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

India's GDP down by 50%, not 23%, job loss 200 million not 122 million: Top economist

By Our Representative One of India’s topmost economists has estimated that India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) decline was around 50%, and not 23%, as claimed by the Government of India’s top data body, National Statistical Organization (NSO). Prof Arun Kumar, who is Malcolm S Adiseshiah chair professor, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, said this was delivering a web policy speech, organised by the Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi.

JP advised RSS to give up Hindu Rashtra, disband itself: Ex-IAS officer tells Modi

Counterview Desk
Major MG Devasahayam IAS (Retd), chairman, People-First, in an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the occasion of Jayprakash Narain’s (JP’s) death anniversary (October 11) has wondered whether he remembers “a patriot called Jayaprakash Narayan”. Recalling what JP thought on issues such as communalism, freedom, democracy, Hindutva etc., Devasahayam says, Modi has been been doing “the very opposite of the principles and values for which JP lived and died.”

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

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".

UP chief secretary, DGP have 'surrendered' to political diktat: 92 retired IAS, IPS officials

Counterview Desk
In an open letter to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, 92 retired IAS, IFS and IPS bureaucrats, commenting on “blatant violations of the rule law” following the Hathras incident, have blamed that the Chief Secretary and the Director General of Police for abjectly failing to exercise control over a “highly compromised” administration the state.

Gujarat literati flutter: State Akademi autonomy curb a Sahitya Parishad poll issue?

By Dankesh Oza*
The 115-year-old Gujarati Sahitya Parishad is in election mode. More than 3,000 life members of the Parishad are set to elect its 52nd president and 40 plus central working committee (CWC) members, which in turn will elect its executive and two vice presidents, six secretaries and a treasurer for the coming three years (from 2021 to 2023).

Hathras reflects Manu's mindset dominates: 'Women are false, it's in their nature to seduce'

By Parijat Ghosh, Dibyendu Chaudhuri*
The woman died and then we woke up to protest. She was alive for two weeks after the heinous incident. Many of us even didn’t notice what had happened at Hathras, how she fought during the next 15 days. Those who noticed, many of them were not sure what actually had happened. So much so, we as a nation were more busy in finding out who among the Bollywood actresses were taking drugs, who smoked weed, who had ‘inappropriate’ or more than one relationship, what kind of private conversations they had in their chat boxes and what not!

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.

Delhi riots: Even British didn't accuse Bhagat Singh of reading Lenin, Jack London

By Vikash Narain Rai*
After the #BlackLifeMatters movement seriously tested the credibility of police across America, the Houston police chief Art Acevado talked of ending “lawful but awful” policing. No comparison, but in India, a citizens’ committee comprising former top judges and bureaucrats is now set to inquire into the role of the state machinery and media in handling the February 2020 Delhi violence, which followed protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), “as the investigation by the Delhi Police has evoked extensive critical commentary in recent times.”

Atrocities against Dalits: Why don't MPs, MLAs from the community ever speak up?

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat*
In Gujarat, a young Dalit activist lawyer Devji Maheshwari, belonging to the Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMSCEF) was killed in Surat, allegedly by a goon who was warning him against his Facebook posts not to speak up against Brahmanism. Facts have come to light suggesting there are other issues also which led to the murder, mostly related to land disputes, many a time ignored by activists.