While in the school at Rajahmundry I joined the Boy Scouts Movement. I was considered as one of the best scouts. In the scouts movement too Ramgopal Rao used to be ahead of me. We had two teachers whom I admired a lot. One was Krishnaiah. He was a mathematics teacher. He not only generated in us the interest for maths, but also made us aware of the biological theorem. He was instrumental in kindling our curiosity in advanced subjects, including the sciences, and a passion to learn more. The respect was mutual on both the sides. I used to go to his house and get plenty of books on advanced mathematics from him though it was beyond my age to really understand them. Similarly, there was a Telugu pundit called Somayajulu. He was really good in Telugu literature. For students of Form I and II, generally, there was a reading class once in a week. It was the time to read general books. He had a library in which, apart from Telugu novels, there used to be books on history of the temples, art and architecture. I would pick up those books and read them. The pundit would often ask me: “why are you so interested in temples, art and architecture.” However, my main interest was in the history of the temples, if not so much about their construction style or architectural splendour. I was interested in the history of art and the historical monuments. I used to share my feelings with him. In that way, the two teachers – Krishnaiah and Somayajulu – had been of great help to me. Not only were they helping me in the regular courses, but were also providing me with books, especially these related to advanced sciences, history and literature and which were outside the ambit of the school syllabus. That was an important aspect of my school education and early life.
My advantage had been attending school and attending classes regularly with good teachers to coach and guide me. Naturally, it was easy for me to be in the list of top three students. But most of the outside books were for general reading. As I already recalled, my interest in history was so keen that when I read about a stone inscription at Korukonda, a hilly place some 16 miles away from Rajamandry, in Chilukuri Veerabhadra Rao’s book History of the Telugus, I decided to visit that place and see for myself that very inscription. So one day, I and Ram started early in the morning for Korukonda on foot. We went up to the hill, saw all the inscriptions and ruins and headed back to Guntur by walk. While we were heading back home, there was a problem with Ram. The colour of his urine turned red, probably, out of excessive body heat. It was not that he was physically weak. He was good in sports apart from his brilliance in studies. He was winning prizes in various sporting events, but then he was two years younger to me. In fact, he accompanied me only on my request. He wanted to just go (outside of Guntur). He was neither interested in ancient history nor historical monuments. He was not an avid reader of general books, leave alone history books. Though he was first in studies he did not evince any interest in reading extra-curricular books as was the case with me. Nevertheless, he was an intelligent student and used to mix with other people freely whereas I was reticent and had only a few friends. My whole spare time was devoted to reading books. Later, Ram became a political theorist – after he joined the college – because of his wide ranging contacts.
Coming to our return journey, I was a bit worried over Ram’s inconvenience and its fallout. But we reached home and somehow managed the affair without encountering further problems. As I told you earlier, he was better at sports, in fact, better than me. And, physically fit enough to withstand such a problem.
I recall another such incident. One day, I, Pandiri Mallikarjuna Rao and E Ramachandra Reddy – who later married my last sister – were sitting at the Godavari bund. When we noticed a boat we thought why not go on a cruise. Actually, we wanted to go to the middle of the river. None of us knew rowing, but Ramachandra Reddy was bold enough to say: ‘let’s go in’. We went in just for the sake of adventure. The rudder had to be used technically and nobody knew how to use it. Unless you properly use the rudder the boat would not inch forward. Somehow we managed to reach the island in the middle of the river. On the return journey we had to face a lot of trouble. Eventually, I had to become the rudder man. The main problem was nobody knew how to swim in the event of a mishap. With great difficulty and without facing any mishap we came back to the shore. There were many such exploits during my school and college days. As regards to my eldest brother-in-law’s influence during my formative years, he was very supportive of me. He didn’t interfere with my politics or studies, but he used to appreciate that I was reading good books and encouraged me to continue that habit. In fact, he used to show me as an example to his daughters. He used to scold them for not studying well. He would often tell them: “Look at Sundarayya. He always studies something or the other. He reads my books too. You should learn from him.” He gave me all the freedom to study and didn’t try to control my movements, especially excursions, visits to library or political activities, as long as we didn’t create much trouble at home. However, Ram used to play some mischievous tricks for which he was always punished severely. And, that was one of the points of conflict with our brother-in-law. We would threaten him that if he continued to beat Ram in such a fashion we would not stay with them. That’s the reason why in 1926 – after two years of study in Rajahmundry – I and Ram decided to move over to Madras for further studies. My cousin Veera Reddy was already there. There was a choultry named after Veera Reddy and he was residing there. That’s how we shifted to Madras.
By the time we shifted to Madras I was thorough with the political concepts and various ideologies. I was a regular reader of political literature. However, my teachers used to tell me that reading and sporting – which would enhance a student’s personality – were one thing, but revolutionary movements or guerrilla antics were quite another. They advised me not to get carried away by revolutionary ideas at such a tender age, but rather concentrate on further studies and mould my character accordingly. Before the completion of matriculation, we had formed a small terrorist group in Rajahmundry – in December 1925. Apart from me, Pandiri and E Ramachandra Reddy, I think there were one or two other people in our group. I don’t exactly remember their names. Later in 1926 we – I and Ram – were admitted to Hindu High School in Triplicane. We put up at a residence near the Akbar Saheb Street. Actually, our locality was a small lane and crowded slum. Our residence was upstairs of a small building. It was a small flat and we used to bring water from downstairs. There were two roads leading to Hindu High School from the Bell Road. Our elder sister used to stay with us and cook food. My mother used to visit us on some occasions. I was 13 when I moved to Madras, but had enough experience with regard to personal as well as political life. As I told you earlier, I had the distinction of reading Molla Ramayanam and Vimala – both classics in their own right – when I was 10 or even much younger. So, it was not a question of age. It was more of understanding the political situation. Therefore, the political consciousness that dawned upon me when I was 12 or 13, spurred me into joining or rather forming a terrorist group. Our ideology was based on the premise that the British should be destroyed through arms and by that time, we were inspired by the stories of various revolutionaries. However, a member of our group, Annabattula Subba Rao, suggested that there would be no use in organising a terrorist cell when we lacked enough knowledge on the current scenario. So he put forth a proposal that we should study the political situation extensively and then resort to any kind of action. Further studies, say for two years, meant parting of ways and there was no way in which we could meet. He was there in Vijayawada and we were in Madras. Later on, Subba Rao became an advocate and practised at Kanigiri. I think he has passed away now. But we kept our friendship till late in our lives.
