The Telengana Movement

Inukonda Thirumali, Against Dora and Nizam: People’s Movement in Telengana, 1939-1948, New Delhi, 2003.


Amit Kumar Gupta
Indian Council of Historical Research

The Telangana rebellion of the mid-1940s and the early 1950s was unparalleled in the 20th century history of India for the intensity of its participants’ militancy and the height of revolutionism they ascended. It seemed to have reached the goal of ‘agrarian revolution’ by which Indian Communists dreamt simultaneously of freeing agrarian society from the feudal stranglehold, and restoring and distributing land to the tillers. Somewhat limited in extent (covering at the most barely 5 districts of the Nizam’s territories as against the 19 Bengal districts that the Tebhaga movement affected in 1946), and comparable in autonomy (displaying similar rank and file initiative as perhaps the Worlis of Ratnagiri did in Maharashtra in 1945-47), the rising was probably the longest lasting among the armed struggles in our country, extending for six years approximately from October 1945 (the point the Visunuri Deshmukh tried to grab land in Palakurthi of Janagaon, Nalgonda, resulting eventually in Komarayya’s martyrdom in Keduvendi in July 1946) to October 1951 (the time the Telangana armed struggle was declared to have been unconditionally withdrawn). Inukonda Thirumali apparently preferred to study the ‘movement’ in Telangana rather than the ‘rising’, by starting from 1939 and covering it up to 1948.

The gestation period of any ‘rising’ is noteworthy, and may, therefore, be justifiably considered as an initial part of the ‘movement’. It is not clear, however, why Thirumali’s starting point should be 1939 (when nothing special seemed to have happened in Telangana and Hyderabad), and not, for example, 1931 (when protest against Vetti and Vettichakiri was first raised in the Andhra Mahasabha’s second session at Devarakonda), or 1940 (when the Communist-led Andhra Mahasabha launched a campaign against forced labour, enforced services and unjust dispossessions), or 1944 (when the inhabitants of Mundraya village rose in resistance against the Deshmukh’s ejectment drive in Janagaon, Nalgonda). His fixing 1948 as the closing point of the study is, however, understandable since the year – following the ‘police action’ and Hyderabad’s accession to India in September 1948 – saw a drastic change in the situation: the end of the Nizamshahi in the state and the beginning of the military governance of it. Despite the magnitude of such transference of power, the event nevertheless failed on the one hand to hint at any qualitative socio-economic advancement for the Hyderabadis, though it succeeded on the other in abetting the restoration and reinforcement of those very socially oppressive forces against whom the Telangana movement was launched. Consequently, the struggle had to be continued analogously - but not wholly - in some suitable form in confrontation with the immensely more formidable governmental authorities, unless its gains attained so far with so much sacrifice were allowed docilely to go waste. Seeing perhaps in this light, and finding the rebel causes to be remaining more or less the same in the post-September 1948 days (although growing steadily in ideological significance*), one might have continued the study to our advantage, and brought it up to October 1951. A book grown out of dissertational confines could have offered us a fuller view of the Telangana rising, in its entirety and not in piecemeal, and a better understanding of why it proceeded the way it did, and not otherwise.

