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People’s Struggles in India

The Telengana Movement: Peasant Protests in India, 1946-51

, by Intercultural Resources , MATHEWS Rohan D.

The peasant insurrection of 1946-51 in the Telengana region of the erstwhile Hyderabad state was a pivotal moment in Indian history because of its impact on the future of the communist movement in India and its highlighting of the condition of the Indian peasantry. It brought the struggles of the peasantry to the forefront and serves as a reminder of the sacrifices made by the people of this region in fighting against the autocratic rule of the Nizam of Hyderabad and the feudal regime that concentrated power and land in the hands of a few.

Social Background

Before Indian independence, Hyderabad state was a princely state within the territory of British India, comprised of three linguistic regions: the Telugu-speaking Telengana area (including the capital city, Hyderabad), the Marathi-speaking Marathwada area, and a small Kannada-speaking area. Telengana occupied 50% of the state’s area. The ruling elites, including the Nizam, were Muslims, while the majority were Hindus.

The nature of land ownership in the region was extremely exploitative. Forty percent of the land was either directly owned by the Nizam or given by the Nizam to elites in the form of jagirs (special tenures). The remaining sixty percent was under the government’s land revenue system, which relied on powerful landlords and gave no legal rights or security from eviction to the people actually cultivating the land. Other exploitative practices were widespread. The vetti (forced labour) system consisted of work performed by lower castes at the will of the landlord. For example, each so-called “untouchable” family was required to send one man everyday to do household labour and other jobs for the landlord. Another practice was “the prevalence of keeping girls as ‘slaves’ in landlords’ houses… used by landlords as concubines”[Sundarayya 1972:14].

The large landowners had taken over significant tracts of land, either through forced occupation or debt-sales. A small number of prominent landlords owned lands in the range of 30,000 to 100,000 acres, and 550 landlords owned land above 500 acres, amounting to about 60-70% of the cultivable land. The exaction from the peasants was immense, as “110 of them [landlords] used to collect 100,000,000 rupees every year,” while the official revenue income of the whole Hyderabad state was no more than 80,000,000 rupees [Sundarayya 1972:15-16].

Political Background

In the 1920s, the suppression of languages and cultures provoked resistance, which eventually led to more wide-ranging agitations. At a Hindu Social Reform Conference held in 1922, a speaker attempting to give his address in Telugu was hooted out, leading several elders to form the Andhra Jan Sangham (“Andhra People’s Association”) “with the objective of securing a proper place for Telugu language and culture in Hyderabad City” [Pavier 1981: 66]. The group began to move beyond language issues, and in 1928, the Andhra Mahasabha (AMS) was organised [Sundarayya 1972:19]. AMS, with membership limited to the urban educated elite, was largely concerned with reforms in administration, demands for more schools, concessions for the landed, and civil liberties.

Soon, though, a group of newly radicalized youth, including Ravi Narayan Reddy, joined the AMS. With their entry, a change was evident, which is reflected in the demands of the group’s 1934 conference: reduced land revenue rates, abolition of vetti, and the introduction of Telugu into the local courts (Pavier 1981: 68). The advent of the Second World War saw the beginning of communist influence on the AMS, and in 1942, with the removal of the ban on the Communist Party of India (CPI), the communists began to grow in Hyderabad. By 1943, the CPI had built a strong organisation in Telengana (Pavier 1981: 85). The AMS was evolving into a radical nationalist organisation, collaborating with the communists to organize the peasantry. In the 11th session of the AMS in 1944, under the presidentship of Ravi Narayan Reddy, a split occurred and the right wing of the organisation was ousted [Sundarayya 1972: 41].

Following the split, the AMS conducted several struggles against powerful landlords, opposing vetti, illegal exactions and forced eviction. The communists, along with AMS, began gaining ground in several districts, especially among the agricultural labourers, poor tenants and small landholders, and started forming sanghams (village-level committees).

The Spark

Tensions mounted when Visnur Ramachandra Reddy, a hereditary tax collector, attempted to forcibly take land belonging to a member of a village sangham. He sent a group of 100 goons and 100 servants to forcibly gather the harvest. They were resisted by the local village sangham leaders and volunteers. The next day, six leaders of the sangham were arrested at the call of the landlord. On July 4, 1946, a procession was organised by the villagers protesting the violence and terrorism of the landlord’s goons. As they approached the landlord’s house, some of the goons opened fire on the procession, leading to the death of Doddi Komarayya, the sangham leader. News spread to the nearly villages. People came with hay and fuel to burn down the landlord’s house. At this point, the landlord’s son arrived with 200 goons. Sixty policemen also arrived on the scene, assuring the people that strict action would be taken against the goons. The crowd dispersed, and – despite the police assurances – the goons were handed back to the landlord, and cases were filed against the sangham leaders. [Sundarayya 1972: 35-37].

The death of Komarayya enraged the people, sparking a massive revolt amongst the Telengana peasantry, with people from neighboring villages marching, holding meetings in front of the landlords house, declaring: “Sangham is organised here. No more vetti, no more illegal exactions, no evictions”[Sundarayya 1972: 38]. By the end of July, the movement had spread to about 300-400 villages across three districts. Several landlords and officials hurriedly left the villages. Volunteer groups were organised to defend peasants from attacks; their weapons were sticks and stones.

