Sri Putchalapalli Sundarayya A renowned national liberation fighter
May 1, 2012 marked the birth centenary of Comrade P Sundarayya, former general secretary of the CPI(M) and an outstanding leader of the Indian communist movement. His revolutionary contribution to the movement as the leader of the Telangana People's Struggle has been well recognised and his account earlier published by People's Publishing House is very well known, His writings and autobiography have also been popularised by the CPI(M) and other organisations. However, some aspects of his early work are relatively lesser known in the public domain and were explained in detail by him in an interview recorded by Hardeo Sharma of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library on September 14, 1974.
The full transcript of the interview is available in the Oral History Transcript Section (transcript number 449) of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. The excerpts reproduced here cover the period between 1929 and 1934, i.e., before Comrade Sundarayya became a member of the Communist Party and his early work as a communist activist within the Congress. They explain how young activists of the nationalist movement were attracted to the communist ideology and played a seminal role in the formation of the Party in the state. The narrative below also explains the crucial links between efforts to fight against upper caste oppression and organise the lower classes within the agrarian society. These initiatives made mass struggles led by youth influenced by the communist ideology distinctly different from the peasant movements inspired by Congress nationalists. Below we publish some excerpts from the interview which covered the initial period of Sundarayya's student days in his own words:
On the relationship between Congress nationalism and the work amongst rural peasants and workers Sundarayya says:
By 1929 I was well acquainted with Indian politics, with Gandhiji's, Nehru's and Tilak's writings and became a convinced champion of the Congress and the national movement. By that time my own experience in the village, in my own house, was that the agricultural labourers, who were mainly Harijans, were being treated badly and I used to fight [for them saying] that they should be given proper treatment. Gandhiji's influence, Vivekananda's influence, general humanitarian influence and the teachings of social reformers from the time of Vemana, used to preach casteless democracy. In fact, in 1928-29 when Gandhiji campaigned for the Harijans, we also used to do so. In 1929, while we were studying in Loyola College, we formed a small group of students with Leftist views. This was linked up with some of the students from Kakinada, West Godavari, Krishna districts and Madras also.
In December 1929, H D Rajah came to Madras. He gave [us a] copy of the Communist Manifesto. After reading that we decided – earlier also we were thinking – that after our education was over we should go to the villages and start working among the people. So, in 1929 our whole group became pro-communist. Naturally the Communist Party does not admit you unless it tests you. We actively campaigned amongst various student groups towards testing this idea. But at the same time we were strongly drawn into the national movement. We had definitely taken a vow to follow the communist movement and work amongst workers and peasants.
Then after the March examination, I told the principal of my college: "Now we are going back to our own villages, there is no use for education; we will jump into the movement." At that time the idea was not to join the movement as such but to go back to the villages and work amongst the agricultural labour and develop the movement. But our group was a conglomeration of different students from different districts. In West Godavari at that time there used to be a 'Sodara Samiti Group' of West and East Godavari students. It was under the influence of Tela P Narasimha Rao and Prakash Rai who were very staunch Gandhites. They had an ashram in Chhaglu in West Godavari. So they decided that we as a group should join in the Satyagraha movement. I also went into the Satyagraha movement. And even before I went, I organised a common social dinner from Harijans to [upper] sections in my village. I told them I come from a landlord family. So, all my cousins and others prevented the agricultural labour from coming and participating in the dinner. Then I criticised them and went on a token hunger strike for two days – a Gandhian method common at that time. But it also showed the depth of social oppression that was being inflicted. During the course of that, I demanded more wages also, about six seers by measurement. They said 'how can it be given? We will go bankrupt. We calculated the whole thing and proved: you are not doing any work for the whole day; they are producing some twelve seers but we are demanding only six. Normally we should demand more because you are not doing any work. Anyway, before we could organise it we joined the Satyagraha movement…. I was made one of the commanders of the volunteer squads. After three or four months, I was arrested and sentenced to two years imprisonment in Borstal jail…. But the important thing is, while at Loyola College or as a Squad Commander, or while actively participating in Satyagraha or in jail, my effort had been to bring the Satyagrahis as nearer to communism as I understood it.
[Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Oral Transcript No 449, pp. 5-8]
On the Congress-led peasant movement in 1930 and its limitations
It was drawn largely from the middle peasant cadre and the educated cadre which were in both the rural and urban areas, especially in the early thirties, when the government started resettlements also. Therefore, in these districts the sections up to the middle peasants who were affected were politically conscious, as well as educated sections in the towns had awakened. But definitely it had not gone to the agricultural labour and the poor peasants in the rural areas nor the working classes. Of course, when something like a demonstration was organised, workers sometimes participated in it. But I would certainly say that the toiling masses were not in it. They were kind of having a neutral attitude. Since the dominant political and social leaders also were with this movement, the whole villages used to follow it… And I can definitely remember, in Andhra areas in those days, the agricultural labour were mainly a good chunk. The limited influence of the socialist movement and the revolutionary movement led to the growth of the Gandhian influence in Andhra Pradesh.
[Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Oral Transcript No 449, pp. 5-8]
On Gandhi, his influence and critique
What impressed me most was his [Gandhi's] autobiography, or his whole life, the simple life and his advocacy of the downtrodden Harijans and the boldness in fighting the British. That is the main thing. Therefore, I always tried to model my life in a simple way. Communism does mean a good life for all the people, but it does not mean that individuals should not lead a simple life. This is a wrong conception of communism. I have read plenty of Lenninsm. I know what communism is. So irrespective of Gandhiji's philosophy, I was certainly influenced by the way in which he lived, his simple life and his advocacy of truth and honesty in politics. Earlier Ahimsa also influenced me, but when we went deeper into it, ahimsa was no goodâ€¦.
Once you are idealistically moving and doing work in the interest of the people and making sacrifices, you see the conflict between the oppressed and the oppressor. And in course if the Congress leaders did not stand with the oppressed sections, but tried to bypass them and defend the upper sections, naturally the [Gandhian philosophy] came to a halt…. But naturally to the young it was the advocacy of complete independence which appealed more than the dominion status. I cannot analyse now why I should have stood for complete independence and not with Gandhiji. Maybe it was the influence of reading newspapers, [of] British imperialism and of the many atrocities [being inflicted] throughout the world. While Gandhi was sharp in certain respects, we do not see him attacking imperialism all through. And naturally, whether you repudiated Gandhiji or not, your sympathy was towards those people who were at least attacking British imperialism. That is where Nehru came in. I would not say that Nehru influenced me as much as Gandhiji. But Nehru stood for complete independence as well as anti-imperialism.
[Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Oral Transcript No 449, pp. 13-18]
On the early days of class organisation and anti-caste movement (1931-34)
The peasant work was taken up mostly amongst the middle and rich peasants and even among a small section of the landlords. When we took up the work, the attention and the concentration with which we had worked amongst the agricultural labour could not be there. It is much easier to work amongst the peasantry than the agricultural labour, because the problems of the peasantry in this ryotwari area were that it was the government which should give proper prices, supply proper fertilisers and give proper debt reductions. All these go against the government. The conflict does not come. At the same time we have taken up the problems of the tenants in the ryotwari areas, one third of the area in Andhra, the coastal districts where I was working was under big zamindars…. In the ryotwari area also, they too had to pay rent to the zamindars like Raja of Sarvepalli. Like that there were several zamindars and we had taken up question of illegal extraction against them also. So that way we had become, in fact in the rural areas, the most organised and the only organised force working amongst the agricultural labour and peasantry. The earlier peasant movement led by Ranga and others used to concentrate more on taxes and the Nori settlement and general problems…. Ranga's influence was mainly amongst the rich peasants, landlords and the dominant economic group. So that is how the agricultural labour and kisan movement carried on.
Along with this agricultural labour work and rural work among the peasantry and the working class, I also took up the work of youth organisation because our Party was illegal at that time and lot of youth were looking towards radicalism. So, Youth Leagues were organised in almost all districts. We also had a Provincial Youth League. Although we did not [call] it a communist front, its main direction was under our guidance. So usually apart from political campaigns, we started other cultural activities also, there were reading rooms, sports and social service [activities]. Youth used to participate in these activities.
[Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Oral Transcript No 449, pp. 61-65]
One of the main issues which I had taken up in my village amongst the agricultural labourers was the question of wages. They used to pay differential wages to caste labourers. On the grounds of caste, some labourers could work in the houses, whereas Harijans could not do household work. The second thing was that they were being paid low wages, about two and a half seers of paddy and we demanded six seers. But the landlords opposed it. Therefore we calculated the actual cost of cultivation, by deducting all the cost of production, multiplied it by the number of days each worker had to spend for full cultivation, and came to the conclusion that on an average, each worker produced around twelve seers of paddy, taking the average yield etc. So this was a powerful agitation weapon in the hands of the agricultural labour against the landlords. So we started an agricultural labour organisation in 1938 itself. Every household used to give one day's wages in a year by way of subscription for it, but the landlords used to oppose the whole organisation. [Steps were taken] to prevent the agricultural labour from coming and asserting their rights. Sometimes there were strikes also on a minor scale.
Another significant thing was the running of a first aid centre by me with the help of some youth, where first aid was given and medicine was distributed. Then we used to have some mixtures for fever. We also learnt how to clean small wounds and treat them. These were elementary things. Every day we used to get some 50-100 people.
During the same period I was working in the fields along with agricultural labour in all operations of agriculture in order to find out how difficult manual labour was. This was a good and healthy practice also. There is no doubt about it. So this [enabled] me and my co-workers to tune our life to agricultural labour. We also found from our angle that along with the problem of caste equality, unless simultaneously, we developed a movement amongst the rural poor, amongst the backward communities, like the handloom weavers, the toddy tappers and various other kinds of labour – we would not be able to fight against the landlords. But because I and my co-workers came from a socially advanced caste, Reddy, whose members were powerful and of a sacrificing spirit, they did not object to us, but they did not participate in the movement. Later on we corrected this.
Similarly we used to take the question of bonded slaves and debt in the village. For instance the agricultural labour had to lose a day's work for every day they were absent. They were being paid certain amount for the days they worked, but most of it was paid to them at the end of the year as per contract. So for the days that they were absent, even from the contracted amount they used to get back very little. And we said: "That is their money you are keeping this as a guarantee till the end of the year. Why should you cut from that also? Give them some holidays, at least 15 days in a year if not 30 days, which they have earned. You do not give holidays and you cut from their salaries also." The second issue, whenever they took some loan even from the earned money they had with them [landlords], by the end of the year they had to pay an interest of 50 per cent of the total amount they had taken. If they took on grain interest, they used to charge enormously. During the lean season in August-September, they took loans by local measures. When the harvest came and their salaries were paid, they had to give as interest half the amount that they had taken. Most kind-hearted landlords used to take one fourth the amount as interest, others one half and in some cases it was one is to one….this is what we called in Telugu Namunabu system…. later on the interest became a little less because of our agitation, but the system continued….Then there was another system for Harijan labour coming from a tribe [Talianadis]. This old feudal system continued. If he took a loan from one landlord, he had no freedom to go to another landlord till he repaid the debt or if he went to another landlord, the new landlord had to repay the loans and he could not employ that man till he repaid all the arrears to the old landlord…. Generally the practice was to use false measures while paying wages which normally they [the landlords] paid in kind. We used to take up the question of the wages to the labourers also… Then there was the barter system also. When poor people went with grains to purchase other goods, the merchants used bigger measures with Harijans [after] giving them many calculations, but when they had to pay back they used smaller measures. All these small, illegal measures were there against which we used to campaign…. In towns the Labour Protection League used to work among rice mill workers, ground nut oil mill workers, oil mill workers, head load workers and cart pullers and miscellaneous labour. Big factories were not there in Andhra at that time…. Some of the agricultural labour struggles were unleashed in this way and it had its own impact in the Andhra villages. That is the way in which agricultural labour work was started.
[Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Oral Transcript No 449, pp. 54-58]