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Explained: The legend of Alluri Sitharama Raju, and the political significance of his legacy

Alluri Sitharama Raju is believed to have been born in present-day Andhra Pradesh in 1897 or 1898. He is said to have become a sanyasi at the age of 18.

Alluri Sitharama Raju, who was Alluri Sitharama Raju, PM Modi, express explainedA statue of Alluri Sitharama Raju in Secunderabad. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled a 30-foot-tall bronze statue of Alluri Sitharama Raju at Bhimavaram in Andhra Pradesh as the year-long celebrations of the freedom fighter’s 125th birth anniversary began on Monday.

The government has said that as part of Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, it is “committed to giving due recognition to the contribution of freedom fighters and making people across the country aware of them”. On the campaign website, Alluri’s life is featured under the “Unsung Heroes” section.

The Prime Minister noted that the history of the freedom struggle went beyond just a few years, a few areas, or a few people — it is “a symbol of the strength of our diversity, culture and of our unity as a nation”.

Union Culture Minister G K Reddy said the celebration of 75 years of Independence had provided an “opportunity to celebrate the unsung, unknown, and underappreciated in a structured manner”. Last month, Home Minister Amit Shah had named Raju, along with Ramji Gaur and Kumaram Bhim, as prominent leaders who stood against the Nizams.

Alluri Sitharama Raju

Raju is believed to have been born in present-day Andhra Pradesh in 1897 or 1898. He is said to have become a sanyasi at the age of 18, and gained a mystical aura among the hill and tribal peoples with his austerity, knowledge of astrology and medicine, and his ability to tame wild animals.

Struggle against British

At a very young age, Raju channelled the discontent of the hill people in Ganjam, Visakhapatnam, and Godavari into a highly effective guerrilla resistance against the British.

Colonial rule threatened the tribals’ traditional podu (shifting) cultivation, as the government sought to secure forest lands. The Forest Act of 1882 banned the collection of minor forest produce such as roots and leaves, and tribal people were forced into labour for the colonial government.

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While the tribals were subjected to exploitation by muttadars, village headmen commissioned by the colonial government to extract rent, the new laws and systems threatened their way of life itself.

Strong anti-government sentiment, shared by the muttadars who were aggrieved by the curtailment of their powers by the British, exploded into armed resistance in August 1922. Several hundred tribals led by Raju attacked the Chintapalle, Krishnadevipeta and Rajavommangi police stations in the Godavari agency.

The Rampa or Manyam Rebellion continued in the form of a guerrilla war until May 1924, when Raju, the charismatic ‘Manyam Veerudu’ or Hero of Jungle, was finally captured and executed.

The Rampa Rebellion coincided with Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement. The NCERT textbook notes that “Raju talked of the greatness of Mahatma Gandhi, said he was inspired by the Non-Cooperation Movement, and persuaded people to wear khadi and give up drinking. But at the same time, he asserted that India could be liberated only by the use of force, not non-violence.”

Presence in culture

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In 1986, the Indian Postal Department issued a stamp in honour of Raju and his contribution to India’s struggle for Independence. Raju has long been a folk hero in the region, and the 1974 Telugu film Alluri Seetarama Raju, featuring actor Krishna, became very popular.

S S Rajamouli’s 2022 Telugu blockbuster RRR is a fictional account of the friendship between Raju and tribal leader Komaram Bheem, with actor Ram Charan portraying Raju’s role.

Political claims

In July 2019, on the occasion of Raju’s 122nd birth anniversary, the government of Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy announced the naming of a district after the legendary freedom fighter, acceding to a long-standing demand of the tribal population of Andhra Pradesh.

The district of Alluri Sitharama Raju came into being on April 4 this year, made up of Paderu and Rampachodavaram of the existing districts of Visakhapatnam and East Godavari respectively. These two areas have tribal populations of 10.4 per cent and 4.1 per cent, according to a May 2014 estimate by the Andhra Pradesh government.

The YSRCP won all constituencies having significant tribal populations in the Assembly elections of May 2019, including Paderu and Rampachodavaram. Having traditionally voted for the Telugu Desam Party, tribals leaned towards the YSRCP — all seven ST seats in the Assembly and the ST Lok Sabha seat of Araku went to the party.

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Last October, the AP government laid foundation stones for seven multi-specialty hospitals in tribal-dominated Seethampeta and Parvathipuram (in Parvathipuram Manyam district), Doranala (Prakasam), Buttaigudem (West Godavari), and Rampachodavaram (Alluri Sitharama Raju).

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Raju has traditionally been a hero among Left parties in Andhra Pradesh, especially in Visakhapatnam, Vizianagaram and East Godavari districts. Left leaders had earlier asked the state government to name a district after Raju.

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Prime Minister Modi’s speech and the unveiling of Raju’s statue can be seen as part of his outreach to tribal communities, and the BJP’s efforts to appropriate the legacy of folk heroes. In November last year, on the occasion of the first Tribal Day celebration on the birth anniversary of Birsa Munda, the government announced the setting up of 10 Tribal Museums across the country. The PM said it was “our duty to take this soul of India which draws its energy from the tribal community to newer heights”.

First published on: 04-07-2022 at 12:15:00 pm
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