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Gaol Again For The ‘People’s Poet’
Andhra Pradesh

Gaol Again For The ‘People’s Poet’

Sandhya Ravishankar

Sandhya Ravishankar

Legendary Telugu poet Varavara Rao is back in jail in the Bhima Koregaon case as he nears his 80s

The Day of Naming

Alarmed by the aborigine (tribal)

Evolving in the folds of the forest

And the forest nestling in the frame of the aborigine

It is you

Who labelled them

Fear-struck

In Jodenghat and Pippaldhari

Indravelli and Babejhari

And in Satnala.

You wrecked their life

Shored up with the bamboo

With canisters and cartridges

Mining blood and sulfur gas

You commemorated their baptism

In the seams of the earth’s folds

With all accomplishing

You can never slay them again

The valiant emerge

From the very annals these engender

Can one mark which day

The aborigine was born?

While you brand

April twenty year after year

For the current account

– Varavara Rao, 1981 poem on the police killings of tribals in Indravelli (Translated from Telugu by Dr D Venkat Rao)

Pendyala Varavara Rao, 78, is a well-known name in civil liberties and human rights circles in the country. A contemporary of People’s War Group patriarch Kondapalli Seetharamaiah, ‘people’s poet’ VV is a legend among the civil liberties and left extremism movements in the country.

His perseverance, commitment and dedication to the cause of revolution, and of human rights of left extremist activists, have earned him only arrests, police cases and house detentions. VV, as he is popularly known, is dubbed as ‘enemy number one’ of the state, while through his writings, poems, and speeches he has remained a campaigner against state violence and a voice of agrarian revolution.

In 45 years of battling against state forces and “imperialist policies”, VV has been arrested at least 15 times and was implicated in 25 cases. His first arrest was in October 1973 under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act and his latest arrest on August 28, 2018, and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).

Many years of trial later, he was acquitted in 13 cases as the prosecution could not find any evidence against him. The courts also quashed or discharged three cases and the prosecution withdrew nine other cases.

During this process, VV had to spend 17 years as an under-trial in several prisons – Warangal, Pune, Rajahmundry and Hyderabad’s Chanchalguda – one of the longest prison records without a conviction in the country. His longest jail term was 39 months from December 26, 1985 to March 21, 1989. “Some years were spent in solitary confinement also, leading to severe health problems and mental agony,” said a Virasam member in Telangana. Virasam is Varavara Rao’s organisation and is short for Viplava Rachayitula Sangham (Revolutionary Writers’ Association).

He was also under house arrest for three weeks at his Gandhi Nagar home in Hyderabad until 28 August 2018, when he was picked up by the Pune police for his alleged involvement in a “conspiracy to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi” – better known as the Bhima Koregaon case.

“Had he gone underground like other activists, the government would have declared a cash award of Rs 12 lakhs on him, depending on the cases,” said a senior Telangana state police official. He is still wanted in several cases of sedition, explosives and conspiracies.

Warangal was one of the earliest centres in united Andhra Pradesh to have responded to the call of the Naxals. Its Regional Engineering College was fertile ground for rebels and radicals.

Varavara Rao and his team of Virasam poets Cherabanda Raju, KV Ramana Reddy, T Madhusudana Rao, MT Khan and M Ranganatham were among those implicated in the famous Secunderabad conspiracy case in 1975, along with 41 Maoist activists. That was the first case during the Emergency period when the Congress party led by Jalagam Vengala Rao deployed the Army against the Maoists. This case was filed during Emergency against left extremist activists in 1975 and against VV for alleged conspiracy to overthrow the AP government.

“If VV was in freedom struggle, he would have won honours and laurels, but has remained as an unsung hero in the struggle for human rights in the country,” said Jeevan Kumar of Human Rights Front based in Hyderabad.

Early Moorings

Born on 03 November 1940 into a middle class Telugu Brahmin family at Chinna Pendyala village in Warangal district, now in Telangana, VV was a master of words.

He completed his masters in Telugu literature from Osmania University, Hyderabad. It is here that his struggle for civil liberties and human rights began. Though he wanted to pursue a doctorate in literature, personal issues forced him to begin working as a lecturer in a private college in Siddipet, Medak district. This stint though would not last long.