Similar was the case with Onteddu Parvateesam. He hailed from an artisan family. They used to make handicrafts and other things. He led a very simple life. Meeting both ends was difficult for him, but he survived on less. His political acumen was amazing. He used to keep me up to date on the various political developments in the country. Once he attended the Kakinada session of the Indian National Congress. He narrated his whole experiences at the session, the way he was treated by the Punjabi delegates, the books that they gave him, the stories of the Babbar Akalis that they told him, et al. The Babbar Akalis were the revolutionaries who waged a war of attrition against the British Empire in the northern part of the country. I had read about them previously, but my understanding of their underground movement improved a lot with the description that Parvateesam gave me after he came back from the Kakinada session of the Congress. Though they had to face severe repression from the government security agencies, they retaliated and continued their violent movement until the British accepted their demand for democratisation and autonomy in the administration of Gurudwaras. We were inspired not only by the Satyagraha agitation and the Non-cooperation Movement, but also by the heroic struggles of the Babbar Akalis.
Coming back to my Hindu High School days, it was the period around 1926. The political atmosphere was charged up then as elections were held to various provincial assemblies or legislatures. Though I was moving around with my cousin Veera Reddy, he was pro-Justice Party. Justice Party’s political ideology was based mainly on the concept of anti-Brahmanism. Barring his political preferences, one of his greatest virtues had been that he spent all his life in the service of patients, especially from the weaker and poorer sections of society. Whoever came to Madras from Nellore for treatment, he used to take them along to eminent doctors and help them in every possible way. He was not a medical expert; he was just a social worker. Though he was against hegemony of any one particular caste, he used to take pride in the fact that he belonged to the Reddy community. He would often say that Reddys should make every effort to take top positions in society and encouraged us to do well in studies. Since I and Ram were very good at studies he used to tell others: “see, these are our boys. They are very brilliant. They will definitely make a mark one day.” At the first instance, he was very surprised to know how our family had transformed to be one of the most educated in our clan. Previously, there was none in the family or the clan who had completed higher education. As far as he remembered, my uncle was the only one who had finished his junior college. He died later because of some ailment. He died pursuing English studies, so studying in English medium became a strict no-no for the family. No body, not even girls, were allowed to take up education in English. And, we were the only ones who were pursuing higher studies in that language. Veera Reddy was a social reformer, but he was also casteist to some extent. He used to say that brilliance was in our genes since our uncle was a brilliant student. My uncle was from Jagadevipet which is located across the river between Nellore and Mypadu.
At the Hindu High School, I studied for about three years in Form IV, V and VI. Ram also studied in the same school. So we were in Madras for three complete years. One of my cousins, Dr P Dasaratharami Reddy, was there in the medical college. He was my father’s younger brother’s son. He used to guide and help us in our studies. He was happy that we were coming up (educationally). While at the Hindu High School, my mind evolved further. Since I was a voracious reader and had read almost all the famous Telugu novels, I took to English reading. Apart from reading Gandhi’s works in English, I became a regular reader of Young India. We had not subscribed for The Hindu, so I used to go to the municipal library (Five Cross Road) and read that paper and also other English dailies. Indian Express had not come out by then. Not only Gandhi’s works, I started reading religious and philosophical books. I read all the seven volumes of Vivekananda and also Swami Ramateertha’s books. Dayananda Saraswathi’s Satyartha Prakash too had come out then. There were also some philosophical works translated into Telugu. After finishing those books, I developed an interest in Western philosophy. So I bought Kant’s works. But the Western works didn’t impress me since I was already under the influence of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda whose works put the Indian civilisation ahead of all other civilisations in the world. They had effectively highlighted the point that Hindu religion’s motto was service to humanity. Later, I read Gita Rahasyam (Telugu translation) by (Bal Gangadhar) Tilak.
I distinctly remember that while I was in Form V, there was an annual essay writing competition. And, the topic was Gita. I submitted an article in that competition. A Telugu lecturer, who was the jury of the competition, came to our class and began reading my article. He started with my quote that Gita was as big and as important as the Bible was for the Christians. He was angry that I had compared Gita with the Bible. He was of the view that Gita was much superior to the Bible. But when he read the whole article, he realised its importance. Then he asked me: “How did you read the whole Gita Rahasyam. It’s a very bulky work. What you have put down in the article is exactly the essence of that book.” In my essay I gave prominence or say highlighted the spiritual offering to the human kind in Gita. It was the theory of nishkama karma. In effect, it means ‘do your work; do not bother about the results.’ While coming to the writings of Swami Vivekananda and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, what they proffer most is not revivalism of Hinduism as such, but the spirit of humanity and service to mankind.
Both the saint philosophers had made it clear – either in their works or in their speeches – that religion can’t be taught on empty stomachs. Gandhi’s daridra narayan theory was also there. Ramakrishna Paramhamsa’s concept was basically related to social work though it had a mix of spiritualism. So, I used to visit Ramakrishna Math in Mylapore and participate in their social service activities. By then, I had read all the philosophical and spiritual works that were there in Telugu. Apart from that, I took a greater interest in Telugu literature, especially Kandukuri Veeresalingam’s works. In that process, I finished reading Vanguru Subba Rao’s History of Telugu Sathakams and Vemana poems. There were some 3,000 or so verses and I read a majority of them. This was during 1927 and 28. There were some books that generated a lot of controversy in the literary circles. They were about the history of Telugu poets, especially by both Srirama Murthy and Veeresalingam. I was a regular reader of Bharati, a Telugu literary magazine, and kept apace with the developments in the literary field. It was just a process of accumulation of knowledge through constant reading. There was no systematic way of compilation and hence there was no consolidation of the knowledge and ideas gained through the books. However, there was one broad side to this whole process. It was the formulation of a personal principle: “serve the people and serve the country.” So, it was the orientation towards social service, spiritualism and rationalism. The concept of socialism was yet to influence my consciousness. Therefore, whenever I used to go to my village in holidays I would put that orientation into action.
