the local body elections of March 30. The families supported different candidates,” says Iqbal.
A week after the local elections, Durga Rao was killed. The Butham brother was a hotelier owning a huge property known as ‘JK House’ in Eluru, 60 km from Vijayawada. Police found that three hired killers from Mumbai were involved in the shooting and suspected the hand of Nageshwara, son G Maraiah and nephew P Maraiah. While the Mumbai suspects are yet to be caught, the three Gandhams were arrested and granted bail after filing of a chargesheet against them. Fearing a backlash from the Buthams, they moved to Mumbai.
The Buthams, according to police, were determined for revenge, and tapped their Telugu contacts in New Delhi and Mumbai to hire sharpshooters. “They were willing to pay any sum,” a police official says.
Govindu is alleged to have arranged the money, while Srinivas contacted Sirigiri Srinivas, a fellow villager settled in Kalyanpuri in New Delhi. Police believe it was Sirigiri who contacted Ombir Singh. Singh along with associates Pankaj, Satish Kumar and Manjeet Singh — all residents of Kalyanpuri — then planned out the killing, for a price of Rs 1 crore.
Within days of the death of Durga Rao, police say, the revenge murder had been worked out, with five contract killers hired for Rs 10 lakh each.
The gang, police say, made two other attempts to kill the Gandham targets, without success. In April, they visited the hotel in Vijayawada where Nageshwara and the two Maraiahs were staying but could not open fire. Another time they waited outside a court for the three to appear, but Nageshwara and the others did not come as the hearing was postponed.
On August 4, Govindu flew to London, allegedly after giving final touches to the murder plan. On September 24, G Maraiah and P Maraiah were due to appear in court for a hearing. The hired shooters arrived at Vijayawada on September 22 and booked themselves into Royal Humpi Lodge. They then recced the airport and court premises. On September 24, the Maraiahs flew in from Mumbai and were picked up from the Vijayawada airport by Nageshwara in a taxi. The hired gang was waiting in an SUV, bought allegedly specifically for the killing by Govindu, while one of them was on a newly purchased motorcycle. According to police, Srinivas was present too, in another vehicle, and identified the three targets for the killers.
The shooters tried to stop the cab initially, but when the taxi driver sped away, a chase began on the highway leading to Vijayawada. At Peda Avutapally finally, the killers cornered the taxi and rained down bullets, only sparing the scared cab driver.
It was his testimony that proved crucial as Iqbal and his men started putting together the dots. CCTV footage at a toll booth gave away the numberplate of the SUV, which was found to have been purchased in the name of Srinivas. Similarly, the motorcycle used was shown to have been bought by Govindu. In another lapse, the killers abandoned the SUV near the Royal Hampi Lodge. CCTV footage there led police to the killers. Meanwhile, mobile phone records of Govindu and Srinivas showed frequent calls to Sirigiri Srinivas of Delhi.
A police officer laughs at the irony of the situation. “If you look at the clients of these families and the kind of money they make, they must be predicting fortunes right most of the times. However, they could not see their own deaths coming in such a violent way.”
Trying to explain how they had a clientele list from Pinkadimi to London, he says that the astrologers here have realised that the money to be made is from the rich and not villagers who can’t pay much.
“Some of them started off by leaving with just a change of clothes and landing up in Hyderabad or Mumbai, where they would approach a contact — usually someone hailing from West Godavari — and give them advice for free. In return, they would seek phone numbers and references to high-profile and rich persons,” the official says.
“From politicians to real-estate tycoons to film stars, everyone sought their guidance,” adds another official. “Pinkadimi is dotted with palatial villas and bungalows built by them.”
Govindu, virtually settled in London, was not an exception. Several astrologers in the village are known to be frequently on the road, hopping from city to city and sometimes country to country, invited by rich NRIs for “consultations”. Most of them visit the US, UK, Singapore and Malaysia at least twice a month.