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Forgotten freedom



Caste in India: Two Stories by Sainath


Rural Indians made huge sacrifices fighting the British colonial state. For more than one kind of freedom. Some uprisings preceded the nationalist movement. Others were part of it. Many voiced the agendas of the dispossessed.

We return to the original villages that were at the heart of some major uprisings. What is their state after 50 years of independence? What has been the nature of change? How far have their agendas been fulfilled? Who benefited, who didn't, and why? These are stories of those villages in the present -- against the canvas of the past.

Sherpur: Big sacrifice, short memory
Godavari: And the police still await an attack

[These stories appeared in The Times of India in August 1997.]

Forgotten Freedoms:
Sherpur: Big sacrifice, short memory

P. Sainath

Sherpur, Ghazipur (UP): They still keep the flag at the Tehsil office. Only here, they raise it on August 18. That day in 1942, people from this part of Ghazipur district declared their independence from British rule. The tehsildar of Muhammadabad opened fire on a crowd, killing eight persons from Sherpur village. These were mostly Congressmen led by Shiv Pujan Rai and were shot dead while trying to hoist the tricolour atop the Tehsil building in Muhammadabad. Struggles erupted across an already simmering district where the British had issued arrest warrants for 129 leaders on August 10. By the 19th, locals took control of nearly all of Ghazipur and ran the government for three days.

The British response, says the district Gazetteer, was "a reign of terror". Soon, "village after village was pillaged, looted and burnt". Military and mounted police crushed "Quit India" protestors. They gunned down nearly 150 people across the district in the next few days. Records suggest that officials and police looted Rs.35 lakhs from civilians. 74 villages were burnt. Ghazipur's people paid a collective fine of Rs.4.5 lakhs, a huge sum in those days.

Officials singled out Sherpur for punishment. Hari Sharan Ram, the oldest scheduled caste resident here, recalls the day. "There wasn't a bird left in the village, let alone human beings. Those who could, fled. The looting went on and on." Yet, Ghazipur as a whole had to be taught a lesson. The district had a record of anti-British uprisings going back to the 1850s when people had attacked indigo planters. It now learned a lesson spelt out with bullets and batons.

To this day, the tehsil office at Muhammadabad attracts political pilgrims. Its visitors' list over the years includes four who were either prime ministers of India or held that post later. Almost all the chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh have been here, too. Usually on August 18, says the amiable Laxman Rai, who heads the Shaheed Smarak Samiti that runs the memorial to the eight martyrs at the Tehsil office. He shows us the original flag of the protestors, somewhat frayed, yet carefully preserved here. "The VIPs come here and do puja to the flag", he says proudly. "Every VIP who comes does this puja."

Sherpur hasn't gained much from the pujas. And class, caste, time and commerce colour the memories of the heroic sacrifice of its eight sons. "There were eight martyrs," says one NGO worker here. "But there could be as many as ten martyrs memorial committees." Some of these run diverse institutions with official grants. Sons of the martyrs, known by a term unique to this place -- shaheed putra -- control some of them.

Promises do accompany the pujas. One of these means that Sherpur, a big village of nearly 21,000 people, can look forward to a women's degree college. But since nearly four out of every five women here are illiterate, locals may be forgiven a certain lack of enthusiasm at the idea.

What were Sherpur's sacrifices about? What were its people demanding? How you answer those questions depends on your social and economic status. All the eight martyrs officially recognised were Bhumihars. Their courage in the face of British terror was inspiring. Yet, others from less powerful communities who also gave their lives at different times are not similarly remembered. Many battles took place before and after August 18. For instance, police shot dead 50 persons who took control of the Nandganj railway station on August 14. And killed three times that number between August 19-21.

So what did people die for? "There was no demand other than freedom," asserts Krishan Dev Rai, principal of the Inter College at Muhammadabad. Most of the land owning Bhumihars at Sherpur and elsewhere see it that way, too. The matter ended with the exit of the British in 1947.

Bal Mukund, a scheduled caste resident of Sherpur, saw it differently. A young man at the time of the revolt, Bal Mukund and his fellow dalits had another agenda. "We were excited," he says. "We thought there would be zamin (land) for us." A Kisan Sabha movement active in the 1930s and again later, raised those hopes. That excitement revived in 1952, when the U.P. Zamindari Abolition and Land Reforms Act came into force.

It was short-lived.

