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Hindutva, Sangh Parivar, UAPA: Penguin Censors Words From Varavara Rao’s Book

References to 'revolution,' saffronisation' and 'Ayodhya' in poet Varavara Rao's poems were flagged by Penguin.

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Hindutva, Sangh Parivar, UAPA: Penguin Censors Words From Varavara Rao’s Book
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Penguin Random House India, a leading publisher in the country, has prescribed censorship of Telugu poet Varavara Rao’s poems for fear of being slapped with sedition and defamation charges, reveal comments from the legal team of the publisher, posted on the latest edit of the book Varavara Rao: A Revolutionary Poet.

The Quint has exclusively accessed a copy of the latest edited draft of the book, dated 7 May, that shows that the legal team of the publisher wants to remove the words ‘Hindutva,’ ‘Sangh Parivar,’ and ‘saffronisation’ from the book. The Quint has reached out to Penguin with queries but has not got a reply.

Varavara Rao, 84, who was incarcerated in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case is currently on medical bail. While many of his writings have been published over the past five decades, the Penguin book is expected to be the first English-translated collection of his poems.

Varavara Rao being arrested by Mumbai police in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case. 

(Photo: IANS)

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Several Words Censored

The publisher also wants references to ‘Ghar Wapsi,Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and Ayodhya to be removed from the draft. Moreover, the publisher is also not keen to retain any reference to farmers protests that rocked the country in 2020-'21.

The edit suggests that the publisher has defined for Varavara Rao the word ‘revolution’ in the book. Any reference to ‘revolution’ should be defined as “transformation to an egalitarian society through peaceful means and dialogue,” it is prescribed.

The Quint had reported in November 2021 that Penguin had stalled the publication of the book indefinitely. The book's edit is believed to have commenced after this. Poet Meena Kandasamy and writer N Venugopal are the editors of the book.

Here’s a detailed look at the changes suggested by the legal team of Penguin Random House.

Ayodhya to Saffronisation: ‘This Will Have to Go’

Varavara Rao wrote the poem Ghar Wapsi in 2017, when several right-wing outfits asked people from religious minorities in the country to return to the Hindu fold. Several mass conversions to Hinduism have been orchestrated since then. In the poem a comment from Penguin legal team reads, “Universal comment – Remove all reference to ‘Hindutva’ from footnotes and end notes.”

The poem Ghar Wapsi reads:

In the sky of this saffronised country

There is space only for the moon on chaviti

But the new moon is prohibited

The publisher has said that the phrase “saffronised country” should be “reworked.” Going by the comments, it is not clear whether this poem will be retained in the collection.

In the poem A River Born in Nasik, Varavara Rao wrote:

Blood oozing out of cracked feet

Turned into cover on their heads

Became walking red flags

Became flowers showered by the city

Power cannot but bow down

To the Unity March of farmer, forest and flowing river

The publisher has suggested that the draft should carry the clarification that “this has nothing to do with the recent farmer protests.” With reference to the poem titled Search, the publisher has said that references to “MISA, TADA, and UAPA have to go.”

In the poem, Rao wrote:

Aren’t we familiar with

Conspiracy Cases?

MISA, TADA and UAPA

And occasional arrests? I asked her

With regard to the poem Apna Surat Bombay, the publisher has noted that “This poem will be an issue. Might have to go.” In the poem the words flagged included ‘Sangh Parivar,’ ‘Ayodhya’ and the phrase, ‘six thousand red flags.’

Excerpt from the poem reads:

They’ll be relieved if the Sangh Parivar that speaks of Maathrubhoomi

Could tell them the way to get back into their mother’s womb

To hide the tiger’s roar,

Lotus opened up its smell

Saying that destruction was people’s demand

The publisher has also flagged the phrases ‘Congress culture’ and ‘Shiv Sena’ to be removed.

“Can probably be changed to Licence Raj or something else…As long as there is no identifier. The issue here is defamation not sedition,” the comment read, indicating that in other instances the publisher may have worried about sedition charges being slapped on them.

The publisher has also raised concerns about the word 'dictator' used in the poem titled Chains Write Now. Interestingly, the word just about passed the legal scrutiny as "the footnote adequately places the poem in the context of Indira Gandhi and imprisonment under MISA."

