We didn’t realise the sorrowful nature or the fallout of our anti-toddy campaign. By then, the government had raised the excise duty on toddy tapping and it was difficult for the Gowda community to meet all their monetary requirements. Their income had taken a downward turn. The toddy tappers too were toiling masses, working hard for subsistence. There was tension in society and, added to that, Gandhi’s call to quit alcohol had a deep impact on the masses, especially the poor. Generally, drunkards were looked down upon in the middleclass society. The general public considered consumption of alcohol as some sort of an evil. So, we did not bother much about their (toddy tappers) complaints nor did the people object to our felling of the palm leaves. Actually, in the villages where we took up our campaign, the Congress was very strong and naturally, the toddy tappers did not resist as they should have for fear of reprisals by the local Congress leaders. However, later on, we realised through our experiences in those villages that we did was not right or wrong to the full extent. During the Telangana struggle, those experiences helped us in formulating an overall balanced excise policy wherein the toddy tappers were allowed to carry on with their hereditary occupation and eke a proper livelihood out of it. The Nizam regime prohibited felling of the palm trees and unless there was a prior permission from the local authorities the Gowdas were not allowed to tap the toddy. For doing that, they were required to pay quite a huge amount towards taxes.
As a first step during the Telangana struggle, the Congress as well as our Andhra Mahasabha volunteers called for the mass destruction of the palm trees so as to deprive the Nizam government of any excise revenue and to transform the area into a cultivable land. But the toddy tappers were in large numbers in Telangana and they protested our decision. We had to respect their aspirations and protect their right to livelihood. We had to change our slogan. We said they were free to tap the toddy, but without paying anything to the government. We also laid the precondition that they could sell the toddy without too much fermentation. That was the period between 1946 and 48 when the struggle was in its infancy.
Coming to the struggle in West Godavari, it became a big talk in the whole district that a squad led by me has felled hundreds of palm trees along the canal bunds and the railway line. They said it was nothing short of a miracle to have felled down large number of trees in one night. Where was the miracle? It would have been a miracle had I done it alone, but hundreds of people participated in the struggle. In fact, people have the collective capability to create miracles overnight. Even the police and the intelligence officials too commented that it was not possible to mow down hundreds of trees in a single night. Actually, they were escorting some convicted criminals in a train along that rail route. They were told that a squad led by one Reddy was responsible for the wholesale destruction. All the people at the Malaparru camp were addressing me by the name Reddy or Nellore Reddy. I protested and insisted that either they address me as a satyagrahi or Sundarayya and similarly call our group as a satyagraha squad or Sundarayya squad. Legally, I changed my name to Putchalapalli Sundarayya in 1936 when I decided to stand for the district board elections in Nellore. A change to that effect was notified in the official gazette. But from early 1930s I was insistent that I simply be called Sundarayya and not as Sundararami Reddy or Nellore Reddy. I think this issue of nomenclature is neither a moot point nor holds any relevance, but even the shortest name – Sundarayya – has been given a go-by; now people call me only as PS. During the underground movement I was called Nageswara Rao. In any case, the police arrested us for felling the trees – in the month of June in 1930 – at Kumudavalli. We were satyagrahis and if the police wanted to arrest us we have to give up voluntarily. So there was no question of resisting the arrests or cane-charge (lathicharge). It was my first arrest and we were sentenced by the local deputy magistrate. Along with me comrade Doraswami – he comes a very poor peasant family in Tadepalligudem, comrade Tammaiah, comrade Vishnu and other Harijan comrades were sentenced to jail. I think Doraswami has passed away. Tammaiah was a legal comrade later; he used to come and meet me often. We were sentenced for a two-year period on counts of unlawful gathering and unauthorised felling of trees which was a minor criminal offence. It was not a criminal conviction though, but a reformative sentence. While Doraswami, Vishnu and I were sent to borstal school, others who were more than 18 years were sent to central jails in the jurisdiction of Madras Presidency. In fact, I refused to divulge any personal details, including name, age and address, on the grounds that the government was not legal. So they had to call a government doctor to verify my age. He conducted some tests and certified that I was less than 18 years.
We were shifted from the Bhimavaram sub-jail to Tanjore borstal school. However, while travelling in the train to the Tanjore jail I noticed that people were immersed in their day-to-day activities ignoring at their own peril the nationwide struggle for independence. There were marriages and all kinds of celebrations. People were just casual in their attitude as if nothing unusual was happening on the political front. Demonstrations, picketing, lathicharges and arrests were the order of the day. The national movement was at its peak in the early 1930s. I was awe stuck. I thought: “What is this? Satyagrahis are being arrested all over the country and people here are going about their usual business. They are least affected by our struggle.” I felt that the people’s attitude was quite abnormal, but then consoled myself that ultimately, they too would fall in line and take up cudgels against the British Empire. After the arrest of our squad, the other members of the Sodara Samithi were also arrested by the police when they were picketing a toddy shop in Siddhapuram near Akiveiedu. They were sentenced for different terms ranging from six months to two years in prison. That was the part related to the satyagraha movement.
