Skip to main content

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

Comments

TRENDING

Whither Govt of India strategy to reduce import dependence on crude oil, natural gas?

By NS Venkataraman*  India presently imports around 80% of it’s crude oil requirement and around 50% of its natural gas requirements . As the domestic production of crude oil and natural gas are virtually stagnant and the domestic demand is increasing at around 7% per annum, India’s steadily increasing dependence on import of the vital energy source is a matter of high energy security concern. This is particularly so, since the price of crude oil and natural gas are considerably fluctuating / increasing in the global market due to geo political factors, which are beyond the control of India. India has promised to achieve zero emission by the year 2070, which mean that the level of emission has to start declining at slow and steady rate from now onwards. It is now well recognized that global emission is caused largely due to use of coal as fuel and natural gas as fuel and feedstock. While burning of coal as fuel cause emission of global warming carbon dioxide gas and sulphur

'Blatant violation' of law by Central government in making NREGA payments

By Our Representative  In September third week, NREGA workers across the country were mobilised for two day so raise their issues and submit a memorandum to the Prime Minister. Organised the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha (NSM), a collective of groups that work with NREGA labourers across the country, workers from 13 states -- Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal -- carried out Kaam Do Abhiyaan, staging demonstrations and rallies against what they called blatant violation of law by the Central government in making NREGA payments. While NREGA has had very positive impacts, it has lately become fruitless, exploiting labour, even though workers who have put in honest hard work have to wait for their wages endlessly, it was suggested.  In such a situation, there is a need to firm up NREGA implementation and end systematic corruption to ensure that workers get their basic NREGA entit

Fascism on prowl? Religious meet 'deeply pained' at silence of Church, bishops, priests

Counterview Desk  The ‘Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace’which held its 17th National Convention at the Montfort Social Institute, Hyderabad, Telangana from 22 to 24 September 2022 on the theme “Deepening our Identity as Religious: Responding to the Signs of the Times”, has expressed concern “at the deteriorating situation of our nation on every front”, especially stating, “Fascism seems to have come to stay” in India. At the same time, the convention, which took place with the participation of 60 persons from 16 states representing 20 religious congregations, in its unanimously-adopted statement added, “We have reached abysmal depths on every parameter: be it social, economic and political”, underlining, “The poor in India become poorer every day; the rich and powerful continue to profiteer at their expense and amass scandalous amounts of wealth.” Text: We, members (63 women and men Religious, from 16 states representing 20 Congregations) of the Forum of Religious for Justice

Muslim intellectuals met Bhagwat, extra-constitutional authority 'like Sanjay Gandhi'

By Shamsul Islam*  In a significant development a delegation of five Muslim intellectuals namely former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi; former senior bureaucrat Najeeb Jung; former AMU vice-chancellor and Lt Gen (retd) Zameer U Shah; politician-cum-journalist Shahid Siddiqui (presently with RLD); and businessman Saeed Shervani [Samajvadi Party] met RSS Supremo Mohan Bhagwat at RSS Delhi headquarters. The meeting was kept secret for reasons known to the participants and was held in August. According to the Muslim intellectuals the meeting held in “a very cordial” atmosphere continued for 75 minutes whereas time allotted was 30 minutes! In a post-meeting justification of the parleys Quraishi stated that their main concern was “the insecurity being increasingly felt by the Muslim community in the wake of recurring incidents of lynching of innocents, calls by Hindutva hotheads for genocide and the marginalisation of the community in almost every sphere”. This delegation consistin

Rajasthan cops 'halt' Gujarat Dalit women's rally: homage to untouchability victim boy