By that time, my elder brother and second sister were married. I think my third sister was also married in 1928. My elder brother married a girl from the neighbouring village in 1926. Second sister was married to one landlord in Mopur in 1922 or 23 and the fourth one got married in 1929. My cousin Veera Reddy too was a landlord. He was from Butchireddypalem. He sold all his lands and property and settled in Madras. I would narrate my experiences with the family and my role in championing the cause of women later. So, while in the village, I used to take up social problems. I would often quarrel with my mother for not allowing the Harijans to work in the house. She would say they can’t be allowed, but I would ask why. I would tell her that human beings can’t be discriminated against on the basis of their caste or creed and if she asked them to work, they would definitely work and if she didn’t, it was not their fault. I would also ask her why the weaker sections were being cheated off their wages which they justly deserved.
I started mixing with the Harijans. I used to work along with them on the fields. I was very friendly with them and even that symbolic sympathy was enough for them to get cheered up. The agricultural labourers and the household servants had a great affection for me. On several occasions they had seen me fighting with my mother over the way in which they had to be addressed. My mother used to call their names with the suffix ‘gadu’ which was derogatory by any means. I would suggest that she call them with their proper names. Gradually, I established a good rapport with the Harijans and they slowly started giving vent to their feelings as well as their age-old problems. They used to explain to me how the landlords were ill-treating them, how they were not allowing their cattle to graze on their lands, and how they were being deprived of their just wages. There was one tribe called the Yanadis in the village and all were considered as criminals. They were mostly gypsies. The Yanadis were always blamed for the theft of the cattle, burglaries or anything that went missing. So, the police and the rich peasants used to hunt them wherever they went, interrogate and torture them severely. We had two Yanadis as our household servants. One day one of them stopped attending work. My elder brother went in search of him, caught hold of him and brought him back. I asked him: “why are you beating that poor chap? Why don’t you allow him to be free for himself? What if he goes? You can’t keep him by force. He did so much work for you. Why are you so bothered about keeping him? He is an employee and you are only an employer. If somebody has employed him without informing you, go and quarrel with him. But don’t beat that fellow.” Those kinds of petty arguments used to be there. At the same time, I hated the Criminal Tribes Act very much. I used to write and submit several memoranda to the police on the whole issue. I would argue in the memorandum that the Act per se was repressive and exploitative. “How can you arrest and torture all the community men for the criminal acts of one or two individuals? If there is burglary anywhere you go and round up all those people without providing any proof. It is not a proper way of investigating the crime or theft.”
There was a humanitarian trend among the students and youths of those times and I was no exception. My reaction to the problems of the people in the village was only elementary, but I would assure all the victims that I would take up their cause vigorously once I finished my studies. In all my close interactions with various sections in the village, the spirit of Gandhi, Vivekananda, Ramakrishna and patriotism guided me. That was one part of early activism. In the years 1927 and 28 I was at the Hindu School and there too I was considered a brilliant student who was good at not only the studies, but also general reading. The Indian National Congress annual session was held at Madras in 1927. I did not attend the session, but went to see the mela that was organised very near to the venue and collected some books and documents. However, my first active participation in the political movement was in February 1928 when it was decided to boycott the Simon Commission all over the country. I was in Forum V then. I was attending the classes regularly and spend the rest of the time reading plenty of books. Even for the final exams I used to refresh the whole syllabus in matter of seven or 10 days. Home work as such did not take much time to complete. While reading general books or participating in other activities sometimes I would suddenly wake up to the fact that I have to prepare for the next day’s classes. I was strictly following the timetable and I knew which teacher would take which class. So, on the way to school from home – the school was just two furlongs away – I would read the text books so I could remember the fundamentals of the lessons to be taken or the poems that the teachers would ask the students to repeat. I would promptly reply to any queries on the lessons or recite the poems in the classes. That’s why I was always considered as brilliant, though it was all superficial reading because nothing remains in your head with such kind of reading.
As for the teachers, I could remember one Subramaniam who was our English lecturer. We had a strict disciplinarian as our headmaster. But he was a very conscious person. I forget his name. We have to refer to that period and find out his name. Except for those two, others did not impress me much. As regards my classmates at Hindu High School, I don’t remember any one. Also, I didn’t have any contacts with them later. Yes, there was V K Rao. But he met me only at the Loyola College.
I remember one Nagendra Sai. He was the son of a deputy collector and studied with me at the Rajahmundry High School. He later passed away because of a heart ailment. He was also there in Madras for further studies. He used to meet me quite often or call me to his place for joint reading. In that way, I could help him in his studies. He would always prepare tea to stay awake the whole night for study. I would ask him why was he always after making tea. He would say drinking tea would prevent a person from falling asleep. I used to have tea, but did not believe the logic that tea keeps one awake. There was no rational basis for such a proposition. After completing his studies, he passed away at quite a young age. I can’t say much about my classmates, but there were two other colleagues in the field of sports. One was Krishna Swamy, who was the head of the Boys Scouts group in the school. He was elder to me and was our team leader. Another one was Govinda Swamy. He was the captain of the school’s volleyball team. The Hindu School volleyball team was the champion. When I was in Form V we beat all other teams. Especially, the team from the Muslim High School was very tough to beat. There was also another team from the Kaletal High School, but it did not reach the final. On the final day, our team members displayed their best talent and defeated the Muslim School. We were crowned the champions and the school management was very happy with our achievement. I still possess that champions’ trophy certificate. In the individual events, though I competed very hard, I always took second or third positions, never the coveted slot.