We were lodged at the Tanjore borstal school. It was my first jail term. By then, I had given up my studies to work with the poor peasants and the agricultural labourers in my village. The communist doctrine of a working class leading the poor peasants and farm labourers was sought to be implemented in my village first alongside the concepts of equality, humanitarian service and casteless and classless society. I wanted to put into practice what I had been arguing with my own family. I mobilised some like-minded youths to fight against the caste prejudices, especially the practice of untouchability. On top of it, I had to resort to satyagraha as part of the national movement only to land in the jail. By that time, I had a fair idea of communism or socialism or whatever it was called then. I had read Tagore’s books and articles on the Soviet Union and Nehru’s articles after his visit to Russia in 1927. I had also read the Communist Manifesto and some other leaflets. It was after reading those works that I decided to work only for the Communist Party and established contacts with H D Raja’s group that was based in Bombay. With that decision I gave up the studies in March 1930. In April of the same year I joined satyagraha. Before I landed in jail I was peripherally aware of the Russian Revolution and the other communist movements. So in the jails – wherever I was put in that two-year period – I took onto myself the responsibility of educating the inmates, especially the satyagrahis, on the political line that we all should adopt after our release. I was professing the Russian Revolution and the general conditions in which the soviets made the revolution possible. I told them that the Gandhian way of struggle was not going to fetch independence in the near future and that a revolutionary uprising was the only viable option left for the people. I suggested that we should study and analyse the Soviet Revolution more comprehensively and based on its experiences and lessons we should formulate our own strategy for liberating the country from the clutches of the British. We had only a vague idea about the whole communist movement and there was no systematic approach to it. But the very idea that I should join the Left movement and bring about an egalitarian society – as had been done in the Soviet Union – was very strong in me. However, the Leftist ideology was not a dominant factor. I was still under the influence of Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and the teachings of Gandhi. So there was a philosophical bent of mind and not religiosity as such.
My personal outlook changed gradually when I started reading the exploits of the great Indian revolutionaries. I had my own concept that unless you are physically and mentally strong – strong enough to bear the travails – there was no way in which you could survive in the fight against the enemy or the oppressor. There was also the Gandhian philosophy of a simple life and service to the people. Those two factors had a profound impact on me and I stuck by them all through my life. Before we left to serve our sentences, some people said that prison life would be very harsh while some others said that there would be no problem with the borstal schools. Even the Congress leaders said that young prisoners would be treated well by the authorities at the borstal schools keeping their tender age in mind. But things were entirely different at those reformist prisons. Personally, the conditions at the school were not that difficult for me, but many an inmate had to virtually experience a hell at the Tanjore borstal school. The young convicts were treated in a very brutal way by the borstal authorities, including the warders, the watchmen and the other staff. The government-paid warders were only a few. And, the jail staff strength was not much. They would only stand behind and watch the horrific events as they unfold. All the atrocities were perpetrated by the warders and the prisoners – the real convicts – who had been there for quite a long haul. Such a situation could be found in all the central prisons. Those people were illiterate and irrational and lacking any sense of humanity. They used to abuse the inmates in the filthiest of the language. It was a common occurrence. They used to steal or forcefully grab the ration and other materials meant for the juvenile prisoners. There was no proper cooking. Even the juveniles from the poorer sections were not bothered by uncooked food or lack of proper ration, but they used to resent the way in which they used to deny it and the coarse language that they use to curse them.
But the denial of ration and the serving of uncooked food also became key issues of contention between the borstal authorities and the inmates as the conditions turned nastier over a period of time. As per the prison rules, the inmates should be provided with 20 ounces of rice, four ounces of pulses, two ounces of oil and two ounces of other eatables. We were allowed to purchase books, soaps and other toiletry. There was the provision for buying books, any books, but not banned literature and newspapers. The authorities did not bother my reading political books because there were a lot of young and immature inmates in the borstal. Though teachers were attached to it, there was not much teaching or study. The inmates were not interested in education. There were a number of physically handicapped boys. It was not a borstal school, but more or less a full-fledged jail for the younger lot where the dominant and physically powerful rule the roost. Visitors were allowed once in a month or three months, but that was not main issue. The inmates had the opportunity to write and receive letters from their families.
All the rules and regulations were only on the paper, but in practice their attitude, especially with regard to serving of food to the boys, was very negative and utterly deplorable. They used to serve the food which was badly cooked and badly prepared. Though they were serving such food, they still used to maintain caste, class and regional divisions. There was a clear categorisation of the food served to the inmates. They would label it as Harijan, caste Hindu and other religions. Food of a very low quality was served to boys who came from Harijan and poor families. They were given jowar and millets while we were served rice. Of course, there were some boys belonging to the Anglo-Indian community. They were given the most preferential treatment. They were given the western-style diet with bread, milk, fruits, vegetables and meat on a number of occasions. Other boys never expected such a lavish food; they were given meat once a week or a fortnight in a much lesser quantity. They used to cook a mixed curry – green leaves, dal and vegetables put together – with a lot of water. It was more or less like a soup, but they still called it a curry. The Tamil-speaking inmates nicknamed the soup as Devata Kolambu (holy water). The curry was cooked in rusty old iron pots. As a result, we sometimes used to get small iron or rust filings in the curry. The cooks never bothered to clean up the utensils or the green leaves. So we had to be very careful while mixing the curry with rice and sort out the worms. Such was the quality of food that was served to the juveniles. We could not tolerate it (the situation) for long and after a week or two, we protested. We told the borstal authorities that such confusion should not be there and that they should provide us with food according to the prescribed guidelines or the borstal manuals. We said: “We are satyagrahis, alright. But it does not mean that we would put up with what all you do. Even according to the rules, we are entitled to much more ration and other facilities. Either you allow us to cook or allow us to manage the kitchen. And, please treat us as human beings and not as beasts. These are our demands.” A small committee was elected by the inmates to fight for our legitimate demands and I was made the leader of that group. It was decided that the committee should submit a charter of demands to the borstal authorities from time to time. Generally, we all used to meet at the parade in the morning. For the first 10 or 15 days we were quarantined, but later allowed to mingle with others and work on the campus. Even the morning drill was a point of contention. Our demand was that the boys would definitely attend the drill, but they should be first allowed to answer nature’s call and get refreshed. Normally, as soon as they open the gates in the morning, the authorities would drive the inmates straight away to the ground for parade without giving them a chance to head for the toilets. We were against such a stupid rule. We wanted a relaxation period of half-an-hour so that we could ease ourselves; otherwise, we would not attend the drill. Only those people who had finished all the morning activities used to go to the parade while some used to go late. Even if the inmates went early to the parade they would return late. In fact, the authorities would deliberately hold the prisoners up to abuse and physically manhandle them. So attending the parade was a kind of punishment. First, they would not allow the juveniles to go to the toilets. Second, they would treat them badly at the parade. We wanted only a relaxation, but they would not accept it. It was completely a dull-headed administration. We had problems with the borstal hospital too. The hospital did not have enough medicine reserves though there used to be some doctors. All the inmates had the opportunity to interact with each other at the parade and also at the ward where gruel was served. There we would discuss all our problems and compile a charter of demands to be represented to the authorities.