In response, the police, with the help of landlords, conducted a series of search operations, leading villagers to arm themselves. In October 1946, the Nizam’s government banned the AMS, and a spurt of arrests and military raids took place. Under these conditions of martial rule, some landlords began returning. The agitated masses, in one case, beat up a landlord who had insulted one of the women in the sangham, and this news spread like wildfire. The villagers also used leaflets that threatened severe action against the police if they indulged in violent activities.

During this first phase of the movement, the people were able, in several area, to “put an end to vetti, illegal exactions, compulsory grain levies, and…reoccupy the lands seized earlier by the landlords” while also “resisting the landlords’ armed goondas [goons]” and facing “the armed police and the military forces of the Nizam” [Sundarayya 1972:54-55].

Razakar Terror

In August 1947, when India became independent, Hyderabad state exercised the option of remaining autonomous. The bulk of the ruling majority, including the Nizam, the nobility and the Majlis-I-Ittehad (MII), a fundamentalist Islamic organisation within Hyderabad, supported the call for Azad (“Free”) Hyderabad. However, the majority of the population favoured joining the Indian union, and so the communists and AMS aligned with the Congress1, in a broad pro-merger, anti-Nizam alliance. There were several ideological conflicts between the Congress and communists, and by January 1948, the alliance ceased to function.

At this point, the MII started growing in militancy. Its paramilitary force, the razakars, were sent in hordes to suppress the peasant insurrection. They “raided and plundered the troubled villages, arrested or killed suspected and potential agitators, terrorized the innocent, and also abducted women as part of the campaign of punitive measures against the turbulent villages all over Hyderabad, but particularly in Telengana” [Dhanagare 1983: 197]. The communists formed “village republics (gram rajyams) which functioned as parallel government in the areas under their control. Groups of volunteers, called dalams, were organised to ensure fighting squads when the razakars and/or police made raids…By April 1948 the communists were able to organize six ‘area-squads’ (each with twenty fighters), and about fifty ‘village squads’” [Dhanagare 1983: 197]. This helped in the expansion of the movement, with a parallel administration established in almost 4000 villages.

In February 1948, the CPI introduced a new policy aimed at encouraging guerilla offensives, largely influenced by the success of the Telengana insurrection. The village republics started redistributing land to landless agricultural labourers and evicted tenants, increasing the popularity of the movement. By the end of August 1948, almost 10,000 peasants, students and party workers actively involved themselves in the village squads and some 2,000 formed mobile guerilla squads.

Police Action By the Indian Army

On September 13, 1948, in a ‘police action’ aimed at countering the violence in Hyderabad, the Indian Army marched into the state. Within a week’s time, the Nizam, the razakar squads and the police surrendered. Following the capture of the razakars, a military administration was set up under General J.N. Chaudhuri, and a military offensive was directed at the peasant rebels in the Telengana region. During the next three years, “in more than 2000 villages… 300,000 of people were tortured, about 50,000 were arrested and kept in (detention) camps for a few days to a few months. More than 5,000 were imprisoned for years” [Dhanagare 1983:200].

The Indian Army’s presence transformed the struggle, as it was no more a liberation struggle against the Nizam, but rather against the army of the newly-formed Indian Government. In an effort to co-opt peasant support, the military administration issued the Jagir Abolition Regulation (August 1949) and set up an Agrarian Enquiry Committee to recommend comprehensive land reform legislation. It was clear, though, whose side the state was on; within two weeks the landlords started returning and regaining their lost land. General J.N. Chaudhuri, the military governor made a statement from Hyderabad, calling all “communists to surrender within a week, failing which they would be exterminated”[Sundarayya 1972: 195-96].

A debate ensued within the CPI. Certain sections felt that giving up arms was essential. Other sections were skeptical, as they felt that giving up arms could lead to loss of gains and appear as a betrayal of the people. With the division in the leadership, some groups gave up arms, while others continued to hold on to them.

In the Godavari forest region, the call for disarming was not given, and the military repression was intense. Between June-December 1949, several agricultural labourer strikes occurred in the area. The armed dalams were now hiding in the forests, and large combing operations took place to hunt them down. The indigenous population in the forests protected the dalams. In one instance, the local people were forcibly evacuated to the outskirts of the forest, and the army burned down their hamlets and resorted to mass murders.

By the end of 1950, only isolated guerilla groups existed, there was little coordination among village republics, and the severe military repression had taken its toll on the population, with a huge loss of life, and the movement weakened. By early 1951, Congress government made several conciliatory gestures towards the CPI, and, after several rounds of negotiations, the CPI formally declared the struggle withdrawn on October 21, 1951.

Conclusion

The Telengana movement represents the culmination of efforts by communist and socialist parties in the first few decades of the communist movement. The untiring efforts organising and mobilising the peasantry against grave injustices represented a break away from traditionally more moderate reformist movements within the peasantry. Although the exact significance and value of the Telengana movement is fiercely debated, one cannot deny the role of the movement in bringing the question of the peasantry to the fore of the communist movement; in actively organising people against caste injustices; and in radically redefining the need for strong organisational structure, which was a key factor in the growth of the movement.

1Indian National Congress: the major political party involved in the freedom struggle.

This article is available in French: Le mouvement du Telangana : contestations paysannes en Inde entre 1946 et 1951

Sources:

  • Dhanagare, D.N., Peasant Movement in India: 1920-1950, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983.
  • Pavier, B., The Telengana Movement: 1944-51, New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1981.
  • Sundarayya, P., Telengana People’s Struggle and its Lessons, Calcutta: Communist Party of India (Marxist), 1972.

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