Another important dimension of my days at the Hindu High School was my learning the art of yoga. Bulusu Rama Joga Rao was the yoga instructor. One day he gave a lecture on the significance of yoga in our school and I was very impressed with what he said. So we mobilised a few students and started practising yoga in the school in the early hours. Later, many students joined the yoga classes and Rao started teaching us regularly at the school veranda at 5 in the morning. I learnt all the asanas, including the ones related to health. During the same period, there was a book in Telugu on yoga by Sundara Murthy. He also came to the school and coached us. Then I subscribed to Kolayananda’s Yoga Mimamsa, which was published from Pune. I learnt to practise yoga in a scientific way by following that journal. Because of yoga and my sturdiness, I got the durability to walk up to 30 miles at a stretch. I was good at running too. I used to do physical exercises every day like getting up to 100 push ups and developing biceps. Therefore, I played well in the volleyball team and came good in running events. In the scouts’ movement, I won badges in cooking and first aid. I also learnt path finder and fire making.
Coming to the Simon Commission, we boycotted our classes responding to the national call. A year before that, in 1928, elections were held to provincial assemblies. I was hoping for Congress to win, but my cousin said his Justice Party would emerge victorious. I said: “You are wrong. The Justice Party is not going to win for it has become pro-imperialist. It has to be defeated and it will be defeated.” Ultimately, the JP was defeated in the polls and my cousin was surprised that my prediction came true. I said the JP was a dying party and it can’t survive solely on the plank of communal or casteist politics. Panagal Raja and Bobbili Raja… all such people were there in the party. How could they win? I said it was good that the party had been defeated. Though Veera Reddy was somewhat upset over the debacle of his party, he was glad that my political instincts had developed a lot. He told me that politics was okay, but I have to concentrate more on studies and sports, beat all the competitors and bring fame to our Nellore boys. That was all he wanted. I said it was alright and whether or not I would bring fame was another matter. So, practically, there was no obstacle to me when it came to politics since 1927. I was free bird by 1925 itself. No body came in my way when it was the question of purchasing books, political or otherwise. Here, my elder brother used to help me a lot. All the while my mother used to complain that I was spending a fortune on buying books, but my brother used to tell her: ‘whatever he wants, give it to him.’ Because he was aware that I would not spend money just for the heck of it and that I was very choosy in sparing it. Buying books was the hobby that I developed from that time.
On the day of boycott of Simon Commission, I urged all my classmates not to attend the classes in support of the national call. I told them that we too should fight for Independence, and as a part of it, we should boycott the Simon Commission and other such commissions that deprive us of our independence. So we did not attend the classes on that day. The mood was very rebellious all around and we didn’t need a leader or a student organisation to lead us in the boycott movement. Some students went and participated in the pickets while others, including me, did not bother to go out and protest; we simply boycotted classes since it was a question of national survival. The next day we had the headmaster’s class. He was very strict when it came to our response and homework. My bench was in the first or second row and naturally, I would be among the first to be called upon to answer the questions. So I had to read the lessons on the way to the school. But by the time I could refresh my mind I was a little late for the class and had to wait outside. And, already the headmaster was making students stand on their benches for not attending the school the previous day. He asked me why was I late. I said there was no particular reason and begged pardon for being late. Then he asked me why I didn’t attend the school yesterday. I said: “yes, I didn’t attend since there was a nationwide boycott call in protest against the Simon Commission.” The headmaster was taken aback by my prompt reply.
A quick fire debate ensued there after.
“We have a school here, and with whose permission did you boycott the classes?”
“It’s a national call. What’s there to take anybody’s permission?”
“Did you ask your guardian?”
“No. I did not ask because I know that he would not object. There was no necessity to ask the guardian. I was not doing anything wrong. I don’t think permission is necessary to follow a national call. That’s why I didn’t ask it. You have asked me and I am telling you this.”
“Is it not wrong to boycott the classes without seeking prior permission from you guardian?”
“Yes, it would be wrong not to take permission when you feel that you are doing something which is unacceptable. But there was nothing wrong in following the nationalist call. My guardian would not have objected to it even if I had sought permission. Technically speaking, I did not ask, but he would have accepted without any objection.”
“Then, your guardian might be failing in his duty (if he had no objection to the boycott).”
“No. He would have failed in his duty if he had objected (to the boycott). I already had a discussion with him on the Simon Commission issue and he too felt that there was nothing wrong with it (the boycott call). So the question of he opposing my decision not to attend the classes does not arise.”
After this debate, the headmaster had nothing to say. He wrapped up the discussion saying that it was not proper to boycott the school without the prior approval of the concerned authorities and parents. He also asked all the boys who were standing atop their benches to resume their seats. While leaving the class he asked me whether I could recite the poem which he had asked us to by heart. I recited the poem well. Actually, the reason for my being late for about five minutes was the very poem that I recited. I learnt it on the way to the school walking very slowly. So he could not find fault with me again. After the class was over, all the other students said they were helpless and had to stand on benches all through the period. I asked them why they didn’t tell the same reason. They said they were afraid of the repercussions back home and they could not find proper excuse.
In 1928, Gandhi visited Madras. Earlier, he visited Pallepadu ashram near Nellore on his countrywide tour of awakening the Harijans. He stayed there for a night. I mobilised some youths – Kota Reddy, Palicherla Ramanaiah and others of our age group – from my village for the gram sabha where Gandhi was to give his address. We had a library in the village named after Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Our group of young people was ecstatic about Gandhi’s visit and was eager to hear him. So we all went to Pallepadu.
