Killing Azad: Silencing the Voice of Revolution

Monthly Review zine, July 29
by N Venugopal
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To suppress the most articulate voice of the Indian revolutionary movement, the state indulged in the brutal assassination of Cherukuri Rajkumar, popularly known as Azad, spokesperson of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), along with freelance journalist Hemchandra Pandey, on July 2. Azad was supposed to meet a courier at Sitabardi in Nagpur, Maharashtra at 11 am on July 1, to go to the Dandakaranya forest from there. The bodies of Azad and Pandey were displayed on a hillock in the forest between the Jogapur and Sarkepalli villages in the Adilabad district of Andhra Pradesh, about 250 kms from Nagpur.

Around 9 in the morning on July 2, the television channels in Andhra Pradesh started flashing that there was an “encounter” in which two Maoists were killed. Within the next few hours it was speculated that the deceased were Cherukuri Rajkumar alias Azad and Pulluri Prasada Rao alias Chandranna, secretary of the North Telangana Special Zonal Committee. By afternoon Gudsa Usendi, spokesperson of the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee, came on air and told the channels that the second person might be Sahadev, an adivasi courier sent to fetch Azad. Then, Usendi came on air again and told that Sahadev returned safely after not finding Azad at the rendezvous. Meanwhile, friends of Hemchandra Pandey recognized the picture of his dead body that appeared in the New Delhi edition of the Telugu daily Eenadu, and Pandey’s wife Babita announced that at a press conference in Delhi. For the first few days, Pandey was passed off as a Maoist; once he was identified, police started denying that he was a journalist.

The official version of the incident goes like this: On the night of July 1, police got information that there was some movement of Maoists in the Maharashtra-Andhra Pradesh border forests and a combing party consisting of police from both the states went in search of them. Around 10:30 the police party identified the Maoists and asked them to surrender, but the intransigent Maoists, numbering around 20, started firing at them. In order to defend themselves the police returned fire and the exchange of fire continued till 2:30 in the morning. The police party could not search the area due to pitch darkness and came back next morning to find two unidentified dead bodies, along with an AK-47, a 9 mm pistol, two kit bags, and revolutionary literature.

However, newspaper readers in Andhra Pradesh are sceptical: they have been reading the same story over and over again for the last forty years with changes in proper names alone. That nobody believed the official story was a commentary on the credibility of state machinery.
There are a number of reasons even the most credulous didn’t buy the official story this time round: Azad was known for his vigilance, so much so that the police did not even have his recent photograph and had to make do with a 30-year-old picture of him. Given his importance as a politburo and central committee member, Azad would have been well guarded if he had been in forests. He would have been alone and unarmed only if he had been in an urban area. Newspersons who visited the site where the dead bodies were shown said that it was difficult terrain, so it would have been impossible for police to come out unscathed if there had been a real exchange of fire. Moreover, there were no telltale signs of an exchange of fire at the site except two bullets; the nearby villagers did not hear any sounds of gunfire, despite the police claim that the exchange lasted for four hours.

The ruling class’ wrath against Azad was such that even his dead body was not allowed to be accorded due honour. Azad’s mother, an ailing 75-year-old Cherukuri Karuna, pleaded with the High Court to direct the government to first bring the body from the remote Jogapur forest to Hyderabad. She told the court that her age and health would not permit her to go all the way to the Adilabad district. The court denied her request and only directed the police to postpone the post-mortem till the mother could see the dead body of her son, as if that were a sign of great benevolence. At the ill-equipped hospital in Mancherial, where hundreds of people gathered to pay their last respects to Azad, heavy police force was deployed and people were dispersed with a lathi charge. The police allowed only his mother and brothers inside the hospital.

Cherukuri Rajkumar was born to a middle-class family in the Krishna district of the state of Andhra Pradesh in May 1954. His father, an ex-serviceman, moved to Hyderabad to run a small restaurant to raise a family of four sons and a daughter, Rajkumar being the second son. Rajkumar received his primary education in Hyderabad and secondary education in Korukonda in the Vizianagaram district. He graduated with a degree in chemical engineering from the Regional Engineering College (REC), Warangal and did post-graduate work in marine engineering at Andhra University, Visakhapatnam. He was a brilliant student throughout. His mother remembers: “He suffered from an eyesight problem when he was in class X and had to begin using contact lenses. Initially he could not adjust to the lenses and arranged a friend to read out the lessons to him. By just listening, he secured distinction in seven subjects that year.” Even after he became an activist, his teachers and friends say, he remained a meritorious student, a prize winner in elocution and essay-writing contests.

The Srikakulam struggle broke out when Rajkumar was in high school; several of his family members were influenced by the struggle. His maternal grandfather’s family had settled in the Adilabad district and some of them were part of peasant struggles there, led by Kondapalli Seetaramaiah, one of the founders of the Naxalite movement in Andhra Pradesh. Rajkumar used to spend his summer vacations in that area and was influenced by its revolutionary environment.

By the time he entered the REC in 1972, the college had become a hotbed of a revolutionary student movement, inspired by peasant movements in the Warangal district, and being a very sensitive and sharp person, he became a part of the student fervour. He was two years junior to Surapaneni Janardhan, a very effective radical student leader. Not only Janardhan but also the peasant and working-class movements in and around Warangal in the pre-Emergency days made a lasting impression on Rajkumar. REC students were in the forefront in forming the Andhra Pradesh Radical Students Union (RSU) in October 1974, and Rajkumar was part of that group. The RSU held its first conference in February 1975 in Hyderabad. Within three months, it came under severe repression, with the imposition of the Emergency.
Several radical students went underground to avoid arrest as well as to organise peasants. Rajkumar, too, was arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act though he was let off after a couple of months. Janardhan, along with three other student activists, were killed in a fake encounter in July 1975 in the Giraipalli forest in the Medak district.

The Giraipalli killing, along with several other killings, created furore in the post-Emergency period. Janardhan, like Rajan, another REC student from Calicut, became a symbol of the democratic rights movement then. Jayaprakash Narayan set up a people’s fact-finding committee under the leadership of V M Tarkunde to enquire into the fake encounters in Andhra Pradesh. It was Rajkumar who helped the Tarkunde Committee gather the necessary information and protect the witnesses in the Giraipalli forest and surrounding villages. The Tarkunde Committee’s report led to the constitution of the Justice V Bhargava Commission, which held its enquiry during 1977-78. It was again Rajkumar who helped the defence team led by K G Kannabiran in arguing the case before the commission. Kannabiran fondly remembered the efficient assistance rendered by Rajkumar in those days in his autobiography 24 Gantalu, published in 2009.

The Radical Students Union was revived after the Emergency and held its second conference in Warangal in February 1978. Rajkumar, by that time doing his M Tech in Visakhapatnam, became its state president. It was at this conference where the RSU gave students its famous call to “Go to Villages.” The village campaigns brought about a sea change in the outlook of participating students as well as spread the revolutionary message at the grassroots. The campaign became a prelude to the Karimnagar-Adilabad peasant struggles and the RSU in turn gained strength from it. The “Go to Villages” campaigns directly led to the formation of the Radical Youth League in May 1978 and Raithucooli Sangham in 1980. During those historic years, Rajkumar was the president of the RSU. He was re-elected twice, at the third conference in Anantapur in February 1979 and the fourth conference in Guntur in February 1981. However, by the time of the Guntur conference, he was being hunted by police and could not even attend the public proceedings.

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