Varavara Rao - A brief sketch by N. Venu Gopal (December 15, 2005)
Varavara Rao, the best known Telugu revolutionary poet, public speaker, literary critic and emissary of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) during the latter’s talks with the state government of Andhra Pradesh, both in 2002 and 2004, is once again under incarceration. The ruling classes in this south Indian state are indulging in a cruel and undemocratic harassment against him just because his political beliefs and practice are unpalatable to the powers that be. He has been a ‘prisoner of conscience’ since 1973, moving in and out of jails, under several false cases foisted by the police. In the last 32 years, he had spent about seven years in prison and 30 years attending various cases, though the government could not prove even a single charge against him in a single court of law. As the courts go on acquitting him from the fabricated charges of prosecution, the state machinery goes on inventing newer cases against him. As an accused in eight cases right now, he is languishing in Chanchalguda Central Prison in Hyderabad.
Varavara Rao, popularly known as V.V, is a name that inspires revolutionary fervor in the hearts of millions of oppressed masses all over India in general and Andhra Pradesh in particular. The name also makes enemies of people in general and police in particular seething with anger as he has been a consistent champion of people’s right to rebel as well as a fierce critic of the wrong doings of state and its various agencies, especially police. He has been lending his voice to millions of voiceless through his poetry, essays, and speeches. It’s therefore not very unnatural that he is being harassed, persecuted and prosecuted by police on various unfounded and frivolous grounds.
Despite aged 65 and not keeping very good health for some time now, he has been in the forefront in exposing the systematic liquidation of revolutionaries, called Naxalites or Maoists in this part of the country, by the police as well as upholding the cause of revolution. Wrath of the powers that be against him is so strong that they were waiting for a pretext to pounce on him and the declaration of Viplava Rachayitala Sangham (Revolutionary Writers’ Association), of which he is a founder member, as unlawful by the government on August 17, 2005 gave the police a chance to jump at him. He was arrested in the early hours of August 19, 2005 (G Kalyana Rao, president of Virasam was also arrested a few hours later) and within the next ten days six new criminal cases were foisted against him and an old case which was dormant for over five years was dug out. By the time of writing this (December 15, 2005), the order declaring Virasam as unlawful was revoked making the case against him and Kalyana Rao redundant. He has been granted bail in some cases but the police are inventing more and more cases deliberately to prevent him from coming out of jail.
Varavara Rao is a renowned poet, journalist, literary critic, public speaker and essentially the voice of millions of voiceless masses in struggle in Andhra Pradesh, India. During the last 40 years he has been widely read and heard by millions of readers and audience. He has been writing poetry for the last four decades. He is considered as one of the best Marxist critics in Telugu literature and taught Telugu literature to graduate and undergraduate students for about 40 years. He is reputed as a great orator and had addressed hundreds of public gatherings. He founded Srjana (creation), a forum for modern literature in Telugu in 1966 as quarterly and later turned it into a monthly and successfully brought it out till 1992. He was associated with many a progressive and revolutionary journal in Telugu. As he upheld the cause of the people throughout this period of his multi–faceted activity, he became a prime target to the rage of the ruling classes. He is subjected to the harassment that he is undergoing now for his sincere and enduring proclamation to fight for the people.
Pendyala Varavara Rao was born on November 3, 1940 in Chinna Pendyala, Warangal district into a middle class family. He studied at Chinna Pendyala, Warangal and Hyderabad. He has been publishing poetry since 1958. By 1960, he finished his masters in Telugu literature from Osmania University. Thus he was trained in traditional literary forms and criticism besides being himself a poet and literary critic in his own right.
After completing his M.A. he registered for Ph.D. to pursue research on poetry. But later he left research to join a private college at Siddipet, Medak district as a lecturer. From there he switched over to DAVP, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, New Delhi to work as a Publication Assistant. Again he left the job to join as a lecturer in another private college at Jadcherla, Mahabubnagar district. He could not feel content with all these short-spanned occupations as he was basically rooted in the soil of Warangal. He longed to be in Warangal and to work amidst the masses there.
Vague humanism, ambiguous concern for the people, and illusions about Nehruite socialism marked his character of that period. Transformation towards clarity started in his mind during his tenure in Mahabubnagar district. He thought of publishing a journal to be a forum of modern Telugu literature. He founded a group, by name ‘Saahithee Mithrulu’ (friends of literature) in Warangal and started bringing out the journal from November 1966. Srjana initially was totally devoted to modern literature without any outspoken commitment towards any particular philosophical outlook.
But that period was immediately followed by an age of clarity and polarization. Ambiguity was losing ground. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution on the international arena and Naxalbari on the national scene paved the path for ‘blossoming of hundred flowers’. Warangal was one of the earliest centers in Andhra Pradesh to have responded to the call of Naxalbari. By that time Varavara Rao returned back to Warangal to join CKM College as a lecturer in 1968. In 1969 Warangal witnessed the sprouting of a literary group, ‘Thirugabadu Kavulu’ (Rebel Poets), who associated themselves with the armed struggle going on in Srikakulam then. Naturally Varavara Rao was the moving force behind this group.
