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Varavara Rao's letters from prison 'sing solidarity' from heartland of resistance

By Aviral Anand*
“Look
At the moonlight
Trapped in this rectangle.
I raise my head
And see my poetry
Gleaming like a moonbeam
In the sky."
(“Captive Imagination – Letters from Prison”, Varavara Rao)

A leading newspaper recently published sections from letters that the Elgaar-Parishad accused have written to family members and acquaintances from their current state of incarceration. The letters pulsate with various emotions of those behind bars, but one element that does seem to shine through is a continued concern for their less-fortunate fellow-beings.
This, despite their own hardships, can give us a glimpse of the profound feelings of social justice that they harbour and which remain undimmed despite their arrests on flimsy grounds.
It is probably worth our while to reflect upon what they convey. And maybe consider their expressions as representative voices of countless others incarcerated on the basis of questionable evidence - in India and in other parts of the world – whose voices do not reach us.
It is easy to brand and label people. The label that is current and being used with glee, is that of “Urban Naxal.” It is important to know that the prime minister of this country is also taken in by its shallow and vengeful representation. So much so he had to use it to ascribe current protests against the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) to the Urban Naxals, perpetuating a vicious stereotype.
At its core, the term denotes those who live in urban settings, and hence in a kind of full public view and carry on subversive activities, chief among them being to undermine the narrative of nationalism - in concert with the “non-urban naxals,” who carry on their struggles from remote and far-off places we cannot be bothered about.
As one of the more detailed discussions on the issue of urban naxals, the movie and book by Bollywood filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri has it, "They [the urban naxals] take up genuine issues with the aim not to solve it but to create unrest and anger against the system and make people believe in armed struggle."
It is hard to believe that this could be a key takeaway regarding any of those who were arrested on specious charges in the Elgaar Parishad case. This is calling into question without demonstrated evidence and reasoning the struggles for social justice of people who have silently stood in solidarity with the most marginalized.
Surely, the least one could ask from someone who seeks to undermine a people's body of work by slapping labels on them is some minimum familiarity and engagement with their work. But such basic sincere effort is too much to ask from those who are determined to malign others in the shallowest manner.
In the vortex of the current climate over the various attacks on citizenship in India, when there is also so much pushback and repression of dissent by the state, it is probably instructive to spend some moments with the expressions of the indomitable spirit and conviction of those booked in the Elgaar Parishad case.
Shoma Sen, one of the accused, was close to her retirement as a professor of English from the Rashtrasant Tukadoji Maharaj Nagpur University. One can read her life trajectory in any way, but what shines through is a concern for her less fortunate fellow beings.
As her daughter Koel recounts, Shoma was born in Mumbai, but chose to move to Nagpur so she could work in Vidarbha: “She soon shifted to Nagpur, because she felt that if all the intellectuals lived in Bombay, then who would work for the people in the poorest parts of Maharashtra, such as Vidarbha?”
Koel adds that, “Her evenings would be spent visiting women (many of them Dalits, and victims of domestic violence) in the slums of Juni Magalwari (a big ghetto in Nagpur), discussing their immediate issues and concerns.”
Sudha Bharadwaj
Sen has several academic papers to her credit wherein she has dealt with issues of displacement, patriarchy and the case for Dalit feminism. In “The village and the city: Dalit feminism in the autobiographies of Baby Kamble and Urmila Pawar,” Sen presents a nuanced view of the space created by the Dalit women writers whose works she discusses, even in the midst of mainstream movements - be they Communist or (male-centered) Ambedkarite, which tend to view feminist movements with suspicion.
In her letter, extracts of which were reproduced in the newspaper report recently, Sen speaks of what she observes in jail while tying that with her deep-rooted concerns with issues of patriarchy: 
“Sitting where I am, I can see how little has changed as we approach the 72nd Independence Day. Women, mostly from unprivileged, lower caste backgrounds, barely literate, married off at 14 or 15 years of age, form the bulk of those who are languishing in jail. They are living examples of how patriarchy functions in society and in the judiciary. These are issues and kind of people we were fighting for....”
Rona Wilson, a member of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners, or CRPP, was “arrested from his home, a rented one-room set, in south Delhi’s Munirka village,” as stated in a newsmagazine, along with the others in the Elgaar Parishad case.
