“India would have attained independence long back if only it had a few stalwarts like him”, were Gandhiji's words about Potti Sriramulu, a freedom fighter who sacrificed his life for the creation of Andhra Pradesh.
Potti Sriramulu was born on 16 March 1901, in Madras, in a family that had relocated from their native Guntur (Andhra Pradesh) and made Madras (called Chennai now) their second home. Although he had a regular job and lived in relative prosperity, Sriramulu was deeply involved in the country’s fight for freedom. Moreover, after a series of personal tragedies between 1928 and 1930 during which he lost his wife, child, and mother in quick succession, he gave up his job and decided to join Gandhiji’s Sabarmati Ashram. He took part in the Salt Satyagraha and was one of the many people imprisoned. In 1942, he joined the Quit India Movement and was jailed along with Gandhiji.
Sriramulu, an ardent Gandhian answered Gandhiji's call to serve India's villages, where the majority of the population lived. In 1946, he returned to Nellore to work for the welfare of the downtrodden. In addition to fighting for India's independence, he championed the Dalit community's social and economic liberation. While other Congressmen worked to free the country from the British, Sriramulu fasted indefinitely for causes closer home. He insisted that all temples in Madras Province be opened to the Dalit community, and he refused to break his fast till Gandhiji convinced him to do so. Such was his commitment and spirit of patriotism that Gandhiji often said, “if only I have eleven more followers like Sriramulu, I will win freedom [from British rule] in a year.”
Meanwhile, the formation of states based on languages was becoming increasingly popular. After Gandhiji died in 1948, Sriramulu proposed the idea of establishing a separate state for Telugu-speaking territories. Unfortunately, his idea was rejected outright by political stalwarts such as Nehru and C Rajagopalachari on the grounds that a territory like Madras will never be a part of a Telugu speaking region, as both Telugu and Tamil populations were staking a claim for it. On 19 October 1952, Sriramulu began a fast to press home the demand of the people of Andhra for a separate state.
Though his fast went unnoticed by the top leaders for the first six weeks, the deteriorating law-and-order situation in many places made them eventually take notice. It is said that Nehru wrote to Rajaji on 12 December requesting him to accept the demand for a new state. Despite getting Prime Minister Nehru’s support for the formation of Andhra, Sriramulu refused to break his fast as no official announcement was made to this effect. In Andhra, rioting continued, and Sriramulu's fast sparked widespread outrage. The delay in the official announcement resulted in the deterioration of Sriramulu’s health, and ultimately after 58 days of fasting, he passed away on 15 December 1952. On 19 December, following the protests that ensued after the death of Sriramulu, Nehru formally announced the decision to form a separate Andhra state.
On 1 October 1953, the Telugu-speaking portion of Andhra State was created out of Madras State, with Kurnool as its capital city. Sriramulu Potti was bestowed with the title “Amarajeevi”, for his supreme sacrifice for the cause of the people of Andhra. The formation of states based on language was an important step towards the preservation and propagation of regional languages and culture. Today, Sri Potti Sriramulu Nellore district bears his name and is one of the thirteen districts in Andhra Pradesh.