Chained Muse: Notes from Prison by Varavara Rao
In November 2019, when the Bhima Koregaon accused were still housed in Yerawada Central Prison and their case had not yet been transferred to the NIA, the Telugu poet penned some thoughts about his experience there, and the carceral nature of the state.
With news coming in about the worsening health of Varavara Rao (VV), his family held an urgent press conference on July 12, 2020 to demand adequate medical care for the incarcerated 80-year-old Telugu poet. Held in prison for the past 22 months as an under-trial in the Bhima Koregaon conspiracy case, VV’s health has become a crucial cause of concern since May 28, when he fell seriously ill and had to be hospitalised in the Taloja Central Prison and later was shifted to the state-run JJ Hospital.
An application for urgent interim bail on health grounds had been moved by his lawyers in the NIA special court earlier on May 15, soon after the state government’s high-powered committee to decongest prisons included those above 60 years of age and those with health issues to be considered for release. VV’s bail application was due for hearing when he got hospitalised and because of this, he was discharged from JJ hospital and sent back to prison. Meanwhile, the NIA court called for medical reports from both JJ hospital and Taloja jail hospital. On June 26, the court rejected his interim bail application. An appeal has now been filed in the Bombay high court.
As of now, two inmates have died inside Taloja prison and subsequently tested COVID positive. Until June 13, no other swab test for COVID-19 has been conducted there. Taloja Central Prison houses 2,313 inmates (as of June 19), against its official capacity of 2,124. In a reply to a PIL filed in the Bombay high court, the prison authorities said that in order to combat the spread of coronavirus and meet social distancing guidelines, they can house only two-thirds of the official capacity, which means 1,416 inmates.
Activists say keeping an 8o-year-old inside the prison under the present circumstances is, thus, akin to granting him a death sentence. “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 state institutions are duty-bound to forego,” Romila Thapar and other leading intellectuals have said.
At their press conference, VV’S wife and daughters said they received three calls from him after he was transferred to the prison hospital. While in the first two calls, he had sounded unwell, incoherently switching from Telugu, his first language, to Hindi, the call his wife Hemalatha received on July 11 was ‘scary’ . She said VV sounded delusional, and unable to comprehend the questions put to him. Another prisoner informed her that VV required urgent medical help as he has been repeatedly hallucinating, and unable to walk, go to relieve himself or even brush his teeth without assistance.
The text below was written by Varavara Rao in November 2019, during his time in the Yerawada Central Prison, Pune. The Bhima Koregaon 9 (VV, Sudha Bharadwaj, Shoma Sen, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Arun Ferreira, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson and Vernon Gonsalves) have since grown to the ‘BK-11’ with the incarceration of Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha.
By Varavara Rao
Yerawada Central Prison, November 2019
‘Chained Muse’ was the title of an article written by K.G. Kannabiran in the Illustrated Weekly of India, about me when I was in solitary confinement in District Jail, Secunderabad during 1985 -1989 as an accused in Ramnagar Conspiracy Case (1986-2003) under Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act.
I was the last person to come to Yerawada Central Prison, Pune, among the nine accused in the Bhima Koregaon violence-turned-Elgar Parishad case, under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
I was trying to avail the opportunity given by the Supreme Court – for relief under different provisions in the high court, Hyderabad – and could stay three more weeks under house arrest. Finally, I was arrested by the Pune Police on November 17, 2018 at 8 pm and brought to Pune, produced before the 3rd additional sessions judge on November 18 and sent to police custody till November 27.
I was produced in court again and sent to judicial custody on November 27 night. Kept in what is called ‘After’, a place of nightmare in the winter, and shifted to the ‘Phansi Ward’ on November 28 morning, where one of my co-accused from Mumbai had been from October 28, 2018 itself.
I was kept beside him in Cell No. 20, the last one which is exactly in front of the gallows, only separated by a wall, and the tip of the gallows is always visible. This reminds me of another gallows in another jail. I lived in a similar ‘Gunj’ (meant for prisoners sentenced to capital punishment) during December 1985 – January 1986 in Secunderabad District Prison. I had seen the gallows there itself much earlier, when I interviewed and wrote a poem about the peasant comrades Bhoomaiah and Kishta Goud (who were later hanged to death on December 1, 1976) in 1974 as their hanging date was conveyed to them and stopped by the government at the eleventh hour.
