Skip to main content

Political 'vendetta' explains Varavara Rao's incarceration amidst Covid-19 pandemic

By Surabhi Agarwal, Sandeep Pandey*
The renowned Telugu poet and political activist Varavara Rao has been in police custody since November 18, 2018. The charges against him are: Waging war against the state, conspiring to overthrow the government and plotting the assassination of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Varavara Rao is one of India’s foremost intellectuals who has inspired three generations of activists, writers and students. He is one of the founders of the Viplava Rachayitala Sangham (Revolutionary Writers’ Association) or Virasam which has played a major role in the development of Telugu literature in the last half-century. His poetry -- which speaks of the brutality of state and societal repression, and expresses an unwavering commitment to the struggle for social justice -- has been translated into all major Indian languages.
According to a profile published on the Poetry International Archives website, in Varavara Rao’s poetry, “there is evidence not only of commitment to a cause but commitment to craft. These are poems of anger, of outrage, biting indictment certainly. But there is also a palette of tonal variety. For Rao is also a lyric poet whose work is capable of combining elegy with hope.”
In addition to being a poet, Varavara Rao is a renowned literary critic and translator. His PhD thesis ‘Telangana Liberation Struggle and the Telugu Novel: A Study Into Interconnections Between Society and Literature’ is regarded as one of the finest works of literary criticism in Telugu literature. He has also taught literature for 40 years, during which time he launched the popular literary magazine Srujan. The magazine provided a platform for the promotion of modern Telugu literature and was published for over 25 years until 1992.
The persecution Rao under the Modi regime comes, of course, is no surprise. Writers and poets have always been at the forefront of political dissent under authoritarian and autocratic governments and are always among the first voices to be suppressed during such times.
Varavara Rao is no stranger to harassment and imprisonment by the state. He was first arrested in 1973 because the revolutionary nature of his poetry was seen as a threat by the government. At that time the Andhra Pradesh High Court had ordered his release, stating that writers cannot be arrested for simply giving expression to their imagination. He was arrested again in 1974 and then in 1985 but was on both occasions eventually acquitted of all charges.
When the Emergency was imposed in the country in 1975, Rao -- who had recently got out of jail on bail after being charged in the Secunderabad Conspiracy Case -- was promptly rearrested. Thirty other members of Virasam were also sent to jail during this time. Refusing to be silenced, they kept their struggle alive by collaborating to launch a hand-written literary magazine for the prison inmates.
Rao has spent a total of 8 years in prison so far, but prison walls have never been able to restrict his artistic spirit. He has continued to write poetry and translate important literary works into the Telugu language even while incarcerated. In fact, almost half of the corpus of his writings has been composed in jail. 
Taloja jail
Varavara Rao’s most recent arrest was for his involvement in the Elgar Parishad rally which took place in December 2017. The event was alleged by police to have Maoist links and was held responsible for the Bhima Koregaon anti-Dalit violence that followed.
All ‘evidence’ against Rao in the case is based on some letters recovered from computer hard drives which were seized by the police from the homes of various political activists. The police failed to follow proper protocols during the raids and in the gathering of data from the hard drives. 
An investigation by the “Caravan” magazine has revealed that the hard drives contained a kind of spyware which allows their activity to be monitored and files to be planted on them from a remote source. Since then there have been reports of spyware attacks on several other activists as well. This strongly suggests that the evidence is fabricated.
Persecution of Rao under Modi regime is no surprise. Writers and poets have always been at forefront of political dissent under authoritarian and autocratic governments
The content of these letters led to the imprisonment of 10 others in addition to Varavara Rao: Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Mahesh Raut, Sudha Bharadwaj, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferriera, Vernon Gonsalves and Anand Teltumbde -- all of whom are well-known social and political activists and have been openly critical of the Modi government.
Recently, in a letter addressed to Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, former information commissioners Shailesh Gandhi and M Sridharacharyulu have stated that there is no implicating evidence against Varavara Rao. They have pointed out that the Pune police and the state investigation teams investigated the case for 16 weeks but could not collect “even an iota of evidence”.
The Maharashtra government, which recently came to power, had also declared that they would close his case file soon. But the Union government hurriedly transferred the case to the National Investigation Agency, preventing any possibility of justice.
Rao is now 80 years old. He recently developed major health complications. After a public outcry over his deteriorating health in the over-crowded Taloja Central Prison in Mumbai, he was finally hospitalised at the city’s JJ Hospital on July 13. 
His continued imprisonment under such circumstances, especially in the face of the risk posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, is completely unacceptable. He must be released and the charges against him dropped immediately.
It is a matter of shame that while dreaded criminals often receive political patronage in India and are able to remain outside prison even after having multiple cases filed against them, intellectuals like Varavara Rao are made to languish in jail.
The failure of the government on various fronts like foreign policy, domestic law and order, tackling the coronavirus crisis or the associated problems of migrant workers and the sagging economy is partly because the Bhartiya Janata Party government has been busy pursuing the political agenda of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and acting with political vendetta against citizens who question the RSS-BJP ideology.
What else could explain the incarceration of activists when the government is otherwise preventing mass gatherings by keeping educational institutions closed and asking people to remain at home? The string of vengeful actions taken by the state against citizens who participated in the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens movement, all through the coronavirus crisis and the lockdown period, are a reflection of the priorities of our present government.
---
*Sandeep Pandey is Magsaysay award winning social activist. Both writers are associated with Socialist Party (India)

