50 Years Later

'Srikakulam' Revisited

Harsh Thakor

50 years ago on November 25th 1968, a new epoch was carved out in the history of India with the birth of the Srikakulam Armed peasant struggle. Similar to the armed struggles of Telengana and Naxalbari it classically followed the Chinese path of protracted people's war formulated by Chairman Mao. It imbibed the spirit of the martyrdom of Che Guevera. The resistance offered was reminiscent to that of the People of Vietnam.

The armed struggle had its genesis in the murder of two tribal activists on October 31st in 1967, Koraana and Maganna, and in the formation of the Girijan Sangham, which led a series of agitations. Organasied by two school teachers Vempatapu Satya-narayana and Adibhatala Kailasam the Girijan Sangham launched struggles for the distribution of culativable banjar lands, abolition of debt-peonage, fair prices for minor forest produce collected by the tribals, lifting of the prohibition on the use of forest timber by Girijans and agency autonomy under local tribal governance. Naxalbari was the focal point when the mass movement took a new shape and the landlords demanded further police protection and deployment of paramilitary. Clashes took place subsequently and section 144 was clamped down. It was in this background that in Levdi on October 31st 1967, two peasants were shot down. In September 1968 the court acquitted those responsible for the murder of the two Srikakumar activists. In October 1968 after consulting Charu Mazumdar the Ryotana Sangrama Samiti was formed as a body to seize political power in the villages. The crux of the rise in tempo of the tribals was their heightened understanding of the nature of their opression and the zeal to build a new alternative. It was a combination of the opressive conditions with the elevated political consciousness. With Charu Mazumdar's consent in October 1968, a decision was adopted by the AICCR to adopt the armed struggle and set up the Ryotana Sangrama Samiti as a political body to facilitate the seizure of political power. On November 25th the spark was lit with the raiding of the residence of notorious landlord-cum-money-lender Teegala Narasim-hulu, destroying possession of hoarded paddy and food grains and seizing promissory notes and other legal records related to the debts of peasants.

The preparation period had great significance from 1959-1967.The mass organisation, the Girijan Sangham created the fulcrum for building a broad based peasant movement. 10 demands formed the pivot of the peasant struggle:
1.    All lands seized illegally from the Girijans by non-Girijans should be returned.
2.    Distribute banjar lands to non-Girijans immediately.
3.    All debts obtained by illegal methods should be abolished. Credit facilities should be provided sufficiently.
4.    Agricultural implements and cattle should be supplied to Girijans to carry on agricultural operations.
5.    Forest produce should be purchased from Girijans at reasonable rates. Consumer goods should be supplied to them at fair prices.
6.    Those who extract labour from Girijans should be severely punished.
7.    Salaries to Palerlu (farm servants) and wage rates for agricultural workers should be fixed in consonance with the cost of living.
8.    There should be no restriction on the use of forest timber by Girijans for their house construction and daily needs.
9.    In the new atmosphere that will be created when the above programme is implemented educational and cultural programmes should be organised on a large scale.
10.  Girijan areas should be declared as autonomous regions and its administration should be handed over to the representatives of Girijans.

The exploitation of the Girijans was in the following forms :
1.    Money Lending—To clear the debts, Girijans had to sell the grain, other crops and forest produce at lower rates to those money lenders.
2.    Occupation of Girijan lands—Those who could not clear debts had to mortgage and sell away their lands to money lenders.
3.    Exploiting the agricultural labourers—In lands thus lost to landlords Girijans had to work as palerlu and daily labour for nominal wages.
4.    Purchase of forest produce—Girijan Corporation officers, sahukars, money-lenders were purchasing forest produce from Girijans at normal rates and selling them in markets for huge profits.
5.    Exploitation by forest officers—The forest officers were obstructing the Girijans from cultivating podu in forests and from collecting forest produce. Then they were demanding bribes, mamuls and forced labour (Vetti).
The following were the gains of the Girijans :
1.    From 1959 itself Girijans gradually re-occupied lands which were illegally seized by non-Girijan sahukars, and landlords from them. Also they began to cultivate such lands.
2.    1500 acres of forest waste lands were occupied and cultivated by Girijans.
3.    They refused to clear debts to the tune of about Rs 2 lakh.
4.    They got free timber for their agricultural use.
5.    Attained reasonable rates for forest produce at weekly markets.
6.    Free labour was completely abolished.
7.    The nominal rates for palerlu and daily labour were increased. Daily wage rates increased upto 12 times.
8.    Forest timber had been taken freely for house construction and daily needs.
9.    The implementation of this programme brought a big mass upsurge. The cadres utilised this to raise the political consciousness of the Girijans through cultural programmes, night schools and reading to them the party journals regularly.

Communist revolutionaries on the organisational front constituted Girijan committees and party units. As part of political education, Girijan cadres as part of the district cadres were imparted lessons on Telengana armed struggle and its experiences. Basic political propaganda was carried out that problem like land and constitution of autonomous regions will be solved only by the establishment of people's democratic rule.

By the beginning of the 1967 rainy season, Girijan movement reached a new stage. Girijans had already occupied some of their lands. They occupied 800 more acres of land in possession of landlords and began cultivation. 2500 acres of forest waste land was also cultivated. As a result of acute food shortage the people prevented the landlords and shaukars from exporting their grains to outside the area. They saw that sufficient grains were stocked in Girijan areas. Even the rates were decreased and merchants were made to sell rice at 2 sers per rupee. Thus land distribution and grain distribution were implemented which led to a mass revolt with people participating in huge numbers. Thus the Girijan struggle reached a higher stage.

