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Peek into History: Struggles & Caste mobilisation in Telangana

This article is 9th in the series on the evolution and development of Telugu States)
 
The history of the CPI (ML)-led agrarian movement in Telangana in the post-Emergency period can be divided into two phases. In the first phase, i.e. 1977 to the early 1980s, the emphasis was on mass mobilisation and popular forms of protest around the issues of landlord oppression and coercion, the practice of vetti, land to the landless, usury, etc. The second phase, the beginnings of which can be traced to the 1970s and relied upon almost exclusively since the mid-1980s, was the armed struggle phase.
 
Although the beginnings of peasant unrest were visible in the early 1970s, it is only in the post- Emergency period that an increased and expanded mobilisation of the agrarian poor was witnessed in northern Telangana. The defeat of the Congress Party government at the centre, a sense of relief from eighteen long months of Emergency rule, during which even minimum democratic rights were denied, paved the way for popular assertions from below.18 Thus a new phase of agrarian political mobilisation took place in the late 1970s in the districts of north Telangana.
 
Critical to an understanding of this is the emergence of an educated section of the rural poor. While the developed coastal region has, in a substantive sense, produced two or three generations of educated lower class-castes, such as the OBCs and dalits, the rural lower class youth of the Telangana region entered the institutions of higher education for the first time only in the 1970s. 
 
This was due to the expansion of education, state support and scholarships to OBC, dalit and adivasi youth. These young people, for whom the oppressive conditions of the rural countryside were a matter of living experience, gravitated to radical politics in a significant way. The swelling of the ranks of the student and youth fronts of the CPI (ML) in the late 1970s was indicative of the restlessness of the post-Emergency phase of student politics in the State in general and in Telangana in particular. 
 
The programme of the Gramalaku Taralandi or ‘Go to villages’ campaign, undertaken by the Radical Students Union (RSU), Radical Youth League (RYL) and the cultural front Jana Natya Mandali (JNM) to spread the message of agrarian revolution attracted these youths. Small groups comprising youths, students and cultural activists participated in this campaign. They moved from one village to another mingling with the rural poor, spreading the message through song, dance and speech. 
 
Rural folk forms were experimented with and brought into play in these campaigns. Similarities with the Telangana peasant struggle of 1940s were striking. These campaigns were instrumental not only in the spread of the movement but also in its consolidation through the establishment of the Rytu Coolie Sanghams (the peasant-landless poor organisations, RCS) in the villages.
 
By the end of 1978, the RCS were established in most parts of Karimnagar district, Sircilla and Jagityal taluks being the main centers. The RCS became instrumental in articulating the sharp polarisation that objectively existed in the countryside by organising the poor peasants, farm servants and agricultural labour against the landlords. Thus the RCS came to be seen as the organisational expression of the all the oppressed classes, especially the dalits in the countryside, capable of conducting a struggle against all forms of landlord class oppression.
Crucial to this phase of agrarian mobilisation was what has been described as Jaitra Yatra (Victory March). On 7 September 1978, more than 30,000 people from 150 villages, comprising farm- servants, agricultural labourers and toiling peasants, were mobilised in a march to Jagityal town, which culminated in a huge public meeting. 
 
This was a turning point in the history of the peasant movement in Telangana. With this, new contacts were established, enthusiastic youths showed an interest in starting RCS units in their villages and the Jaithra Yatra was catalytic in the expansion of the organisational network and support bases for the agrarian struggle in the region.
 
The Sircilla-Jagityal movement
 
The Sircilla and Jagityal taluks of Karimnagar district were central to the peasant struggle in Telangana region during the post-Emergency period. These two taluks saw initial attempts at agrarian mobilisation in the early 1970s, inspired by the Naxalbari and Srikakulam uprisings. 
 
The beginning of peasant mobilisation in this area is seen as a result of the spread of the message of revolution from the tribal areas to the plains. Heavy repression and the proclamation of a state of Emergency in 1975 imposed severe restrictions on popular mobilisation and open struggles. 
 
The lifting of the Emergency and the coming to power of the Janata Party at the centre drastically changed the political scenario in the country. The promise of improved civil rights paved the way for the Rytu Cooli Sanghams to come into the open and organise the rural poor for better socio- economic conditions.
 
The issues focused upon and the demands put forward in these struggles can be broadly grouped into two categories. The first was the refusal to perform vetti, pay mamools and approach the landlord for arbitration of disputes, etc. 
 