Comments

Well Written. Surabhi and Sandeep, we need to find a way past this authoritarian administration. One way I see is that the regional lesser known political parties across the country join hands leaving aside their egos but yes holding on to their ethos to form some kind of National Commune. AAP was a Hope, but now totally a different model. Else, the laureates are the victims of the situation as the business and local communities will stay complacently in the prisoner's dilemma. Let me know what you think. I know few parties and I'm sure you guys know too. Can we start a Dialogue?

TRENDING

Ganga world's second most polluted river, Modi's Varanasi tops microplastics pollution

By Rajiv Shah  Will the new report by well-known elite NGO Toxics Link create a ripple in the powerful corridors of Delhi? Titled “Quantitative analysis of microplastics along River Ganga”, forwarded to Counterview, doesn’t just say that Ganga is the second most polluted river in the world, next only to Yangtze (China). It goes ahead to do a comparison of microplastics pollution in three cities shows Varanasi – the Lok Sabha constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi – is more polluted compared to Kanpur and Haridwar.

How real is Mamata challenge to Modi? Preparing for 2024 'khela hobey' moment

By Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury*  Third time elected West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee is on a whirlwind tour of Delhi, meeting everyone who matters within and beyond the government, the Prime Minister, the President, some Cabinet ministers, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, several other opposition leaders, et al.

Did Modi promote Dholavira, a UNESCO site now, as Gujarat CM? Facts don't tally

By Rajiv Shah  As would generally happen, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tweet – that not only was he “absolutely delighted” with the news of UNESCO tag to Dholavira, but he “ first visited ” the site during his “student days and was mesmerised by the place” – is being doubted by his detractors. None of the two tweets, strangely, even recalls once that it’s a Harappan site in Gujarat.

UP arrest of 'terrorists': Diverting attention from Covid goof-up, Ram temple land scam?

By Advocate Mohammad Shoaib, Sandeep Pandey* That corruption is rampant in police department is a common experience. However, there is another form of corruption which devastates lives of individuals and their families. It has now emerged as a common phenomenon that police more often than not register false cases because of which individuals have to spend number of years in jail.

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

If not Modi, then who? Why? I (an ordinary citizen) am there! Main hoon naa!

By Mansee Bal Bhargava*  The number of women ministers is doubled in early July from the first term after cabinet reshuffle by the present government led by Narendra Modi. While there were 06 women ministers in the previous term, this term there are 11. The previous two governments led by Dr Manmohan Singh had 10 women ministers in each tenure. Are these number of women ministers something to rejoice in the near 75 years of independence? Yes maybe, if we think that things are slowly improving in the patriarchal system. This change is less likely to achieve gender balance in the parliament otherwise we require more than 11 as per the 33% reservation . This change is also less likely because the men politicians’ inability to handle the country’s mess is becoming more and more evident and especially during the corona crisis. Seems, the addition of more women ministers may be a result of the recent assembly elections where women played a decisive role in the election results. For example

Buddhist shrines massively destroyed by Brahmanical rulers in "pre-Islamic" era: Historian DN Jha's survey

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".

Effluent discharge into deep sea? Modi told to 'reconsider' Rs 2275 crore Gujarat project

Counterview Desk  In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, well-known Gujarat-based environmentalist, Mahesh Pandya of the Paryavaran Mitra, has protested against the manner in with the Gujarat government is continuing with its deep sea effluent disposal project despite environmental concerns.

Khorigaon demolition: People being 'brutally' evicted, cops 'restricting' food, water

By Ishita Chatterjee, Neelesh Kumar, Manju Menon, Vimal Bhai* On July 23, the Faridabad Municipal Corporation told the Supreme Court that they have cleared 74 acres out of 150 acres. Despite the affidavit of the Municipal Corporation, the court, on the complaint of various litigants, that the arrangements for living, food etc. have not been made for the people. 

Giant conglomerates 'favoured': Whither tribal rights for jal-jungle-jameen?

Prafull Samantara By Mohammad Irshad Ansari*  The struggle for “Jal, Jungle and Jameen” has been a long-drawn battle for the tribal communities of India. This tussle was once again in the limelight with the proposed diamond mining in the Buxwaha forest of Chhatarpur (Madhya Pradesh). The only difference in this movement was the massive social media support it gained, which actually seems to tilt the scale for the tribal people in a long time.