Pendyala Raghava Rao, a remarkable public life

An important leader of the Telangana Peasant Armed Struggle, he contested as a candidate in 1952 on the ticket of People’s Democratic Front from one parliamentary constituency (Warangal) and two legislature constituencies (Hanumakonda and Wardhannapet) and won all the three seats with huge margins.

ByN Venugopal

Published Mar 15, 2023 | 4:16 PM Updated Mar 20, 2023 | 7:28 PM

The front cover of ‘Naa Prajaa Jeevitam’ (My Public Life), published by Pendyala Raghava Rao's daughter Kondapalli Neeharini 20 years after his death in 1987

It was the first-ever election in the history of the Telangana region, then part of Hyderabad State. It was 1952.

Though the other areas in India had seen elections since 1937, the princely state of Hyderabad did not have that experience till then and the people got their franchise for the first time. In a way, it was a novel experience for both the contestants and voters.

Pendyala Raghava Rao, then 35, contested as a candidate on the ticket of the People’s Democratic Front from one parliamentary constituency (Warangal) and two legislature constituencies (Hanumakonda and Wardhannapet) and won all three seats with huge margins. In Hanumakonda, he defeated noted poet Kaloji Narayana Rao, who contested on a Congress ticket.

Raghava Rao resigned from the legislative position and remained a member of the first Parliament (1952–57).

Among many such rare and strange developments from his life, one more is worth mentioning.

Fighting against his orthodox father who believed in and practised “untouchability”, he opened a school for “untouchables” in his own village as well as neighbouring villages and started eating along with them at the age of 17, as an activist of the Arya Samaj.

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Man who donned many hats

The life story of Pendyala Raghava Rao (1917–1987) is as fabulous as his electoral victories and defiance within the family.

He donned many hats — an activist of Arya Samaj, Library Movement, anti-Untouchability movement, State Congress, Andhra Mahasabha, Communist Party, Telangana Peasant Armed Struggle and Member of Parliament. Though confined to his village after 1957, he did not leave politics and public life and served as village sarpanch for two decades.

Born into a Brahmin landlord family in Chinna Pendyala, a Salar Jung jagir village in the then Warangal district, he was attracted to Gandhian politics and Arya Samaj’s ideals at a very young age.

Gandhi’s movement against untouchability inspired him to mingle with the “untouchables” and set up a school for them. As an avid reader of Gandhi’s Harijan, he also invited his “Harijan” friends to come and dine with him at home.

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Pendyala Raghava Rao, once a militant Arya Samaj activist

Quite naturally, these ideas also led him to oppose the feudal king. The father thought his son had come under the influence of some evil forces and tried to exorcise the spirits.

But by the same time, Arya Samaj began a movement against the government-sponsored Tablig (conversion of “untouchables” into Islam) and Pendyala Raghava Rao became a militant activist of Arya Samaj and wanted to exorcise feudal forces from this land.

Indeed, Hyderabad of the 1930s was a veritable cauldron of ideas and social practices. That decade witnessed the emergence of a number of champions of social and political awakening.

In such an atmosphere, within five years, Raghava Rao’s social reform activism transformed into political activism and he was one of the first batch of Satyagrahis for the formation of the State Congress in 1938.

Though the attempts to launch the State Congress were scuttled by the rulers, the activists with those ideals found a platform in Andhra Mahasabha, a cultural and socio-political organisation working since 1931.

The Andhra Mahasabha included all kinds of progressive and anti-establishment ideals in the 1940s. But then, the deepening social and political crisis started polarising the public-spirited individuals on ideological lines.

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Turn towards Communism & Telangana Peasant Armed Struggle

Gradually, Pendyala Raghava Rao veered towards Communist ideology and in 1944, when Andhra Mahasabha split between the Congress and Communist paths, he aligned himself with the left faction that led to the Telangana Peasant Armed Struggle (1946–51).

The Telangana Peasant Armed Struggle was a watershed in the political life of modern Hyderabad.

It was the first-ever peasant armed struggle under the leadership of the Communist Party in the subcontinent. Aiming for land, livelihood, and liberation, the struggle basically fought against the rampant landlordism, the Nizam rule based on feudalism, and the British colonial power that supported the autocratic rule in the princely state.

Though withdrawn by its own leadership in October 1951, the struggle — within its span of five years — involved thousands of militant armed peasant activists who waged a ferocious fight against unequal land relations, forced unpaid labour (vetti), and unprotected tenancy.

The Nizam forces during 1946–48 and the Government of India forces during 1948–51 tried to crush the struggle and killed more than 4,000 peasant activists and sympathisers along with arresting and torturing tens of thousands of people.

By the time of the withdrawal, the struggle was able to distribute a million acres of land to the landless and tenants and set up alternative people’s rule in at least 3,000 villages.

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Pendyala Raghava Rao’s unfinished autobiography

The back cover of Pendyala Raghava Rao's ‘Naa Prajaa Jeevitam’, published by his daughter Kondapalli Neeharini 20 years after his death

The back cover of Pendyala Raghava Rao’s Naa Prajaa Jeevitam, published by his daughter Kondapalli Neeharini 20 years after his death (N Venugopal)

Pendyala Raghava Rao was one of the important leaders of the struggle. He became a squad leader and led a number of militant fights against feudal landlords, despite coming from a landlord family.

Sometime in 1950–51, he was arrested near Malkapur in Warangal district and imprisoned till the 1952 elections. Along with the earlier two incarcerations, he spent more than three years in jail.

In the early 1970s, he began writing his autobiography published serially in Janadharma, a weekly from Warangal. But unfortunately, he could only write till his life in Arya Samaj and left it unfinished. Though he lived till 1987, he does not seem to have continued it.

Twenty years after his death, his daughter Kondapalli Neeharini met a number of his accomplices and collected many details about Raghava Rao and published Naa Prajaa Jeevitam (My Public Life) in 2007, including memoirs of about 25 friends and family members of Pendyala Raghava Rao. However, the story of the remarkable life remains incomplete.

(March 15 is the birth anniversary of Pendyala Raghava Rao)

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(N Venugopal is the Editor of Veekshanam, Telugu monthly journal of political economy and society. These are the personal views of the author)