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‘How Can My Resistance Be Called Violence?’: Varavara Rao

Oxford Uni grad & scholar, Zeena Oberoi, shares her memories of working with & learning from Varavara Rao.

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Image of Varavara Rao used for representational purposes.
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I was a young research student when I first crossed paths with Varavara Rao. It was the summer of 2018, and I was working on social movements and women’s activism in Telangana. Within weeks of arriving in Hyderabad, I started hearing about Varavara Rao, or VV, as he is fondly known, by activists and intellectuals from across the social spectrum.

It was after a conversation with a member of a women’s organisation that I decided to meet with VV in his apartment in old Hyderabad. What follows is a short account of our first meeting.

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Varavara Rao: A Man Of Poetry, History, Philosophy

I turned up at the old apartment complex at 11 AM, with a slight sense of apprehension and self-doubt, that usually comes before my first encounter with a person of his stature.

We sat in his drawing room with a table full of books that he had taken out for me to take back and read.

Hemalatha, his wife, sat across from us, watching intently and curiously, but since our conversation was primarily in English, she spoke very little. VV spoke in a soft but determined tone. His mastery over the language was a true testament to the great college lecturer he had been in Warangal, where he had taught Telugu language and literature.

His speech was interspersed with poetry and history, and he would often quote Marx, Thompson, Marquez, and even the Mahabharata with such familiarity that I was sure he knew the texts and their authors intimately. What started as a discussion on various people’s struggles across Telangana soon turned into a conversation about life and all its many tragedies and wonders – particularly violence as a philosophy, and the persecutions he faced.

Snapshot
  • Varavara Rao’s speech was interspersed with poetry and history, and he would often quote Marx, Thompson, Marquez, and even the Mahabharata.
  • Varavara Rao is no stranger to violence.
  • Over the years, Varavara Rao’s life has been at risk from a range of organisations, whether State-backed anti-Maoist para-forces or the right-wing.
  • The poet-activist moved homes twice, first from Warangal to Hyderabad, and then later out of Telangana, due to numerous death threats.
  • “Violence is the characteristic of an uneven society... The State has all kinds of state machineries and capital at its disposal to practice violence, whereas I have nothing... How can my resistance then be termed as violence?” –– Varavara Rao to Zeena Oberoi for The Quint.
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‘Violence Is The Characteristic Of An Uneven Society’: Varavara Rao

VV is no stranger to violence. Over the years, Varavara Rao’s life has been at risk from a range of organisations, whether State-backed anti-Maoist para-forces or the right-wing. He moved homes twice, first from Warangal to Hyderabad, and then later out of Telangana, due to the numerous death threats he received. Yet, his fearless spirit for defending the rights and liberties of marginalised communities across India did not falter, and till date, he stays true to his Marxist ideology.

When questioned about his views on violence, his response was:

“Violence is the characteristic of an uneven society. In general, unevenness is violence. When you talk about violence, the hierarchical treatment in a system (whether it is the Brahmanical or patriarchal) is itself a form of violence. Hence, resistance to this cannot be called violence. The State has all kinds of state machineries and capital at its disposal to practice violence, whereas I have nothing except for my body and my hands to work. How can my resistance then be termed as violence?”
Varavara Rao to Zeena Oberoi for The Quint

‘It Is My Wife Who Faced the Worst of My Arrests’: Varavara Rao

There is a sad irony to Varavara Rao’s above statement. The violence of the State he theorised for me two years ago is clearly visible in the unfathomable forms of mental and physical violence he is being subjected to today.

He might have talked about the body as a form of resistance, but how does one resist when even the autonomy to one’s body has been denied by the oppressor?

When the system is intent on creating more nameless and voiceless citizens through repeated institutional violence (especially in the rising number of seemingly fabricated arrests under the UAPA), does it not become imperative that we act on the behalf of those facing this suppression?

The State’s violence is not isolated to Varavara Rao, as violence is never solely about the individual. The torment inevitably permeates beyond the prison walls and reaches their social nexus. This was apparent when Varavara Rao spoke to me about the three different times he had been arrested and/or persecuted by the State: the Secunderabad conspiracy case (May 1974-April 1975); the Emergency (imprisoned for 21 months); and imprisonment under TADA between 1985-89.

His memories were less about his ordeals as an individual and more about the impact it had on those around him. 

He told me:

“It is my wife, not me, who faced the worst of these arrests.”
Varavara Rao to Zeena Oberoi for The Quint
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‘Now My Children Are Grown Up & Married. My Wife Will Have To Face All This Alone’: Varavara Rao

“At the time of my first arrest, my daughters were only 8 and 5 years old. The second arrest was 18 days after my 3rd daughter was born, and I was in jail for 11 months. I was in Secunderabad jail and my wife had to come meet me all the way from Warangal. She faced more ordeals than me. Most of the time, Hemalatha was alone. In a poem I have mentioned that, ‘I lived with the people oppressed more than I lived with my wife or with my mother.’ All the repression has been mostly faced by her and my children.”
Varavara Rao to Zeena Oberoi for The Quint

It was hard not to notice the pride, love and longing for lost time in VV’s voice when he spoke of Hemalatha and his family. Talking about the Bhima Koregaon case and the possibility of his arrest, it was not fear but visible anguish as he looked across at Hemalatha, when I met them.

“When I face any kind of risk, the anxiety and tension is more to her than to me. Now the children have also grown up. They have married, they have gone to their own homes. She will have to face this all alone now.”
Varavara Rao to Zeena Oberoi for The Quint

‘I Will Always Be Grateful For Varavara Rao’s Guidance & Camaraderie’

For someone who has devoted his life to the people’s struggle –– how can we calmly watch him suffer in such inhuman conditions today?

Two weeks after our last meeting, Varavara Rao was arrested under the UAPA in connection with the violence that broke out in Bhima Koregaon. There are many others who can talk about Varavara Rao in more detail, and I do not claim to know him that well. All I can say is that I will always be grateful for the guidance and the camaraderie I felt in our short acquaintance. As VV’s health deteriorates, away from his family, away from Hemalatha, the poet-activist’s words echo in my mind:

“I do not see these birds

Flying into the sky

As the silence of dusk

Fills the lock up,

I only see pigeons huddling in the corner.

Fresh winds hot with the breath of conviction

Never blow across these walls.

Blindfolded bullock-like

Chewing the cud of old memories

I crave the winged speed of letters

Which hampered by melting thoughts

Stubbornly refuse to stir.” - Varavara Rao, Captive Imagination: Letters from Prison(2010)

Today, I do not weep with sorrow but with rage – at the blatant injustices by the State against an artist, a revolutionary – but most importantly a comrade and a mentor.

Today, like Varavara Rao and many others before him, I use my words to mark my resistance and offer my solidarity. I only hope that you can hear me.

(Zeena Oberoi has an MPhil in Development Studies from the University of Oxford’s Department of International Development (ODID). She is currently a research consultant for RISE (Research on Improving Systems of Education), where she focuses on education policies in Bihar. She tweets @OberoiZeena. This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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