Though there was a categorisation for serving food to the inmates, there was no classification as such when it came to boarding. A few people were quarantined, but others were kept in barracks in a group of three to four members. Also, no distinction was made between politically, economically or criminally convicted juveniles. Only after Jatin Das passed away in prison, the British government classified the prisoners into A, B and C categories. Even after that, no such segregation was maintained at the borstal schools. There was torture all around and if the inmates resisted, they would tie their legs and hands and beat them up cruelly. We protested against all such abuses and demanded that we be treated in a fair manner. When the prisoners committee represented its demands for the first time, the authorities were alarmed. Those who were leading the committee, including me, were quarantined. I don’t remember the names of other inmates who were part of the leadership. We were threatened, abused and tortured for putting up a sort of resistance, though it was in a non-violent way. When we went to the authorities for the first time to represent our problems, their response was very nonchalant. We said if they did not resolve our problems we would not obey their orders and go on a hunger strike. There was no response and we went on a hunger strike. Practically, all the inmates were part of the struggle. Everybody sat on a fast, but after three or four days a majority of them called off the strike. However, we four leaders continued our protest in the single cells besides a few others outside. Gradually, the other boys gave up.
Though we were quarantined we used to get the news as to what was happening outside. They were forcefully made to give up the fast. They were not given water. Only a tumbler of water was given for the whole day which was not potable. The inmates were deprived of drinking water and that made them very weak in a few days. There was no way in which they could have continued their hunger strike and they gave it up. But the four of us – I, Puttagunta Venkateswara Rao, Nanduru Venkateswara Rao and Medarametla Sitaramaiah – persisted. Those who withdrew the fast earlier were from the Madras Presidency and some from Ganjam and Behrampur in Orissa. So from the third day onwards the borstal authorities started pressurising us to withdraw the agitation. They tried to forcefully feed us, but we never swallowed it.
So they started resorting to draconian measures. Some four to six wardens and ward boys would come and straighten us up on the floor forcefully. Two of them would sit on the legs, two others would hold our hands tightly while one would open up the mouth. The remainder would try to funnel the gruel through the throat and if we refuse to swallow it, they would use a screw diver like instrument and press it deep into the throat and turn it. If that failed, they would clamp our tongue out and pour the gruel. If the gruel still remained in the throat they would insert a spoon and try to make a way for it. It was a very painful process. Generally, feeding forcefully to a satyagrahi was to be done through the nose. They would insert some tubes and pass the milk through it into the mouth. It was mandatory that a doctor should oversee the feeding process. But in the borstal there was no doctor. We still resisted and they continued with their repressive acts of feeding. Ultimately, I was the only left to be fed forcefully. All the remaining three gave up. They were brought to my cell to convince me to withdraw the hunger strike. Every other inmate also urged me to withdraw. They suggested that they could force the authorities to concede to their demands in another way. It was not at their prodding that I gave up the strike. In fact, I was contemplating to withdraw because the feeding process was very painful and I could not have tolerated it anymore. I thought it was no fun to bear such torture for four complete days. Had there not been such a process, I could have continued with satyagraha for many more days. I had the perseverance to go without water and food for long, but the repressive acts of the borstal staff weighed me down.
I did not believe the authorities when they said that all the remaining three boys in the individual cells had given up the fast. I went on resisting for four days. Then frantic calls started coming from other inmates urging me to withdraw. The remaining three resisted for one or two days but succumbed to the pressure tactics. The authorities sent the three boys to me to force my withdrawal. In any case, the pain was unbearable and I could not have continued with the fast. After the satyagraha was put to an end, the borstal authorities kept us apart for nearly two months in cells. Darbha Krishnamurthy was also one of the leaders. After the news spread out that some of the inmates resorted to satyagraha at the borstal school and that they were forcefully made to give up their agitation, my mother and elder brother came to meet me armed with a recommendation from my brother-in-law who was a district judge. Normally, it was a practice to allow the interns for interview with their relatives in a separate cell, but in my case the interview was shifted to the superintendent’s office. There I started complaining about the bad conditions prevalent in the borstal. In fact, when my mother and brother first met the superintendent, he told them that Sundarayya was the ring leader who was spearheading the satyagraha struggle in the campus thereby creating a disorder. So when I was describing in detail the problems we were facing in the borstal the officer intervened and agreed to sort out some minor problems. Since the authorities were apprehensive of the active inmates, they decided to shift 12 of us to Tiruchinapalli. My mother and brother were not unduly worried nor did they break down on seeing me for the first time in a prison. They gave me some mangoes, but the officer insisted that I eat them there itself. I refused saying I would share the fruits with four of my colleagues; otherwise I would not eat them or take them. The superintendent did not push the matter further since my mother and brother came on the recommendation of a cantonment sessions judge. He allowed me to take the mangoes inside. Actually, no rule prevents the inmates from taking food or fruits brought by their family members inside the campus, but the borstal authorities, as I said earlier, completely lacked brains. Their arrogance bred only out of ignorance. I had a pretty lengthy quarrel with the officer on the issue. I asked him why I should eat alone and in front of him when I could share the fruits with my colleagues. In any case, that was a minor controversy.
