Thursday, July 02, 2015

Inside India's Zodiac Murders

By Jason Overdorf
Newsweek (July 2015)

Kurapati Nagaraju is one of India’s wealthiest astrologers. He’s also very lucky. Several months ago, two gunmen on motorcycles skidded to a halt near his house, pumped three bullets into his gut and fled. Rushed to the hospital, Nagaraju survived—only to be jailed on murder charges.

Three of Nagaraju’s relatives—also wealthy astrologers—were much less fortunate. Last year, they were bumping down the highway outside of town when a Toyota minivan swung in behind them. Then it accelerated, roaring past the astrologers' Chevy and forcing it off the road. Three contract killers jumped out and sprayed the Chevy with bullets, killing everyone but the driver.

The victims should have seen it coming—and not because they were astrologers. A few months earlier, Nagaraju and his Gandham clan allegedly arranged the brutal murder of Durga Rao, the charismatic scion of the rival Buthams, and Durga’s relatives vowed revenge, according to a local police report. In separate reports, the police say Butham family members are suspects in the attempt on Nagaraju’s life and the murder of his relatives. Nagaraju has yet to face trial and says his enemies have framed him, according to a local prosecutor.

It’s suddenly dangerous to be a prosperous prognosticator in this country. In recent years, as astrologers and gurus have emerged as fixers and go-betweens for India's often-corrupt politicians, violence has grown increasingly common in that line of work. In 2012, hitmen dressed as police officers gunned down an astrologer who advised powerful politicians in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. His murder, police say, was the result of disputes with rival kingmakers over local elections and construction contracts.

In the neighboring state of Haryana, a guru—who critics say operated with impunity for years because politicians relied on him to deliver votes from his devotees—faces charges of rape, murder and fraud, among other things. (He says his enemies fabricated the charges.) And last year, another Haryana guru barricaded himself in a compound with as many as 15,000 followers to avoid being arrested on a charge of conspiracy to commit murder, in connection with a clash between his group and another sect. He, too, is said to have long enjoyed the support of local politicians.

Residents say the Buthams and Gandhams also have enough clout to call in small favors from state-level politicians. And the bloodshed between the two families in the village of Pinakadimi, the police say, seems to be the result of that battle for money and influence. As one local police source, who asked for anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press, put it, “Durga and his rival Nagaraju were vying for control of the local political machine.”

The Untouchable Astrologers

In a sign of the astrologers' new wealth, many villagers have multistory homes rather than the simple huts common in Indian villages. The garish pink houses of the Buthams and the gaudy blue homes of the Gandhams have satellite dishes and are decorated with expensive enamel tiles. Both families have set up lucrative fortune-telling businesses in Mumbai, New Delhi and other major Indian cities, and make frequent trips to meet clients in Australia, Japan and Singapore, among other places. Their customers, according to local journalists, include international businessman Lakshmi Mittal, as well as top local politicians and film stars.At first glance, Pinakadimi looks like a typical South Indian hamlet. Not far from the ditch where assassins threw Durga’s body, a handful of water buffalo amble across the village’s main street, a narrow dirt road. Piles of harvested corn dry in the sun in the adjacent field. But Pinakadimi is not a typical town; it’s known as “the village of the astrologers,” as many of its 500-odd families earn their living through astrology and fortune-telling, catering to clients across the country and even overseas. Not long after I arrive, a slim man with a neat mustache accosts me and offers an impromptu reading. “You will be rich,” he says. “You will have two wives and five children.” (He's zero for three so far, but I'm only 44.)

The rise of the two families represents a remarkable leap across caste barriers, experts say. For centuries, astrology was the domain of high-caste Brahmins. Traced to the ancient Hindu texts known as the Vedas, it was a priestly discipline, used for matchmaking and to identify auspicious days for weddings. So-called “remedial astrology”—which involves the sales of gems, charms and rituals as remedies to counter bad planetary alignments—is a more lucrative offshoot (astrologers sell both trinkets and advice). Such services were not available to the lowest castes, however, because the Brahmin priests considered them untouchable. So the Jangalu caste, which the Buthams and Gandhams belong to, had a vast audience for their predictions, rituals and remedies.

As long as that audience remained poor, the itinerant fortune-tellers couldn’t make much of a living. But since the 1990s, the lower castes have become a potent social and political force. The erstwhile untouchables and menial laboring castes together make up more than half of India’s population and have given rise to regional parties that have displaced both the Indian National Congress Party and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party—the country’s dominant political groups—in half a dozen states. This shift shrugged off centuries of prejudice, but it has created a Boss Tweed-style patronage system, as lower-caste leaders distributed contracts and government jobs to garner support.

Gandham clans is rooted in a fight for the spoils, police say. Already rivals in the astrology business and real estate speculation, the two families had also become embroiled in a long-running dispute, the result of a Romeo-and-Juliet-style romance gone wrong. In defiance of the traditional arranged marriages, Nagaraju’s niece ran away with Durga's nephew in 2006. After heated negotiations, the families reluctantly agreed to let the young couple marry. But there was no happily ever after.

Not long after the wedding, the relationship fell apart, and the marriage’s demise deepened the enmity between the two families and ended any hopes they might share political power. Both families donated heavily to rival campaigns for the local state assembly, and before the killings began last year, they backed competing candidates to head the local village council, a key conduit for government-funded projects. “The Gandhams were jealous of [Durga] because of his popularity,” says his widow, Tirupathamma. “He was always generous to the people of the village, and people of all communities came to him for help and advice.”

The police paint a less flattering portrait. Just before the local polls, Durga apparently ditched the candidate he'd been supporting in the race for village council chief and threw his money and support behind another man, said the local police officer. Police say the maneuver may also have been part of the motive for the attack.

‘He Was Covered in Blood’

Today, Tirupathamma is living under police protection. A solidly built woman with a broad face and long hair, she wears a bright-green sari printed with purple flowers and a dozen red and gold bangles on both wrists when I meet her on the porch of a massive bungalow. Standing between two armed police officers, she produces a smartphone and swipes through a series of professional-looking photos of her husband—a strikingly handsome man with the wavy, swept-back hair of a South Indian film star. Wearing black aviators and a tight-fitting shirt, he strides boldly toward the camera in one of the pics. In another, embossed with the Michael Jackson's name, he poses like the singer.

Tirupathamma's voice cracks and her eyelids flutter as she describes the night her husband was killed. (The police say at least four attackers stabbed him 16 times.) After his usual dinner of an apple and two chapatis, a type of unleavened bread, Durga went for a walk. Tirupathamma was washing the dishes when she heard people shouting outside. She stepped onto her balcony to see what was going on. “Durga has been attacked,” one of the villagers shouted. Durga's brother went out to find him, Tirupathamma says. When he came back, he was covered in blood. “He told me that Durga had been murdered, and he collapsed on the ground.”

Nagaraju’s first hearing is slated for August, at which time he’ll apply for bail. The trial itself may drag on for decades, due to the Indian court system’s glacial pace. For Tirupathamma, the resolution can’t come soon enough. As she speaks, a tear rolls down her cheek. “I vowed that I will not begin mourning until all my husband's killers have been eliminated.”