Thirumali apparently was very appreciative of the rising’s pre-September 1948 popular unity - the ‘strikingly different’ quality (Introduction, p. 5) and divisioning on ‘caste / class lines’ (p. x). Not much bothered whether caste/class interests lay dormant at the time of any popular outbreak, and show signs of coming alive only when material benefits start trickling out of it, he preoccupied himself singularly with the popular character of the Telangana rising in its first phase, and harped on the remarkable nature of its being a ‘people’s movement’ (Introduction, p. 1), ‘at the popular initiative’ (Introduction, p.13). Such highlighting, of course, is eminently justifiable, and it should similarly be so in the cases of some other movements of the time - notably of the Bakasht, the Worli, the Tebhaga, the Punnapra-Vyalur, the Varan-Punnaiyal and the Muzara. All these movements of the disadvantaged and the dispossessed, the exploited and the tyrannised, including the fiercely fought one of the post-September 1948 in Telangana, had the participation of the mass of the people, especially by the people belonging to the lowest order of society. They did reflect popular unity up to certain levels – formation of joint fronts of artisans, agricultural labourers, sharecroppers, small and middle peasants, and on occasions even of the rich peasants. The point is the popular character of the Telangana rising in its pre-September 1948 phase is incontrovertible, but by no means unique, and it could not have been so in any significant struggle for socio-economic justice, particularly under the colonial set-up. It is hardly necessary, therefore, to try to mysticise the ‘popular movement’ aspect, and present it, as Thirumali seems to have implied, as a higher, grander and nobler form of struggle than as a mere ‘economic/agrarian’ (Introduction, p. 5), ‘anti-feudal’ and ‘anti-autocratic’ one (Introduction, p.11). Since the concept of ‘people’s movement’ is applied primarily to determine the character of a struggle, and not so much to decide upon its categorisation, any struggle of economic, anti-feudal and anti-autocratic category can be popular and assume the character of a ‘people’s movement’. The popular nature of the struggle - the high degree of the people’s movement and initiative - was very impressive, indeed, in the case of the Telangana rising, both in its pre and post-September 1948 phases, but that hardly rendered it supra-agrarian, supra-anti-feudal and supra-anti-autocratic. It remained in fact all the three taken together, namely, a people’s anti-feudal (in the main), anti-autocratic, economic/agrarian movement, and it became the outstanding one in the annals of popular resistances in India. It was outstanding because of its being able to raise itself first, to the highest form of existential struggle – the people’s armed confrontation with their oppressors and exploiters - and then (reiterating what has already been stated in the first two sentences of this review), to attain the cherished goal of agrarian revolution, howsoever temporarily, and in isolation.

Not perceptional clarity, nor presentational suavity (a bit of editorial care might have come in handy), Thirumali’s strong point is his laying bare the caste-based differentiation of culture and life-pattern of people in Telangana, and bringing out the way it sharpened their socio-economic class contradiction to spark off the rising. This he tried to do by reinforcing his findings from the well-known official and non-official sources (including contemporary newspapers and politico-economic writings) with the not so well-known oral testimonies (of some leaders, as well as of some subaltern activists), memories of the knowledgeables (like Zaheer Ahmed, Rangacharya Dasharathi, Narasimhulu Nalla) and collection of folklore (edited by Nayani Krishna Kumari), and discussions on folk literature (such as by E.R. Reddy and Jayadheer Tirumala Rao). The outcome is another distinctive viewing of the Telangana agrarian society that had been founded upon the low or outcaste Chillarollu (bonded and agricultural labourers of untouchable Mala and Madiga ancestry, or of servicing / artisanal Golla, Bhoi, Wanjari, Kamati, Kummari etc. descent) and the Kapsus (rich Kamma agriculturists, and the middle and poor cultivators and tenants-at-will of such peasant-castes as Mathrasi, Telaga, Munnar and Balija), and that had been overwhelmed by the domination of the high caste Doras (jagirdars, watandars, landlords and ex-revenue officials of Reddy, Kamma, Brahmin, Velama and Muslim origin) - the chief upholders of the Nizamshahi and its main beneficiaries. The Dora or the landlord domination was based on a system of economic and social exploitation that had obviously been ‘feudal’ (despite Thirumali’s reluctance to affirm it as such), and that had continued to function openly, and insolently with the help of Vetti and Vettichakiri (forced labour and enforced services) and land-ejectment and land-grabbing, by hook or by crook.