By Our Representative  In a surprise move, the Rajasthan police stopped a Dalit women's rally from Gujarat on the borders after it crossed Gujarat alleging that it would "disturb peace" in village Surana, Jalore district, where the gruesome incident of death of a Dalit boy took place on August 13 after he was brutally beaten up by his teacher on touching the drinking water pot. Sources said, while the Gujarat government had "no objection" in allowing the rally, which originated from the Dalit Shakti Kendra (DSK), an empowerment-cut-technical institute for teens founded by human rights leader Martin Macwan, on September 24 morning, the Rajasthan police stopped it for two and a half hours before allowing it to proceed to Surana. The decision to take out a women's rally was taken at a DSK meeting on September 5 following a condolence meeting of the NGO Navsarjan Trust, also founded by Macwan, activists committed to work against caste-based discrimination, orga

Why Bose's India Gate statue suggests RSS, BJP need violence-loving ‘Hindu’ Netaji

By Prem Singh*  In a TV channel debate, a BJP spokesperson and anchor shared and served a lie that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's daughter in her letter to the Prime Minister has alleged that the Congress kept devaluing Netaji to further Gandhi's non-violence; because Netaji had taken the path of liberating the country through violence mode by forming the Azad Hind Fauj (INA). They also praised the Bombay Royal Naval Mutiny of 1946 to confirm that the country got its independence through a violent route. I stated that I have read the letter of Netaji's daughter, and there is no such allegation in it. But a lie told in the intoxication of power is bound to be blatant. Netaji's daughter Anita Bose Pfaff, even in the past, has already requested some earlier prime ministers of the country to bring back the mortal remains of her father from Japan to India. In none of the letters she has spoken about devaluation of her father’s role in the freedom movement on the basis of Gandh

Buddhist shrines were 'massively destroyed' by Brahmanical rulers: Historian DN Jha

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Is coal import dependence of more than 50% by 2047 of any relevance to India?

By Shankar Sharma*  I have read the article " Building Resilience in India’s Power Sector " by N Vedachalam, released by the Observer Research Foundation, with a lot of interest. I expected it to provide few useful recommendations to our authorities in charting out a sustainable pathway to green energy transition much before the climate catastrophe push our communities to the precipice. But I am sorry to say that the overall discussions or the message implied in the article disappointed me. I was expecting the article, coming from an engineer with past experience in the power sector, to discuss the much needed recommendations to put the power sector on a sustainable developmental pathway. But I could notice mostly technical jargon and a lot of statistical information, which may already be available in the public domain.   The article also seems to have simply accepted what some of the official agencies seem to have indicated as inevitable for the power sector in our country;

Government 'fails to take up' Indian migrants' unpaid wages issue with other countries

By Rafeek Ravuther, Chandan Kumar, Dharmendra Kumar*  The migrant workers were one of the most vulnerable sections during the pandemic. India experiences large-scale movement of migrants internally and internationally. After the outbreak of the pandemic, migrant workers continued to face injustice especially in getting wages in expedited manner. In the international context, India, the home of 9 million cross-border temporary labour migrants, carried out the largest repatriation exercise ‘Vande Bharat Mission’. Even though the Indian government addressed the immediate requirement of repatriation, it failed to understand and recognise their post-arrival grievances, like back wages, social protection etc. Recently many workers were deported from the middle- east region. Amidst the establishment of grievance mechanisms such as Consular Services Management System (MADAD) and helplines in Pravasi Bharatiya Sahayata Kendra (PBSK), the unresolved grievances remain high. The number of unresolv

'True decolonisation move': Demand to name new Parliament building after Ambedkar

By Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd*  In recent weeks, there has been a demand for the new Parliament building being constructed on the revamped Central Vista in New Delhi to be named after the architect of the Constitution and anti-caste leader BR Ambedkar. On September 14, the Telangana Assembly passed a resolution urging the Centre to name the new Parliament building after Ambedkar. The Bharatiya Janata Party was absent during the debate about the resolution. The next day, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi-led government declared that the new secretariat in the centre of Hyderabad would be named after Ambedkar. Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao added that he would write to Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting him to name the new Parliament building in Delhi “Ambedkar Parliament”. The demand is finding resonance among civil society groups too and has led to social media discussions as well as public mobilisation.  But two questions arise: Should a Parliament that makes laws for a nation over a