Jailed poet Varavara Rao isn’t a mercenary; he should receive justice, not just sympathy, writes Padmaja Shaw

The last week saw frantic efforts to somehow reach medical assistance to the Telugu revolutionary poet Varavara Rao who is currently being held in Taloja jail in Maharashtra. Innumerable organisations of poets, academics, and intellectuals have been appealing for immediate medical care for him on humanitarian grounds amidst news of gross neglect. Yesterday, 13 July, he was taken to JJ Hospital in Mumbai.

Successive governments have filed at least 25 cases since 1973 against Rao. If he is accused of conspiring to over-throw Andhra Pradesh State in one, in another he is accused of conspiring to kill a constable. None of the cases have a leg to stand on, resulting in acquittals in each instance. Now, widening the horizons of its creativity, the State is accusing him, along with others, of conspiring to kill the Prime Minister of India.

The truth is, time and again, Indian Republic that guarantees free speech and calls itself a socialist and secular democracy incarcerated the poet for his political beliefs. The poor, the Dalit, and the Adivasi understand him, for his empathy distils their conditions of existence and shows them the way to reclaim their own humanity in an increasingly brutalised State.

The octogenarian poet Rao does not “conspire.” Whether to assassinate a VVIP or to overthrow the State. Since the publication of his first poetic work in 1957 till date, his life, his politics and his passions have been an open book.

He has publicly espoused revolutionary politics. Led from the front the literary movement of revolutionary poetry, unhesitatingly, with courage, inspiring thousands of young men and women to dream of more just futures for themselves. This was not a secret. Cowards conspire. Not a poet of courage like him, whether one agrees with his politics or not.

He is a prolific writer, critic, translator, journalist, academic, and a mesmerising orator. He has lived one of the most public lives. Wherever he lives, it is open-house for anyone in distress. Both the powerful and the persecuted get an equally empathetic ear from him. But his unwavering support is always for those in distress.

He has paid nine years of his productive life as price for believing in alternative politics that could serve the marginalised people, by serving prison sentences. Millions read him. Millions came to listen when he spoke. Despite trying very hard, the state has rarely succeeded in criminalising his vision in the eyes of the people.

In 1985, Rao was accused of supplying bombs to ensure the success of a strike called by “radical” students. The courts acquitted him. In his poem Reflection, written soon after the incident, he addressed the State and said:

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

Each prison term empowered the poet and stoked the people’s curiosity about his vision. This time around, his arrest has exposed the true nature of the State. That he, and the others now under arrest, had no links to the Bhima-Koregaon or with the events at the Elgar Parishad. Bhima-Koregaon celebrations, in fact, were criticised by people like Professor Anand Teltumbde, raising a rigorous debate on how to read aspects of Dalit history in India. But Professor Teltumbde, too, was arrested on similar accusations of conspiracy.

Sudha Bharadwaj, Shoma Sen, and other lawyers and activists arrested in this case have all challenged the unsustainable economic model adopted by successive governments that was devouring the lives and livelihoods of the poor, not necessarily a particular person in power. They have been engaged in relentless legal battles, as sanctioned under the Constitution of India, to restore respect for constitutional values. In each of their careers, neither over-throw of the state nor conspiracies for assassination have been a part.

Those orchestrating their persecution know this. The arrests of “conspirators” is from an a priori list, that has little to do with facts on the ground, some of which were revealed during the public hearings held on Bhima-Koregaon violence.

Charging human rights activists with assassination conspiracies is a leap of imagination taken by the security establishment, with the strategic silences and complicity of the courts. If the Indian State has shaken all shackles of Constitutional governance, the human rights activists, despite the intensity of persecution, are still functioning within the ethical boundaries set by the Constitutional values. Voluntarily.

The human rights advocacy is now being reduced to making petitions for chairs to sit on in the prison, basic medical care, newspapers and books to read. The very act of incarcerating the rights activists is a blot on the Constitutional governance and the courts should have risen to prevent it.

Rao and the others charged falsely, and being held without bail over the last two years in the name of Bhima-Koregaon, Elgar Parishad events or conspiracy to assassinate the Prime Minister, should be released unconditionally as undermining the processes of law and order and administration of justice to this extreme will erode the foundations of democratic governance. Once such a premise gets judicial sanction, the persecution of innocents will spread exponentially to engulf all dissent.

That most of the accused are over 60 years of age and ailing is a humanitarian issue. Justice will be served only when they are acquitted unconditionally because of the unsubstantiated accusations and subversion of justice, and not on humanitarian grounds.

The author is a former professor at Osmania University, Hyderabad. Views are personal


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