There was a scouts rally opposite the Triplicane beach in the evening the other day. The venue was the Presidency College sports ground. After attending the rally, I straight away went to Gandhi’s meeting in the scout dress. The next day our scouts master asked why I went to Gandhi’s meet in a scout dress. I asked what was wrong in it. He said it was wrong on my part to have attended the political meet in a scout dress and that I should have gone in ordinary clothes. Of course, the scouts master was an Indian and working with the Hindu School. I told him that his argument was peculiar and since the cadets were being asked to recite the verse ‘God save the king’ and praise the movement’s founder Baden Powell, why can’t they attend Gandhi’s meeting wearing the scout dress. I clearly told him that if there was any such bar on the scouts then I would not continue. I immediately took off my scout dress and handed it over to him. I also wrote a letter that I was withdrawing from the scouts and underlined the causes responsible for such a decision. As I was one of the best scouts, the master asked me to withdraw the letter saying he was apologetic for what he said. Though he regretted his act, I did not take back the letter. I told him that the scouts’ constitution was such that it debars scouts from attending political gatherings and since I was very much interested in the national movement. I would not like the see the scout membership as an obstacle to my political activities. I pointed out that the scouts’ movement founder Powell was serving the interests of the British imperialism. There was no use in continuing in such a movement and I would also not allow others to continue. I asked him why should there be anybody in the scouts when one was not allowed to join the national movement. In fact, the master should inculcate the spirit of nationalism in the cadets. Since it was not the case there was no reason why any one should continue to be scouts. Later, Krishna Swamy, who was our team leader, tried to persuade me to withdraw the letter. I said the whole scouts group was a bogus affair and that I don’t want to continue. With that ended my tryst with the scouts’ movement. So those two events – boycott of classes to protest the Simon Commission and withdrawal from the scouts group – were crucial in shaping my future political orientation and would ever remain etched in my memory.
The third such event was when my eldest brother-in-law built bridges with us and took us all to Bangalore. As I said earlier, we had a pretty good quarrel with him before we moved to Madras. So one day he came to us and asked to join him at Bangalore and continue studies. He was transferred to Bangalore as the district cantonment judge. I said we would think it over later, but we went there to spend our summer holidays. It was in Bangalore that I learnt cycling. That was in 1929. In fact, in 1927, I went to Ooty along with my brother-in-law. I liked the landscape of Ooty for there was always a possibility to trek up and down the hills. By then, my elder sister had a son – her first baby. He was a four or five-year-old kid and was very stout. While we were struggling to carry things up to the hill, the boy created quite a scene. He wanted only his mother or father to carry him up and not the peons or anybody else. It was not possible for my sister or brother-in-law to carry him all along the steep route. I told the boy, who was constantly weeping, that I would carry him after explaining that his parents were not in a position to do so. And, if he refused to comply I threatened that I would hand him over to the peons. Since he did not like the peons he quietly agreed. While in Ooty, I used to trek 10 miles up and down the hills, roam about the forests and visit the caves. So, while we were there in Bangalore along with our brother-in-law in 1929, I could not take the B-group examinations. Practically, those tests were related to elementary sciences and they were also not compulsory. Not attending those exams would have made no difference to the annual result – their marks were, generally, not tallied with the final examinations. The reason for not attending the tests was that I had to take my sister to our village after three or four days. I saw no sense in going to Madras to attend the exams and then coming back to Bangalore from where I have to again escort my sister to the village. So I didn’t go, but I sent a leave letter. The headmaster, strict as he was, developed a grudge against me. And, he withheld my final result.
He wrote to me that unless I came and explain things he would not allow him to join the upper class. Later, I went to him and asked him what his problem was. He asked me: “why didn’t you attend the B-group exams.” I said: “The certificate is there to tell that I was sick. That’s the reason why I couldn’t take the exams.” He said simply sending a sick certificate was not enough and that I should have taken prior permission, that too, in writing. I told him that my brother-in-law did not feel it necessary to seek written permission since there was already a sick certificate. He said, in any case, that was a bad precedent that was not to be repeated in future. Ultimately, he agreed to send my final result since I was a first-grade student. Then, of course, Veera Reddy was very anxious over these developments. He was afraid that if the headmaster did not send the final marks list, I might refuse to study further. Earlier, I had told Veera Reddy that studying further was not a big deal for me and that I could manage my own affairs. So he wrote to my mother that there was some problem with regard to Sundarayya’s final result and she should ensure that her son did not resort to any extreme step out of frustration; she should see to it that he continues his studies. I had got good marks and it was not difficult for me to grab a seat in Loyola College. At that time, the college was one of the most reputed and prestigious educational institution. It would admit students purely on merit. That was in 1929.
At the Loyola College, I took Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry as the optional subjects. Those subjects were related to my actual studies, but I was reading a lot of books on history and economics outside. By then, I had started reading Zeig Sanders’ political economy, Tassic’s political economy, Laski’s Grammar of Politics and other books. Regarding history, I read many books in English. Except for socialist or communist literature, practically, I was reading everything. I read Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore and other works. Yes, there were a few books on Soviet Russia. Gandhi had a tremendous impact on me. In fact, I had the opportunity to see him on several occasions. His simple life and his exposition of social causes, especially eradication of untouchability, impressed me a lot. However, his speeches were not comprehensive, politically or otherwise. He used to speak only for two or five minutes. People, including me, used to go to his meetings just to have a glimpse of him. There was not much (political knowledge) to be gained from his speeches. I remember an incident that happened in 1928. By 1933 I was defending his meetings against the Justice Party hooligans in the position of a volunteer. In 1928, he came to Utukuru, which was three miles away from my native place, for collecting funds for the welfare of Harijans. He was supposed to come at 10 in the morning. Massive arrangements were made for the visit and people came in thousands to attend the meeting. By the time he arrived Gandhi was already tired. Congress leader Sesha Reddy was there by his side. He handed over a purse of thousand or two thousand rupees to Gandhi. He thanked the people for their noble gesture, exhorted them to strive for the eradication of untouchability and asked them to help the Harijans in every possible way. He barely spoke for a few minutes and went away. After Gandhi left, the people who came for the meeting, gave vent to their ire on the local Congress leaders. They were furious that they had to spend all their time and money only to hear Gandhi. But he spoke for two minutes. From that experience, I always refuse if anybody asks me to speak for five or 10 minutes at a public meeting whatever its size. I have made it a habit of speaking for at least an hour. If a leader of Gandhi’s stature can be abused by people for making such a short speech, why should I go (to meetings) and make a fool of myself (by giving a five or 10-minute speech)? In the later years too I stuck to my conviction. Even now, I never agree to a brief speech. People come to you (a leader) with a lot of expectations. If you have nothing to say, don’t say a thing. What’s this five-minute affair? It’s not a darshan (of a leader) business.
