Killing Azad: Silencing the Voice of Revolution


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.

While president of the RSU, Rajkumar led a number of struggles in Visakhapatnam in particular and throughout the state in general.  The struggle against the private local transport system in Visakhapatnam, under his leadership, resulted in the nationalisation of city buses.  He was a powerful public speaker and addressed hundreds of meetings of students and others.  All these activities made him a dangerous person in the eyes of the state.  During the second half of 1980, Rajkumar chose to become a whole timer and began his underground life.  There was no looking back.

In August 1981, the RSU organised an all-India seminar in Madras on the nationality question in India.  Rajkumar wrote an introductory pamphlet as well as a paper to be presented at the seminar on behalf of the AP RSU.  This seminar connected various student organisations of different nationality struggles as well as radical democratic movements.  As a follow-up to the seminar, the Revolutionary Students’ Organisations Co-ordination Committee (RSOCC) was formed, and after four years of deliberations, the All India Revolutionary Students’ Federation (AIRSF) held its first conference in Hyderabad in 1985.  Rajkumar was one of the main leaders who coordinated all these efforts.

For the next 25 years, Rajkumar worked in different areas from Karnataka, Tamilnadu, Kerala, Maharashtra, Gujarat, to Dandakaranya, giving theoretical, political, and organisational inputs to struggles.  He guided party units and committees in all these states as well as the Southwestern Regional Bureau.  He is known to have acquired fluency in at least six languages during this time.

Rajkumar was part of a collective decision-making body of the party, but his personal vision, expertise in several fields, and sharp insight into different developing themes clearly made their own distinctive contributions to the movement.  He was a voracious reader and prolific writer.  Given the nature of his clandestine activity he wrote under different pseudonyms, and often credited his writings to collective, but one could easily identify his style in numerous writings in Voice of the Vanguard, People’s March, People’s Truth, Maoist Information Bulletin, etc.  His hand could be identified in various documents of the party also.

It is reported that Rajkumar began thinking of international activity about 15 years ago, demonstrating that he looked much further ahead.  There is an unconfirmed report that he participated in an international conclave of Maoist parties held in Brazil a few years ago.  It is also reported that he was instrumental in setting up the Co-ordination Committee of Maoist Parties in South Asia (CCOMPOSA) and addressed its meetings several times.

A couple of instances of his theoretical, political, and organisational guidance and coordination are worth mentioning:

When K Balagopal raised some fundamental questions on the relevance of Marxism as an instrument of social transformation, even as an efficient tool of analysis, in 1993, a number of revolutionary sympathisers felt disillusioned and a theoretical rebuttal was expected from the party.  It was Rajkumar who wrote one critical essay in 1995 and another in 2001 answering all the philosophical questions of Balagopal.  Despite his criticism on the questions of perspective, Rajkumar still paid rich tributes to Balagopal after the latter’s demise.  His condolence statement stands as a model — respecting the significance of Balagopal’s contributions to people’s movements even while mentioning post-modernist tendencies in him.

Consistently exploring the importance of the nationality question in India, Rajkumar was instrumental in holding an international seminar on the question, under the auspices of the All India People’s Resistance Forum (AIPRF) in February 1996.  With the participation of scholars like William Hinton, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Luis Jalandoni, Raymond Lotta, Jalil Andrabi, and Manoranjan Mohanty, this seminar heard more than 30 papers on various nationality movements in India and across the globe.  The seminar led to the formation of the Committee for Co-ordination of Nationalities and Democratic Movements (CCNDM), an important milestone in the expansion of the revolutionary people’s movement in the country.

In 2002, the government of Andhra Pradesh accepted the proposal of some well-meaning intellectuals and the Committee of Concerned Citizens (CCC) to hold talks with the then CPI (ML) Peoples War to bring about peace.  It was Rajkumar who guided the efforts of peace negotiations on the part of the revolutionary party, and he wrote a number of statements and gave interviews to newspapers clarifying the party’s position.  The talks could not go ahead at that time, except a preliminary round between the emissaries proposed by the party and the government representatives.

Rajkumar was also part of the collective that guided Mumbai Resistance 2004, an event organised parallel to the World Social Forum, which attracted quite a few revolutionary organisations from various countries towards the people’s movements in India under the leadership of the CPI (ML) Peoples War.

Again in 2004, in Andhra Pradesh the Congress party made an election promise to hold talks with the revolutionary parties and came to power.  This time around the talks moved a little forward till the first round of negotiations between the representatives of the CPI (Maoist) and the CPI (ML) Janasakthi on one hand and the representatives of the government on the other.  Beginning in May 2004, when the Congress acquired power, till January 2005, when the party withdrew from the process after gross violations of the ceasefire agreement and a spate of encounters on the part of the government, it was again Rajkumar who guided and prepared a lot of statements and documents for the talks.  Thus, the party was so well prepared for the talks that it had the agenda ready and background papers prepared on the three issues that were discussed, and it circulated a number of documents and met with different sections of people to share the party’s point of view, whereas the government, with its mammoth machinery and all resources at its disposal, could not bring itself to producing a single sheet of information throughout, the government representative not doing any homework.

Beginning in 2007, when the Prime Minister described the Maoist movement as the biggest internal threat, Rajkumar consistently exposed the real intentions of the mining mafia behind the onslaught, including Operation Green Hunt.  Through writings and interviews in several media, he elaborated the party’s positions on various issues including the peace process.  Indeed, a number of statements given by him — an 18-page interview along with an audio sent to the press in October 2009, his 12,262-word interview given to the Hindu in April 2010, and his letter of May 31, 2010 in response to Home Minister P Chidambaram’s letter of May 10 to Swami Agnivesh — are crystal-clear expositions of what the CPI (Maoist) is thinking and doing right now.

Azad’s killing is an integral part of the Operation Green Hunt: by killing him the government wanted to kill the voice of resistance.  The Operation Green Hunt is a mission of the Indian ruling classes to surrender rich resources of the Indian people to MNCs and their Indian junior partners.  The ruling classes eliminated Azad since his was a powerful expression of those obstructing the outright plunder of the people’s natural resources.

N Venugopal is Editor of Veekshanam, a Telugu monthly journal of political economy and society.  See, also, Tusha Mittal, “The Third Letter: The Maoist and the Undelivered Missive: Azad’s Death Is No Man’s Peace” (Tehelka Magazine, 7.28, 17 July 2010).

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