The second category consisted of demands for higher wages, which were below the minimum wage prescribed by law, repayment of huge sums of money collected from the villagers as dandugalu (fines) and bribes taken earlier, and the return of lands forcibly seized from peasants, etc. Further, it was demanded that landlords pay reparations for past actions and exploitation.
 
Demonstrating the popular response, the Sangham forced landlords to yield to the former category of demands. The initial success in villages such as Nimmapally in Sircilla and Maddunur in Jagityal demonstrated the possibility of organised protest succeeding in making landlords concede without much resistance. 
 
The spread of these success stories encouraged people in other villages to follow suit. It is no exaggeration to suggest that in the initial phases of the struggle, a mere call of ‘social boycott’ worked wonders, as this meant that, apart from stopping agricultural operations on the landlords’ farms, no washermen or barbers would be available to provide (even paid) services at the landlord’s gadi. This social boycott of the landlords by service castes in particular caused great inconvenience to their normal everyday lives.
 
Thus, in the early stages of the peasant movement, ‘social boycott’ was used as the main form of struggle to exercise considerable social pressure on landlords and to isolate them in villages. The people in these villages stopped rendering vetti services, carrying disputes to the landlord and offering mamools and bribes. It is interesting to note that attempts were made to settle the disputes through public hearings.
 
The success in this regard enthused people to push further for the second category of demands. What is noteworthy is the fact that in a number of places the RCS conducted public hearings to enquire into illegal exactions such as mamools and dandugalu, land-grabbing – both private and public or common – and landlord atrocities. 
 
The landlords in these places were made to pay back huge sums to the people.22 Similarly, attempts were made to settle disputes among the poor people. As said earlier, huge tracts of the poramboku, shikam, temple lands, forest lands and lands illegally held by landlords were distributed to the landless.23 Further, the demand for an increase in the wages of agricultural labour, palerus (farm servants) and tendu leaf24 collectors were articulated.
 
Given the substantial material interests involved in this, landlords opposed the demand to raise wages and surrender lands forcibly occupied from the peasants and the illegally controlled common lands. To achieve these demands, various forms of mobilisation and methods of protest such as demonstrations, gheraos, strikes, and, of course, social boycotts, were adopted by the RCS. 
 
As the movement expanded and the organisational structure of the RCS spread out following the Jaithra Yatra held in Jagityal town, the injury not only to landlords pettandari (domination) and pride but also to their material interests became substantial and expansive, and they sought to quell the unrest.
 
This response is a clear instance of the State understanding rural tensions as ‘law and order’ problems and suppressing them through violent means, rather than going to the root of the problem, i.e. the socio-economic basis of rural unrest. This understandably generated its own dynamics: violence leading to further violence, without any light at the other end of the tunnel.
 
The two taluks of Sircilla and Jagityal were declared ‘disturbed areas’ in the month of October 1978 under the Suppression of Disturbances Act, 1948. It facilitated the possibility of a collaboration between the police and the landlords, thus making the life of peasant activists that much more difficult as they had not only to face the landlords’ force but also the organised might of the State.
 
Additionally, there were struggles and unrest in Peddapally and Tendu. 
 
The shift away from popular mobilisation
 
With the spread of the movement and the open challenge posed by the CPI (ML) to the State machinery – especially to the revenue, police, excise and forest departments – and the State perception largely being governed by the ‘law and order’ framework, the State responded violently by treating the movement as a breakdown of law and order. 
 
The repression in the post-Emergency phase of the movement, beginning with the declaration of the areas in the thick of the movement as ‘disturbed areas’, assumed serious proportions by the mid-1980s, with frequent and large-scale ‘encounters’ reported.
 
Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Telangana region saw violence of unparalleled proportions. During this period, the killing of landlords, termed as ‘class enemies’, attacks on police stations, the destruction of government property such as buses of the State Road Transport Corporation, equipment and buildings belonging to railways, telephone exchanges and mandal offices, were witnessed with regularity.
 
The peasant movement in Telangana began with an emphasis on mass mobilisation by the landless and poor peasantry, in addition to the artisan and service castes’ articulation that indebtedness and low wages amounted to pre-capitalist forms of bondage and servitude. 
 
With increasing repression of agrarian mobilisation, the CPI (ML) gradually abandoned popular mobilisation and increasingly resorted to armed actions. With both sides of the spectrum relying on violence as a means to make their point, violence and counter-violence, without much exaggeration, became ends in themselves. In contrast, the coastal region experienced subaltern mobilisation based on caste, which we shall examine in the next section.

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