A few days after the interview I was transferred to Tiruchinapalli jail along with others. But the two months period that I was there in Tanjore borstal after satyagraha was fruitful in every sense since I was able to read a lot. I learnt Hindi as it was a unifying force in the national movement. I already knew Sanskrit. With a help of a Hindi-Telugu dictionary I was able to pick up the Hindi words fast. Soon I started reading Hindi books, including novels. There was no work at the borstal except reading and teaching. I had by then become a teacher for other boys. At the Tiruchinapalli jail, I came into contact with comrade Krishna Swamy who is now with the CPI. I met him recently at Madhurai when I went there to attend the funeral of M R Venkatraman. Swamy was a good scholar. He used to complain that he could not get enough books in Tamil to read in the jail so he could further improve his knowledge of the language. He was bitter that there was nothing to read, but I would tell him that it was a jail and that he could not expect more. I would suggest that he better learn Hindi which could be of a great help once he moves out of the prison. Besides I would also suggest that it would be worth to have a discussion on politics and other topics rather than wailing over lack of books. There were Madabhashi Venkatachari and Sitarama Shastri at the jail. Later on, when I became an MP or an MLA, he asked for a pension and also a certification. Venkatachari had passed away by then. I had close contacts with them in the jail. We used to discuss whatever topic was there under the sun. It continued until we were quarantined.
At the Tanjore borstal, there was a problem of another kind. The jail authorities were not willing to leave us idle; they wanted to make us work something or the other. Others asked why we should work. I said: “We are satyagrahis and we should not feel it burdensome to work. We should not feel ashamed to work.” By that time, I was accustomed to physical work because back in my village I had the experience of working on the fields alongside the farm labourers. So it was not very difficult for me to work. We had to dig pits, level the ground and do other works. For me, it was a simple work which involved spades and crowbars. When others refused to work, I would also do their quota of work. Most of them did not bother to work because of the constant abuse and torture they had to undergo in the hands of the borstal authorities. Also, they had no education and could not while away their time at least reading books. So they simply used to loaf around. There was corruption on both the sides and it was natural. It was not a reformative school but a breeding ground for future corrupt and criminal citizens. There were only some rare cases. The whole treatment of the inmates was very cruel. There was not an iota of respect or decency in dealing with the boys. They simply abuse and if the boys said anything they would hurt them physically. Such a treatment would only harden the wild imaginations of the younger lot. The objective of running borstal schools was transforming the young minds, but in practice, it was the other way round. The doctors too were criminally negligent. That was the whole scenario at the Tanjore borstal.
When we were transferred to the Tiruchinapalli central jail, we felt the conditions there were far better than those at the Tanjore borstal. We were not shifted to another borstal, but sent to the central prison because in the whole of Madras Presidency only Tanjore had a major borstal school. The situation at the Tiruchinapalli prison was far better because most of the top grade Congress leaders of Andhra and Tamil regions were lodged there. In fact, when we were shifted, many important leaders were taken to other places, especially Vellore, from Tiruchinapalli after the prisoners were classified by the British government. There was good food, better respect and more freedom to move in the wards and the campus. The prisoners there were in large numbers and they used to assert their authority. They used to manage the kitchen affairs and resolve the petty disputes among the prisoners. It was not the case with Tanjore borstal. We were in the Tiruchinapalli jail for about two months. In the meantime, a relative of one of the boys lodged at the borstal filed a review suit asking for a direction from the court to release them since they were not hardcore criminals and that their only petty crime was to take part in the national movement or more precisely, the Satyagraha.
At the same time, another writ was filed stating that the authorities have no right to shift the borstal boys to a central prison since they were only juveniles and that they should be kept in a reformative school. After hearing the writ, the High Court ruled that the juveniles can’t be sent to central prison; they should be brought back to the borstal. Honouring the court’s direction, the authorities shifted us back to the borstal. Even before we could be shifted we protested saying the conditions at the borstal were worse and that the facilities we were enjoying at the prison were a lot better. The authorities argued how we could say that the conditions at borstal were worse without even entering it. We asked them to enquire with the inmates there and then take a decision to shift us. However, they went by the rules and took us to Tanjore. We were back in the cell once again, this time for a week or so. And, we were protesting as usual. Meantime, came the court’s ruling on another case. The court opined that the boys can’t be kept at the borstal in any circumstances. The authorities had a trouble in implementing the order. They made a strong case for confining the Telugu-speaking boys alleging that they were very rebellious and confrontationist in nature. As a result, we were all shifted to the Rajahmundry central jail. We were lodged in a special ward there.
I don’t remember which lawyers argued both the cases in the court, but there was a quite an unusual twist to the case related to the release of the boys lodged at the Tanjore borstal. There were some boys from Nellore at the borstal. In fact, I don’t know them properly since they did not take part in the satyagraha movement in West Godavari. As soon as they were released they went back to their native places and one of them went to my elder brother and complained that I was facing immense hardships at the borstal and that I had asked him to tell my brother to file a review petition in the court seeking his release. My brother took it as my word without ever bothering to consult me. He hired an eminent criminal lawyer, Yathirajulu Naidu, for filing the case in the High Court and unnecessarily spent over Rs 3000. I think it was in the month of June, 1930 or 31. When that was revealed to me I was very upset. I was angry with my brother for he spent the money and filed a case without taking my prior permission or approval.