At the same time, momentous changes were taking place in Telugu art and literature. A number of young writers and artists openly came out with their solidarity to the fighting masses. All the existing literary establishments were questioned. Rebellion shook the foundations of traditional, vague humanistic, romantic and degenerated “progressive” schools of literature. Some illustrious figures like Sri Sri and Kutumba Rao from older generation joined hands with the young blood in the cause of the people. Under the influence of the three-year old people’s armed struggle in Srikakulam, a yearlong efforts in the literary field brought Viplava Rachayitala Sangham into existence. Virasam declared that the martyred poet–revolutionary Subba Rao Panigrahi as its source of inspiration. Varavara Rao was one of the founder members of Virasam. Since its inception he has been on its executive committee.
As a spokesperson of Virasam, Varavara Rao toured whole of Andhra Pradesh and addressed several meetings. He had to convert Srjana into a monthly to enable it to carry the revolutionary message far and wide. He never relinquished writing poetry throughout this hectic period of teaching in a college, speaking at public meetings and editing a highly respected literary monthly.
Enraged at Varavara Rao’s political and literary activity, the government of Andhra Pradesh wanted to silence him. He was arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) in October 1973. The High Court of Andhra Pradesh struck down the order and released him after a month and a half. The High Court judgment asked the government not to resort to such actions against writers unless their writings have an immediate and direct bearing in a physical action. Taking cue from this suggestion, the government prepared a grand conspiracy case wherein all the actions of revolutionaries were shown as the direct consequences of a poem or a speech or a writing of revolutionary writers. Prominent Virasam leaders Cherabanda Raju, KV Ramana Reddy, T Madhusudana Rao, M T Khan, Varavara Rao and M Ranganatham were implicated in the case along with 41 revolutionary activists. This infamous conspiracy case, known as Secunderabad Conspiracy Case, was filed in May 1974 and ended in acquittal in February 1989, after 15 years of prolonged and tiresome trial.
In connection with the Conspiracy Case, Varavara Rao was arrested in May 1974. He was denied bail several times and finally released on conditional bail in April 1975, only to be arrested again on June 26, 1975, on the eve of proclamation of Emergency. During Emergency he was a detainee under the MISA. He was one of the few prisoners whose interviews with their relatives were restricted and their mail was subjected to stringent scrutiny. Though all the prisoners were released on the day when Emergency was lifted, Varavara Rao was arrested again at the entrance of the jail and was kept behind the bars for a week more on a fresh MISA warrant. He was released only when the new Janata government repealed the Act itself.
Post-Emergency days gave a boost to the people’s movement in Andhra Pradesh. Particularly, northern Telangana districts have witnessed an upsurge of widespread mass movements over genuine people’s demands. Varavara Rao was in the forefront to mobilize popular and democratic support to the fighting masses. He played a considerable role in attracting sympathy and solidarity towards the movement from all over the country. His activities infuriated the landlords and the police of these districts. The vested interests started planning to harass and assault him. They even thought of liquidating him physically. He survived several attempts on his life by mercenaries of landlords as well as anti-social elements. A police official at Mandamarri, Adilabad district in April 1979, beat him on a public platform.
In 1983 elections, N T Rama Rao came to power defeating Congress. N T Rama Rao very well knew the strength of the revolutionary mass movement in northern Telangana. He realized that it was a force to be reckoned with. He used this realization to woo the movement to get votes, in the first phase and later to crush the movement to consolidate his power. He praised the Naxalites for their patriotism before the elections. After coming to power he demonstrated no significant change in government policy towards the revolutionary movement. Particularly after he was elected for a second time in 1985, his government started an all out brutal assault to crush the movement. Encounter killings were continued unabatedly. The government had started giving huge amounts as rewards to the police officials engaged in fake encounter killings. The notorious police officials became a law unto them with unquestioned power and unaccounted money. Overall repression on the poorer sections of the people was let loose.
Varavara Rao too was subjected to severe repression during this time. Six false cases were foisted against him in 1985 alone. In July that year, along with functionaries of other people’s organizations, he undertook an all India tour to make the people aware of the repression that was going on in Andhra Pradesh. After visiting Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, New Delhi and Tamil Nadu, Varavara Rao returned back to Andhra Pradesh in September to attend court cases. On September 3, the police of Warangal killed Dr. A. Ramanatham, Vice-President, Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC) and a popular pediatrician in Warangal. Dr. Ramanatham was a close friend of Varavara Rao. While killing Dr. Ramanatham, and on several other occasions, police openly declared that killing Varavara Rao was their aim. With his life at risk, Varavara Rao could not discharge his duties as Secretary of Virasam and spokesperson of revolutionary literary movement. He was not able to move freely in Andhra Pradesh. Warangal has become a forbidden place for him. His house was attacked on several occasions by armed and unarmed ruffians and police in civil clothes. Persecution against his friends in the movement was also mounted. Taking into consideration all these developments, Varavara Rao chose to cancel his bail in Secunderabad Conspiracy Case. On his request, his bail was cancelled and he was sent to jail on December 26, 1985.