VV joined government service as a publication assistant in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’s Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity, Delhi. Here, he was incensed by the stark neglect and indifference to issues of rural poor and farmers. Vexed with the propaganda machinery he was witness to, he returned to teaching Telugu and later settled in Warangal. “I have found satisfaction as a teacher and writing poetry on burning issues of society since then,” Varavara Rao had told this writer many years ago.

An excellent orator, VV has addressed hundreds of public gatherings in villages, towns and forests, and written thousands of poems. He came to be judged as a member of the ‘think tank’ of left extremist elements that had emerged from the jungles of Bastar, Warangal and Guntur.

“VV has been part of the left-wing extremist movement in the sense that he championed Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (allegedly a front organisation of Maoists) in rural AP and took up cases of only attacks on Maoist sympathisers and death of activists, and not policemen,” said HJ Dora, former DGP of erstwhile united Andhra Pradesh.

Activism and Writing

Since the late 1990s, VV also launched another movement to claim the bodies of slain underground activists in police encounters to give them a decent burial, as their family relatives were afraid to retrieve their bodies.

After living in an apartment in Hyderabad’s Old City for a long time, he moved to an apartment in Gandhi Nagar a few years ago. Whether in jail or outside, there was a permanent posse of policemen placed around VV’s apartment complex in Hyderabad throughout the year.

In 1966, VV founded the magazine Srujana (creation), which became a forum for modern literature in Telugu. He relentlessly published Srujana for 30 years until 1992. He also founded Virasam.

He is also dubbed as a propagator of Maoist ideology, though he asserts that he was just an ideologue and believed in their philosophy. “I believe in their philosophy that reforms in the agricultural sector – of land to all and fair MSP (Minimum Support Price) – could be achieved only from the strength within (strength of farmers) and not externally infused,” Rao said in a recent interview with Telugu news channel TV9.

Varavara Rao has scorned the pro-farmer sops given by late Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy, incumbent AP CM Chandrababu Naidu, Telangana CM K Chandrashekar Rao and PM Modi were beneficial to big landlords and not to poor farmers. “Why are tribal farmers excluded from the farm loan waiver scheme and why podu cultivation (step farming on hilly regions) by tribals is not getting welfare sops,” he has repeatedly questioned.

The Bhima Koregaon Case

In January, violence broke out in Bhima Koregaon near Pune in Maharashtra, following an annual celebratory gathering to mark the 200th year of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon. The gathering was largely composed of Dalits and tensions flared up as Marathas entered the crowd.

VV was once again arrested on 28 August 2018 – this time by the Pune police over his alleged role in the violence at Bhima Koregaon. He has been charged with association in an alleged plot to enact a “Rajiv Gandhi type of incident” against Prime Minister Narendra Modi during one of his public meetings.

A pamphlet and a letter quoted by the Pune police as evidence of VV’s crime says that the 78-year-old was “authorised by the Communist Party of India (Maoist) to be in communication with arms suppliers from Manipur and Nepal on behalf of Indian Maoists” and “provider of funds” to various “Urban Naxal” activities including seminars, meetings and fact-finding committees.

“The charges allegedly in the letters written by Maoist leadership are ridiculous. The police have been levelling the same kind of charges against VV for the last 45 years,” said N Venugopal Rao, VV’s nephew.

But Varavara Rao certainly has no supporters back home, at least in the political arena.

Both KCR and Chandrababu Naidu have come down vehemently on political and ideological dissenters.

The ban imposed in 1991 on CPI (Maoist) and its six allied front organisations, including Virasam, has been renewed year after year. Naidu has raised commando units to seal off and patrol AP’s borders with both Telangana and Odisha to stall intrusion of underground Maoist cadre. “The campaign against pro-Maoist human rights organisations is part of the overall exercise to snuff out radical movements in the state,” says retired Professor Hargopal, a well-known civil liberties activist in Hyderabad.

Similarly, KCR has kept Telangana’s border districts of Khammam, Karimnagar, Warangal abutting Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra “sterile”, with heavy police and commando presence.

“Varavara Rao’s poems and speeches ignite extremist tendencies among youth and depraved middle classes and hence his detention is justified,” say senior police officials at Warangal, who have built up a dossier of 37 ledgers on him, all cases, his family background and his writings.

As Varavara Rao himself wrote – he seems to have left the state and the police “fear-struck” at the mention of his name.