My elder brother Ramana Reddy filed the review suit in the High Court on my behalf in the capacity of a guardian. I was a minor. I remember by the end of 1930 we were all transferred to the Rajahmundry central prison. Naturally, the government was the defendant in the case. The High Court commented: “If the person whose release is being sought does not recognise the legality of the government and its institutions, including the authority of the courts, and refuses to testify in the positive or negative, then how are we going to deal with him.” Ultimately, the court dismissed the government’s case. I don’t remember who the judge or the judges were; I did not bother to find out. I was very upset that my brother filed a review petition wasting some Rs 3000 in the process. Normally, it was not the practice for satyagrahis to file review cases and on top of it spending a huge amount was abnormal. Prices for agricultural commodities had fallen tremendously by then. I picked up an argument with my brother over all these issues, but he loved me so much that he didn’t say a thing. In any case, after the court’s ruling we were transferred to Rajahmundry prison.
At the Rajahmundry jail, I was able to establish contacts with all the members of the Sodara Samiti who took part in the satyagraha movement in West Godavari and formed a group of young boys. I started learning Urdu at the jail and in a matter of a few months I was able to read Urdu books, including those of Munshi Premchand. Now, all that erudition of Urdu has gone. Of course, I can pick up some words here and there, but unless you continue to read and practise the language nothing remains in your mind. You will lose touch with the language as a whole. That’s why my suggestion is studying second language at the school level is worthless unless you continue to read it or practise it. At least, that’s my experience. If I have a chance to bring about changes in the education system, I would definitely label the study of a second language for one or two years as a sham and try to curb such tendency. Unless it is absolutely necessary in the course of your work or in the course of acquiring special skills, there is no need to learn a second language. And, if some argue that learning many languages will improve the human consciousness or the perception of knowledge, I won’t agree. I am always prepared for a debate with the educationists on this issue. The medium of learning from the early childhood should be in the mother tongue. That helps a child to read, write and express his opinions freely and fairly. One has to learn and read the literature, especially the classics, of his mother tongue. And, as your knowledge levels increase you may opt for a second language as a specialisation. You can learn any language in a few months or a year if that is required for working in any part of the country. It’s not a Herculean task. Unfortunately, that is the not the case now. No efforts are being made to develop the national languages.
As for acquiring universal knowledge, it is necessary that one should learn a foreign language – it can be English, Russian, French or Spanish. Since Indians have the advantage of learning English very fast, they can prefer it, but it’s not necessary to make Hindi as a compulsory language at the school level for students in non-Hindi speaking regions. I am totally opposed to imposition of a second language though it is not difficult to learn different languages. I learnt Hindi and Urdu in just a few months. I can read 30 or 40 pages in a day in either of the language. However, I find it difficult to speak and express my views either in Hindi or Urdu; I can only read them well. If you don’t continue to read and write a language and constantly use it, naturally you will forget what all you have learnt earlier. In such a case what’s the use in learning Hindi even if I have to work in the northern part of the country. Of course, I picked up Tamil also. I was there in Tamil Nadu for over seven years for my school and college education. I did not make any serious effort to learn Tamil. If I had made it I would have definitely got a command over that language. Later on, when I had to carry out underground political activities in Tamil Nadu in the 1940s, it was very difficult to communicate with the comrades. By then, I had learnt Tamil only in bits and pieces when I was in the jail and in Thiruvallur. Therefore, I had to learn Tamil from the scratch. I was thorough and able to read some primary literature, but later on I gave it up and now I can read only the headlines of Tamil newspapers. Since I stayed for so many years in the Tamil areas I can broadly follow the conversation in Tamil.
At the Rajahmundry prison too all those boys who were shifted from Tanjore borstal school were kept in a separate ward which was actually meant for women prisoners. They were vacated for lodging us. Generally, the jail authorities used to take us for work at the blanket weaving unit. We used to go there, but not do much. We were whiling away time reading and discussing various topics. Of course, some convicts were there to do the weaving. They were from the weaker sections and naturally, the authorities used to treat them very badly and serve food (chollum) full with sand and pebbles. They were unhappy with the conditions and expressed their woes before us. I said they should wait for some more time before we could launch a protest. In the meanwhile, the satyagrahis exchanged rice for the ragi food. Earlier some of them refused to share or exchange the rice, but I told them that since they were doing our part of work too, there was nothing wrong in giving food. In fact, we should be more forthcoming in our gesture as the followers of Gandhian principles. So things settled after a few petty arguments over sharing of food. I was able to eat anything – the ragi food and the chollum though they were badly cooked.
I don’t exactly remember how many boys were transferred from the Tanjore borstal to the Rajahmundry prison, but all the Telugu-speaking boys were there with us. Both in Tiruchinapalli and Rajahmundry jails there was a lot of scope for interaction and exchange of opinions between the prisoners. In Rajahmundry jail too I was the leader of the boys. My job was to ensure unity in the group and avoid petty squabbles. If there were any minor disputes I used to sort them out. I used to teach yoga and physical exercises besides educating them politically and socially. However, quite a number of people used to waste their time, playing cards etc. The worst part was the convicts were accustomed to smoking beedies (low grade cigars) and cigarettes. They could not live without beedies. Of course, they used to get money from outside for buying them or exchange the ration like rice with other convicts for beedies. But, the prison rules did not permit buying or selling of cigarettes and other tobacco products. So getting them was a bit difficult for the convicts and they used to feel depressed and demoralised. As a strict disciplinarian, I was opposed to their smoking habit. I would always scold them and try to counsel them, but there was no change in their behaviour. Though I personally did not hand over my quota of ration for purchasing the beedies, I did not interfere with their favourite past time. Even the warders were not allowed to meddle with our affairs since smoking was a common practice among the prisoners. If anybody tried to object we would tell them to take a quota of the ration and supply the beedies. The warders were also not allowed to force the prisoners into desperately selling their rice.
