This year marks the centenary of the ‘Rampa’ rebellion, a tribal revolt that raged in the Rampa area of Andhra Pradesh, between 1922 and 1924. The rebellion, led by a charismatic local leader named ‘Alluri Sitarama Raju’, is one of the most important tribal revolts in India. And, yet, while Alluri Sitarama Raju is a hero in Andhra Pradesh, few outside the state have even heard of him or the rebellion he led.
Interestingly, while the tribals in Rampa fought for ‘Swarajya’ or ‘Self-Rule’ and freedom from the colonial British, their core causes were very local. But the rebellion coincided with Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement unfolding across India, whose ultimate objective was an end to British rule.
The Rampa revolt sought to take back forest rights that the British had usurped. It was also a protest against exploitation by contractors, a situation that has changed little since then. Today, Alluri Sitharama Raju district, named after the fiery leader, is in fact one of those affected by Naxal insurgency in Andhra Pradesh.
Restricting Forest Rights
In the 1920s, the present-day Alluri Sitharama Raju district was known as the ‘Rampa’ area of the Madras Presidency. It was densely forested and inhabited largely by the Kondadora and Koa tribes, and it was the usurping of forest rights by the British that sparked the rebellion.
Prof Murali Alturi of Hyderabad University, in his research paper Alluri Sitarama Raju and the Manyam Rebellion of 1922-1924 (1984) identified three main causes of the rebellion.
The first was the ban on ‘Podu’ or slash-and-burn cultivation. Every year, the tribals would slash and burn a patch of forest and cultivate jowar and millets there. The burning of the forest patch would fertilize the soil through the ashes and it was cultivated upon after lying fallow for a while. Meanwhile, a fresh patch of forest would be selected to for cultivation.
When the Madras Forest Act was introduced in 1885, the forests were declared as ‘Reserves’ and Podu cultivation was banned. This was bewildering for the tribals, who had been following slash-and-burn cultivation for thousands of years. The right to practise Podu had been a major demand, not just of the Rampa Rebellion but of numerous tribal revolts in Eastern and Southern India.
The tribals were also protesting restrictions on the collection of forest produce such as honey, lac and timber, which they had been collecting for generations. The Forest Department had auctioned the right to collect produce to private contractors, triggering deep resentment among the tribals in the region.
The third cause of the revolt was the exploitation of the tribals, who the British called “coolie labourers” and got them to construct roads under brutal working conditions, in return for extremely low wages.
Alluri Sitarama Raju as ‘Messiah’
At this juncture, Alluri Sitarama Raju, who had his roots in the region, rose to prominence as a local leader in the Rampa area and soon began to be looked upon by the tribals as a ‘Devudu’ or a ‘Messiah’. Even though he was a monk, Raju was well-educated and well-versed in political developments across India.
Born on 4th July 1897, in Pandrangi village in Visakhapatnam District, Raju had grown up in an anti-colonial environment. His father, Venkata Rama Raju was a photographer and was closely associated with senior Congress leaders such as Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Kodi Rama Murthy.
Raju studied in Mission School in Visakhapatnam. After completing his education, he started travelling across India. In Kolkata, he met nationalist leader Surendranath Banerjee. On Banerjee’s advice, Raju began his journey for spiritual knowledge and it took him to Varanasi, Haridwar, Puri, Bombay, Bharuch, Baroda, Ujjain, Amritsar, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Assam and the Naga Hills. While on this odyssey, Raju interacted with all kinds of people, especially yogis and sadhus.
The Revolt Brews
Raju arrived in the Rampa area in July 1917. He started living on top a hill near Krishnadevipeta, a village in Visakhapatnam and ate only fruits and vegetables. In no time, the villagers began to look up to him and draw spiritual inspiration from him. Raju also started administering herbal treatment for illnesses such as malaria and black water fever, further strengthening his bond with the local tribals.
Within a few years, Raju became the undisputed leader of 30-40 tribal villages in the Rampa area and the locals called him ‘Sannyasi Raju'. Prof Aluri writes about how there were some “messianic elements in his personality” which made him very popular with the tribals. They believed he was “invulnerable”, “could make arrows fall from the sky", and that he was “untouched by bullets”.
It was on 22nd August 1922 that the revolution started in Manyam. The revolt was not sudden; it had been brewing since January that year, and was influenced by the Non-Cooperation Movement led by Mahatma Gandhi, for freedom from colonial rule. Gandhi’s movement caught the imagination of the tribals for its concept of ‘Swaraj’, even though their scope was local.
In the words of Annapurniah, a childhood friend of Raju (quoted by Aluri):
‘In the whole program of Gandhiji, the boycott of courts and liquor appealed to him (Raju). He started a campaign of prohibition… His word was the law… His message spread like wildfire... people gave up drinking in large number …
Raju had been preparing the tribal villagers for a showdown against the British and had been under police surveillance since February 1922. The revolt began with an attack on the Chitapalli Police Station on 22nd August 1922. Hundreds of tribals from several villages armed with country-made guns, and bows and arrows captured the police station. This was followed by attacks on the Rajavommangi Police Station.
As news of the revolt spread, British troops moved in to contain the rebellion. Raju and the rebels retreated into the forest and used guerrilla tactics to fight the enemy. By October 1922, Raju and his followers had attacked four British camps and emerged victorious every time.
The revolt lasted two years. Raju and his followers were actively assisted by local villagers as well as a network of informants, which helped them stay ahead of the British.
To crush the revolt, the Assam Rifles of the British-Indian Army, which had experience in combating tribal insurgency in the North East India, was sent to Rampa. A cash reward of Rs 1,500 was also announced for the capture of Raju.
Massive costs were imposed on the villagers. Any village giving shelter to Raju or his men had to pay a collective fine. A total fine of Rs 5,761 was collected from the area in July 1923, a huge sum for those times. Also, a large number of villagers were imprisoned for helping the rebels.
The Madras Government was exasperated. In a letter to the Governor of Madras on 27th October 1923, Mr Tottenham, the then Chief Secretary wrote:
“We appear to be no nearer to the end of this business that we were a year ago… As much as possible has been done in a way of persuading and compelling the inhabitants in cooperating with the authorities in combating or betraying Raju and his followers, but these efforts have not been successful….”
It was only on 7th May 1924, due to the treachery of a local villager, that Raju was captured. He was summarily tied to a tree, court martialled and shot dead. With this, the Rampa Revolt ended.
Ironically, the problems faced by the tribals in the Rampa area would continue. They would simmer even after India became independent in 1947. Although the British left, new masters took their place and the fate of the tribals remained unchanged.This led to Naxal insurgency in the 1970s, which continues to this day, although largely subdued.
In July 2019, on the occasion of Alluri Sitarama Raju's 122nd birth anniversary, the Andhra Pradesh government carved a new district from Visakhapatnam District and named it after Alluri Sitarama Raju. Although Raju’s memory lives son in the region, sadly, so do the problems that he fought.
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