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The battle for Andhra



Potti Sriramulu

IN December 1950, Vallabhbhai Patel died. The next September, Jawaharlal Nehru assumed the office of Congress president, in addition to that of Prime Minister of India. In both party and government he was paramount. It was to stay that way for the next decade. Be it non-alignment or centralised planning, the policy that Nehru wanted was generally adopted by the Congress, and by the Government of India as well. But there were exceptions.

One such was the creation of linguistic states. In private, Nehru deplored the idea. In public, he said he would agree to their creation only if there was consensus among all parties concerned. However, most Congressmen who spoke Marathi insisted on a separate Maharashtra State. Party members who claimed Gujarati as a mother tongue wanted likewise to have a province of their own. Similar were the aspirations of Congressmen who spoke Kannada, Malayalam, or Oriya. These people all wanted the creation of states based on their own language, and they wanted them as soon as possible.

Without question, the most vigorous movement for linguistic autonomy was the handiwork of the Andhras. Telugu was spoken by more people than any other Indian language besides Hindi. It had a rich literary history, and was associated with such symbols of Andhra glory as the Vijayanagara Empire. While India was still under British rule, the Andhra Mahasabha had worked hard to cultivate a sense of identity among the Telugu-speaking people of the Madras Presidency, whom, they claimed, had been discriminated against by the Tamils. The Mahasabha was also active in the princely state of Hyderabad.

After Independence, the speakers of Telugu asked the Congress to implement its old resolutions — dating back to the 1920s — in favour of linguistic states. The methods they used to advance their case were various: petitions, representations, street marches and fasts. Cutting across party lines, the Andhra legislators in the Madras Assembly supported the demand. In the monsoon of 1951, a Congressman-turned-swami named Sitaram went on a hunger strike demanding the immediate creation of an Andhra State. After five weeks the fast was given up, in response to an appeal by the Sarvodaya leader, Vinoba Bhave.

The agitating Andhras had two pet hates: the Prime Minister, and the Chief Minister of Madras, C. Rajagopalachari. Both had gone on record as saying that they did not think that the immediate creation of Andhra was a good idea. Both were clear that even if, against their will, the state came into being, the city of Madras would not be a part of it. This enraged the Andhras, who had a strong demographic and economic presence in the city, and who believed that they had as good a claim on it as the Tamils.

On May 22, 1952, Nehru told Parliament of how "for some years now our foremost efforts have been directed to the consolidation of India. Personally, I would look upon anything that did not help this process of consolidation as undesirable. Even though the formation of linguistic provinces may be desirable in some cases, this would obviously be the wrong time. When the right time comes, let us have them by all means".

As K.V. Narayana Rao has written, "this attitude of Nehru appeared too vague and evasive to the Andhras. Nobody knew what the right time was and when it would come". Impatient for an answer, the Andhras intensified their protest. On October 19, 1952, a man named Potti Sriramulu began a fast-unto-death in Madras. He had the blessings of Swami Sitaram, and of thousands of other Telugu speaking people besides.

Born in an orthodox household in Madras in 1901, Sriramulu had studied Sanitary Engineering and then took employment in the railways. In 1930 he resigned his post to join the Salt Satyagraha. Later, he spent some time at the Sabarmati Ashram. Later still, he spent 18 months in jail as part of the individual satyagraha campaign of 1940-41.

A hagiographic study published in 1985 by the "Committee for History of Andhra Movement" had this to say about the relationship between Potti Sriramulu and Mahatma Gandhi: "Sreeramulu's stay at Sabarmati was epoch-making. For here was a seeker full of love and humility, all service and all sacrifice for his fellow-humanity; and here also was a guru, the world-teacher, equally full of affection, truth, ahimsa and kinship with Daridra Narayana or the suffering poor. While at Sabarmati, Sreeramulu ... did his tasks with cheer and devotion, and won the affection of the inmates and the approbation of the Kulapati (Gandhi)."

Gandhi did regard Sriramulu with affection but also, it must be said, with a certain exasperation. On November 25, 1946 the disciple had begun a fast-unto-death to demand the opening of all temples in Madras province to Harijans. Other Congressmen, their minds more focussed on the impending freedom of India, urged him to desist. When he refused, they approached Gandhi, who persuaded him to abandon the fast. The Mahatma then wrote to the respected Andhra Congressman, T. Prakasam, that he was "glad that the fast of Sreeramulu ended in the happy manner you describe. He had sent me a telegram immediately after he broke his fast. I know he is a solid worker, though a little eccentric".

"Eccentric" is a word capacious enough to also mean "determined". This Potti Sriramulu certainly was. The fast of 1946 he had called off at Gandhi's instance. But in 1952 the Mahatma was dead; in any case, Andhra meant more to Sriramulu than the Harijans once had. This fast he would carry out till the end, or until the Government of India relented.

On December 3, Nehru wrote to Rajagopalachari: "Some kind of fast is going on for the Andhra Province and I get frantic telegrams. I am totally unmoved by this and I propose to ignore it completely". By this time Sriramulu had not eaten for six weeks. As his ordeal went on, support for the cause grew. Hartals were called in many towns. The sociologist Andre Beteille, travelling to Madras from Calcutta at this time, recalls having his train stopped at Vizag by an angry mob shouting slogans against Rajaji and Nehru.

Nehru now recognised the force of popular sentiment. On December 12, he wrote again to Rajaji, suggesting that the time had come to accept the Andhra demand. "Otherwise complete frustration will grow among the Andhras, and we will not be able to catch up with it". But the formal announcement was delayed, and Sriramulu continued his fast. On the 15th he died. The next day all hell broke loose. Government offices were attacked, and trains stopped and defaced. The damage to state property ran into crores of rupees. Several protesters were killed in police firings. On the 16th, Nehru made a statement saying a state of Andhra would come into being, but its boundaries would be decided by an independent Commission. In March 1953, the Telugu districts of Madras were identified for separation; later, these were joined by Telugu-speaking areas of Hyderabad to constitute the present state of Andhra Pradesh.

I have only a fleeting acquaintance with Hyderabad, and don't know whether a statue of Potti Sriramulu adorns the road that runs alongside Hussainsagar lake. It surely must. And surely there must be a Telugu film based on his life (and myth). Sadly, outside Andhra he is a forgotten figure now. This is a pity, for Sriramulu had a more-than-minor impact on the history, as well as geography, of our country. For his fast and its aftermath were to spark off a wholesale redrawing of the map of India according to linguistic lines. The Andhras might even claim that Potti Sriramulu was the Mercator of India. And in this, the 50th anniversary of the creation of their state, the rest of us might even grant them such hyperbole.

Ramachandra Guha's books include Savaging the Civilized and Environmentalism: A Global History.

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