Though the number has been fluctuating with one or two under trial prisoners and lifers being shifted here, the number of inmates on the death row always remains more than 20. Among them, two are Muslim political prisoners of 45 and 50 years, implicated falsely in the 2008 Bombay train blast cases. Of the non-political prisoners also there are two Muslims. Most of the rest are Dalits, oppressed castes, poor, utterly poor with only one or two exceptions. Some of them might have committed heinous crimes like child rape, but most of them are innocent – implicated in place of people who could influence the system. For example, a young Maratha woman was raped by Dalits, leading to outrage among the Maratha community in Maharashtra. But the Dalits arrested and convicted with capital punishment are innocent young people. All of them, except one or two, are in the age group of 25 to 35 years.
In this block, now officially called Suraksha Block 1, my great strength are these young men who are learning English, playing volley ball, carom, chess and exhibiting wonderful skills of craft, art, songs and music. One’s capital punishment was struck down by the Supreme Court and he started writing poetry with his intense feelings to live and let live, with a hope that he can be reformed. But now it seems the attitude of the society, system and parliament, reflected even in the judiciary, is to make more stringent laws and seek resolution only in the death penalty.
As a writer and rights activist, I am against capital punishment, with abundant faith in the reform of human beings, particularly the oppressed youth. I find here all my prison mates very humane in their relations with others. For me, my relatively short 10 months incarceration becomes nothing as I see them – who cannot go out of our block for years together, living cheerfully, however they spend the solitary nights. That gives me great strength, imagining the hope they live for and the yearning for life, while the noose hangs around their necks, a ray of the hope at the end of dark tunnel.
This is my daily oxygen, besides the literature and books… They are compassionate human beings in flesh and blood…
Among us, three are advocates by profession and one or two are studying the Indian constitution and laws being made from time to time, particularly the draconian laws because of long incarceration as political prisoners or students of politics. Their study of UAPA all through its amendments is up to date, which helped them collectively to file a petition in the sessions court challenging its jurisdiction to take our case into cognisance. On capital punishment, criminal laws and the laws against political prisoners, sedition etc they have keen insights and every day search for different judgments of the Supreme Court and different high courts.
Among us, one or more are completely involved in Dalit studies, Adivasi studies, Muslim minority studies, gender studies with Marxist outlook. Some have the background of science, environmental studies and political economy.
All of us could very well understand why the Elgar Parishad meeting on December 31, 2017 was branded as ‘Maoist provoked’ and funded, and said to have caused the Bhima Koregaon violence on January 1, 2018. (Amitav Ghosh, the renowned writer, in his letter to me in prison wrote that he lived in Calcutta as a young student during the thick of the Naxalite movement and he differs with them. But, he observes, the Bhima Koregaon violence does not look like ‘Naxalite violence, all said and done’). The fact is, everybody, including the state, knows that it was a violent Brahmanical Hindutva conspiracy against the broad unity of Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, OBCs and even a section of Marathas, beside democrats.
Let me conclude with one day’s experience in court – on August 5, 2019 – which reflects our personal and collective thoughts and feelings in our prison life.
All of us – young, middle aged and old – are very sensitive and emotional human beings, particularly during incarceration, when we are constantly reading newspapers and books so that, if not in action, then at least in information, knowledge and understanding, we do not lag behind. We are political because we are human beings. For the five of the first batch, prison life has exceeded 14 months. For the second batch of four, it has been almost one year from the time of house arrest. There is only a difference of degree in the intensity of feelings.
Since we have demanded mirror or cloned copies of the alleged documents from the forensic laboratory, the court conceded and arranged for us to see the copying of required material in Nasser’s room (the administrative officer assisting the court). As per our calculations, it will take 19 years, at this pace, to supply all the copies! Of course, comfortable arrangements are made – allotting a court room in another building in the court premises, with reasonably good chairs, vada pav as lunch and tea, water bottle, good sanitation and environment. The only problem is the escort authorities could not understand the urgency of the matter and lack time sense, because of their age-old habit of daily escorting prisoners.
