Chandramma, a former revolutionary, speaks of the trials and tribulations of her time underground as a Naxalite in Andhra Pradesh five decades ago.
Srikakulam (Andhra Pradesh): Aruna Athaluri. Media person. My friend. She was working with a Telugu television news channel when I first met her. Now she is with the Telugu daily, Sakshi. Despite being friends, we had not spent even four hours together during my four-year stay at Hyderabad.
Both of us had tight deadlines to meet, almost always. At that time, I was working with Down To Earth magazine as its senior special correspondent for southern India. I would be on assignments and travelling most of the time.
However, I had always wanted to sit and talk to Aruna. There was a reason for this. She had once mentioned that her parents were involved in extreme Left politics and for years together they were underground. When she was a baby she was handed over to another family for her upbringing. I was curious to know more about their life. But then I left Hyderabad and went back to my home state, Kerala.
I met her again after two years in October 2016, while attending a national conference of women journalists in Hyderabad. We got enough time to talk.
This was in brief what she told me that day. Her father, Pyla Vasudeva Rao, was a well-known Naxalite leader from Andhra Pradesh. He was a central committee member and senior leader of Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) -New Democracy. Rao was among the leaders who led the armed peasant struggles against big landlords in Srikakulam district in the late sixties and early seventies. He entered politics by joining the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) in 1952, at the age of 20. He also worked as a teacher. He died of cancer at 78 in a Hyderabad hospital in April 2010 after an active political life that lasted 58 years. He was underground for the last 42 years of his life. Aruna’s mother, Chandramma, was also active in the armed movement. She was a wage labourer and was behind bars for about 10 years. Now she is the Srikakulam district secretary of the CPI (ML) -New Democracy, an overground party that believes in political and not armed struggle. Rao belonged to Rittappadu, a small village in the Palasa region of Srikakulam district, while Chandramma is from Rajam, another village in the same area.
Rao and Chandramma got married in 1970, when both of them were underground. This was at a time when the CPI(ML) was banned.
“My mother was underground till she was seven months pregnant with me. Then she came overground as per the instructions of the party for delivery. I was born on July 11 in 1971. When I was two months old, my mother returned to active party politics and life in the hideouts. When my father asked her to choose between the baby and revolutionary activities, she had no hesitation in choosing the party. And you know, I saw my father for the first time in my life only when I was seven years old,” Aruna’s voice broke. The insecurity of a child that was deprived of her real parents’ love and care for the sake of revolution was still haunting her, I felt.
When the crucial question of who would take care of the two-month-old baby rose, it was Athaluri Mallikarjun Rao, a 35-year-old young revolutionary, who suggested the baby could be handed over to his parents. That was how Aruna became a member of the Athaluri Seshayya-Siromani family in Mancherial, which was a part of Adilabad district in Telangana. Seshayya was a tailor who had to toil to support his large family with 11 children. Misery and poverty were part of their life, but they accepted the baby whole-heartedly, without worrying about who the baby’s real parents were. One night, under the cover of darkness, some unknown persons came to their home and handed the baby over to them.
“By then, my sisters and brothers had already grown up. So I got immense love and care from all of them. I was a pampered child. My father would take me along wherever he went; they were my first outings. I used to see the world around me perching on his shoulders. In that way, I really had a very rich childhood. Initially, I was a bit bitter towards my real parents. There was not much affection and attachment. But when I grew up and started understanding their politics, and when I realised what they’re really up to, the detachment and resentment vanished,” said Aruna.
Why not meet Comrade Chandramma, I thought. I may get firsthand information from her. The picture of a a seven-month pregnant young revolutionary secretly trekking through hills and mountains and forests from one hideout to another along with other male comrades was emerging in my mind. Was she not overwhelmed by grief when she handed over her baby? Didn’t she weep in the darkness of the jungle, out of sight of her comrades, thinking of her baby? Or was she so consumed by the revolution that she didn’t get time even to think of her? And there were bound to be a whole lot of things she might also talk about: the exploitation of the landlords, armed struggle, the policy of ‘annihilation’, police brutality, jail life…
I had anyway planned a West Bengal trip. To Naxalbari. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Naxalbari struggle which practically divided the history of Indian politics into two. It’s also the tenth anniversary of the police firing at Nandigram. Visit Nandigram, assess the changes that have taken place there in the past decade and then go to Naxalbari. That was the plan. Getting down at Palasa and meeting Aruna’s mother would not be that difficult.
