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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 18, April 24, 2010

The Communist Rishi

Saturday 24 April 2010, by Nikhil Chakravartty


On May 19 passed away a man in Madras about whom fulsome obituaries have been written, and condolence messages conveyed; the funeral procession wended its way through the dusty streets of Vijayawada, the city which in the past was one of the main centres of his tireless activity. But all this does not bring out the real identity of the man.

Putchapalli Sundarayya was not a mere mortal. He was of a special mould, and he helped with his two hands to mould a whole generation of his countrymen, from far and near. The present generation of the youth and the middle-aged in our country—the generation since indepen-dence—knows him by the sign-board that does not introduce the real man. The leader of CPI Group in Parliament or in Andhra Pradesh Assembly, the Polit-Bureau member of the Communist Party or once the General Secretary of one of its wings—all these are no doubt part of the long list of his designations.

But sometimes official designations conceal the truth about a person. To many of my generation, Sundarayya was an institution by himself. When I first entered with faltering steps the portals of the communist movement in the late thirties, there were certain personalities who could not be missed. Like the rishis of ancient times, they could attract and influence thousands by the sheer force of their integrity and dedication. Sundarayya was one of them. In the banned Communist Party of those days, he was the Guru from the South. There were certainly other important Communist leaders, most of them in fine fettle, ready for the battle. But there were only a few whose mortal stature towered above others, and Sundarayya belonged to that band of the few.

In the hard life of penury and privation that was the normal lot of all Communists in those days, young faces coming from diverse walks of life would readily fall in line as they looked up to somebody like Sundarayya. In that hard school, the iron discipline was forged not by command but by the moral stature of leaders like Sundarayya and the intellectual power of the worldwide revolutionary movement around Marxism. In those hard days of severe police repression and paucity of resources, communi-cation and movement were not easy for a revolutionary activist. But amidst all that difficulty and hardship, there were leaders who built with blood and toil the unseen but active network of the communist movement in the South—among them all, Sundarayya stood out without doubt.

He was not a book Marxist. He came to communism via the militant vanguard of the anti-imperialist freedom struggle. As a young student he was active in Gandhiji’s salt satyagraha in 1930. His natural political platform was the Congress of those early days while he built slowly but tenaciously the underground Marxist groups and linked them to form the banned Communist Party organisation. It was from those early pioneering days that Sundarayya could command the respect and confidence not only of the Communists but a large segment of Congressmen as well. Right from the beginning, he took the youth intelligentsia to the village to work among the peasants, particularly the poor and the downtrodden, to rouse them and organise them.

When the Communist Party could work in the open in the forties, Sundarayya never ignored that basic responsibility of the communist movement towards building the independent force of the working people. At the same time, Sundarayya in those halcyon days was no sectarian. He had no cynical disdain for those young people who had flocked to the Communist movement from the socially affluent classes. With extraordinary objectivity, he could patiently rear them and so, as time passed, they became part of the movement. It was no picnic for either side—for such youth to adjust themselves unreservedly and for the movement to accept them into its fold equally without reserve. Such links could be forged only by leaders of pure-white integrity like Sundarayya. In 1948, when the avalanche of sectarianism swept the communist movement, nationally and internationally, Sundarayya was one of the last to hold out against it: perhaps he could foresee the murky baneful effects of sectarian adventurism.

I deem it my good fortune to have encountered such a person in life. He was shy and soft-spoken, with the calm composure of a scholar. A man of few words but words chosen with resolution. With infinite patience, he could talk and win over a village boy or a city-bred with equal felicity. Brief but to the point, Sundarayya was never loud either in speech or demeanour. He had hardly a touch of humour but he was utterly frank and outspoken. There would be angry arguments and bitter denunciations, but if he was convinced of the integrity of his critic or opponent never was there a loss of trust.

In Nizam’s domain, it was Sundarayya who was one of the pioneers of the armed Kisan struggle in Telengana. He organised the underground network, arranged for the training of armed volunteers and then sent them into action against the rapacious deshmukhs. But he asked for no publicity; rather he let many others far less deserving to take the credit. In those hard days in the underground, Sundarayya never neglected to look after one and all.

Years later, in 1956 I travelled with him and his wife, Leela, extensively in China. It was exhausting to keep pace with him: at every village centre (there were no communes in those days), a museum or a factory, Sundarayya would open his notebook to jot down details. I still possess a picture as we were climbing the Great Wall. I remember I asked him if the communist movement in India would be as enduring as the Great Wall. “Stronger still shall it be—provided we organise the poor in the village.”

Many ups and downs came and the communist movement itself got split. I did not find my way into the party of which he was the leader. And yet the bonds of underground days were not to be broken. He would angrily argue but would not keep me away in distrust.

At my very last encounter with him about six years ago, I asked him why he was so bitter against the Naxalite comrades. Their line might be wrong but their urge and dedication to uplift the poor could not be denied. Sundarayya argued heatedly and bitterly and I remained unconvinced by his anger. And yet I could not help sensing the same unwavering dedication that touched me the first time I had met him about forty years ago.

The rishi refused to move, but that did not make him less of a rishi.

(Mainstream, June 1, 1985)

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