This is the one occasion – with the nine of us divided in three blocks in the men’s prison and two blocks in the women’s prison – when we can meet for at least five to six hours. Though some of us will be engaged with our lawyers discussing our case, the different judgments, etc. others will be discussing health, food, books, literature and developments outside, as, except for our lawyers, none of our relatives and friends are allowed in Nasser’s room during the copying process from the time we are brought there till we are taken to the court room.
It was raining outside. Two of us were discussing writing on the otherisation of Muslims since the times of the East India Company with local comprador – Brahmanical Hindutva’s active involvement. We were referring to many authorities – the writings of Sumanta Banerjee on 19th century Bengal, the black Durga of adivasis in course of time transforming into the white Durga of upper castes, the cultural studies and PhD thesis of Prof G.N. Saibaba (now incarcerated in Nagpur Central Prison’s Anda Cell) on the novels of six Indian English writers. Most of our discussion was an attempt to build the character of Brahmanical Hindutva as comprador to colonial-imperial vested interests against ‘the other’ – Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis particularly, and the toiling masses in general.
One of our co-accused intervened in a hilarious and humorous mood, asking us whether we had read G. Sampath’s column in the Sunday magazine of The Hindu on August 4. Since almost all of us had read it, more people joined in the chat, sharing the particular pun and humorous comments about Chota Voldemort branding the urban Maoists, naming the individuals as terrorists and anti-nationals etc. Voldemort is a character and it is obvious who was Chota Voldemort.
Then our discussion shifted to Harry Potter. Some of us have not read any of the books. She suggested that it is not meant only for children and younger generations but we have to read them to understand the younger generation. She was in such a hilarious mood and while talking to us she crafted a paper bird, with a small tail and wings. If you pull the tail the bird will move its wings and ‘fly into the sky’, into azadi. She gave it to me. We played with it for some time, but alas, we don’t have tails to be pulled so that we can fly into the sky without wings. All the time, whatever we are doing, reading, talking, sleeping, in subconscious, dreams, or awake, we yearn for freedom. Every living thing, more so the conscious human being, cherishes in their heart of hearts the deep desire for freedom.
After 4 pm, when the copying was over, we were taken to the court hall. By then we came to know that the public prosecutor has not come that day. Some said because it was Nagapanchami. She was to argue on her counter to our default bail petition on that day. The judge said she has given in writing that she will be out of station till August 12 and so the next hearing will be on August 13.
Before we were taken to the court hall, as the judge was preoccupied with other cases, we were made to sit on benches outside surrounded by guards. Two pairs of couples apparently from the working class, have come a long way from Raipur, Chhattisgarh to meet Sudha Bharadwaj. She took the permission of the escort incharge to talk to them. He arranged a guard there. The guard was seeing all through, without blinking an eyelid and hearing her very attentively. At some point, he left and requested another guard but I did not notice. That was when the ACP (IO) came out to attend to a message on his mobile and saw these four people talking to Sudha and noticed absence of a guard. He ordered the guard standing nearby to call his in-charge. He also asked something of the the four people, particularly the elderly person who looked like their leader. I could not hear him, but I could make out his body language and gestures. The escort in-charge came. It seems he was also reprimanded. I noticed Sudha was looking at the IO, very annoyed.
We were then called into court. All of us with escort and the IO had to rush into the courtroom. Immediately upon entering the room, Sudha rushed to our advocate and, it seemed, requested him to seek permission for her to speak to the judge. She came and sat beside me. Seeing her mood and emotions I could not ask what happened. The advocate requested the judge, but the judge very mechanically and leisurely told him to let her be represented by her lawyer, whatever may be the matter, how urgent it may be. Our advocate said her advocate had not come. Sudha was already rising on her feet. The judge could observe and sense her mood and reluctantly allowed her to speak.
She just rushed as a wild wind into the dock and started. “I do not have my parents. No family. I have only one daughter to claim as my family. My people are my union workers. From a long distance they came only to have a glimpse of me. They have their identity cards. The police can check them. My only request to you is let the police not harass my people.” Saying this, she came down, unburdened, and sat beside me. Gathering my courage I told her, ‘You could have said that you are an advocate and they are your clients.” She simply answered, “I am not now”.