Aruna was excited hearing the plan. “We’ll meet my mother and then travel together to Naxalbari,’ she said.
Srikakulam district borders Odisha on the north-eastern tip of Andhra Pradesh. It’s a backward district both socially and economically, then and also now. Hilly tracts of the Eastern Ghats run parallel to the Bay of Bengal, from the north-east of the district to the south-west. The hills are all adivasi areas. It’s better known as ‘Agency Area’ locally. The armed struggle during 1968-71 was centred in the Agency area. Adivasis of the Savara tribe live there. The plains are occupied by the big and marginal farmers and agricultural labourers. Peasants here belong mainly to the Jatapu tribe and the ‘backward communities’. Dalits are few in numbers in this region.
Dawn was just breaking when I got down from the train at Palasa, some 75 kms from Srikakulam, the district headquarters. It is a small town, but is also a big cashew production region of the state .
Aruna was there at the station to receive me. She had reached Palasa the previous evening. Soothikonda Colony, where Aruna’s mother lives, is only 10 km from the railway station.
Comrade Chandramma was waiting for us. Round face, broad smile, bulky physique. One of her legs was bloated with filariasis. Aruna had told me that her mother had many health problems. She had asked her mother to live with her in Hyderabad.“I don’t want to leave this place and live in a big city. I want to be with the people and do something for them till my death,” was Chandramma’s response.
It was a small house. Aruna’s mother had constructed it with the money she got from selling a small piece of land that Aruna’s father had in his name as a part of the family property. It seems the party had also extended some help. Anyway, the house is the party office. Chandramma is living there, that’s all.
There was a large framed photo of Pyla Vasudeva Rao on the wall of the sitting room. And also photos of many prominent leaders of the movement: Vempadappu Satyam, Adibhatla Kailasam, Subbarao Panigrahi, Panchadi Krishnamurthy, Panchadi Nirmala, Devineni Mallikarjun, Chaudhari Thejesvar Rao, Ankamma. And then Charu Mazumdar, Kanu Sanyal, Marx, Lenin, Engels, Mao Zedong…Netaji Subhash Bose, Bhagat Singh. Curiously, Saddam Hussain too has found a place on the wall.
Chandramma was not very keen on talking about her life. She seemed interested mainly in the movement and the activities of the party.
”Why should I talk about me? Isn’t it better to talk about the current activities of CPI (ML)- New Democracy? ” she kept on asking.
“No,” I insisted. “There is enough material about the struggle. What I want is your memories.”
Chandramma started telling the story.
The Srikakulam uprising was not something that happened one fine morning. It’s true that the Naxalbari movement did provide great energy and enthusiasm for Srikakulam. But Srikakulam was ready for an armed uprising by 1965.
In fact, it was the armed agrarian revolt in Telangana against the misrule of the Nizam, cruel exploitation by the landlords and their minions in 1946-47, that paved way for the Srikakulam struggle. By the mid fifties, the adivasi areas in Srikakulam had become a stronghold of the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI). Two teachers, Vempadappu Satyam and Adibhatla Kailasam, were the pioneers in organising the adivasis. The life of adivasi peasants was absolutely pathetic. Poverty, epidemics, the cruel exploitations of landlords, moneylenders, police and forest and revenue officials, and to top it all, the utter disregard of the government.
The plight of agricultural labourers in the plains too was dismal. Continuous protests were going on under the leadership of the Communists. When the party split in 1964, the prominent leaders went over to the CPI (Marxist). But they were soon disheartened by the not-so-enthusiastic stance of the CPI(M) on the idea of an armed revolution for the emancipation of the oppressed and the exploited. The revolutionary leaders of Srikakulam became part of the newly-formed All India Coordination Committee Of Communist Revolutionaries in 1967 after Naxalbari. This organisation became the CPI (Marxist- Leninist) in 1969.
In a gruesome incident, Koranna and Manganna, two active communist workers of the Girijan Sangham, a Communist adivasi organisation, were killed by the goons of a landlord when they were on their way to attend a meeting on October 31, 1967. The volatile situation worsened and after the Naxalbari uprising, the leaders of Srikakulam decided that there was no need to wait further for starting armed revolts.
