The brutal murder of advocates Gattu Vamana Rao and his wife PV Nagamani on a busy highway in Peddapalli district earlier this week, has led to widespread protests from lawyers across the Telangana. Several petitions have been filed before the courts, even as advocates abstained from their duties and took to the streets blocking roads and holding candlelight vigils.
In a statement condemning the brutal murder, Telangana Bar Council chairman A Narasimha Reddy said the country is witnessing frequent attacks on advocates and urged the government to enact the Advocates Protection Act to safeguard the lawyers’ community. Vamana Rao’s father has sought a CBI probe alleging larger political conspiracy in the murders.
On Thursday, Bar Council of India chairman Manan Kumar Mishra called the incident ‘an onslaught on the freedom of the profession’. In a press release, he said “the frequent threats and attacks on the lawyers have established that the Advocates are not at all safe anywhere in the country. It is proving to be exceedingly difficult and even fatal for the Advocates taking up the peoples cause.”
This is the echo across the fraternity in the state too. Stating the morale of advocates across the state is down since the incident, Manjusha Ettovoni, former vice-president of the Hyderabad City Civil Court Advocates Association, said advocates are like other professionals who discharge their duties, and it should be without any fear. “This incident has sent shivers down our spines. I have 40 young interns, most of the parents want them to quit the profession and go back. The terror associated with the incident will further alienate young lawyers, especially women, from fighting for justice. The incident also shows that it should be the responsibility of the government to protect them,” she said.
Ettovoni lamented that even if the passengers of the buses at the spot had raised their voices, the lives could have been saved. “Everyone just kept watching. It is so ghastly that one can hear Vamana Rao requesting for water and ambulance while people continue to film his death,” she added.
Ramagundam Police on Thursday night arrested Kunta Sreenivas (44), TRS party’s Manthani Mandal president and formerly associated with an outfit allegedly linked to CPI (Maoists), S Chiranjeevi (35), and Akkapaka Kumar (44) in connection with the murders. On Vamana Rao’s father Kishan Rao’s complaint, police have registered a case on charges of murder, criminal conspiracy, and wrongful restraint against the trio. Sreenivas was subsequently suspended from the party.
After the arrests, Ramagundam Police suggested a criminal conspiracy in the case. The accused had followed the couple from the court in Manthani to the spot near a filling station on the main road to Kalvacherla where they were assassinated, the police maintained.
Chikkudu Prabhakar, an advocate known for filing several public interest litigations, termed the incident a culpable homicide by the state and demanded an impartial investigation under the supervision of a sitting Judge of the High Court. “Not once but repeatedly Vamana Rao and Nagamani sought protection and despite the then Chief Justice directing the government it failed to act. It is the denial of this protection that cost them their lives,” said Prabhakar.
According to him, such cold-blooded murder is a caution to all advocates fighting against illegal actions of the powers-that-be. “They want to signal that the fate of all who take up such a fight would be the same as the deceased couple’s. In this case, the case has taken a turn because of the crucial dying declaration of Vamana Rao.”
Moments before his death, lying on the road and soaked in blood, Vamana Rao had named Kunta Sreenivas as the perpetrator. This dying declaration recorded by an onlooker using his mobile phone is the most valuable evidence in the case. Taking up the case suo-motu, a division bench of the Telangana High Court directed police to trace the viral video clips that recorded Rao’s dying declaration and preserve it. The bench led by Chief Justice Hima Kohli issued notices to the government and directed the police a time-bound investigation after collecting all material evidence. It has sought a counter-affidavit from the government on March 1.
Sudarshan Malugari, the secretary of Telangana High Court Advocates Association, echoed the same views. “We met with the Chief Justice on Thursday and expressed our pain and anguish. She assured us that the state and police authorities were directed to submit their counter explanation by March 1. We will then see all kinds of possibilities to fix the people involved in the brutal murder,” he said.
On Thursday, over 10,000 advocates from across the state took to protest against the murders following a call from the High Court Advocates’ Association. “Advocates at the High Court will attend the courts as the CJ has given an assurance. Meanwhile, advocates at all lower courts will observe protests and boycott courts,” he added.
According to him, Vamana Rao and his wife Nagamani were murdered as they tried to expose the illegal activities of local politicians. “Advocates have become soft targets. Over a decade ago, advocate Ashok Reddy was brutally assassinated because he appeared before the revenue tribunal in certain land matters. Similarly, in 2005, two women advocates were killed after their client did not get favourable orders. We have to assume that the latest murders are a signal sent out to all advocates,” he stated.
Designated Senior Advocate L Ravichander, however, has a counter argument. “I don’t think one swallow makes a summer. Well, I know for sure it (murder) is unacceptable and I condemn it in the strongest language at my command. But I don’t think the men and women in the profession are going to be cowed down so easily.”
According to him, the unanimity with which advocates across the state staged protests meant that anyone who does anything of this kind will run a larger risk in the future. “This is one of its kind and hopefully will remain one of its kind. I think this is also a reflection of larger malice in our society, a tendency to take to violence at the drop of a hat. I also believe the government will bring in the right measures to ensure things like this do not happen again,” he said.
On the progress of the investigation into the case, Ramagundam police commissioner V Satyanarayana told indianexpress.com that police will seek custody of the three arrested persons for further questioning, scene reconstruction, and collection of evidence such as weapons used. “We are doing a meticulous investigation. We are questioning one Bittu Srinu in connection to the case. He will be arrested for his role in the crime. We will corroborate the findings with technical evidence, including digital and social media,” he said. Tulisegari Srinivas alias Bittu Srinu is the nephew of former TRS Legislator and Peddapalli Zilla Parishad Chairman Putta Madhu.
Similarly, the State Human Rights Commission took suo-motu cognisance of press reports that said the deceased couple had already complained to the police about threats to their lives, and their lives were not saved. The Commission, hence, called for a report on the incident from the Director-General of Police by March 10.
Meanwhile, Warangal Advocates Association secretary Ennamsetti Venugopal Rao was on Wednesday roughed up by two strangers, ironically as he was watching the news of the double murder. The 50-year-old was waiting for his turn at an ATM near his home when he stopped two youngsters who tried to jump the queue. “One of them punched me on my forehead while the other hit me on my jaw. As I resisted them, they fled the place without withdrawing money. I was left with a swollen face and bleeding from my forehead,” recalled Rao. The Subedari police station in Hanamkonda has registered a case under Section 324 IPC (Voluntarily causing hurt using dangerous weapons or means) and started an investigation.