As for new contacts at the Rajahmundry prison, there were not much. Actually, I had good contacts with the inmates at the Tiruchinapalli jail and also with the Telugu boys at the Tanjore borstal. If I remember correctly, there was one Inturi Venkateswara Rao from Bezawada. Now he is alive and in the cinema field. Generally, I had good relations with the Congress leaders since they were very active in fighting against the conditions prevalent in the jail. We had mutual respect for each other and very disciplined. However, the general impression that all the young boys gave was that they were rebels from the Tanjore borstal. So we got a very special treatment both at the Tiruchinapalli and the Rajahmundry central jails. All our own boys were there at Rajahmundry. The warders at the central prisons were at their natural best, but did not dare to maltreat us since there were a lot of satyagrahis as inmates and also the national movement was very strong outside. If they tried to misbehave with us we would immediately revolt. For that reason alone, they stayed clear of our activities. As far as my personal experience goes, conditions were not that unbearable at the Rajahmundry jail though there were some restrictions like ban on books and other literature. Especially, newspapers were not allowed inside the campus. In any case, we used to get books secretly. The second problem was with the beedies. It was the root of all the troubles. There was a lot of corruption surrounding the whole episode.
Political activities continued as usual on the jail campus. To the extent possible, we used to discuss the political situation prevailing in the country and on the strategy we should adopt once we were released. There was tendency among the criminal convicts to count the days and calculate how many days were left for their release. They were always engrossed in discussions on how much remission they would get and how quickly they could move out of the jail. As a relief to the prisoners who generally are confined to the four walls, the jail authorities used to take them on a visit to the city once a week or a fortnight. However, I would refuse to go since there was no sense in moving around with dirty clothes on and there was nothing particular to see in Rajahmundry. Others used to enjoy the rides a lot. It was there that I met comrade Siva Varma, Vijay Kumar Sinha and a few others. Both Varma and Sinha were the followers of Bhagat Singh. They were involved in the Lahore Conspiracy Case. Later Sinha settled in Vijayawada; he married Rajyam, daughter of Anney Anjaiah, a prominent Congress leader from Mudunuru. She retired in the 1980s as the director of the Information and Public Relations Department. Anjaiah was a powerful Congress leader, but sympathised with the Left. He was a pro-Communist Party though not a formal member. He used to give us shelter and food at times, especially in the 1940s. He was very close to the communist movement. Anjayya was particularly enamoured of the revolutionaries. He was in jail with V K Sinha and others. After their release, he invited Sinha to his house and offered his daughter in marriage. There was nothing more beyond that relationship. Though I was not particularly close to Sinha I used to have lengthy discussions with Siva Varma.
Siva Varma was associated with the Lahore Conspiracy. He gave a vivid description of the whole conspiracy and the tactical errors that they committed in their life and their exploits. He said minor mistakes or negligence on their part proved very costly for them which ultimately led to their arrest. He also explained how Jaya Gopal and a few others turned approvers in the case under duress and how their confessions led to many more number of arrests. He shared all those experiences with me. Though he gave some useful suggestions with regard to carrying out the underground activities, I don’t think they had any impact on my own course of action. I used to give primacy to even minor details and the most important aspect was of accommodation. Unless you have contacts in the place where you have to operate your plan may go awry. That was what Siva Varma had to face. Normally, he was buying newspapers to read and wrap them up while sleeping to protect himself from cold. On the day of his arrest he did not purchase the newspaper. There was news on that day that the police had raided their secret den. He did not know about it and straight away walked into the security trap. Had he been aware of the police raid, he could have avoided the arrest and saved himself.
From Varma’s experience, I was very particular about having the latest information by my side during the underground movement. You should keep a watch on your own den and observe the movements of the security forces or any unknown persons. You should have a sound system of warning. Also, the den should be in a remote nondescript location. Because once the police decide to arrest you they will wait till their mission is accomplished and you have to take your own precautions. I had a very prolonged discussion with Varma on all those aspects. Of course, Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries had a profound impact one me. More or less all his followers who were convicted in the conspiracy were the believers of socialism, but still their ideological path was one of terror. It was a combination of Left and extremist ideologies. Though they did not give up the idea of socialism they lacked a proper approach in spreading the ideology. I argued that the best way to achieve socialism was the Soviet way and not through individual exploits that could be labelled as terrorist offences by the establishment. In any case, all the Bhagat Singh supporters thought they could spread the socialist ideology simultaneously with their individual exploits.