After that fiasco at Utukooru, I picked up a verbal duel with the Congress leaders. I asked them why they made him (Gandhi) travel all the way. They could have collected the money and handed it over at some other place where Gandhi might have felt comfortable. They made him travel through a 20-kilometre stretch of rugged terrain and bumpy roads. Though he travelled by a car, the journey was so harsh that he felt exhausted – so much so that he could not speak for more than two minutes. I told the leaders that people were very angry with them for arranging such a short trip of the national leader. Every body who turned up for the meeting was sore over the ‘two-minute’ affair. In any case, that was an aberration, but Gandhi’s simplicity, his advocacy of the charkha (spinning wheel) and the Hindu-Muslim unity, and his struggle for the upliftment of Harijans appealed to me. Especially, his zeal for the welfare of Harijans impressed me a lot besides his stress on social service. Of course, by then, I had already read his biography and was keenly following the developments – political and social – in which he was prominently involved. Gandhi’s struggles in South Africa, then in Champaran and the 1922 movement influenced my young mind. Politically though, I may differ on the whole process of those struggles now – the process of their organisation and mobilisation of people could have been more vigorous – but still I don’t consider them as useless. Such struggles had their own impact on the national consciousness whatever it was in those days. At that age, I was also influenced by them. That was an entirely different matter.
So, while at the Loyola College, I once again came into touch with my old friends like V K Rao, Nagendra Sai and Thimmaraju Satyanarayana Rao. There was a group of students from Kakinada at the Loyola College. Kambhampati Satyanarayana was also there in that group. They had come all the way from Kakinda to study in Madras. I had no prior friendship with them; we met only at the college hostel. V K Narasimhan and all of us formed a group in the hostel. Later, we decided to have joint yoga classes, study groups and general discussions. Narasimhan was two years elder to me. He was in the first year of BA and I was in the junior intermediate class. Kambhampati was in BA second year or M.A. First year. I was the yoga instructor for our group. I would wake all of them up early in the morning and mobilise them for the classes. In the evenings, we used to have discussions on general topics, politics, art and literature, culture and sciences. While these activities were there, H D Raja came to the college as a representative of the Youth League from Bombay. He originally belongs to South India. I can not remember it now. It was he who introduced Communist Manifesto to us for the first time. At that time, he was not a formal member of the Communist Party of India, but was associated with the young workers movement. He originally belonged to some place in South India. He also brought along with him some magazines and socialist literature. We mobilised the Loyola students and organised a group discussion with him. At the gathering, he explained what communism meant and what literature was there on the movement the world over. I remember he was running some magazine then and asked us all to subscribe to it. He also went to one or two colleges in Madras to meet the students. We read all the literature that he gave to us and I was particularly influenced by the Communist Manifesto. After reading it, I came to the conclusion that communism was the correct political approach. I thought the real way to put into action the theories propounded by Gita, Vivekananda, Ramakrishna and Gandhi could be communism. The concept of value-price-profit in one of the booklets – it was a small booklet – deeply influenced me, but the main work or the guide was the Communist Manifesto. Some other ordinary pamphlets and booklets were there, but they weren’t that significant. So we decided to transform the Youth League more or less as a pro-communist faction and recruit more number of students to it. We decided to act as a pro-Left group, study further and develop the movement.
While that was the case, in 1929, the Meerut conspiracy case began. In the Madras press, details about the case were only a few and far between. Whatever literature was available on the case, we used to procure it. H D Raja also was sending us some pamphlets from Bombay. So we made use of all the sources to get adequate information on the case though getting literature was extremely difficult. We had to smuggle the literature or go directly to Bombay, contact sources and get it. Such was the atmosphere in the country. As I told you earlier, we were regularly following the English newspapers to keep track of the events at the national level. Besides the Meerut case, we were aware of Bhagat Singh’s bomb case, public safety and other trials. If I remember correctly, Jatin (Das) had passed away then after a prolonged hunger strike in the prison in 1930 or a little earlier. In such circumstances, the Indian National Congress passed a resolution proclaiming total independence and January 26th (1930) was to be observed as the first Independence Day. We led a huge procession of students from the Loyola College with banners and the tricolour flags through Mylapore and Triplicane and then back to the college. Obviously, fermentation was there among the students and we had also established wide contacts with the students from Andhra. They too were anxious and willing to join the national movement. As a result, we could gather around 200 to 300 students from the Loyola College alone. Though public sentiment was high, the Congress as a party was not well organised or strong in Madras then. But our students’ march electrified the whole atmosphere in the city. The Congress leaders – Satyamurthy and Someswara Rao – congratulated us on that day saying: “you made our task very easy today.” Otherwise, they could not have done anything. Also, Srinivasa Iyyengar was not there in the town. The local press too highlighted our march. Our activism did not end with that one day procession. When we went to the college the next day, one Murphy, an English professor, asked one of the students, who was wearing a Gandhi cap, to remove it. The student did not comply so he sent him out of the class. Probably, the professor might have been a Jesuit or a priest since most of the teaching staff was related to the church. Along with Murphy, there was another British teacher called Prof. Vivian. The principal, Father Bertrand, too was an Englishman. So, naturally, the students did not take Murphy’s action lying down. They protested, but Murphy said it was their (college) order that no student would be allowed into the class wearing a Gandhi cap. A circular to that effect was put up on the notice board on that very day.
