Thursday, 15 March 2012

George (A Profile In Courage) - Srinath

I first became acquainted with George as a student of St. Paul’s High School in Hyderabad.  He was senior to me and entered the school only in the senior years, having transferred from elsewhere.  He already had a charismatic personality and quickly became known for both his intelligence and physical skirmishes with those who tried to bully or bother him.  This mixed reputation followed him when he went to the Nizam’s college.  At school, we continued to hear of both his accomplishments as a bright student and physical bravery in taking on a crowd of attackers when it came to a fight.  We were distraught and suffered pain vicariously when we heard that some goons had deliberately broken his hand at the time of examinations.

It was only when George went to the main campus of Osmania University that I came to know him personally.  By this time, he had matured into a politically conscious student activist.  I too had left school and entered the Osmania Medical College after completing pre-medical collegiate courses.  We both became part of a growing left movement in the University.  George was by now influenced by his study of Marxist literature and was associating with other ‘radical’ students.  We were greatly influenced by the anti-Vietnam war protests and deeply impressed by Cuba’s determination to survive as a socialist country despite unrelenting threats. For us, Che’Guevara became the icon of socialist bravery.  With his striking good looks and beard to match, George came to be seen as our own Che’. 

I saw myself as an independent socialist, willing to support any shade of left wedded to the cause of socialism.  For me, it was important to move the society as a whole towards a socialist philosophy and even the left leaning forces in the mainstream political parties were potential allies in that effort.  Even though many left groups bore separate identities and did not share that view, I was comfortable with all of them.

My father, K.V. Raghunatha Reddy was a Congress Minister at the Centre at that time.  A very well read socialist intellectual, he was a key figure in creating the Congress Forum for Socialist Action (CFSA), which saw ‘Young Turk’ leaders emerging in the form of Chandrasekhar, Mohan Dharia, Chandrajit Yadav, K.R. Ganesh, Krishna Kant, Arjun Arora and Shanti Bhushan among others.  He believed that building a broad alliance of congress socialists and communists was important for India.  He felt that young people with socialist ideals should enter the Youth Congress to help move the Congress towards a socialist political agenda.  I kept away from any such affiliation but agreed that a broad socialist consolidation was needed across the country.  That included the Osmania University.

George was initially seen as the leader of a small band of left wing ideologues and activists trying to stir up a university campus which was long used to non-ideological and often opportunistic student politics.   While the Telangana agitation of 1969 saw the active involvement of the student community, it was influenced more by regional aspirations and grievances than by a political ideology.  Prior to 1967, the major political grouping in the University at that time was the Youth Congress. George and his comrades would not dream of identifying themselves with it.  They were considered much more radical, even among the small left wing student groups that existed in the campus.

The political scene in the campus changed as right wing communal forces made an entry and started gathering strength.  They saw the Youth Congress as their rival in the student body elections but regarded the left wing student groups as their ideological enemies. The Youth Congress started fading from the campus scene, losing ground both to the ‘left’ and the ‘right’.  Over time, it was only the left groups that offered resistance to the aggressive onslaught of the right wing. George and his associates were especially targeted for vicious attacks – not merely political but often brutally physical.

At this time George realised that he needed allies to combat these forces.  He was a frequent visitor at my Hyderabad home, where we met with other friends to discuss national as well as campus politics, write pamphlets and plan rallies.  George was intense and passionate in his articulation during such meetings.  He was also polite and charming when he spoke to my mother who become one of his many admirers.  We kept an open house and she was happy to serve up a meal for George and other friends anytime. He had a personal magnetism which made him stand out but also had an affable warmth which drew others to him in the comfort of a close friendship.

On several occasions, George met my father when he was visiting Hyderabad from Delhi.  They engaged in political discussions, which ranged from socialist theory to political action.  George began to understand the strategy for moving mainstream centrist political forces in a left ward direction, though I am not sure whether he believed it could be accomplished through conventional political processes. The Congress was a very heterogeneous grouping of diverse and divergent political persuasions.  The CFSA was trying to infuse socialist thought into the main body of that organisation by vigorously advocating socialist policies.  Could the Youth Congress become a vehicle for change?  At the very least, could it offer a home to the campus radicals who were being viciously hunted by the right wing forces that wished to make the university their own?

Whatever the strategic consideration, George and his associates decided to join the Youth Congress.   That gave them a larger platform to operate from and offered more allies on the campus.  George did not lose his ideological moorings nor did he fall victim to the ‘soft’ personal indulgences of stereotypical Youth Congress leaders.  He carried his convictions and strength of character into the new camp.

All this while, he remained a brilliant student.  Having moved to the medical college, I could only hear from others about his accomplishments as a science student.  I know of many who lamented that he was risking a brilliant scientific career for risky political battles.  As a rare student leader who shines in both studies as well as political activism, George became a much admired figure in the Osmania University, with a loyal band of associates who loved him and many other friends who respected him for his passion and commitments.

All of this made him a prime target for the right wing.  They realised that it would be difficult to make political gains on the campus if they had a charismatic opponent like George.  Some of them befriended him early on, hoping to win him over.  Failing in this, they tried to frighten him into inaction.  Failing in that too, they decided to eliminate him physically.   

Several of us cautioned him against being deliberately provoked into a physical confrontation by lumpen elements who were frequently employed by the right wing to attack him or his associates.  “They can afford to lose many of those hired goons but we can’t afford to lose a leader like you”, we told him.  He, however, said that he could not afford to convey any impression of cowardice if a fight was forced upon him. He felt that would demoralise his associates.

On a fateful afternoon, the phone rang at my home.  When I picked up the receiver, my friend Dr. Narasimha Reddy (a former student body President at the Gandhi Medical College in Hyderabad) spoke in a choked voice “They have knocked off George!”.  Initially I thought it was another vicious physical assault but he crushed any I hope I had that George had survived the attack by saying that the body was lying at the Gandhi Hospital in Secunderabad.  He told me that George was brutally stabbed to death by hired goons when he was visiting the Engineering College hostel, in connection with student union elections there.  By all accounts, George was walking alone in the hostel corridor when he was attacked with butcher knives by rowdies who had been brought in from the city to intimidate students who did not support the right wing communal elements. He was marked for the kill and the plot had worked.

The campus erupted in outrage and drowned in sorrow as the news of this dastardly murder spread. Spontaneous rallies were taken out vowing to fight the political forces behind this brazen crime.  At the condolence meeting in the Arts College, a sea of humanity heard speakers (who included the Vice-Chancellor and me) pay tribute to George and unabashedly wept as his life was remembered and the events that ended it were recounted.

Later that year, the national Youth Congress meet at Kerala named its venue as George Reddy Nagar in homage to him.  Some of my friends in Osmania University commented that it was not fair to George that should be now be totally identified with the Youth Congress when his core ideology was Marxist.  I replied that George would be remembered for all that he was and that the association with the Youth Congress was only a small part of that persona.

I remember George today as brilliant mind, who believed as a friend who conveyed warmth in his simple and comradeship through his hug and as a committed warrior for a cause that was common to many of us but with a level of courage which marked him above the rest.  I wish he had not sacrificed a life which had so much to offer, in an avoidable encounter with goons who were no match to him in courage or character, in intellect or integrity.  I still rage at the viciousness of the attack that snatched his life and feel deeply aggrieved that his murderers were never brought to justice despite a crime committed in broad daylight on the open campus.  More than all, I wish George was among us today, to show India what leadership is all about.

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