Anti-caste activist U Sambasiva Rao succumbs to COVID-19

U Sambasiva Rao, widely known as Usaa, was regarded as Udyamala Upadyayudu (teacher of struggles). He was 70.
Photo of Usaa from his Facebook page.
Photo of Usaa from his Facebook page.

U Sambasiva Rao, prominent anti-caste activist and rationalist widely known as Usaa, succumbed to coronavirus on Saturday.  The 70-year-old who is survived by his only daughter, Hima Bindu, had devoted his entire life for the upliftment and empowerment of Dalit Bahujans. 

Earlier, this week, Sambasiva Rao was admitted to a private hospital in Barkatpura, Hyderabad after he suffered from diarrhea, which is one of the symptoms of COVID-19. Subsequently, he was tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Rao was part of several historic Dalit struggles like Dalit Maha Saba (a movement formed in the aftermath of Karamchedu massacre), Madiga Dandora movement (a demand to categorize Scheduled Caste) and Rohith Vemula movement.  

Fondly referred to as Udyamala Upadyayudu (teacher of struggles) by fellow activists, he was once a senior member of the Unity Centre of Communist Revolutionaries of India (Marxist–Leninist) or UCCR(ML). During his years in  UCCRI(ML), Rao fought for the tribal lands in East Godavari district and spent a decade there working with the Adivasis. In 1980, he shifted to Hyderabad, when Telangana was suffering from a drought and organized the farmers of Mothkur in Nalgonda.

Rao, however, was expelled for differing with the outfit on the caste struggle. He was born in 1950 at Tenali in Andhra Pradesh and belonged to the Mangali community (barber community), which is categorised as Backward Class. He became a rationalist during his college days in the Government College of Tenali, said Bahujan intellectual and academician Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd. 

Rao was among the very few activists hailing from Andhra Pradesh who supported the struggle for a separate state of Telangana. He worked with KG Satyamurthy, another Dalit revolutionary and co-founder of Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) People's War party also recognized as People’s War Group. Satyamurthy came out of PWG alleging caste based discrimination. Rao was the editor of ‘Edhureetha’ which was founded by Satyamurthy.

“In 1985 during the Karamchedu movement, he differed with the party line and supported the Dalit movement for which both him and I were expelled from UCCRI(ML) party. We said that Madigas were murdered by the Kamma landlords but the party said that we should not say Madigas and Kammas, so we disagreed and differed with them,” recalled Ilaiah. 

In the Karamchedu violence, which took place in 1985, Prakasam district, Andhra Pradesh, six Dalits were brutally massacred by Kamma men over a feud involving drinking water. 

Rao was the founder of Bahujan Prathighatana Vedika- a forum which fights against injustice to Dalit Bahujans. In 2015, he launched Desi Disa, a trimonthly magazine, which offered incisive commentary on the state of affairs from a Bahujan perspective. However, the magazine was shut down after the demise of Rao’s wife, said Sujatha Surepally, the editor of Desi Disa. Two years ago, Desi Disa was revived into a YouTube channel. 

Showering glowing tributes on Rao, Ilaiah described him as a “great singer, a great writer and a theoretician.” 

After snapping ties with UCCRI(ML), Rao extensively worked for the upliftment of marginalized communities, and evolved as a leader both for Dalits and Other Backward Classes.  

“Wherever any atrocities against Dalits took place, he would go there. When the Lakshmipeta violence in Srikakulam took place in 2012. He stayed for some time to assure confidence among the Dalits. Dalits and Bahujans have lost a great leader who had dedicated his life to them.” Ilaiah said.

In 1986, Sambasiva Rao was instrumental in saving three villages who would have died from starvation. “Both he and I organized a food relief campaign in Mahabubnagar. For nearly two-and-a-half years we mobilized lakhs of rupees and fed three villages. Sambasiva Rao was working with the villagers during the drought,” Ilaiah said.

Sujatha Surepally, who calls Rao as her political mentor said, “We have lost a towering figure, who taught us how to organize struggles. His demise is a great loss for the social movements in Telangana.”

Rao supported inter-caste marriages and would be the first person to reach any spot where any injustice took place, Sujatha recalled.

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