There was neither common sense nor political sense in putting Telugu poet and activist Varavara Rao in jail two years ago without trial and bail. He did support Naxalite excesses, but jailing a writer for that is equivalent to giving his writing more mileage. As it happened, authorities excelled themselves in foolishness. In jail, Rao was hit by COVID-19. He was found lying “on a soiled bed soaked in urine with no one to attend to him,” turning delirious often. The National Human Rights Commission had to interfere to get him moved to a hospital.
JNU’s Sharjeel Imam was in a similar plight at the other end of the country, Guwahati. Out of 1,100 inmates in the central jail there, 600, including him, caught the disease. Small wonder because, as Sharjeel’s relatives reported, “hundreds of positive patients are being forced to live in inhumane conditions inside the jail.”
What does the Indian state gain by being inhumane? It must have known that such tactics would not break a man like Rao. He had spent 10 years in various prisons under the orders of various governments.
The law saw him as an offender when violence rocked the Bhima Koregaon village near Pune in 2017-18. Dalits and their Leftist supporters had held the Elgar Parishad, a commemoration event to mark the 200th anniversary of a battle. When violence followed, the Pune police took the BJP-sponsored position that the Parishad was arranged by communist forces to “spread rebellious thoughts”. The ridiculousness of this line stood exposed when two retired judges came forward and said they were “the main organisers and sole funders” of the Parishad. One of them said their aim was to defend the Constitution by fighting Hindutva forces.
The BJP looked foolish. It overplayed its hands when it produced a letter said to have been found in the house of an arrested ‘Maoist’ with details of a plot to assassinate the prime minister, mentioning even the names of the conspirators. Are our Maoists so amateurish? No secret organisation worth its name would put operational details in a callously kept letter. Yet, the BJP propagandists thought that the world would take its word as gospel.
The police lost more face when its arrest list included Sudha Bharadwaj, widely admired not only for her political daring but also for her decision to give up her American citizenship (she was born there), the opposite of what ambitious Indians dream about. As an Indian, she was of course at the mercy of the police who did not even pretend to frame charges against the arrested persons. Bail was rejected repeatedly.
Varavara Rao was a proclaimed Marxist and some of his ideological convictions were of the extremist kind. His defence of Maoist excesses was not acceptable to many. But his was an intellectual approach to politics, and it was important that it was countered by intellectual arguments. Police approach not only did not solve the problem; it left the intellectual foundations of the problem unchallenged.
In all, 25 cases, including murder and use of explosives, were filed against Varavara Rao. Prosecution failed to prove a single charge and the man was acquitted in all cases as “not guilty”. The first imprisonment in 1973 under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act was invalidated by the Andhra Pradesh High Court on the ground that writers could not be imprisoned unless their writings were directly linked to crime. In this case, the jail term was directly linked to creativity. Rao wrote a bunch of poems that appeared in a 1974 collection titled “In Jail.” The poet in him was not in jail at all as he wrote: “This is jail for the voice and the feet/But the hand hasn’t stopped writing/The heart hasn’t stopped throbbing.”
Almost half of Varavara Rao’s body of work was done in jail. He never departed from his independent, anti-establishment standpoint as he wrote poetry, translations, essays plus a whole book on literary criticism. He remained defiant all the time, referring to “the murder of literary creations” in the course of “watches, searches and raids”. A collective of writers protested against his being treated cruelly.
Of course, they knew the reasons for the treatment meted out to him. The whole world knew the reasons. And the reasons were old, familiar ones. They stemmed from authorities with a guilty conscience trying to cover their sense of guilt with more guilt. That is all that authorities know. That is all they want to know. That is how small they are.