Ode to a rebel star

It’s been 44 years since a young man from Osmania University was murdered on the steps of Hostel 1, obviously for his political leanings. As a new biography revisits the life of George Reddy, nothing appears to have changed in these four decades, as Indian universities are in turmoil over the very same issues and ideas.

What made George Reddy, the legendary stormy petrel and a brilliant student described by his admirers as “Che Guevara of Osmania University”, take on a society that was so insensitive and indifferent ?

Apart from the happenings around the world in the late 1960s – from student revolt in Paris, liberation struggle in Vietnam, US military incursions in Central America, the Palestine-Israel face-off, killing of Che Guevara to the Naxalbari movement in India – that influenced him a lot, it could be denial of admission into Osmania Medical College. It may sound odd for a strong persona that George came to represent, but a new biography appropriately titled, “ Jeena hai tho marna seekho ” (learn to die if you want to live) authored by Gita Ramaswamy, brings out this lesser known fact.

A voracious reader of books, George was inspired by A.J. Cronin’s The Citadel and Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage early in his life and wanted to become a doctor. He thought doctors had immense power in relieving people of their suffering and he could do good to others, the modest philosophy that remained etched all through his life that was cut short cruelly at just 25 in a murderous attack by “right-wing goons” in April 1972.

Having secured second rank in his PUC (Pre-University course) in 1964 and passing with distinction from Nizam College, he was absolutely sure of getting admission into OMC in the first list itself. But he could not make it. “When he hadn’t made in the second list, his heart sank… it hurt him a lot…he felt short changed and cheated,” the biographer says, quoting his batchmates. The reason given was his non-local status, but the unfair opaque system that denied a medical seat to a deserving candidate, “may have triggered the process of questioning society and its mores.”

Unlike the present generation of students who turn out to be either good union leaders or brilliant scholars, George excelled in both. Even while building a progressive and democratic student movement in the Osmania Univesity campus and its affiliated colleges, and taking on the ABVP one of whose leading lights Ch. Vidyasagara Rao is now the Maharashtra Governor, he never neglected his studies. A gold medallist in M.Sc, he got admission into prestigious institutions like IIT, Indian Institute of Science and Physical Research Laboratory but preferred to stay back at Osmania University, as the author says, “to play bigger part in the revolutionary fight for just and a better society”.

George’s angst is visible in Fali Billimoria’s documentary, Crisis on the campus, in 1971: “Our society has become rotten. And this rottenness has spread into every facet of our lives including into our universities. Today, we have no other course left to us open now. We have raised our voices in protest. Our protest has remained unheard. We have marched in processions. Our processions have been broken up by police. We have erupted in violence. And our violence has been met with a greater violence. Today, what is left to us but to organise ourselves and meet violence with violence?”

Reconstructing and recapitulating a series of 44- year-old episodes that shaped the life and times of a complex person like George, contextualising them could be a tough task. But Gita did it admirably based on long interviews with his comrades. George was indeed complex. He was not just a revolutionary thinker but academic scholar, a pugilist, militant activist, amateur poet, comrade in arms, and defender of the rights of the poor, all rolled into one.

For many in Hyderabad, there will be a feeling of dj vu. Is it wrong to be a socially conscientious student and take up social causes on university campus? Should he be oblivious to the happenings around him? Is it wrong to show dissent, lead and motivate students to a progressive, secular and democratic path on campus? A reader of this inspirational book and the Telugu one written by Katyayini in a much more interesting format is sure to find answers to these questions.
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