All those convicted in the Lahore conspiracy case were not sent directly to the Andaman cellular jail; first, they were kept in various jails of the country for a number of years. Bhagat Singh was hanged on the 31st of March, 1931. Those arrested in the case in 1929 were sent to various jails after their conviction, especially to jails in Kurnool, Salem, Tiruchinapalli and Rajahmundry. Only after two or three years were they shifted to the Andamans. Varma explained all the incidents associated with the case and the boldness with which Bhagat Singh led his small group to carry out a bomb attack on the provincial assembly. Their strategy was to throw a bomb in the assembly and attract the attention of the people. It was a deliberate move. They were also successful in hurling the bomb. Based on the confession of the approvers, all those involved in the incident were rounded up and convicted one after the other. Then there was a hunger strike in the jail during which Jatin Das passed away. His death caused immense outrage even outside the prison. Varma described all those things, but he did not ask me how I was going to work in future. He just gave a narrative of his own revolutionary experiences. However, he was sure on one thing – the Gandhian way of struggle won’t help and the socialist path was the only viable option. He also narrated the hardships that they had to undergo during their movement, especially while learning shooting, physically defending themselves and how at times they had to go without food and sleep. Though I respected the sacrifices of the revolutionaries, I was convinced by then that individual terrorism would not work. Before going to jail, I had practically read the biographies of all the revolutionaries and other banned literature. By their experiences and lessons, it became clear to me that terrorism would not fetch mass support and that it has to be given up. I was also against the usage of the term ‘terrorist’ to address such fighters. They can be called as individual revolutionaries, if not nationalist revolutionaries.
In the meanwhile, the Gandhi-Irwin pact was promulgated and most of the satyagrahis were released from jails in batches. In the borstal section, ours was the last batch. I and two others were left to be released. Our case was to be verified. So there was a discussion between us on whether we would be released at all. I said we should not worry and, if necessary, we should be ready to serve the sentence for another two years. Doraiah was also there for nearly two years. Just on the eve of the Telugu New Year’s Day (Ugadi) we were given tickets to our native places. I picked up a ticket to Nellore and went to my village. My mother was discussing something with my sisters and when she saw me she fell down with happiness and amazement at the same time. No body was expecting me to return all of a sudden. They lost hope of my early return because all the political prisoners were being released in big numbers and there was no mention of me anywhere. Later, she recovered and everything was normal. That was my first stint in the jail, but I remained in touch with various persons whom I met at the Tanjore borstal and the Tiruchinapalli and the Rajahmundry central prisons. Later on, when I started organising the communist movement in 1931 and 32, I tried to bring them into the organisation fold. That was the moot point. I came back in March in 1931, and after a few months or so, my mother advised me to continue with and complete my studies since the national movement was on a low key. She said I was free to do anything after finishing the studies. I thought what the harm in completing the studies was. In any case, the national movement was yet to gain momentum and probably, it may be months or years before it gets rejuvenated.
So, I went to Bangalore for pursuing my junior college studies. Already, Ram was there with my brother-in-law. He was in the St Joseph’s High School. I applied for an admission to the senior intermediate class. There was not much preparation when I took my junior intermediate final exams, so I got only average marks. Though they were not first class marks, but still they were reasonable and fair. The college authorities admitted me only on that account. They were aware of my stint in the jail; everybody knew that I had served a sentence for taking part in satyagraha. Also, I used to attend the college wearing khadi clothes and a Gandhi cap. I was practising the charkha at home. A separate room was allotted to me at my brother-in-law’s house for the purpose. In fact, I had laid down certain pre-conditions before my sister and brother-in-law that unless they allowed me to wear khadi, practise the charkha and stopped interfering with my political and personal activities I would not pursue the studies further. They agreed to all my demands. There was not much trouble from my brother-in-law though he was a cantonment sessions judge and was in the pay of the British government. That way, he was good towards me. He knew that I was very disciplined and intelligent and at the same time, hard working. Though he had some complaints about Ram’s childish behaviour, still he loved both of us and respected us. I was there in Bangalore only for about six months. A few weeks after I landed in Bangalore, I got a letter from Kambhampati Satyanarayana that said that comrade Amir Hyder Khan wanted to meet me and discuss about my joining the communist movement as a full time-worker. He suggested that I meet him and take a decision accordingly since we were all pro-communist and in favour of expanding the movement. He reminded me of my determination and also of my wide contacts with various people in the whole of Madras Presidency. However, by then, I had taken a firm decision to complete my studies. I replied that it was true that I was a strong believer of the socialist ideology and would do whatever was possible from my side, but not in the capacity of a full-timer since I had taken a vow with my mother that I would complete my studies. It was not a matter of one year; I wanted to complete the BA course. Also, I was still in two minds on whether the Gandhian method was good or the communist movement was better. I was yet to settle on one particular ideology or integrate both of them in a very constructive way. I remember I wrote a long manuscript on Gandhism, Indian philosophy, modern sciences – astronomy included – and how to integrate all of them. It was an archaic presentation where every topic was interspersed with each other. The script was not worth retaining; I don’t know if it is still there.
I was determined to study on my own whatever literature was available on the Soviet Union and the communist movement worldwide as well as the strategy to be adopted to strengthen the movement in future. I was regularly following the Congress journals, including Young India and Harijan, and the daily newspapers in English and Telugu. So I wrote in that letter to Kambhampati that I was ready to meet Amir Hyder Khan and discuss things, but not join as an active member of the Communist Party since I wanted to study further. I did not meet Kambhampati before I left for Bangalore though I promised him that I would work for the communist movement. I recall a petty incident during my travel to Bangalore from Madras by train. I was waiting at the Madras central station waiting for the train to Bangalore. There at the enquiry office there was a big map showing all the railway routes in the country. I was always attracted to maps, so I went inside to have a look. All of a sudden, an officer came and caught hold of me thinking that I was a thief who has entered the office to steal something. I said I was not a thief and that I walked inside to study the map. I told him he could check whether anything was lost. I showed my ticket to Bangalore and also my luggage. He was not convinced of my explanation and called the police. I put out my version of things clearly before them. The police officials were wiser than the railway official. They told the official that there was nothing wrong in studying the map and that nothing was stolen from the office. At the most, we could charge him with unauthorised entry, but he was to take a train to Bangalore in a few minutes why file a case and detain him unnecessarily. Later, the police allowed me to go.
