Rebellion revisited

  • 30/04/1994

RAMPACHODAVARAM in the Eastern Ghats of the East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh is where the Rampa Rebellion of 1879 started. Well-known in official circles as a punishment posting, these places have, of late, become challenging, especially for police personnel brought in to check growing Naxalite activities in the hills.

From Rajahmundry to Rampachodavaram is a one-and-a-half hour ride by bus. The Konda Reddis -- a Telugu-speaking tribe that lives in the densely-wooded hills surrounding this place -- trek across the country to get here. Those closer to the road ride on the trucks of timber contractors, laterite miners and paper millers.

The first phase of the Rampa Rebellion occurred between 1839 and 1862. It was directed against people propped up by the British rulers into positions of authority without consulting the people. Many such individuals were captured and killed.

Behind the modern police station in Rampachodavaram is the historic, tile-roofed police station that was the first target of the 1879 Rebellion. It was attacked, its arms were looted and the policemen taken captive. Two days later, two of the policemen were beheaded in the forest. This sent shock waves through in the British administration.

Half way up from where the forest began, we saw a steady stream of tribals carrying large bundles of neatly chopped wood to be sold as fuelwood. We met one such group every few kilometres. Why should tribals cut down trees and sell fuelwood when most of their needs can be met by the forest? Obviously, something has gone seriously wrong.

A legend is born
Close to Rampachodavaram is the village of Bhupatipalem, hometurf of Tammanna Dora, a tribal chief who became the leader of the 1879 Rebellion. Most rebels of the Rampa Rebellion were local tribal chiefs who felt crushed under the burden of taxes. Besides, many plainspeople cheated and exploited the tribals with the help of the police.

Matters came to a head when an additional tax was levied on toddy, a palm brew. The tribal chiefs banded together, raided the Rampachodavaram police station and attacked several other police stations. The rebellion lasted only a few months. Tammanna Dora was killed by the police, but he became a local legend.

Today, ironically, Bhupatipalem is a village of headloaders, people who cut trees for fuelwood and supply it to towns. The forest around the village has vanished. N is one of these hard pressed people. He has some Podu land -- a hill slope where shifting cultivation is practised -- but that has been lying fallow for some years. He owned some better land that went to repay debts. N is wary of outsiders like us and he asserts that he only collects the wood of dead and fallen trees.

Have you heard of Tammanna Dora? "Of course, he was from our village. But there is nobody like Tammanna Dora now." How do you get past checkpoints with the bundles of wood? "Well, they object sometimes, but we provide free labour for them. We also provide timber for their houses and often part with our fowls. That's the price we pay to get past. What else can we do?"

The 1879 Rebellion was followed by a major uprising in 1922 at Gudem, led by the charismatic Alluri Seetharamaraju. Although the background of discontent was the same, this uprising took the shape of a national freedom struggle and spread over large parts of the hills. Again, a number of police stations were attacked and looted for arms, including the Rampachodavaram police station.

The rebellions led to the building of roads to gain easy access to the area. These very roads have now become the passages of the plunder of the forest by unscrupulous contractors from the plains.

As we walk to the Rampachodavaram bus stop, a question troubles us. Why do want and fear stalk this place of plenty?

Rajendra Shaw is a freelance writer