Human rights warrior, Ambedkarite, eminent poet and writer, senior advocate Bojja Tarakam died on Friday night. His work touched every village in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and his words went out to every Dalit home in the two states. His work touched the lives of all activists — be they feminists, ecologists, human rights defenders, those working for the homeless, the factory workers, the urban poor, Muslims, Adivasis, and other marginalised sections.
The first time I met Tarakam at his house, I heard him tell an activist, “You haven't gone to jail yet? You haven't been arrested? How can you call yourself an activist?” I was wonder-struck. This was in the early eighties when erstwhile revolutionaries were falling over backwards to distance themselves from any movement and running after the pot of gold in the mainstream. He was not a Maoist leader, exhorting people to jump into militancy. He was, by that time itself, noted as a man with a broad understanding and open convictions.
My husband Cyril was close to him, so we visited them often; theirs was an open house, his wife Vijayabharathi a gracious hostess. This was the beginning of a long friendship for me, and theirs was my second home in Hyderabad. Later, we worked together on several issues — on books for HBT (translation of Ramuni Krishnuni Rahasyalu, 1984; Shudrulu Aryulu, 1984; his original works Police Arrest Cheste 1981; Nela Nagali, 2008,; Dali-tudu Rajyam, 2008; Panchatan-tram, 2012, Charitra Marchina Manishi — Rudraandhar Charita, 2016; on my work with agricultural labourers in Ibrahimpatnam where Tarakam was a frequent visitor, and of course, the Dalit magazine Nalupu.
I travelled often with him and Cyril to Karamchedu, observing the activities there with interest and learning much. The long journeys were marked by conversations on many issues, including music. Bojja Tarakam was born in Bojjavaripalem, a hamlet of Kandikuppa, a small village in the Konaseema area of East Godavari district on the coast where the Godavari joins the sea. His father Bojja Appalaswamy was a remarkable independent, Ambedkar-inspired Dalit leader who was a two-time MLA, set up schools for Dalit children, taught his wife to read and write, and had an extraordinary reach. A Brahmo Samajist, he was dedicated to social reform. A revolutionist, he organised militant land struggles of the Dalits in the area to retain control of their assigned lands. He named Tarakam after Kambhampati Tarakam, the social reformer and district education officer who hosted him all through his teacher training course.
It was in the mid-sixties that Tarakam came out of his father’s towering shadow. As an advocate working in Nizama-bad, where his wife Vijaya-bharathi, worked in the local college, he took up cases of the poor, organised fact-finding missions in cases of atrocities against the Dalits and village poor, and helped form the Ambedkar Yuvajana Sangham, campaigning vigorously in the villages of the district. His activity caused him a two-year imprisonment during the Emergency.
He considered himself both Ambedkarite and Marxist, his book Kulam-vargam explaining how he synthesised the two philosophies. Yet, for most of his life, this earned him the opprobrium of both groups — Dalits criticising him for aligning with the Left and the Leftists shunning him for his Ambedkarism. Tarakam never swerved. In 1978, he shifted to Hyderabad after Ms Vijaya-bharathi began work with the Telugu Academy in Hyderabad. He began work in the AP High Court, continuing the ceaseless fact-finding to the hundreds of villages and towns where Dalits and poor people were tortured, harassed, jailed. He was a government pleader in 1984 when the Karamchedu massacre took place and resigned in protest, many people remarking that with this, he had lost his chance of being appointed as a judge to the High Court. It is doubtful whether he would have secured the appointment anyhow, because he steadfastly refused to call on political bigwigs, except when in a delegation to represent peoples' problems. He was the rare man of integrity.
Since the Karamchedu massacre when he led Dalits there to organize themselves, their rehabilitation and their court cases, he went on to found the Dalit Mahasabha and in 1989, he helped found the AP chapter of the Bahujan Samaj Party, resigning from it in 1994, opposing its alliance with the BJP in UP. Later, he joined the RPI, but broke away from it after Ramdas Athawale allied with the BJP.
He was the warrior who fought, both in the courts and outside, the cases which nobody else wanted. Karamchedu, Tsundur, Lakshmipeta — he carried the weight of the massacres on his shoulders. Few would know that the landmark judgement of the Supreme Court ordering compulsory registration of criminal cases in ‘encounter’ murders, was initiated and fought for by Tarakam. The little book, Police Arrest Cheste which sold lakhs of copies and saved the lives and bodies of countless young men and women by equipping them with foreknowledge, was authored by Tarakam.
Tarakam was extremely neat and dapper, fastidious to a point — white shirt and trousers for work outside, white kurta and pajamas at home. Lean, sharp-eyed, a quick laugh, and even quicker movements. He was used to long walks at dawn, which probably contributed to his relative fitness later when he was fighting brain cancer. He had no vices — save tea, of which he never refused a cup. He ate sparingly and did not relish meat, but loved the Konaseema delicacies — the paper pastry, the khaja, etc.
He was a voracious reader with wide-ranging tastes in books. He bought them wherever he could, and his house was filled with books, not just in the bookcases but in every corner. Tarakam was a poet and more than that, he was musically talented. He would often say that he if wasn’t what he was, he would have been a musician or a drama actor.
When illness in the form of a brain tumour struck him in 2013, one could not believe that it could strike such an active man. For some time, he withdrew into himself, and later, probably after coming to terms with his new life, began moving about once again, travelling the length and breadth of the state this time. He was barely able to walk, but continued to attend meetings, fight cases in the courts, and read and write. His last book was written in this phase. He died much as he lived — with dignity, courage and compassion for others....