Tuesday, December 1, 1998

A Swami in Politics

Legends & Anecdotes of Hyderabad – 42

A Swami in Politics
By Narendra Luther

The original name of Swami Ramananda Tirtha was Venkatesh Bhavu Rao Khedgikar. He was born on 3rd October, 1903 in a jagir village of Gulbarga district. His father led a wandering life as an ascetic and so Venkatesh was educated on the charities of relatives. He had to do menial work in the school mess to earn his keep. His ambition at an early age was to renounce the world become a sanyasi.

As a schoolboy he came under the influence of Lokmanya Tilak. On the day of the latter's death, he resolved to remain a celibate and to dedicate his life to the service of the nation. He defied the ban on the wearing of the Gandhi cap in the school and left his studies during Mahatma Gandhi's non-cooperation movement. Then he joined the Congress in the then Bombay state (now Maharashtra) and toured many villages.

At the age of 21 he resumed his interrupted education and finished his M.A. from Poona. He thesis was on the evolution of democracy. When other students played games, he either read books or meditated.

Thereafter he joined the trade union movement under the renowned labour leader, N.M.Joshi at Bombay. That enabled him to study at close quarters the living conditions of the poor in the slums of Bombay. Thus he acquired first-hand acquaintance with poverty and exploitation, both in rural as well as urban areas. While on a visit to Delhi in connection with his trade union work in the winter of 1926, he was struck by paraplegia –paralysis of the lower part of the body. It took him 18 months to make a reasonable recovery to regain his body movements.

In 1928 he was arrested for the first time for his trade union activities in Mumbai. After his release he found that his lingering physical disability affected his arduous trade union work. So in 1929, with Joshi's permission he left that field and became a headmaster of a school in Osmanbad. There, he says in his memoirs, he became aware of the repression of Hindus in the Hyderabad state. The Hindus wanted to start a high school. That required the permission of the government and it was not given. Then somebody found a loophole. A middle school existed there and no permission was needed to upgrade it. So donations were collected and, despite opposition from the government, a high school came into being with Tirtha as the headmaster.

On 14th January, 1930 he formally took sanyas and took the name and appellation of Swami Ramananda Tirtha by which he became famous. He started subsisting only on alms and devoted himself fully to the cause of education.

In 1937, he was invited to the State Educational Conference in Hyderabad. Here he analysed the prevailing political conditions and came to the conclusion that what seemed to be a communal situation was in reality a two-fold phenomenon. It was a combination of feudal autocracy and British imperialism. He found that people were not yet prepared for waging a battle for freedom. When he was invited to address the Osmania University students on the occasion of the birthday of Lord Krishna, he found seething discontent amongst the Hindu students there.

The same year at the Maharashtra Conference held at Latur, he was urged to leave the field of education to join active politics. He did so on 9th June, 1938. The leaders felt the need of a statewide organization. Tirtha found that adequate popular enthusiasm was lacking in urban though it existed in rural areas. He felt that the members of the Provisional Committee of the banned State Congress going round in circles in their fruitless negotiations with the government.

Leaders of the banned State Congress under Mahatma Gandhi’s advice started Satyagraha on 24th October, 1938. It was conceived not as a mass agitation; but was to be conducted in small batches. Four to five determined and tested political workers were handpicked for each batch with a leader who was called a ‘dictator’. Two or three such satyagrahas were organized every week from different localities. Swami Ramananda Tirtha was appointed the dictator of the second batch of satyagrahis on 27th October.

Before embarking on the satyagraha he notified the Commissioner of Police of his intention to do so in the afternoon near the Putli Bowli Police Station. He addressed the Commissioner as "Dear Sweet Self" and closed his letter with "In Lord, with best regards".

In a long statement before undertaking the satyagraha, Ramananda Tirtha stated that “opposition to tyranny is the worship of God.” He and his colleagues were promptly arrested and sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for 18 months. In jail, they were given three times the prescribed work-load for prisoners and because they could not complete it, were subjected to further punishment. During this spell in jail, he spent 111 days in solitary confinement.

The satyagraha continued for exactly two months. There were eighteen batches in all. The selected place was notified in advance. A crowd gathered there. If he could, the dictator made a speech before his arrest. The members carried the Congress flags, which were promptly snatched by the police, and the agitators were arrested. The Araya Samaj and the Hindu Mahasabha were also doing satyagraha at that time and the Congress leaders felt that their satyagraha was getting mixed up with them and was thus acquiring a communal tinge. If it continued, the allegation of communalism levelled by the government would start appearing to be correct. So the Congress decided to withdraw the agitation on 24th December, 1938.

Swami Ramananda Tirtha dominated the political scene in the State thereafter. With all his worldly possessions handy – a bowl, a blanket, a copy of the Gita and a staff -- he was ever ready for arrest and it did not seem to matter to him whether he was inside the jail or outside. Finally, he was able to achieve all his political and socio-economic goals. After the integration of Hyderabad with India, he fought the Communist hold over Telangana, got elected to the Parliament for two terms, was instrumental in introducing the tenancy and land reforms and the establishment of the new State of Andhra Pradesh. Thereafter he retired to his Ashram and devoted himself to education and meditation in the village of Tottapalle. He lived there till 1972 when, having been taken ill, he was brought to Hyderabad to breathe his last.

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