We were furious and wanted to see how the college authorities would not allow the caps. Though our Youth League played a major role in all this, there was a spontaneous reaction from the students and we only encouraged them. The nationalist feelings were running high among them and were in quite a rebellious mood. “Who are they to tell us not to wear the caps?” was their grudge and we said: “Let’s wear the caps and defy them.” In that way, it was not an organised protest, but a spontaneous response to what the English professor did. The next morning we got 500 Gandhi caps stitched up and boycotted the classes. After that, we all went to the college wearing caps. The whole college – classes, playground and campus – was filled with students wearing white caps. Then, Father Bertrand intervened and immediately put up a notice that thereafter the college authorities would not object to students wearing Gandhi caps and attending classes. It was made clear in the notice that there was no ban as such on the caps and it was up to the students to decide whether or not to wear them. The stand-off between the students and the management ended with that clarification by the principal. Later, the Indian teachers and the lecturers at the college congratulated us on the achievement and praised our fighting spirit. The nationalist fervour was such then. So, once Father Bertrand decided to revoke the ban order, there was nothing that Prof Murphy or Vivian could do. In fact, Bertrand was very liberal and a good educationalist. He had friendly relations with the students. The march of students on the 26th of January and the immediate agitation over the Gandhi caps brought into focus the leadership qualities and the organisational capability of the Loyola students. It was for the first time that the entire country witnessed an organised students’ protest and was put to ink by the media as such.
We, the Youth League people, did not stop at that. We established contacts with students of other colleges and hostellers. We began circulating socialist and nationalist literature to create political consciousness among the students. Precisely at the moment when we were very active politically, final examinations for the junior intermediate class loomed large before me. In our group discussions, we took a very critical view of the Congress-led nationalist movement as well as its approach towards complete political freedom. There was a general perception that mere political freedom was not going to solve the problems that were afflicting the country. It was agreed to that we should adopt the path of a revolutionary movement. By then, the communist movement was building up in the country, though not on a very large scale. The Congress was still considered as the mainstream peoples’ movement. So, we decided to go to the villages and organise the agricultural labourers and the poor peasants and mobilise the working class in the towns and cities. Our objective was to strengthen the Left movement in the country.
V K Narasimhan and I were very aggressive in our stance, but the remaining students were a bit hesitant. They wanted to first complete their studies and then take a decision on whether or not to pursue the radical political line. I told them clearly that there was no use in pursuing with further studies and that we should go out and organise revolutionary politics straight away. I was firm in my resolve to pursue politics on a fulltime basis. To that effect I wrote to the principal that I want to drop out of the college since the nationalist movement was coming up in a big way. I explained that I would go back to my village and organise the people politically.
After going through the letter, Father Bertrand called and told me not to quit studies. He said: “Why don’t you complete your studies first. You can join the national movement later. There’s no objection whatsoever. There’s still a plenty of time to do that. Actually, the national leaders have not yet given a call to the students to quit. You continue with the studies this year. We will see how the events will unfold thereafter. What I tell you is first complete your education.” I told him: “Why should I complete my education? What is there to do? After all, we have to achieve our independence. I have so much to contribute out there.” Then he asked me what subjects I was reading. I said he knew what I was studying. But he felt that I should have taken history, economics and politics as the optional subjects which could be of a great use to me in future and not maths, physics and chemistry as such. I explained the rationale behind my choosing MPC. I said history and politics were general subjects that could be read at home while maths and physics were technical and complex and unless one had a proper schooling and tuitions he would not be able to learn or master them. I listed out the history books that I had read and gave a brief outline of their content. All those books were standard ones, especially related to Roman and Greek civilisations and ancient history. He was taken by surprise over my reasoning as well the knowledge of history that I had. “So many books at quite a young age?” was his reaction, to which, I said: “No, I have been reading history for the past several years. It was not a systematic way of reading though.” He said: “Alright, you think it over. I can’t say what you are doing all this for and whether it is right. Are you conveying your decision to me or have you already told it somebody else? Anyway, it’s not a problem. I’m proud of you. We come across only a few students with such sound knowledge of history and politics.”
I was about to quit studies, but then my mother and cousin (Veera Reddy) persuaded me a lot to continue. They suggested that I could take a decision to join the national movement after a year or two and that I complete the senior intermediate examinations. I was in two minds, but my mother’s persuasion did weigh me down. I went back to the college. One day in the campus, the principal saw me and greeted me. He said: “It’s good that you have come back. You just continue your studies. Think over twice on joining the national movement later. I will never come in your way. You are free to do what you want after finishing your studies.” The first thing I did later was to prepare for the junior inter examinations for about two months and the preparations were not up to the mark. Those exams were held in March 1930. Of course, they promoted me to the upper class. In any case, I did not bother about the result. After the exams, I went back to the village to take up socio-political work. I wanted to pursue the cause of the Harijans and the agricultural labourers. The first issue was dearer to Gandhi.
After spending a few days in the village, I formed a group of young people. Since there was a lot of discrimination on the caste grounds in rural areas, we decided to hold a common dinner on the occasion of Vemana’s birthday. We cooked the food and arranged the feast. We invited the farm labourers and others belonging to the weaker sections to come and dine along with us. But my cousins as well as the local landlords threatened them not to take part in the feast. So, no one turned up. In fact, they (landlords) did not warn us because we were all young boys. We waited patiently for a long time and there was no response from the Harijans. To protest the attitude of the landlords, I sat on a hunger strike in a Gandhian way. I wanted to show them that food was common for all and that if they were able to deprive Harijans a day’s meal, I too would starve. My mother used to come and persuade me to give up the fast, but I did not relent. The satyagraha agitation had a tremendous impact on the Harijan community. They realised that I stood for equality and their welfare.
As the social conditions were churning up in Alaganipadu, I got a letter from our Sodara Samithi (brotherhood committee) group. Its headquarters was in Chagallu. Narasimha Sarma and Prakasha Rayudu were the managers of the Chagallu Ananda Niketan ashram. They invited me to participate in a satyagraha movement in West Godavari that their group was taking up. They eventually wanted to join the Congress. Actually, I was thinking of quitting the satyagraha and launching the communist movement, but gave it a second thought and decided to participate in the samithi’s protest. There was a big controversy though. My colleagues had apprehensions on whether the satyagraha and the khadi movement would help in the long run. I said whether or not it helps, we, as an organisation, should go and participate in the struggle. When I informed my mother of my visit to Godavari, she said: “Why are you taking all these troubles. Since the landlords of the village did not allow you feast, you have become more stubborn. If there is any problem, your elder brother will help you out. But don’t take part in the struggle and go to jail.” I said there was nothing to worry and that I would be back after a few days. Later, we went and joined the satyagraha camp in Chagallu in West Godavari. Our first task was to take part in the salt satyagraha movement at Bhimavaram. That was on 13th of April, 1930. We went there and later to a village called Dirusumarru to start the camps.
