“I wanted to see Telangana as a separate state before I die”- a seasoned activist Dr. Kolluri Chiranjeevi, seven years ago over a phone call on 8 March when the central government officially announced the formation of the state on 2, June, 2014. I was on my way back to Delhi after a year long field work in Osmania University. What a coincidence that on March 8th of this year he left us, leaving a legacy of his anti-caste activism for social justice.
As a budding sociologist, I spent 2013 conducting field work in Hyderabad as I researched the Telangana movement. In that time, I had the honor and privilege of meeting the famed activist and first generation student leader of the separate Telangana movement, Dr. Chiranjeevi Kolluri. While I traveled around the city, whenever I passed by lakdi Ka Pul, I would stop by Dr. Chiranjeevi’s flat to feel the warmth of his charming personality. As we started speaking, his wife, who is also a doctor and has provided free medical service to the poorest neighborhood, will make chai. After chai, chutney, and biryani, “Dr. Saab” travels back in history and brings out those facts that were not available in newspapers or archives. After listening to his revolutionary story, as a young researcher, I have always been interested in this question: “What motivates someone to become an activist?”
Born into a socialist family in 1947 in Warangal to a father who was a cloth mill worker and was a Lohia’ite. ‘There was Hind Mazdoor Sabha that time, and my father was a committee member of this. We had a political atmosphere in our house. That is how I became an activist,’ proudly recalls Dr. Chiranjeevi.
Chiranjeevi was a brilliant student of medical science (MBBS) at Osmania University who eventually turned to radical activism, rising to the top leadership in the 1969 Osmania student movement for separate Telangana. Along with his group, he formed the Telangana Student Action Committee and fought for their separate Telangana. In August 1969, students printed the pamphlet and declared a Separate state on their own and also gave a press statement about a program to celebrate Telangana.. A senior leader Kaloji Rao was invited to honour the function, but right before the function police arrested Kaloji Rao and Chiranjeevi.
To get their Telangana, Chiranjeevi’s group decided to follow the constitutional way. After the formation of Telangana Praja Samiti; students contested general elections and won with a majority in the Telangana region. After all this struggle of winning elections, Chiranjeevi and his friends realised that the government would never give Telangana its freedom. In a state of hopelessness, Chiranjeevi and his friends turned into radical Marxists and joined the People’s War Group. After serving there for a decade, he realised this was a diversion of his goal for a separate Telangana. In the 1980s, when Manyawar Kanshi Ram formed the Bahujan Samaj Party, Dr. Chiranjeevi was inspired by the slogan, Ballot is more powerful than bullet. He began working for the BSP as the president of Andhra Pradesh region and cherished some wonderful moments in the company of Kanshi Ram and travelled the Northern India. That journey made him a life-time anti-caste activist and writer and he served as an editor to Bahujan Patrika.
Dr Chiranjeevi – A man who lost hundreds of his friends in the first Telangana agitation for separate statehood in 1969. He recalls the 10 month long agitations saying, “We had no clue how to fight it. We had a dream, we had passion to see our own statehood; but we didn’t have a strategy. Being on the protest sites and running on the roads of Hyderabad, we learned new strategies to survive the police brutality. We used to carry two handkerchiefs and two onions in our pocket. The minute they used to throw the tear gas shell, we used to eat onion and its smell used to stop the effect of gas. When police throw tear gas shells, it takes 15-20 seconds to burst. Once the gas started coming out, then it was not easy to pick it or touch it because it was very hot. Within these 20 seconds, we used to pick up the shells and throw them back at the police. Such instant strategies were part of our everyday life for 10 months and the battle was so brutal that the police never followed any rules and killed our more than 1000 students. The official data reveals only 372 students died.”
When I asked him what he thought of the ongoing Osmania student activism at the time, Dr. Chiranjeevi displayed resentment about the state of affairs in that most activism was social media based. His way of countering that was forming the 1969 Founders’ Forum for Separate Telangana to support and guide activists in strategies of protest and negotiation until the separate statehood was given to Telangana in 2014. Even after Telangana formation, he continued advocating the welfare of the socially marginalized sections.
Telangana will always miss its doctor, and his activism will always remain alive among revolutionaries, like the meaning of his name.
Gaurav J. Pathania is an adjunct sociology professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC. His book The University as a Site of Resistance: Identity and Student Politics (Oxford University Press 2018) is an ethnographic account of the Telangana student movement.