While in Bangalore, I used to go to the Cubbon Park library and study all the literature on socialism. It was at that very library that I completed reading the two-volume book on the Russian Revolution. I was also a regular visitor to the Kannemera library. Regarding my studies, the MPC syllabus at St Joseph’s College was entirely different from that of the Loyola College. Trigonometry was to be taught in the second year at Loyola whereas at the St Joseph’s it was already cleared in the first year. Only advanced trigonometry was left to be taught. I had trouble in learning maths and unless I was properly taught or guided I was unable to follow the subject. So it was a hell learning maths at St Joseph’s. However, I was good in physics and chemistry in the first year and got good marks. I was particularly interested in chemistry since there were many experiments to be carried out to find out the various chemicals and their combination. In physics, the trouble was with electricity, heat and other topics. At Loyola nothing more was taught other than what we had already learnt at the higher school level. In the first year I did not learn much, but at St Joseph’s all those topics were taught in the first year. Therefore, it was a tough for me to follow what the lecturers taught. It was entirely my fault not the teachers, but I promised them I would keep apace along with other students in a few months. I told them that I would study them at home one by one. But then, I was unable to give up my reading habits at the library. So it was burdensome to learn the subjects since it was not merely attending the classes at the college, but also to spruce up my knowledge of the whole syllabus as early as possible.
Earlier, all along, I was putting up a false pretence that I was following the subjects and conducting the experiments peripherally. One day, the physics lecturer asked me some questions which I could not answer. He asked the reasons for my not being able to understand the subject and answer the questions. I told him that what he was teaching was far more advanced than it was at the Loyola College and that I needed some time to study their version of the syllabus. I said that I would finish studying all that was lost in a few months. He thought it was a joke since it was impossible to study the lost syllabus alone at home without any guidance. Then he said he would take special care of me and teach me accordingly. The mathematics lecturer never bothered to ask questions, so there was no problem with him. Regarding chemistry, though it was bit difficult to follow the theory, it was pretty easy for me to follow and conduct the experiments. The chemistry lecturer was Rami Reddy and he was from Nellore. He was a nice person and quite sympathetic towards me. He knew that I participated in the national movement and went to jail. He took a special interest in teaching and explaining the theoretical part of the syllabus. As I said earlier, I was good at conducting experiments. One day the students were asked to identify a chemical substance. I said I would find out what the chemical was. The chemistry teacher laughed and said: “In fact, I don’t know what chemical it is. Then, how are you going to find it?” My second language was Sanskrit in which I fared well. I was good at English too besides sporting activities. Only physics and mathematics were a big headache for me.
I was firm on completing my studies. Though I met Hyder Khan sometime in Bangalore I did not commit myself totally. I didn’t give a concrete assurance on my joining the communist movement on a full-time basis. I don’t remember if I had said anything to that effect. I knew that he would come and meet me. Probably, he might have understood my explanation in a different way and took my willingness to work (for the movement) for granted. I remember he came to my house one day, but I said we would meet at some other place the next day to discuss the topics broadly. So we met the next day at the Cubbon Park. I clearly told him that I wanted to finish my studies first as has been promised to my mother and that in the meantime I could help the movement in every possible way though not as an active member. I told him that there was no question of my being remaining aloof from the movement and that I was completely behind it. Then, he tried to reason with me on the futileness of pursuing studies and the urgent tasks before the communist movement in the country. I don’t remember the exact time at which we met. I think there was another person with him. As far as I can recall, I remember talking only to Amir Hyder Khan. In any case, the question of my joining the movement (on a fulltime basis) could not be clinched at the meeting.
At that stage, my brother-in-law’s eldest daughter’s marriage was fixed. Till then, we had no differences whatsoever on any issue. He did not interfere with any of my activities nor did I argue with him on any issue though I was at fault sometimes. When finally the marriage was to be performed, the house was decorated to the hilt with the Union Jack flying high in the yard. My brother-in-law was a district judge and as part of the official tradition he had to fly the Union Jack. I strongly protested it. I said I could understand if he had flown the Union Jack at the official functions at the court, but doing so on the occasion of a marriage at his residence, which was a personal affair, did not suit his intellectual capability. I made it clear that if higher studies meant hoisting the British flag even at homes then there was no use in pursuing the studies and that I would go back to my village and take up agriculture. I stuck to my conviction and backed off to my village. Later, of course, I remember my elder sister arguing that my brother-in-law had nothing to do with the flying of the Union Jack on the occasion of the marriage; that he had instructed his official staff only to decorate the house; that it was the staff that put up the British flag as a routine affair. She tried to reason that it was just like hoisting the Red Flag at our house back in the village. Though her version might be true to some extent, I resented the fact that the Union Jack had anything to do with our personal lives, especially it being flown anywhere near our residences. I could not digest the fact that a higher official of the stature of a district judge and being an Indian should stoop to such a level of hoisting the British flag. I was really upset and no sort of explanation would have changed my mind. I did not want to continue with the education that ultimately forces one to honour the Union Jack on every occasion. That’s the reason I left the studies midway and also my brother-in-law’s house. I thought it was the right opportunity for me to take up the political activities and strengthen the communist movement from the village level. I did not want to miss it, so I went back to my village.
My elder sister is the only sister alive today. Her son is now working in Bangladesh. I can recall one incident that happened during the marriage of my third sister. By then, all the remaining sisters were married. I and Ram were opposed to serving of meat at the marriage reception. Since the elders refused to heed our demand, Ram brought a heap of sand and threw it on the fried rice mixed with mutton.