It was over Vetti, Vettichakiri and land-grabbing that a widespread resentment had been brewing up in Telangana among their numerous sufferers - the agricultural labourers (suffering from low wages, bondage and forced labour), the small and middle peasants (suffering from high rent, periodic ejectment, forced labour and enforced services), the rich peasants and village shopkeepers (suffering from enforced services and extracted free supplies). The resentment saw in effect a convergence of the classes and castes antagonistically placed to each other: largely the outcaste and low caste exploited against roughly the high caste and high-bred exploiters. Coincidently at this point appeared the Communists theoretically the de-classed and de-casted), and the Communist-led Andhra Mahasabha on the scene, championing the causes of the exploited, and giving an organised thrust to the popular resistance to Vetti, Vettichakiri and land-grabbing. The resistance was worked up further by the war-time Government levy on grains, imposed high-handedly on the cultivating peasants and rather sparingly on the landlords and their henchmen. Its gravitational centre, the Andhra Mahasabha, soon become an anti-feudal people’s front, consisting of the Village Sangams all over Telangana, and spearheading an all-out popular struggle on well-known agitational lines, including the constitutional and juridical ones. The Doras and the Nizamshahi, outraged at the Chillarollu and Kapu audacity, and incensed by the growing challenge to their authority, retaliated with vengeance through hired hoodlums and court officials, armed retenus and Hyderabadi police, Razakars and state forces. The confrontation, under electrifying circumstances, had sooner or later to become desperate, violent and bloody. By the beginning of 1946 in fact most part of Telangana, especially Nalgonda and Warangal, were in the thick of armed struggle, fought bitterly till August 1948, and in no less intensity, of course, long thereafter.

The armed conflict, characterised by an unprecedented participation of heroic peasant women, and enlivened by the militant use of popular art forms (such as Burrakathas and Batcammas), achieved outstanding gains for the toiling masses on a scale that would have made their counterparts proud almost everywhere. These began to accrue from early 1947 with the establishment of Sangam Rajyam or Village Government (or ‘parallel government’) in large liberated areas of more than 2,000 villages, following the destruction of the pro-Dora Nizamshahi administration. Led by the Communist Party and the Andhra Mahasabha, the elected Grama Rajya committees took over all the administrative and political responsibilities, protected people’s interests, and dealt suitably with their adversaries. In accordance with the nature of their misdeeds, the exploiters and oppressors faced social boycott, heavy fines and confiscation of properties. Confiscated properties or lands (many thousands of acres) were distributed among the landless peasants and agricultural labourers, over and above those lands which the rebels had ‘seized’ from the landlords in the course of the rising. Landholding was brought down to a maximum of 100 acres of dry and 10 acres of wet land. Feudal levies and cesses were abolished, and debts had either been cancelled, or interest on them heavily slashed. The agricultural labourers’ wage was increased, but to not the extent it should have, probably because of the labour-employing rich and middle peasant opposition (p.207). There were simultaneously efforts to produce more food grains, bring fallow lands into cultivation, undertake some irrigation works, control prices of daily necessities and ensure fair distribution of food.

However, the Sangam Rajyam scenario could not have possibly been wholly idyllic, and instances of the assertion of the affluent peasant position, the behavioural neglect of the untouchables and the male chauvinistic treatment of the feminity were not really very scarce (pp. 208-210). Thirumali was at his investigative best when he delineated the Sangam Rajyam in its various facets by backing it up with valuable empirical details. He was also impressive in his attempts at bringing out the ‘cultural domination’, as well as the ‘culture of inequality’ in Telangana that had been forced upon the popular psyche through the social tormentors’ caste-based monopoly of economic and political power (p. 216). Consequently, the rising of the people there seemed to have achieved a moral stature – a belief that they were fighting for nyayamu justice) to emancipate themselves from anyayamu (injustice) (p. 66). This emancipatory content is the life-force of popular risings of all sizes, ages and places. 

* It was their Telengana experience that led in 1948-49 the Andhra Communists to devise in the underground a parallel line (‘Andhra Letter’ that ran counter to the Ranadivean line of left adventurism and ‘inter-twining’ of the stages of revolution in India.

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