All those people associated with the Sodara Samithi – Thimmaraju Satyanarayana Rao, Kambhampati Satyanarayana, Bejawada Venkateswara Rao of Rajahmundry and Subrahmaneswara Sarma of Nuziveedu, Kompalli Subramaniam, Murari Vijayasarathi, who later on became an agriculture scientist, and others – came along. Later on, Sarma joined the RSS. We went to Dirusumarru because the village had a plenty of salt to be picked up as part of the movement. It was a tidal habitat where the backwaters formed the salt during the summer months. Of course, those people gave me an exaggerated description of the village. There was nothing there; only a few people were working there on the salt fields. They asked me to carry a big bag of salt on my back. I tried, but after a few furlongs, there was a tremendous pain in my neck. I told my colleagues that it was too much to handle and handed over the bag to a peasant, who was a volunteer too. For him, carrying such a load was not that difficult. It was not that I was lacking in determination. One should have the practise to carry loads on the slippery bunds of the fields. Besides, I was never used to carrying heavy loads before. I think the bag weighed more than 25 kg. So, we came back to the village camp. The satyagraha movement was to continue for another two days. Every body knew that I was strong in studies, analysis and political theories though I could not carry the salt bag. They made me in-charge of drill (physical exercise instructor). Chalapathi, M Laxmi Narayana, who is now 83, Bandhu Narayana Rao and other leaders participated in the camp. I think Ramam joined a few days at a camp in Malaparru. Since I was the drill master at the Dirusumarru camp, I used to wake up all the participants at 5o clock in the morning and line them up for exercise. I would make them march through the fields shouting ‘left’ and ‘right’. There was total discipline at the camp. The discipline was not enforced by me, but by the national movement itself. My strict adherence to discipline helped me a lot later. I was called Reddy at that time.
A batch had to be send to Malaparru where the camp was much bigger. The activity there was swift and the activists were expecting an attack by the police. Already, the camp people there were talking about a Reddy who was very good at enforcing discipline among the volunteers and participants, a better strategist and also a well-read person. So when I reached that camp the leaders there asked me how I was going to defend the camp in the event of a police attack. Ramabhadra Raju and a number of Congress leaders were there at the Malaparru camp. I don’t exactly remember their names. It was at the camp that I came into contact with Alluri Satyanarayana and Uddaraju Ramam, and Ranga Sai of Eluru. Sai was considered as one of the best volunteer leaders. Narasimha Sharma and others were also there. All the leaders wanted to discuss the situation and come out with a strategy in case there was an attack on the camp. I said if forty to fifty people sat together to formulate a strategy nothing would come out of it. Let five or six people sit, plan it up and explain it to others. That would be very easy. If there were forty people around, everybody would try to give his opinion leading to chaos. There was nothing that could be gained from such a gathering. I insisted that they choose five or six people, analyse their views, if necessary, take the views of people not invited to the meet, and then formulate a strategy. I remember Ranga Sai shouting at me: “What is it? Are you dictating us?” I said I was not dictating nor was I going to join them. I told him: “If you plan something, draft it properly.” After some heated debate, they accepted my proposal and selected five or six people, including me.
In the strategy session, I suggested that the sathyagrahis should split into different groups and each group should form a cordon. If the police were successful in breaking the first cordon, the second group should immediately rush and start picking up the salt. That should be continued until all the batches were arrested. In that way, we would be successful in our movement. After some minor changes, they accepted my suggestions. However, the police did not come to Malaparru and resort to repression as was the case with several camps across the district and the state. In any case, rains were to begin in two to three days. The police might have thought that it was not necessary to go all the way to the remote village to disrupt the camp; the rains would take care of it. We continued our camp, but there was not enough salt to be picked up. We were left with no work. Then we decided to launch an agitation against the sale of toddy and arrack. We drafted a strategy to cut down the palm leaves, destroy the toddy pots and stage picketing in front of toddy shops. We went back to Bhimavaram and split ourselves into batches for taking up the anti-toddy agitation in various villages of the West Godavari district. There I was asked to make a survey of the villages that could be developed into camps for the salt satyagraha. I said it was impossible for me to do it alone covering such a long route. They said that since it was difficult task they had chosen me. A local peasant was assigned for help. We two drank the coconut water and set out on our job. After completing the survey of villages I came back to Bhimavaram and reported that there was no village in the entire region that could be utilised as a stage for the movement.
Later, I was made a squad leader of the anti-toddy agitation. We now had to select villages where the agitation could be carried out effectively. We were not in a position to go to every village without the support of the local Congress leaders and face the hostile toddy tappers. So we were given the opportunity to stage an agitation in the native village of Rambhadra Raju. The village was only a few kilometres away from Bhimavaram. The local people were not ready to join us out of fear. In the middle of the village there was a huge palm tree. We were only five and I was the leader. We were supposed to destroy the leaves and the toddy pots. We had small knives, which were not very sharp. But our squad members were apprehensive of climbing such a tall tree. After a while, I said I would climb the tree. That was the first time that I climbed such a huge tree. I went up, cut the leaves and the pots, and came down safely. When I was there up cutting the toddy leaves, our squad members and the locals were very much anxious over my safety. When eventually I came down safely, the villagers praised me for cutting down the date palm and asked me if they could give us something. I said we want nothing, but their help to cut down more date palm trees in the region. We waited till the night fell and collectively launched an offensive against the toddy trees. Over 25 trees were destroyed along the canal bund and the railway line near the village. Most of the trees were cut down by me since I had the prior experience of climbing trees back in my village.