“How old were you when the armed struggle began?”
“How did you become part of the movement?”
“Ours was a poor family of a backward community. We did not own any land. My father was Chelluri Chinnayya and my mother, Chelluri Kamamma. We’re wage labourers. That time agriculture labourers used to get very low wages: Rs 2 for men and Re. 1 for women. (Now it’s Rs 300 for men and Rs 200 for women). Even after toiling from morning till evening, the landlords wouldn’t give us full wages. Quite often we were forced to borrow money at cut throat interest rates from the same landlords. They would make us sign on a number of papers. Then they would make fake debt deeds making us bonded labourers. The granaries of landlords would always be full while we were starving. We, women labourers, had to face other atrocities too. No roads, no drinking water, no land for farming, no income, no decent homes, no electricity, no schools, no roads. We had been pulling on in extreme frustration. “
“How did you get connected to the Communist party?”
“That was the time when the laying of railway tracks was going on in full swing. We used to work there too. One day, a supervisor misbehaved with a woman labourer. We made a hue and cry, demanding an apology from him. Do we have to put up with abuses just because we’re poor? The communist leaders came to know of this incident. They asked me to work actively along with them. That was how I joined the movement.’
“Were women active in the armed struggles?”
“Oh, certainly yes! The armed struggle in Srikakulam started on November 24-25 in 1968. It was women who led from the front on both days. The presence of young leaders like Panchadi Nirmala inspired us. She had a rare talent for mobilising people, especially women. She too was born in a very poor family. Nirmala spent most of her time talking to us not only about exploitation, but also about other things like society and politics. The women squads came up under her leadership. Similarly, there were ‘daring squads” that would take up any kind of task. There used to be physical training sessions, classes on how to confront the enemy and weapon training too in a small way.”
“You said women were leading the armed struggle in the first two days. What exactly happened?”
“There’s a village called Garudabhadra nearby. Maddy Kameshu was the feudal lord there. A terror. He harassed farm workers and grabbed the land of the poor peasants. Everyone was indebted to him. Annihilating him was the first action of the armed struggle. About one hundred and fifty of us, women, we went in a procession and started harvesting his paddy fields. We attacked his granaries and distributed rice and paddy. We burnt the debt deeds and other documents.”
“Did you kill him?”
“We couldn’t kill him on that day. Police arrived when we started harvesting. Many of the women were caught while some of us managed to escape. We killed him later. Not only him, many others too who were exploiting the peasants. Two were killed in Boddappadu village. Landlord Appala Swami and a police agent, Appanna. We never felt an iota of pity for them. Not then, not now.
“It was a real war. The revolutionaries had the upper hand for the first few months. The police just could not confront us because of our numbers and strength. But then about 12000 armed police and paramilitary men were brought in. Most of our top leaders including Panchadi Nirmala were killed in false encounters. Police used to throw the dead bodies of our leaders on the road as a warning. Slowly the struggle slackened when leaders were killed, activists were put in prison, and the rest went underground. Charu Mazumdar, Kanu Sanyal and other top leaders had come here when the struggle was in top gear.”
“How was life underground?”
“We had to go without any food for many days. Drinking water was also a problem. We had to keep on moving from one place to another.“
“Did you have to face any kind of discrimination for being a woman while in the underground from your comrades? And were there any caste issues?”
‘I cannot say a categorical no. Sometimes women were given the task of cooking food for other comrades. We made it an issue. Only after that were we entrusted with those duties and missions which men were doing. Some of the comrades were caste conscious I felt.’
‘Your marriage with Pyla Vasudeva Rao took place when both of you were in the underground. Wasn’t it?’
‘ Yes. He was one of our leaders. He was 15 years older to me. He was educated and his family had some stretches of cultivable land. He too belonged to a backward caste. But his caste was regarded as an upper caste in Srikakulam. I was illiterate, picked up alphabets from the night literacy classes he conducted for labourers. In 1970 he asked me, why couldn’t we get married. The party asked me to marry him and I obeyed. Everything is decided by the party, then and now.”
“How was your life with your husband underground?”
