All About Varavara Rao’s Tryst With Poetry, Politics & Prison

The poet has been in jail since 2018 for allegedly inciting violence but no charges have been brought against him.

Updated
India
3 min read
Jailed poet-activist Varavara Rao has tested positive for COVID-19 in jail.
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Writer-activist Varavara Rao, who has been serving time in prison in connection with the Elgar Parishad case, was tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday.

Doctors said he was asymptomatic, but unable to walk due to weakness.

His family members had raised concerns that he was being treated badly and that his health condition was deteriorating. In a virtual press conference, his family had said that Rao had been “incoherent” in a phone call on 11 July, and was speaking of incidents that had taken place decades ago. His inmates even said that he was not able to perform even basic chores on his own.

The 80-year-old was shifted to J J Hospital from Taloja Central Jail in Navi Mumbai after he complained of dizziness. He is also showing signs of dementia.

He has been in jail since 2018 for allegedly inciting caste violence, which he has strongly denied and no charges have been formally brought against him.

Here is all you need to know about the poet-scholar.

Varavara Rao, The Poet

Rao is a prolific poet who has over 15 poetry collections to his name.

Born in 1940 in a middle-class Telugu Brahmin family in a village in Warangal (then part of Nizam State), Rao began writing poems at the age of 17.

He did his post-graduation in Telugu literature from Osmania University in Hyderabad and began work as a lecturer in a private college after completing his education. He then worked as a publication assistant at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in Delhi. He has taught in colleges across the Telangana region, in places like Siddipet, Jadcherla and Warangal.

Rao’s poetry has been strongly influenced by Marxist philosophy.

He started a group called Sahithree Mithrulu (Friends of Literature) which founded Srujana, a literary Telugu magazine, in 1966.

Rao is 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.

He even wrote a prison diary, Sahacharulu in 1990, which was translated into English as Captive Imagination. While in prison, he translated Kenyan writer, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's prison diary Detained and novel Devil on the Cross into Telugu.

Rao’s Idea of Politics

During the late sixties and early seventies in Andhra Pradesh, the Srikakulam Armed Peasants’ Struggle (1967-70) demanded more equitable land rights, and then in 1969 began the Telangana statehood agitation.

During this time, young poets such as Rao were instrumental in the formation of the Tirugubatu Kavulu (association of rebel poets) in Warangal. In 1970, he became a key member of the executive committee of the Viplava Rachayitala Sangham or Revolutionary Writers’ Association.

The association was later banned by the Andhra Pradesh government. Popularly known as Virasam, the group was formed as a culmination of the Srikakulam struggle and aimed at publishing politically outspoken writers.

Rao was deeply impacted by the 1967 Naxalbari uprising in Bengal.

Meanwhile, Srujana that started off a space for modern literature, allegedly began propagating Maoist ideology.

A volume of his editorials was also published in Srujana.

As part of an openly anti-establishment organisation, Rao traveled across the state speaking to peasants.

Rao’s Tryst with the Police

In 1973, the Andhra Pradesh government arrested Rao under the then Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) on charges of publishing pieces that were accused of being sympathetic to Maoist causes. He was arrested again in 1975 and several other times in connection with the Secunderabad conspiracy case, Ramnagar Conspiracy case, among others.

He was accused of attending a meeting where the plan to kill Andhra Pradesh Police constable Sambaiah and inspector Yadagiri Reddy was plotted. After 17 years, he was acquitted of all charges in 2003.

In 2005, Rao went as an emissary for the People's War Group in peace negotiations between the Andhra Pradesh government and the Naxalites, when he was arrested again.

Since the formation of the new Telangana state in 2014, he has been arrested four times.

The Elgar Parishad Case

In August 2018, Rao was arrested from his residence in Hyderabad for his alleged involvement in the Bhima-Koregaon violence. Police had claimed that speeches made at the event on 31 December 2017, were partially responsible for instigating violence.

In the last 22 months, several bail requests made by Rao due to his poor health condition has been rejected.

Anand Teltumbde, Vernon Gonsalves, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Arun Ferreira, Gautam Navlakha, Sudhir Dhawle and Rona Wilson are other activists in the same jail, booked under UAPA apart from Rao.

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