Human rights warrior, Ambedkarite and Marxist, eminent poet and writer, and senior advocate Bojja Tharakam, an important figure of unity in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, passed away on September 17. His work has touched every village in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, and his words went out to every Dalit home in the two states. His enterprise touched the lives of all activists – be they feminists, ecologists, human rights defenders, those working for the homeless, the factory workers, the urban poor, Muslims, Adivasis and other marginalised sections – a reach beyond compare.
The first time I met Tharakam at his house, I heard him tell an activist, “You haven’t gone to jail yet? You haven’t been arrested? How can you call yourself an activist?” I was wonder-struck. This was in the early 1980s when erstwhile revolutionaries were taking a step back and distancing themselves from movements. Tharakam was not a Maoist leader urging people to jump to militancy. He was by that time, noted as a man with a broad understanding and open convictions.
We worked together on several issues – both on field with agricultural labourers on their entitlements, wages and land, as well as on paper, because the organisation with which I work, the Hyderabad Book Trust, published most of his books.
He was the editor of Nalupu (1989-1993), the first Dalit little magazine which we published. He translated Ambedkar’s Ramuni Krishnuni Rahasyalu (Riddles of Rama and Krishna) and Shudrulu Aryulu (Who are the Shudras), both published in 1984, while his original works were many. His iconic book, Police Arrest Cheste (What is to be Done When the Police Arrests You, 1981) sold lakhs of copies and remains the handbook for activists more than three decades after publication. Kulam-Vargam (Caste-Class; 1996), Nela Nagali (The Earth, the Plough; 2008) and Dalitudu- Rajyam (The Dalit and the State; 2008) are among some of his important works. He wrote a novel called Panchatantram in 2012 and his last work was Charitra Marchina Manishi:Rudraandhra Charita (The Man Who Changed History – Bojja Appalaswamy in the History of the Militant Andhra), which was published this year. We placed the printed copy of this last book in his hands days before he died; he had worked on it all through his illness.
Tharakam was born in 1939 in the Konaseema area of the East Godavari district on the coast where the Godavari joins the sea. His father Bojja Appalaswamy was a remarkable independent, Ambedkar-inspired Dalit leader – a two-time MLA who set up schools for Dalit children, taught his wife to read and write, and a man with extraordinary reach. A Brahmo Samajist, he was dedicated to social reform and as a revolutionary, he organised militant land struggles for the Dalits in the area to retain control of their assigned lands.
Tharakam studied law and began his practice in Kakinada. It was only by the mid-1960s that he was able to come out of his father’s towering shadow. As an advocate working in Nizamabad, he took up cases for the poor, organised fact-finding missions in cases of atrocities against Dalits and the village poor and, helped form the Ambedkar Yuvajana Sangham, campaigning vigorously in the villages of the district. His activism led to his imprisonment for two years during the Emergency. He considered himself both Ambedkarite and Marxist and in his book Kulam-vargam, he explains how he synthesised the two philosophies. Yet, during most of his life, this earned him opprobrium from both groups – Dalits criticised him for aligning with the Left while the Leftists shunned him for his Ambedkarite views.
In 1978, he moved to Hyderabad and began to work in the Andhra Pradesh high court, ceaselessly researching hundreds of villages and towns where Dalits and poor people were tortured, harassed and jailed. In 1985, he was a government pleader when the Karamchedu massacre took place, and he resigned in protest. Many people had remarked at the time that in doing so, he had lost his chance of being appointed a high court judge. Whether or not he could have secured the appointment is doubtful because he steadfastly refused to call on political bigwigs, except to represent peoples’ problems.
Since the Karamchedu massacre when he led Dalits there to organise themselves, their rehabilitation and their court cases, he went on to found the Dalit Mahasabha and in 1989, helped found the Andhra Pradesh chapter of the Bahujan Samaj party. However, he resigned in 1994, opposing the alliance with the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. Later, he joined the Republican Party of India (RPI) but broke away from it after Ramdas Athawale allied with the BJP.
He was a warrior who fought both in the courts and outside, taking cases which nobody else wanted. Karamchedu, Tsundur, Lakshmipeta – he carried the weight of all the massacres on his shoulders.
He was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2013. For some time, he led a withdrawn life. Later, perhaps after coming to terms with his illness, he began moving about once again, travelling the length and breadth of the state. He was barely able to walk, but continued to attend meetings, fight cases in the courts and read and write. He died much as he lived – with dignity, courage and compassion for others.
It is worth speculating why such a towering figure did not receive renown all over the country. While he wrote extensively in Telugu, he also wrote in English. One of his books was on the intended constitutional review planned by the BJP in its first regime and the other was an open challenge to the BJP appropriation of Ambedkar. He argued in the Supreme Court, with one of his notable cases being the compulsory registration of criminal cases for all encounter deaths. He also took part in political work: he was a leader with the RPI in the two states and contested elections as an independent candidate supported by the CPI-ML a few decades ago.
Then why was he confined to the two states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana? Perhaps, more than the absence of sustained writing in English, or his caste (he was Mala-born, a scheduled caste in both states), it was his disregard for publicity. Perhaps, his was also a voice ahead of its times.