Threatened by the mass upsurge the landlords and their goondas blocked some delegates who were going to the taluk conference and beat them mercilessly. When people came forward to support the delegates the landlords opened fire and assassinated two Girijan activists—Koraana and Maganna. All this took place in village Levidi. A public rally to pay homage to the 2 martyrs was staged. Like wildfire protest rallies were launched all over the district like a spark turning into a torch, blazing the flame of resistance.

Tribals and peasants in Srikakulam achieved forms of revolutionary power unattained before since the Telengana armed struggle. The peasants and tribals formed their own committees and carried out mass land distribution. Volunteer squads heroically resisted the landlord elements and their musclemen as well as the police. Seizure of properties of landlords, traders and money lenders, taking away grain from their granaries burning the promisory notes and other debt instruments, killing landlords and moneylenders and seizing of arms were the major activities in this era. The armed struggle encompassed hundreds of villages, the movement reached a new height with hundreds of youth volunteering to join armed squads and armed actions in which armed and unarmed tribals participated. Red revolutionary power emerged in around 300 of the 518 villages of Sirikakulam regency area. In areas run by the Ryotana Sangrama Samiti there was such fortification that no village council person or forest revenue official would dare to enter. The guerilla squads formed the backbone of the people's revolutionary power to defend their rights and launched raids against big landlords, money-lenders, police informers.

The struggle was a great boost for the tribal masses in realising their revolutionary potential to organise and govern as well as confront the police and government. It sowed seeds of genuine red army emerging. It also gave political education to the progressive and exploited classes in Andhra Pardesh that democracy was only illusory with independence only being a mere transfer of political power. Even if a formal red army was not formed the armed volunteers in Srikakulam resisted the police onslaughts or encirclement with similar tenacity, and tactical mastery as communists did in revolutionary struggles in China and Vietnam.

The state mercilessly retaliated carrying out a series of police combing operations and the repression once unleashed in Telengana armed struggle repeated itself. In October 1969, a 12,000 strong armed team of the Central Reserve Police Force encircled the red zone and launched a brutal attack. A series of cold blooded emcounters took place in the state of which the precursor was assassination of the brilliant scholar Panchadri Krishnamurti and 6 of his co-workers on May 27, 1969. In June 1969 the Agency area of Srikakulam district was declared a 'disturbed area' under the Andhra Pradesh Suppression of Disturbances Act l948. Displaying great volumes of bravery the Girijans resisted the police encirclement.

Parvatipuram Conspiracy case was engineered in 1970. The case consisted of all the criminal cases against Naxalites booked during 1969 and 1970 and made a huge case involving 250 accused and over 500 witnesses. The accused were framed of conspiring to kill policemen. However, after eight long years of trial in the court of law, out of the 250 accused only 15 were convicted which was finally struck down by the high court.

Summing up the Srikakulam experience, Sumnata Banerjee stated, "By the end of 1969, altogether 15 districts of Andhra Pradesh were affected by Communist Revolutionary activities. According to government statistics the Communist revolutionaries killed 48 people including landlords, money-lenders, merchants, forest officers, and policemen, made 99 attacks on the police and abducted 15 people. In all the abduction cases in the view of the government, the victims were tried in praja courts and punishment ranging upto death penalty was awarded to them. Besides a large quantity of guns, ammunition, and explosives were also seized by the rebels during the raids. Both from its power sustenance and its improvement of organisation, it was that the movement in Andhra Pradesh in 1968-69 was more resounding and clear-throated echo of the short-lived thunder of naxalbari. While Naxalbari branded the words Armed revolution Srikakulam engraved on it the sign ''guerrilla warfare" to indicate the turn of the road''.

A major rift took place between the district committee of the All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries (APCCCR) guided by Charu Mazumdar and Andhra Pradesh Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries led by Nagi Reddy-D V Rao.

The AP State Committee was never against armed struggle whether in the form of armed resistance or guerrilla struggle. Also in June 1968 itself, it gave the Srikakulam Committee a clear programme for armed resistance and guerrilla action. It began necessary preparations for guerrilla struggle.

The 6 differences that arose were:
1.    DC denies need for general armed resistance which is the starting stage of guerrilla struggle.
2.    The DC feels there is no need for minimum training.
3.    DC feels there is no need for mass participation. SC feels that guerrilla struggle must begin with mass participation.
4.    Armed struggle could be implemented without any relations to issues like land in the agrarian revolution. State Committee feels there is inseparable relationship between agrarian revolution and armed struggle.
5.    SC belives in United Front concept which DC rejects.
6.    SC feels, there should be unity between DC and SC based on principle of democratic centralism and the armed struggle could be carried on under centralised leadership. Path taken by DC is to create a rival centre and disunity among revolutionaries.

It is a very complex question but in many respects mass line was followed in the Srikakulam movement till 1969 with mass participation of Girijans in armed actions against landlords to seize land. No doubt Charu Mazumadar's policy of 'annihilation of class enemies' caused considerable harm in replacing mass line but unlike 'Naxalbari', guerrilla squads operated in 'strategic defensive' way with the movement extended to the forests of the adjoining Koraput and Gunjam districts of Orissa. The landlords had fled the guerrilla zones and local militia were protecting the villagers and the Ryotana Sangrama Samiti was in power while undertaking land re-distribution programme. (reference from Bernard de Mello). Today the CPI (Moaist) in Dandakaranya is in many ways rekindling the very spirit of the Srikakulam Armed Struggle and its legacy in a much more sophisticated manner.

Vol. 51, No.26, Dec 30, 2018 - Jan 5, 2019