However, a subsequent comment read, "However, the only issue is that the same can easily be applied to the UAPA in current times. This is therefore a soft call on comfort levels, that needs to be taken by Penguin." Meaning, mention of the word 'dictator' with reference to current times has been regarded as problematic.

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Taking the ‘Revolution’ Out of the ‘Revolutionary Poet’

The publisher also seems to have objections to Rao’s poems which refer to what seems to be his pet subject – 'revolution.'

With regard to the poem titled Pulse, Penguin wrote, “Maybe we can have a note to the effect that references to revolution in the poems means transformation to an egalitarian society through peaceful means and dialogue (or something else on those lines) and that the poet does not himself espouse violent means.”

In another poem Reflection, Penguin has said that the meaning of the word 'revolution' must be defined in the introduction of the book. It is to be noted that Rao has not defined what 'revolution' is, in any of his poems that are now part of the collection.

In this context, almost every mention of the word ‘revolution’ or any word which can remotely imply people’s struggle including the word ‘movement,’ could stand censored.

For instance, in the poem The Day of Naming Rao wrote:

Can the empire agree

If insurrection makes

The vagrant and untitled

Valiant?

Heroes must have lineage.

The publisher has flagged the section and said, “Substitute ‘insurrection’ for a less violent word like ‘uprising’ or ‘taking a stand.’ Another comment read, “Don’t make references to CPI (ML) members. Don’t make references to CPI (Maoist) members.”

Publisher has also flagged references to the contentious Naxalbari movement in Rao's poems.

Rao wrote in the poem titled Plain Speak:

It is hard to play straight

After the lines are drawn

Nor it is good to have etiquette

While talking about Naxalbari

The publisher has flagged this and said, "We can discuss this...What if we remove the word Naxalbari?...We can discuss once the verse is changed." In another section the publisher has expressed that the poems "cannot seem supportive of Naxalism in any manner."

It should be noted that several books on Naxalbari, including those published by Penguin, are out in the market.

It is also apparent from the comments that the publisher does not want to include the context from which Rao’s poems spring.

Regarding his poem titled Books Bloomed Out of Bamboo Bush, the publisher commented, “Basically he is saying that his poetry was born out of the Naxal regions… Each of the movements referred to involves encounters. Though they are called fake here, were they proven fake in court? If so, each judgment should be cited. Else entire poem has to go.”

In the edit, references to Janatana Sarkar or people’s government were flagged as problematic. A comment read, “Cannot speak in laudatory terms about Janatana Sarkar – will be deemed seditious.”

While in poems certain words were censored, in other instances whole poems were asked to be dropped.

Kashmir and Others: Poems Dropped and Portions Flagged

Rao’s poem Kashmir Valley and Deccan Plateau, which the editors of the book Meena Kandasamy and N Venugopal had selected, will now be dropped. The publisher’s comment read, “This poem will have to go.”

Rao wrote in the poem Kashmir Valley and Deccan Plateau:

There is a valley

Only a hurt heart can see

The valley with a strong mind

Upright struggling people alone can know

In the poem The Wind in Mecca Masjid, the publisher has said that “all the statements against police will be seen to be defamatory and possibly inflammatory.” Similarly, the poem Sab Ka Naam Nandigram was flagged as having the potential to “invite charges of defamation.”

The publisher has found even a mention of India's Intelligence Bureau worthy of being removed. “Replace Intelligence Bureau with Intelligence Agencies. Generalise the language,” the comment read.

Rao wrote in his poem Postal-Mortem:

Suppose:

The Intelligence Bureau

Intent on sharpening its intelligence

Discovers new meanings in our much-read letters

And hid them

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Varavara Rao’s Editor's Response to Censorship, As Told to Penguin

Venugopal, who is Varavara Rao’s nephew and a writer, has indicated his displeasure at the suggested changes in a detailed note to the publisher in which he has said, “Is “Hindutva” also banned from the dictionary? How strange!!”

Regarding the reference in the legal opinion on 2020-21 farmers' protest, Venugopal wrote, "What is the problem even if it refers to “the recent farmer protests”? Of course, it is from 2018, much before "the recent farmer protests"."

The Quint has a copy of the response Venugopal sent to the publisher.

When contacted, both Meena Kandasamy and Venugopal refused to comment on the legal hurdles and its content. The Quint is awaiting response from Penguin Random House on the queries that we sent them and will add their response in the article when the publishing house responds.

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