“Underground, nobody would get any special considerations. At times, we might get some privacy. That’s all. I became pregnant with Aruna while underground. I remained in hiding till the seventh month. A pregnant woman is a liability for the group while in a hideout. You won’t be able to move fast. So the party asked me to stay in some shelter outside till the delivery.”
“In fact, the party wanted mother to abort her pregnancy. It’s a done thing. But in my mother’s case it was too late by then. It was risky for the mother, the doctor said. Thus I was saved,’ Aruna told me in secret. “This is something my mother would never tell you. She won’t say anything that would ‘slander’ the party.”
Her mother had not given me a direct answer to my question regarding sexual harassment from male comrades. But Aruna later on told me that not only her mother, even she had had to face sexual advances from a senior male comrade.
As the party suggested, Chandramma left Srikakulam for Guntur district, and frequently changed shelters. It was a time when the Naxalite movement enjoyed good support from medical, engineering and university students and cultural organisations. When the time of delivery neared, she was admitted to a Hyderabad hospital with the help of a young doctor. It was a time when the party was banned. Most of her comrades were either hiding or in jail. There was no one with Chandramma at the time of delivery. Even the pieces of cloth required for the baby were provided by women occupying adjacent beds, out of pity.
“Those were terrible days. Loneliness like a sharp dagger kept on wounding my mind. The grief was unbearable. No news of any comrade from anywhere. I was not sure whether my husband and others were alive. I had no one with me to share my sorrow and fear. Only a a baby, a few days old, by my side.”
The party had decided that Chandramma would not deliver again. So she had to undergo a tubectomy and remain in the hospital for some more days. “One day a person came and told me that I had to leave the hospital that night and asked me to be ready,” recalls Chandramma. The question ‘where to’ had to be suppressed. Only the party knew all that. Everything was top secret. The comrades were not supposed to ask too many questions.
“I left the hospital that night without informing anyone. I wrapped my baby in a piece of cloth. The person who came to take me away walked in front. I followed him. I stumbled on the way and was about to fall down. The baby fell on the road and started bawling loudly..”.
When the story reached this point, Chandrammaa’s eyes filled to the brim. I looked at Aruna. Her eyes too were wet.
Chandramma was taken to Kondappally Sitaramayya’s house. House meant a single room. Kondappally treated Chandramma as his own daughter. Two months after her delivery, Pyla Vasudeva Rao came to see his daughter. He had somehow managed to come for just that one night’s stay. “He said that our daughter would have to be left under the care of someone else. I cried a lot, insisting that I wanted to keep the baby. But he asked how could we, two party workers dedicated to the armed revolution, keep the baby while living underground. He asked me to think it over and decide for myself whether to take care of the baby or go back to political activism. I thought for long. Finally I felt, taking care of the baby was my personal need and only the baby would benefit from that. But the armed revolution was for the poor, the oppressed and the exploited. It’s for the people. It’s for a big cause. A lot many people would benefit from it. Finally, I decided to give up the baby. I used to cry quite often thinking of her.”
Chandramma was caught in May 1975 from a forest in Srikakulam. The police tore up her clothes, tied her to a tree and started beating her up with the butt of a riffle.
“I felt that I wouldn’t survive the day. Blood was oozing from my nose, mouth and from other wounds. They promised me land and a house. They said they would take care of all the needs of my daughter including her education.They demanded to know the details of other comrades. They continued beating me despite my telling them repeatedly that I didn’t have any information they wanted. After many rounds of beating I fell unconscious. Whenever I regained consciousness, they would start yet another round of beating.”
Chandramma’s name had figured in the accused list of two cases: the Parvathipuram conspiracy and Boddappadu double murder. However, her arrest was neither recorded nor was she brought before a court. Instead she was taken to many police stations and tortured systematically and cruelly.
“They did all that could be done to a human body. Once when I regained consciousness I was lying in a police inspector’s house, without even a shred of cloth. I woke up after feeling the dampness of blood.”
She was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment for these two cases. Released in 1984, she got arrested again almost immediately when she was caught traveling along with a man in a car with weapons.
Chandramma put a stop to her story at that point for the time being. She gave her word that it could be continued later on if I wanted. But she insisted it would not be proper for me to leave after meeting her alone as there were many others who had participated in the struggle in the nearby villages whom I ought to meet and talk with.
(This article was originally published in Malayalam in Mathrubhumi Weekly May 21-27)