All the 3,500 dalits in the village are landless. "Land for cultivation?" asks Radheysham of the local dalit samiti. "Not even our homes are in our own names." That's 35 years after the land settlement was to have been completed. Freedom did bring distinct benefits. To some. The Bhumihars did get titles to the land they tilled. The landless lower castes remain the way they were. "We thought we, too, could be like others, take our place with the rest," says Hari Sharan Ram.

In April 1975, they were shown their place. Just 33 years after the British set the village ablaze, the dalit basti was burnt down. This time by the Bhumihars. "There were disputes over wage rates," says Radheysham. We got blamed for an incident in their basti. Mind you, we were working in their homes and on their fields while our houses were burning!" Nearly 100 houses were razed. But, they clarify, none of the shaheed putra were involved.

"Pandit Bahuguna was chief minister," says Shiv Jagan Ram who heads the dalit samiti. "He came and said: 'we will construct a New Delhi for you people here.' Have a good look at our New Delhi. Even in this wretched slum we don't have a piece of paper saying we own anything. The wage disputes remain. Can you imagine people here earn so little that we go to Bihar for work?"

It doesn't pay to take disputes with the upper castes to the authorities. The way the police treat the dalits, for instance, hasn't changed much in 50 years. Dina Nath Vanvasi, a Musahar dalit of Karkatpur village, has tasted those attitudes. "Do you know what happens to us when any political party has a jail bharo? Hundreds of activists court arrest. The Ghazipur jail gets all messed up. So what do the police do? They arrest the first few Musahars they can lay their hands on. Mostly, the charge is 'planning a dacoity'. These Musahars are taken to the jail where they have to clean up all the excreta, vomit and rubbish of the jail bharo. Then they are set free."

"We are not talking about 50 years ago," says Dasuram Vanvasi of Gagaran village. "It still happens. Some have faced this just two years ago." Other forms of harassment, too, exist. Dasuram completed 10th standard with a first division, one of very few Musahars to get that far. He quit college though, harried by the taunts of upper caste teachers and students. Ironically, that Inter College bears the name of Babu Jagjivan Ram.

As we leave Sherpur, our feet sink in the slime, mud and refuse that pave the route in and out of the dalit basti. Rains have destroyed the main track. Streams of stagnant filth cover the lanes here. "The highway to our New Delhi," says Shiv Jagan Ram.

"The dalits here are not free," he says. "No independence, no land, no learning, no assets, no jobs, no health, no hope. Our freedom is slavery."

Meanwhile, at the Tehsil office, the pujas continue.

Forgotten Freedoms:
Godavari: And the police still await an attack

P. Sainath

Rajavommangi, East Godavari (Andhra Pradesh): As we got down from the jeep, constables moved in panic towards their positions in the fortified Rajavommangi police station. The station itself is under police protection. Special armed police are all around it. That we were armed with just a camera did little to reduce the tension. Photographing police stations in the area is banned.

From the security of the inner corridor, the head constable wanted to know who we were. Journalists? Things relaxed a bit. "Aren't you reacting a bit late?" I asked. "The attack on your station occurred 75 years ago."

"Who knows?" he said philosophically. "It could happen again this afternoon."

Many problems of this region that fought the British are as alive today as 75 years ago.

These hill tribal tracts of Andhra Pradesh are known as "The Agency" area. They rose in revolt in August 1922. What at first seemed an outburst of local anger soon gained wider political meaning. A non- tribal, Alluri Ramachandra Raju (better known as Sitarama Raju), led the hill tribals in the Manyam uprising as it is locally known. Here, people were not just seeking grievance redressal. By 1922, they were fighting to eject the Raj itself. The rebels announced their aims with attacks on several police stations in the agency area, including the one at Rajavommangi.

Raju's ragged irregulars bogged down the British in a full-scale guerrilla war. Unable to cope, the British brought in the Malabar Special Force to crush the revolt. They were trained in jungle warfare and equipped with pack wireless sets. The rebellion ended in 1924 with Raju's death. Yet for the British, as historian M.Venkatarangaiya wrote, "it caused much more of a headache than the non-cooperation movement." This year marks the birth centenary of Sitarama Raju who was all of 27 years old when killed.

Colonial rule devastated the hill tribals. Between 1870 and 1900, the Raj declared many forests as "reserves" and banned podu (shifting) cultivation. Soon it curbed the right of the tribals to collect minor forest produce (MFP). The forest department and its contractors took over that right. Next, they extracted forced, often unpaid, labour from the tribals. The area fell in the grip of non-tribal forces. Often, punishments included seizure of land. With these moves, the tribal subsistence economy fell apart.

