More than a rebel poet

I did not supply the explosives 

Nor ideas for that matter 

It was you who trod me with iron heels

Upon the ant-hill.

And from the trampled earth vengeance was born

It was you who struck the bee-hive 

With your lathi

The sound of scattering bees 

Exploded in your heart 

Varavara Rao wrote this poem in the central prison of Warangal in 1985. This and a massive collection of Rao’s poems have been inscribed as revolutionary literature, but his legacy expands over numerous domains being a poet, writer, professor and a veteran social and political activist. His life history is an example to see, what exactly does the power fears. For Rao, the hand that imprisons him cannot hold captive his imagination; it will slip through as poetry. He entered the Telugu literary scene in 1966 with his famous anthology of poems known as “Jeevanadi” (The Pulse). In 1960-70 he became a leading poet of the group “Rebel Poets”. He published five anthologies in the 1970s-1980s. Not only his essays and poems but his PhD thesis titled “Telangana Struggle and The Telugu Novel” also received much acclaim. 

In the same regards he, along with other poets, founded The Revolutionary Writer’s Association, popularly known as Virasam on July 4, 1970. Virasam was formed by taking inspiration from the Naxalbari and Srikakulam struggles. It marked a new phase in the development of Telugu literature but was later banned while declaring nine “offences” against it and arguing about declaring it as “unlawful”. ( 1) One of the collections of poetry by Rao called “Bhavishyath Chitrapatam” was banned by Andhra Pradesh government which exposed police torture and killings. (2) 

Varavara Rao worked as a college lecturer until 1988 and worked upon the magazine, Srjana. While in jail as a “prisoner of conscience”, he translated the work of Ngugi Wa Ngugi wa Thiong’ o to Telugu and wrote his prison diary, Sahacharulu (1990), which was translated to English as “Captive Imagination: Letters From Prison”- a collection of mediations from the poet’s time in prison as a political prisoner under the Emergency regime. While talking about the fact that all his letters are read and censored by the authorities, whether inside or outside the prison, Rao remarked with loaded irony, “how can one who is connected with Naxalbari expect any privacy until the private property is abolished”. (3)

In an interview, Rao explained the main aim, “We shall counter the developmental model with our vision of an alternate politics, alternate culture, plus an alternate value system.” He also quotes Mao Tse Tung to highlight what he means by a revolution, “for every revolution we need two kinds of armies, the land army to wage the basic struggle, and a cultural army to support it.” 

According to Rao, “in the semi-feudal semi-colonial comprador system, the brahminical Hindutva and the patriarchy have become part and parcel of the state and the state is the agent for imperialist globalisation”. 

Varavara Rao’s remark on the “middle-class” also becomes extremely important since the neoliberal state which he opposed was strongly supported by the new aspiring and consumerist middle-class which had “growing amnesia” (Kothari) towards poverty. (4) Rao said, “I am not saying that the middle class has become anti-people. I am saying the middle class has become apathetic towards the people’s movements. 

This is because of self-interest that they are distancing themselves from the people’s movements. They are not trying to under the people’s movements.” Trends of middle -class votes going to BJP since 1990s through conscious construction of upper-caste Hindu identity have been well documented by Suhas Palshikar and Yogendra Yadav.

Varavara Rao exposed the RSS in his interview with Ramu Ramanathan and highlighted how “flexible” is the functioning of RSS when it comes to their propaganda. He said, “Today, we can see people like Ram Madhav, Muralidhar have become part and parcel of BJP. Even Amit Shah was given to preside over the BJP. This is not Today’s reality. Right from the 1940s, the RSS is working in this way. 

The RSS is very flexible while doing this. I have seen during the Emergency, the District President of Congress party of Adilabad was with us in jail. So we asked him, why, as a Congressman, you are in prison. He said he was a RSS man working in the Congress. The government knew this. That’s why it put him in jail. So RSS adopts such methods. When the RSS was banned as the RashSevak Sevek Sangh, it changed to Ram Sevak Sangh since RSS has no philosophy except the philosophy of Hindutva. This is the philosophy of violence and the philosophy of monopolising ideology. It can be flexible.” It is important in the contemporary times to be aware of the “flexibility” of RSS in order to defeat it’s an inhumane and exclusionary project of Hindutva. 

STATE’S RESPONSE TO RAO’S DISSENT: 

Varavara Rao boldly criticised the excesses of the Indian state. He exposed the hollowness of the claimed democracy. The state has responded to the fierce and vocal critic by falsely incarcerating him on multiple occasions, spanning over the years. One of the truly alarming methods of the state according to Rao, is that of postponing trial: some undertrials wait in “remand” for periods as long as the longest sentence they could be awarded or more, the political prisoner remains incarcerated for unspecified periods.

In 1973, Virasam members Varavara Rao, Chandrabandarajan and MT Khan were arrested under MISA and then during Emergency. In 1974, police foisted the Secunderabad Conspiracy Case on Rao and others and charged them with the colonial law of sedition. This case went undertrial for 15 years, and in 1989 all writers were acquitted as not guilty

In 1986, charges were framed against Rao as a part of Ram Nagar Conspiracy Case, but not a single charge could be established. In 1970-80s, 12 cases were registered against him under 50 sections of seven different laws. In six of them, not even a charge sheet was filed. In three, the charge sheet was filed, but the trial didn’t begin. In Secunderabad, it took 17 years for Rao to be acquitted. The final judgement was given only in two cases. He was acquitted in both of them. (5)

Following the ban of Virasam, Rao was arrested in 2005. He has been arrested four times since the formation of the New Telangana state in 2014. In August 2018, he was arrested again for alleged connections to Elgar Parishad and alleged role in inciting violence in Bhima Koregaon and charged with UAPA. 

The current situation amidst the pandemic marks a time when close to 500 people have been infected with the coronavirus, and four persons have died across prisons. Rao’s family, in a press conference on July 12, had urged the Maharashtra state government and the centre to “not kill Rao in jail”. 

“To knowingly risk the life of a person in state custody by refusing proper medical treatment would amount to a form of the “encounter”, an extra-legal punishment which the State institutions are duty-bound to forego,” stated Thapar, Patnaik and others—petitioners who had approached the Supreme Court regarding the arrests in the Bhima-Koregaon case. On July 16, Varavara Rao tested COVID positive and the state is solely responsible for this ‘custodial torture’.

No amount of description can sufficiently describe the legacy of Varavara Rao who has been imprisoned by successive political regimes under draconian laws which were used by colonisers long back to suppress the freedom movement. Rao’s poems and ideas stand immortal at a time when regressive, undemocratic and exclusive nationalism wants to replace the constitutional principles and morph the expression of critical voices. 

REFERENCES : 
  1. N. Venugopal. “Where Writing Becomes Unlawful: Ban on Virasam.” Economic and Political Weekly 40, no. 40 (2005): 4307-312. Accessed July 16, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/4417221.
  2. Balagopal, K. “Physiognomy of Some Proscribed Poems.” Economic and Political Weekly 22, no. 13 (1987): 537-38. Accessed July 17, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/4376837.
  3. Vijayan, P K. “Poet in the Political Activist.” Economic and Political Weekly 46, no. 8 (2011): 29-31. Accessed July 16, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/41151789.
  4. Fernandes, Leela. “India’s New Middle Class: Democratic Politics in an Era of Economic Reform”. University of Minnesota Press, (2006)
  5. “Persecution of a Poet.” Economic and Political Weekly 21, no. 5 (1986): 192-93. Accessed July 17, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/4375273.

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Damini Kain

Author: Damini Kain

Damini Kain is a student activist pursuing Masters in Political Science from Hindu College, Delhi University.
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