Wednesday, June 22, 2011

When Ganapathi and Kishenji took to Arms

The following is an edited extract from the chapter, The Return of the Spring Thunder. Situated on the southern edge of the Adilabad district, Tappalpur appeared to be a quiet village. But a group of about a dozen men, who lay low outside a mansion on the evening of 25 September 1976, knew that it was not quite so. The village was ruled by the 65-year-old landlord GV Pithambar Rao, one-time MLA, who now devoted all his time to managing the affairs of his lands.

The Velama caste to which Rao belonged was known for its aversion to engaging in any form of productive work. In fact, there is a saying about the Velamas that even if burning coals land on their thighs, they would expect their bonded labourers to remove them instead of saving themselves.

Around that time, 14 per cent of Adilabad’s population was tribal, with Gonds constituting three-quarters of it. The district was also home to the Sringareni collieries, the biggest in south India. But only about six to seven per cent of their employees were tribals. Big industrial houses had business interests here in products such as coal and bamboo.

There was a lot of unrest among the landless poor, who were at one time landowners but had lost their land to money-lenders, who had come from Maharashtra and other parts of Andhra Pradesh. In many cases, the poor tribals had cleared large tracts of forest land for agriculture, after paying bribes to the revenue and forest officials.

Later, the same forest department officials began evacuating the tribals from the forest area, denying them even the little sustenance that came through cultivation.

It was in such circumstances, Naxalites allege, that rich landlords like Pithambar Rao made life even more difficult for the poor. Rao had been on the hit list of the Naxalites for some time — according to a rebel who was a part of the hit team — because of his alleged cruel ways of dealing with the poor peasants of Tappalpur.

The Naxalites accuse him of being drunk on money and political power, and of committing a number of atrocities including the raping of womenfolk. The Naxalites even go to the extent of saying that in those days no family would agree to a marriage alliance for their daughter from anyone in Tappalpur because of Rao’s reputation.

Apart from this, the Naxalites had another major axe to grind with Pithambar Rao. In 1972, two peasants, Bhumaiah and Kishta Goud were arrested for murdering a landlord in Adilabad, and were later sentenced to death. Civil rights groups had tried their best to save them from the gallows (even Sartre had demanded their release) but in the middle of the Emergency, on 1 December 1975, the two were hanged in the Mushirabad jail-becoming the first to be hanged in free India (after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse).

The Maoists believe that Pithambar Rao had played a key role in the arrest of Kishta Goud. That evening a group of them gathered by the walls of his mansion, waiting for the darkness. Later, another rebel group was to join them and then they would attack. The men were armed with axes, knives and a crude bomb.

One of those who waited outside that evening was bespectacled man, a science graduate, working as a teacher in the neighbouring Karimnagar district. He had recently been made a Central Organiser of the party. Accompanying him was another young comrade known for his physical strength and knowledge of guerilla warfare.

But things went a little haywire. The group that was supposed to join them didn’t turn up. As they waited, one of Rao’s workers happened to spot them. Another senior Maoist leader who was a part of that group remembers how the young comrade frog-jumped at the worker and prevented him from raising an alarm.

But by then the other workers had seen them as well. In haste, the men exploded the bomb they were carrying at the entrance and fled from there.

Though the bomb did not kill anyone on the spot, Pithambar Rao died a few days later. Of a heart attack.

But the group was not yet done. It returned a few months later, this time well prepared. The group had acquired a muzzle-loading gun as well. On the evening of 7 November, the group, disguised as shepherds, pretended to be drunk and initiated a fake brawl among themselves. As the onlookers gathered, one of them shouted: ‘Let us go to the Zamindar!’

At the main gate of Rao’s mansion they spotted Rao’s two sons. Both of them were killed at once along with a police constable. Besides them, a couple of workers and the son of the village head were also killed. The group then left and went to a nearby village where one of Rao’s clerks known for his inhuman attitude towards the poor lived.

He was found at his house and his throat was slit. The group then raided the house of another landlord and burnt down all the land deal agreements he had with the villagers. Then they went looking for another of Rao’s workers who had also played a role in Kishta Goud’s arrest. He was fired at but he managed to flee.

Later, he surrendered in front of the party leaders and apologised.

This incident is known in the history of the Maoist movement as the Tappalpur raid and it led to the exodus of scores of landlords from Adilabad, Karimnagar and other neighbouring districts. The poor had risen and the Maoists were now leading them.

The young comrade who frog-jumped at Rao’s worker that September night in Tappalpur was Nalla Adi Reddy, more popularly known as Comrade Shyam. He was later killed on 2 December 1999 in Bangalore with two other senior Maoist leaders, Santosh Reddy alias Mahesh and Seelam Naresh alias Murali.

Their local guide in Bangalore who had offered them shelter had connived with the police to drug them, after which they were killed. The bespectacled comrade who accompanied the group in Tappalpur was also a Velama, Mupalla Laxman Rao, the man we know now as Ganapathi — the supreme commander of the CPI (Maoist).

The situation in the neighbouring Karimnagar district was no different. There was rampant exploitation of the landless poor and in the feudal set-up formed by the landlords, they suffered a lot. But after the student rebels under the ‘Go to the Village’ campaign began visiting these areas, they brought with them political awareness.

People who were not even allowed to wear slippers in front of the landlords were getting organised under the Maoist leadership.

The first shock to the feudal landlords was administered by a Dalit labourer, Lakshmi Rajam. In Andhra, around the time of Dussehra, it was a ritual that a play called Dakamma be performed in the area where the landlords lived.

In the village the segregation was complete. Wealthy Velama landlords stayed in the village while the Dalits stayed around the periphery so that they would have no contact with the landlords most of the time. Buoyed by the stories of revolution, Rajam organised this play in the Dalit area in 1977.

It was around this time that the Dalits and other landless people began to assert themselves and took over tracts of government land either illegally occupied by the landlords or just left unexploited. The first Dalit to occupy such land was a man called Poshetty. Both Lakshmi Rajam and Poshetty were killed by the angry landlords.

By June 1978, the heat had become unbearable for the landlords. The student rebels had sowed a seed of rebellion among the peasants. The Maoist leadership decided to concentrate on the wage issues of agricultural labourers, the abolition of free labour which the landlords forced the Dalits to do, and taking possession of land…

…Due to the Jagtial march, a rare phenomenon took place, perhaps the only one of its kind till now in the history of India. The poor working class decided to socially boycott those landlords who would not surrender the land they illegally occupied. So for such landlords, washermen, barbers, cattle feeders and domestic servants refused to lend their services.

This was the social boycott of the poor in reverse. The same boycott was later extended to the policemen who camped in the area to aid the rich landlords. The boycott was a huge success. Excepting six landlords, everyone else fell in line.

Some of the landlords later retaliated with the help of the police. Village after village was raided by a joint force of police and goons of the landlords. Mass beating and torture took place. In Jagtial taluka alone, 4,000 villagers are said to have been implicated in false cases. Some of them were jailed and many brutally tortured.

By end October 1978, Jagtial was declared a disturbed area.

But the men who led and supervised the Jagtial march were a contented lot. The shackles had been broken. That evening in Jagtial, as the poor masses took to the streets, two men would look into each other’s eyes and then hug each other.

One of them was Ganapathi and the other his friend who would later become his trusted lieutenant: Mallojula Koteshwara Rao alias Kishenji.

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