ALLURI SITARAMA RAJU
The Sanyasi who led an iconic Tribal Uprising
Born in the village of Pandrangi in Bhimavaram Taluk of the present-day West Godavari District of Andhra Pradesh in 1897, Alluri Sitarama Raju turned an ascetic at the age of 18, dropping out of college. A charismatic personality, reputed to possess magical powers, he quickly gained an almost messianic status among the tribal population of Godavari region, where he roamed around. By 1922, there was rising popular resentment against restrictions imposed by the colonial government on free movement of the populace in the forest. Passionately committed to overthrow the British colonial authority, Raju found his standing among the tribals to be a powerful tool to lead an uprising against the colonial establishment when this opportunity presented itself. The bloody uprising, which came to be called the Rampa Rebellion, would rock the region for two years until the gory killing of Raju by the colonialists in 1924, when he was barely 27.
The Madras Forest Act of 1882 imposed restrictions on the free movement of tribal people in the forest, preventing them from carrying on with their traditional ‘Podu’ agricultural system of shifting cultivation, wherein each year some areas of the forest were burned down to clear land for cultivation. This system is still followed in modern farms worldwide as “prescribed burns”. While the stated rationale for this act by the colonial administration was the need to improve the economic usefulness of the lands, in reality, it was to further their commercial ends like building railways and ships. It deprived over 28,000 tribal people, who inhabited the Rampa administrative area in the hills of the Godavari Agency of the Madras Presidency, of their crops, forcing people to starvation and eking out a living by alternate means. To add insult to injury, these free-spirited farming folk found themselves demeaned by being forced to work as labourers to construct a road cutting across their lands. The hilly region, with a history of popular uprising when the people rose up in revolt against their exploitation by zamindars and merchants from the plains in 1879 (which too was called Rampa Rebellion), was seething to rebel under these fresh injustices by 1922, when Raju stepped in to give the people his firebrand leadership. The ‘Muttadars’ (the traditional tax collectors and de facto rulers of the lands) who were deprived of their privileges by the act, joined the tribal people, in a case of former antagonists coming together to face a common enemy.
The rebellion broke out in August 1922 when Raju, at the head of a force of 500 tribals, launched attacks on police stations at Chintapalle, Krishnadevi Peta and Rajavommangi on consecutive days and looted their armouries and ammunition stores. Drawing more and more recruits to his ranks as he continued with the campaign, he inflicted heavy casualties on a police force deployed by the British to contain the insurrection, including a British officer killed. The police force could make no headway against the rebels due to unfamiliar terrain and a hostile population. While it was estimated that the core group of rebels numbered not more than a hundred fighters, their numbers swelled multifold whenever an operation was triggered off. In late September, Raju staged a devastatingly successful ambush on a police contingent at Dammanapalli Ghat, killing two more officers, causing panic among the British and enhancing his reputation among the tribals, who had come to adore him for his invincibility. Attacks on police stations at Rampachodavaram, Addateegala, Narsipatnam and Annavaram followed one after another. As Raju continued with his unrelenting campaign of insurgency in the hills, he also reached out to people in the plains, trying to enthuse them to rally against the British by joining the Gandhian non-cooperation movement.
The British, after repeated futile efforts to put down the rebellion or nab Raju, brought in the Malabar Special Police, which had earned a fierce reputation for counter-insurgency operations along the west coast, especially during the Moplah Revolt of 1921. Nevertheless, Raju was able to keep the fight going for two long years, promoting nationalistic ethos and widespread anti-colonial sentiments not only among the tribals, but among the people of the region at large. With the police forces in hot pursuit, Raju was eventually cornered in the forests of Chintapalle in early May 1924. Tied to a tree in Koyyuru village, he was shot dead on the 7th of May and buried in the village of Krishnadevi Peta, where his tomb still exists. With the death of ‘Manyam Veerudu’, meaning ‘Hero of the Jungle’, as Raju was fondly called by the tribal people, the rebellion lost its steam and gradually fizzled out.
India today honours this brave son of hers, who sacrificed his life in the nationalist cause, by a statue of his that was installed at the precincts of the country’s Parliament in 2017. Another statue of his adorns the Tank Bund Road that connects the twin cities of Secunderabad and Hyderabad nearer his home. The State of Andhra Pradesh commemorates the birth anniversary of this hero every year on the 4th of July with a state-wide festival. The town of Eluru, which is the headquarters of West Godavari district where Raju was born, remembers him with a cricket stadium named after him. A biopic of this great patriot and tribal welfare activist was made in 1974 by V. Ramachandra Rao, while a book in Telugu language, authored by Sheikh Abdul Hakim Jaani and published in 2019, titled ‘Alluri Sita Ramaraju’, features his life and times.