Posted On November 15, 2021
Varavara Rao, a Telugu poet, began writing poems when he was around 17 years old. Six decades on and the 81-year-old poet’s life’s work is now in limbo, as Penguin Random House has reportedly put a hold on the publishing of a collection of his poetry, citing worries about the “nature of charges” levelled against him.
Rao was arrested in his Hyderabad home along with other activists under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, (UAPA) in 2018 for his alleged role in the Bhima-Koregaon violence. Police claimed that speeches made at the gathering on December 31, 2017, were partially to blame for the escalation of violence.
The statement came following a report by The Quint, which said that the book could be delayed indefinitely as the poet is currently being investigated by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act charges.
In October 2021, Penguin Random House India had announced that the book, titled, ‘Varavara Rao: The Revolutionary Poet’, an anthology of poems on a wide range of subjects including repression and incarceration, would be published under its Vintage imprint this year.
However, by July 2021, Penguin, on the recommendation of its legal team, decided to publish the book only after the court looked into the case. As reported by The Quint, Penguin could further delay the publication.
Ironically, in 2010, Penguin had published his prison diary ‘Sahacharulu’ translated in English and entitled ‘Captive Imagination: Letters from Prison’. The book was a collection of Rao’s letters from prison in Secunderabad jail between 1985 and 1989.
While the majority of Rao’s poems number in the hundreds, Penguin had contemplated publishing 65 of them. Three of them were written immediately after his arrest in the Bhima Koregaon case. The publisher initially dropped those three poetries written from Yerwada Central Prison, where Rao was kept, as it became more cautious about publication.
The publisher then wanted to remove about a dozen more poems from the remaining 62 to avoid legal issues. As per The Quint report, the publisher is now concerned that the NIA will investigate Rao’s poems and implicate Penguin if the book is published.
Varvara Rao: His politics and poetry
Born in 1940 in a middle-class Telugu Brahmin family in a village in Warangal, Rao is affectionately called VV by his supporters.
The fire of revolution was sparked in him by the Naxalbari movement when he was a young lecturer straight out of university. Varavara Rao’s creative oeuvre, which includes 15 volumes of poetry, letters, translations (including that of famed Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiongo), and literary criticism, reflects a strong dedication to revolutionary humanism.
He is considered one of the most influential Indian poets of the second half of the twentieth century, as evidenced by the fact that his writings have been translated into practically every major Indian language.
Rao was not just deeply influenced by Marxist philosophy but also a strong Marxist critic of literature and the arts. His poetry and writings are inspired by his political activism throughout his life and reflect his pro-people sentiments and his opposition to neoliberalism.
He had started a group called Sahithree Mithrulu (Friends of Literature) which founded Srujana, a literary Telugu magazine, in 1966.
Rao is also known to be one of the finest literary critics in the Telugu language. His thesis on ‘Telangana Liberation Struggle and Telugu Novel – A Study into Interconnection between Society and Literature’ published in 1983 is considered to be one of the finest works of Marxist criticism in Telugu.
In 1973, the Andhra Pradesh government imprisoned him for the first time under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), on grounds of inciting violence through his literature.
He hasn’t seen any relief since then, neither from being imprisoned nor from his own unwavering dedication to revolutionary politics. He was imprisoned and released several times for allegations that all sounded flimsy – in 1975 under the Emergency, 1985 during the Labour Movement, 2005 under the Andhra Pradesh Public Security Act, 2010 for speaking about Kashmir, 2011, 2014, and finally, 2018.
However, what’s more surprising is that the charges against Rao were never proved. According to Scroll.in, between 1973 and 2018, as many as 25 cases relating to his role in Maoist insurgency were lodged against Varavara Rao and not one of them has been proved in court.
What’s Elgar Parishad case and Rao’s latest incarceration?
On December 31, 2017, Rao and other activists held the Elgar Parishad conclave, a coalition of over 250 Dalit and other non-profit groups who came together to mark the 200th anniversary of the victory of the battle of Bhima-Koregaon. The event was to be a cultural one with several performances and speeches planned. 30,000 to 35,000 people gathered at the Shaniwar Wada in Pune to commemorate the day.
However, the next day on January 1, 2018, violence took place. Dalits who annually gather at the Vijay Stambh (victory pillar) in Bhima Koregaon village in Maharashtra, to pay respects to the Mahar soldiers who fought against the Peshwas and emerged victorious, were reportedly attacked by conservative Hindus.
In the violence, one person was killed. The Pune police later arrested Varavara Rao and others who had participated in the event claiming that their ‘inflammatory’ speeches led to the violence.
The case was later taken over by the NIA from Pune police after the investigation found an alleged plot to attack Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Elgaar Parishad case gained limelight because several activists and lawyers, who are critical of the BJP led government, were arrested, some of whom are in jail for more than a year now. The initial investigation had focused on the people and groups who had organized the Elgaar Parishad.
Among those arrested in the Elgar Parishad case, are Jyoti Raghoba Jagtap, Sagar Tatyaram Gorkhe, Ramesh Murlidhar Gaichor, Sudhir Dhawale, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Shoma Sen, Rona Wilson, Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha, Hany Babu and Father Stan Swamy.
Adivasi rights activist Father Stan Swamy, who was 84, died in jail custody on July 5, 2021. His death was termed as a failure of the judiciary for not giving bail to a person battling with Parkinson’s disease.
After Father Stan Swamy’s death, Varavara Rao is the oldest among the “BK16” cohort and is reportedly ill. When Rao’s health deteriorated and he developed COVID-19 in Taloja prison, he was granted medical bail for treatment in a hospital, which was granted after several petitions.
Furthermore, when a private investigation was conducted by Arsenal Consulting, a Massacheusests based forensic team, it was also found that the incriminating material found on the electronic devices of Rona Wilson, one of the arrested activists, was planted.
What was the battle of Koregaon?
Bhima-Koregaon, a small village in Maharashtra’s Pune district, is linked to an important period in Maratha history. A Dalit-dominated British army defeated a Peshwa army led by Peshwa Bajirao II in Koregaon on January 1, 1818.
For Dalits, the conflict has taken on legendary proportions, with the Mahars hailing the triumph as a victory over the Brahmin Peshwas’ caste – based atrocities.
The East India Company had erected a pillar known as Vijay Sthamb (victory pillar) in honour of those who fought for them in the fight. Every year on January 1, thousands of Dalits flock to this pillar to pay their respects.
Courtesy : India times