Varavara Rao: State’s contempt for dissent keeps a revolutionary behind bars

Varvara Rao, known for his stirring poetry and candid political views, was arrested from his home in Hyderabad on August 28, 2018 for his alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate PM Modi

varavara rao
Varavara Rao has been in jail for two years since his arrest in 2018. Photo: PTI File

If an ailing, 80-year-old man is languishing in jail as an undertrial for years, it may be seen as just another instance of slow justice delivery system. But, if the man happens to be an influential voice in the civil rights movement, then it is a reflection of the political system’s deviousness and its contempt for dissent.

The case of Varavara Rao, a revolutionary poet, academic, and civil rights activist who is in judicial custody since August 2018, is a pointer to the level of intolerance of the state towards voices representing the counter-narrative.

There has been a deafening silence from the government in the face of mounting pressure from people across all walks of life for his release on humanitarian grounds.

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Varavara Rao, known for his stirring poetry and candid political views, was arrested from his home in Hyderabad on August 28, 2018 for his alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi in what has come to be known as Bhima Koregaon case.

After he fell unconscious in his Mumbai prison cell, he was rushed to the J J Hospital on Saturday (May 30). His supporters and relatives are anxious about his health condition and sought the Prime Minister’s intervention for his immediate release.

Urban naxalite

Much before “urban naxaite” became a pejorative expression, Varavara Rao was already a rock star among the advocates of civil rights.

A revolutionary poet and Maoist ideologue, he founded the Revolutionary Writers’ Association, popularly known as “Virasam”, and was the intellectual voice of the ultra-left movement in the combined Andhra Pradesh.

Hailing from the backward Warangal district in Telangana, Rao taught Telugu literature for nearly four decades and is considered one of the foremost literary critics of his generation.

Rao was one of the emissaries of the outlawed Naxalite outfit, People’s War Group (PWG), in the peace talks with the AP government in July 2004, the first such initiative in the state. However, the dialogue process subsequently collapsed after the PWG walked out, alleging continued fake encounter killings.

The government later banned Virasam, the writers’ association, which is synonymous with VV, as Varavara Rao is known in literary circles.

In the left intellectual circles, VV is a big name and is known for taking strong stances against privatisation and economic liberalisation. A prolific poet, he has over 15 poetry collections to his credit.

Born in 1940 in the then Andhra’s Warangal district, Rao’s tryst with Maoist ideas began when he was serving as a lecturer in the Mahabubnagar district. In 1968, he left the job to go back to Warangal and join a college. He then founded a group called Saahithee Mithrulu (Friends of Literature), which started publishing a journal called Srujana in 1966.

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While Srujana later went on to allegedly propagate Maoist ideology, initially, it was only devoted to modern literature.

Warangal was one of the first places to respond to the Naxalbari movement, which began in West Bengal around 1967. In 1969, with Rao as one of the driving forces, Warangal saw the rise of a literary group called Thirugubatu Kavulu (Rebel Poets), which associated itself with the armed struggle which was then going on in Andhra’s Srikakulam district.

Virasam was formed as a culmination of the Srikakulam struggle and Rao has been a part of its executive committee since its inception. His poetry has been translated into almost all Indian languages.

His thesis on ‘Telangana Liberation Struggle and Telugu Novel – A Study into Interconnection between Society and Literature’ published in 1983 is considered one of the finest works of Marxist criticism in Telugu.

He also wrote his own prison diary Sahacharulu (1990), which was translated into English as “Captive Imagination.”

Multiple imprisonments

VV is no stranger to political cases and imprisonments. He was first arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) in 1973, and then again during the Emergency.

He was also among 46 people accused of plotting to overthrow the Andhra government in what was known as the “Secunderabad conspiracy” case and was imprisoned once again in 1985. He was later acquitted by a local court.

Soon after that case, he was again accused of attending a meeting where the plan to kill Andhra Pradesh Police constable Sambaiah and inspector Yadagiri Reddy was hatched. However, he was acquitted of all charges in the ‘Ramnagar Conspiracy’ case after 17 years in 2003.

He was again arrested in 2005 under AP Public Security Act, after the collapse of peace talks between Naxalites and the state government, and was released in 2006 after the court struck down the case.

Since the formation of the Telangana state in 2014, he has been arrested on four occasions. His activities have remained under the scanner of both the state and central security agencies.

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Bhima Koregaon case

In the synchronised raids conducted on August 28, 2018 at eight locations across five states, VV was arrested along with other social activists including Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gonzalves, Arun Farreira and Sudha Bhardwaj.

VV’s name had surfaced in the investigation when Pune police arrested Surendra Gadling from Nagpur in June that year in connection with the Elgaar Parishad rally on December 31, 2017 to commemorate 200 years of the Bhima Koregaon battle in 1818.

The letter, written by a person identified only as “R”, reportedly mentions a plot to kill PM Modi on the lines of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The letter also mentions the requirement for Rs 8 crore to procure a M-4 rifle – a American-made carbine rifle used by the US Army – and four lakh rounds of ammunition to execute the plot. The letter reportedly mentions Varavara Rao’s name.

In January this year, the Centre had transferred the Bhima Koregaon case from the Pune police to the National Investigation Agency (NIA). The move has been criticised by human rights activists, saying it is an attempt to maintain control over the political narrative of the case. Nine civil rights activists, including VV, are under judicial custody facing sedition charges.

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