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The Rebel who Championed a Peasant Revolt that jolted the British

Agrarian reforms are problematic universally and when a traditional system is tampered with, it is bound to cause friction. This could even be incendiary, when it is imposed by an alien power with ulterior motives, with no real intention of achieving socio-economic progress that they use as the pretext. That is what happened when the English East India Company (EIC) introduced, in its Madras Presidency, an arbitrary agrarian law it termed as ‘Permanent Settlement’ in 1803, ten years after its enactment in the Bengal Presidency. It replaced the prevailing zamindari-style system of collecting land revenue through landholders or headmen, with ryotwari system, wherein individual cultivators could own land and pay tax directly to the EIC. On the face of it, the system empowered common people to farm land that they owned and deprived the headmen of their privileged status and landholdings, making it an egalitarian reform. However, in reality, while the land was taken away from the few who held it, the lower segment of cultivators to whom it was distributed found themselves impoverished due to depleted crops. Consequently, it left both the landholders and the peasants unhappy. To compound matters further, the EIC used it as a punitive tool to target the Poligars who had resisted the imposition of its rule in the past, by making the pensions payable to them on dispossession of their land inconsistent.

The resentment against the system manifested into open rebellion in the Kurnool-Kadapa region of the present-day state of Andhra Pradesh in 1846, following the EIC arbitrarily acquiring 23 estates. EIC claimed that the owners had died leaving no legal successors, which was not true in all but two estates. Among those affected by this latest imperious act of the Company was 40-year-old Uyyalawada Narasimha Reddy, from a village in the Uyyalawada Mandal of Kurnool District, who was the reigning Poligar of Nossam area at that time. Born of martial lineage, Reddy was a natural leader, very popular among the other Poligars, or ‘Kattubadidars’, as they were known in Andhra, and all of them rallied behind him when he chose to take up arms against the EIC. Although championed by Poligars, soon peasants also joined the uprising in large numbers and Narasimha Reddy was able to raise a 9000-strong army, headed by his confidante and chief lieutenant, Vadde Obanna, by July 1846.

Reddy’s army spread out in the areas of Kottakota, Giddaluru, Uyyalawada and Koyilakundla, mostly within the Nallamala region in southern Andhra, building fortifications armed with cannons. They also carried out daring raids at Koyilakundla, Rudravaram and other places and plundered the EIC treasuries. Responding to the distress call from their Collector for the region, the EIC deployed its army. In a major confrontation at Giddalaru the rebels managed to inflict heavy casualties on the Company troops, including one of their officers, Captain Norton being killed. With the rebellion spreading to surrounding areas, the EIC poured in troop reinforcements. Outnumbered and surrounded, Reddy was forced to withdraw to Nallamala Hills. Meanwhile the EIC announced hefty rewards in cash for information on the whereabouts of Reddy and his associates like Obanna, Karnam Ashvathama, Dasari Roshy Reddy, Jangam Mallayya, and many others. Nallamala Hills did not prove to be much of a safe sanctuary as the Company troops closed in on the rebels and Reddy found himself boxed in, forced to fight a last-ditch battle. It is believed that one of his brothers, Malla Reddy, lured by the cash award, betrayed him by tipping off the EIC of his location; in yet another instance of British subterfuge and Indian treachery. About fifty of Reddy’s fighters fell fighting their last battle, while another ninety of them, including Reddy himself, were taken prisoner. Presumably a large number escaped capture.

The EIC went on a desperate witch hunt to kill the uprising for good and rounded up almost a 1000 followers or sympathizers of Reddy, including those captured in battle. However, in a clever move to douse the fire, they released some 400 of them and gave bail to another 300. The remaining were convicted and meted out punishments ranging from imprisonment to exile and execution. Narasimha Reddy was hanged to death on 22 February 1847 at Koyilakundla, the sentence administered personally by the EIC Collector for the region, Lord Cohrane, in front of a crowd of 2000 people. In an act of unparalleled barbarism, the British kept Reddy’s corpse hanging publicly for 30 years, even after it had turned to skeleton – to quell even the slightest hint of such an uprising occurring again.

Narasimha Reddy’s brave legacy lives on – the people of Andhra Pradesh proudly commemorating his heroic resistance against colonialism by naming the Kurnool Airport after him. Telugu movie superstar Chiranjeevi’s 2019 magnum opus “Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy” celebrates the life and times of this great man, who gave his life to stem the tide of colonialism in India.

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