Since the public prosecutor did not come, the judge gave the next hearing date and signed the warrants. The escort police came for us, first the woman guards took away the two women accused, and then our escort took us. By the time we stepped out, I could not find the four people [from Chhattisgarh] there. I don’t know whether Sudha got to see them. I could not ask her as their escort vehicle also was different. No way to know.
The next day, the news appeared in a Marathi newspaper. It reported what all she said in court and after the case was adjourned, it seems, journalists had also spoken to the IO or police officers available there. According to the report, the police said that those four people were from the Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha. As this was a new place for them and some harm may happen to them, they were taken to the court police chowki (thana) and put there! There was no mention in the report about whether and when they were released.
PS: On August 9, when we were brought again to Nasser’s office, I asked Sudha what had happened to those four persons. She said they must have been released after being questioned and having their photographs taken. “But every time this is happening and it was to stop this kind of harassment that I brought it to the notice of the judge. That’s all.”
This article by Varavara Rao has also been printed in a booklet: ‘A Quest for Freedom: The Story of Bhima Koregaon,’ published by Mumbai Rises to Save Democracy (MRSD), a coalition of 40+ organizations in Mumbai. It has been edited by The Wire for clarity, style and length.
About Varavara Rao
A note by ‘Mumbai Rises to Save Democracy’
VV, the famous Telugu poet, has faced at least 25 cases in the last 45 years. His story can be understood through the history of these arrests and the power of his writings, his poetry, his teaching career and his political understandings and analysis of power and oppression, and the path to liberation.
VV started publishing poetry at the age of 17, in 1957 but got interested in revolutionary theory while working as a lecturer at Mahabubnagar. It was during this time that he founded a literature and poetry group called Sahithee Mithrulu and a non-political journal named Srujana to eventually join the Tirugubadu Kavulu (Rebel Poets), who were sympathetic to the armed struggle going on in Srikakulam.
During this time, VV founded the Virasam or Viplava Rachayitala Sangham (Revolutionary Writer’s Association), an association banned by the Andhra Pradesh government in August 2005. The ban was struck down by the AP high court in November 2005.
VV has published 15 poetry collections of his own, besides having edited a number of anthologies. His poetry has been translated into almost all Indian languages and has appeared in Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi and Bengali. His thesis, ‘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 critical studies done in Telugu. While in prison, he translated the Kenyan writer, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s prison diary ‘Detained’ and his novel ‘Devil on the Cross’ into Telugu. He also wrote his own prison diary Sahacharulu (1990), which was translated into English as Captive Imagination.
VV was first arrested under the infamous Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) in Andhra Pradesh, in 1973. He was then arrested during the Emergency and was re-arrested at the entrance of the jail and kept imprisoned for an additional week when the Emergency was lifted. He survived many attempts on his life post-Emergency.
He remains a staunch opponent of neo-liberal globalisation and specifically the globalisation policies adopted by Chandrababu Naidu’s government in the ’90s. He went as an emissary for the People’s War Group in the peace negotiations between the Andhra Pradesh government and Naxalites. After multiple rounds of the talks failed, Virasam was banned. Following the banning, Rao was arrested once again in 2005 and was released in 2006. He has been arrested four times since the formation of the new Telangana state in 2014.
VV has faced at least nine cases under the Arms Act of 1959 and the Explosive Substances Act, 1908 over the last four decades. In perhaps the most ridiculous case, he was charged with distributing bombs to ensure the success of a strike against the custodial death of a Radical Students Union activist in 1985. In response, Varavara Rao wrote a memorable poem, titled Reflection.
I did not supply the explosives
Nor ideas for that matter
It was you who trod with iron heels
Upon the anthill
And from the trampled earth
Sprouted the ideas of vengeance
It was you who struck the beehive
With your lathi
The sound of the scattering bees
Exploded in your shaken facade
Blotched red with fear
When the victory drum started beating
In the heart of the masses
You mistook it for a person and trained your guns
Revolution echoed from all horizons.
Varavara Rao is a Telugu poet and author. He has been in prison as an under-trial since November 2018, charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.