"The landless suffer badly today," says Ramayamma, a Koya tribal of Rampa. "I don't know about 50 years ago." Rampa was a staging point for Raju. In this small village of around 150 households, nearly 60, including Ramayamma's, are landless.

It wasn't always so. "Our parents lost land after taking loans of around Rs.10," she says. Also, "outsiders posing as tribals come and take over our land." The biggest landowner here was a plains man who worked in the records office. This gave him access to title deeds in the area. And people believe he tampered with those. His family now hires nearly 30 workers daily in season. Unusual, in a village where most landholdings are around three acres or less.

The land issue is exploding in West Godavari district. And simmering in the East. Much adivasi land, says a tribal development agency officer, "was lost after independence when their rights should have been protected." Some 30 per cent of land in the region was alienated between 1959 and 1970. Oddly, "the passage of the Andhra Pradesh State Land Transfer Regulation Act of 1959 did not halt the trend." The act, better known as Regulation 1 of 70, was meant to stop precisely this. Now there are moves to further dilute the act itself.

The tribal-non-tribal standoff is complex. There are also non-tribal poor here. So far, despite the tensions, they are not targets of tribal anger. That goes back some way in history. Raju's rules during the revolt held that only the British and government institutions were to be attacked. The rebels of Rampa saw their war as being with the British.

Today, the better-off among the non-tribals exploit both the tribals and their own poor. And the lower bureaucracy here is mainly non- tribal. There are ways around Regulation 1 / 70. "Leasing is rampant here," says landless Koya tribal Pottav Kamraj in Kondapalli village. Leased land seldom returns to the owner. Some outsiders even take an adivasi woman as a second wife to gain tribal land. Kondapalli fell in Sitarama Raju's action zone. From here, the British sent rebels to the Andamans, smashing the clans and pauperizing the village.

That cracking up of communities means that direct popular memory of the period is fractured. But Raju's name still spells magic. And the issues remain. "Minor forest produce is not a great problem," jokes Kamraju Somulu in Mampa village of Vizag district. "There is very little forest left." Which means more hardship in places where the poor, says Ramayamma, "often have just kanji water for a meal." That East Godavari is one of India's richer rural districts has not helped.

Classes are also emerging within the tribals. "The rich Koyas lease their land to outsider Naidus, not to us within the village," says Pottav Kamraj in Kondapalli. "The rich always get together." Few tribals find government jobs. And landless labourers in these parts can't find work for several months in the year.

Wage struggles have broken out in the West and could move to East Godavari, too. Besides, rich non-tribals are co-opting some tribal chiefs. In Mampa, the panchayat president, a tribal, is now a big landowner. His family holds around 100 acres. "He is fully with the non-tribals," says Somulu.

The Raj failed to co-opt Alluri Sitarama Raju in his lifetime. Giving him 50 acres of fertile land did not work. The British could not fathom why a man with no personal grouse was inseparable from the tribals. One British report even suggested he was "a member of some Calcutta secret society". Apart from the Raj, quite a few plains leaders, including top Congressmen, opposed him. Several in 1922-24, called for suppression of his revolt. In the Madras Legislative Council, leaders like C.R.Reddy opposed even an inquiry into the causes of the revolt until it was crushed.

Even the 'nationalist press', as historian Murali Atluri points out, was hostile. The Telugu journal, The Congress, said it would be "gratified" if the revolt could be put down. The Andhra Patrika attacked the rebellion.

Co-option was to come posthumously, as Atluri shows. Once he was killed, the Andhra Patrika sought "the bliss of Valhalla" for him. The Satyagrahi compared him with George Washington. The Congress adopted him as a martyr. Efforts to collar his legacy persist. The state government will spend big sums this year on his centenary. Even as some within it seek to amend Act 1/70 -- a move that would further hurt the tribals.

At Raju's samadhi in Krishnadevipet, the aging caretaker, Gajala Peddappan, has not been paid his salary in three years. General discontent in the area grows daily. Along the Vizag-East Godavari border, pockets of ultra-left influence have sprung up.

"Our grandparents told us of how Sitarama Raju fought for the tribals," says Pottav Kamraj in Kondapalli. Would Kamraj fight to get back his lands today? "Yes. The police always help the Naidus and the rich when we do. But given the strength, one day we will."

Maybe the head constable was right to fear an attack on the police station.

It could happen this afternoon.

Bye now

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Last updated: February 22, 2000.