According to the report in the newsmagazine, “Rona ventured into areas that well-funded non-governmental organisations were hesitant to tread, which meant that there was always a dearth of capital…[and] Rona’s cousin too reiterated that the activist had little means to live by.”
That Rona placed the struggle for freedom of others above the struggle for his own livelihood seems to be evident. His letter from prison, written after the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir in August 2019, speaks movingly about the injustice faced by the Kashmiris – and the silence of the Indian civil society:
“The deafening silence to the level of dehumanization, mistreatment, brutalization and debasement of like of the people of J&K is a direct measure of our own dehumanisation. The deep securitization of our minds, the dark fears in the far recesses of our minds, benumbed in the self-imposed ‘security’ of our gated selves.”
Also among those arrested is lawyer and labour-activist Sudha Bharadwaj. She has worked in Bastar in Chhattisgarh as part of the organization Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha for more than two decades. She has fought against displacement caused by big corporations like Swiss cement giant Holcim and the Jindal group, among others, and for the rights of workers and the tribals.
Sudha Bharadwaj chose path of activist and lawyer in Bastar, leaving behind some enviable career and education available to her
Illustrating the nexus between the state and corporation in an interview, Bharadwaj had stated that, “Surguja [in Chhattisgarh] has bauxite. It is densely forested. The forest ministry said it was pristine jungle, a ‘no-go’ area for mining. The Chhattisgarh government made it a ‘go’ zone, with a rail corridor and power plants.”
In a paper titled “Gravest Displacement Bravest Resistance,” she wrote, “I strongly feel that understanding what is happening in Bastar today is of the greatest significance not only to us in Chhattisgarh,but to all those who want to understand imperialist onslaught and corporate land grab, particularly in the resource-rich adivasi areas...” 
Bharadwaj chose a path as an activist and lawyer in Bastar, leaving behind some enviable career and educational avenues available to her.
She speaks about her love of nature in her letter from jail - but even that is interspersed with her desire to see a better future for humanity: “The sun rising after a long night, or showers after the unbearable heat. All this fills me with hope for betterment and progress in human life. The process will be tortuous and slow, but it will happen.”
Other accused, like activist Sudhir Dhawale, an Ambedkarite activist, who had co-organized the Elgaar Parishad, has been a long time activist in Maharashtra. After the caste-based Khairlanji massacre in 2006, Dhawale formed the Ramabai Nagar-Khairlanji Hatyakand Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti. In the same connection, he also launched a political front, the Republican Panthers.
He writes in his letters how the term ‘Urban naxal’ was created since none of the previous epithets to describe those dissented were not adequate anymore to address rising discontent among the masses.
Social activist Vernon Gonsalves has donned many hats. He has been arrested earlier too for supposed links to the Maoist movement. 
He was on the editorial board of “Thingi Kamgar Masik”, a Marathi magazine for workers and was associated with another Marathi magazine “Jahirnama since” the 1980s. He has also contributed to a volume of poems and essays titled “In a Violent Land” which contains contributions from Khushwant Singh and Mahashweta Devi, among others. In his letter, he writes about the sense of despair that he experiences from time to time, yet manages to console himself and looks to hope for a better future.
Varavara Rao, the poet and activist, with whose poem this piece opened, has been subject to incarceration and law enforcement’s gaze for a long time. In his current reflections, he finds hope and courage when he considers many of his other prison-mates, many of them youth, who he knows are faring far worse than him. Rao’s book, “Captive Imagination -- Letters from Prison”, first published in 2010, has its foreword penned by famous African writer, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o.
As Thiong’o writes in his foreword: 
“These letters from prison are really from the heartland of resistance. They are a celebration of words that sing solidarity in and outside prison walls. They are lyrics to freedom and social justice everywhere.”
It is these lyrics which soar beyond prison walls and attempt to reach the outside world like free birds. Maybe we can each read the message that accompanies these birds, and them set soaring onwards so the songs fill the world. As another poem from Rao’s book puts it:
“When a weary cloud
Chokes the voice of justice
No blood flows
No tears rain
Lightning turns to thunder
Raindrops swell to a hurricane
As a mother wipes her tears
Beyond the prison bars
The poet’s melody
Soars forth...”

---
*Socially-concerned citizen, currently based in Delhi, believes in all kinds of solidarities with global struggles, such as the working class, indigenous and other marginalized peoples’ struggles

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