Even after Varavara Rao went to jail, the government continued in its onslaught against him. His family was harassed. His interviews were restricted and under severe surveillance. His mail, including registered newspapers, was censored for months together. As if this is not enough, he was implicated in two more cases while he was in jail. One of them was another conspiracy case by name, Ramnagar Conspiracy Case. Foisted in 1986, this case went on to break records and after 17 years of trial, Varavara Rao was acquitted in 2003. In 1986 one of his poetry anthologies Bhavishyathu Chitrapatam (Portrait of the Future) was banned by the state government. Through these terror tactics, the government wanted to teach Varavara Rao and other revolutionary writers a lesson for their crime of supporting people. Varavara Rao was released in 1988 when he was acquitted in Secunderabad Conspiracy Case and from 1990 onwards he started living in Hyderabad.
After a stifling repression period between 1985-89 under the Telugu Desam Party rule, the newly elected Congress government allowed a little relaxation for a short period after December 1989. While all the ruling class politicians, police and media were suggesting that the revolutionary movement died down under the iron heel for four years, the relaxation period demonstrated how strong was the mass base of the movement. Beginning from January 1990, when Virasam held its twentieth annual conference in Hyderabad to May 1990 when Andhra Pradesh Raithu Cooli Sangham held its annual conference in Warangal, millions of people attended the meetings and expressed their unity with the movement. The media reported that 12 lakh people attended the Warangal meeting, almost double the population of that city. Varavara Rao played a very important role in all these meetings as organizer and speaker. But within a short time from this massive gathering, the government revived ‘encounter’ killing policy against armed revolutionaries and began threatening sympathizers of the movement with killing of N Prabhakar Reddy, a lawyer and leader of APCLC. Varavara Rao had to shift to relatively safer Hyderabad, where he joined as a post-doctoral research scholar studying oral traditions in literature at University of Hyderabad.
In 1994, NT Rama Rao’s Telugu Desam Party came back to power on several pro-people promises. But the prevalent globalization process forced him and his pro-people policies out of power and the same globalization forces encouraged N Chandrababu Naidu to organize a palace coup against Rama Rao. Under Chandrababu Naidu’s rule Andhra Pradesh was literally sold out to MNCs on the diktats of World Bank. Varavara Rao, along with a number of intellectuals and people’s organizations stood in the forefront in exposing and resisting these policies. In a rapidly deteriorating governance, apart from letting loose the police forces, Chandrababu Naidu privatized state violence also and added a new dimension of mobilizing anti-social elements and former Naxalites into private criminal gangs and getting popular voices silenced with those hired killers. Three Central Committee members of Peoples War arrested in Bangalore and killed in cold blood. T Purushotham and Md Azam Ali, leaders of APCLC were killed by the private criminal gangs and life-threat to Varavara Rao turned immanent.
However, even as executing the worst kind of repression, the Telugu Desam government was forced to come down and accept, even if half-heartedly, a proposal to have a dialogue with the Naxalites. The initiatives for peace negotiations began in 2001 and the then Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Peoples War announced the names of Varavara Rao and Gaddar as its emissaries to work out modalities for the proposed talks. The Naxalite party was under ban at that time and these two writers were chosen as emissaries, keeping in view their yeomen services in people’s causes for over three decades then. The government had also named two ministers as its representatives and after three sittings held at a time of unabated encounter killings, Varavara Rao and Gaddar pulled out of the talks’ process, that went on between May and July 2002.
The then opposition Congress party criticized the stand of the Telugu Desam party with regard to the talks and made a categorical promise in its Election Manifesto 2004 to hold talks to arrive at a meaningful peace. The Congress came to power in May 2004 and initiated the talks’ process in June. This time round the then CPI (M-L) Peoples War named Varavara Rao, Gaddar and novelist G Kalyana Rao as its emissaries. The emissaries assumed their position on July 13 and had involved themselves in several rounds of discussions on modalities with the government including the Home Minister and the government representatives. Finally, leaders of two Naxalite parties (by then CPI - ML - Janasakthi also joined the talks process and the CPI - ML- Peoples War became CPI – Maoist) came for the talks held between October 15 and 18, 2004. After this first round of talks, the negotiating parties had to meet for subsequent rounds but the government began a spree of encounter killings in January 2005 and the Naxalite parties withdrew from the process on January 16. After some failed attempts to revive the process, Varavara Rao and other emissaries withdrew from their positions on April 4, 2005.
While the Naxalite leaders who came out for talks received respect and hospitality from the government, the same government within no time started hunting for them and killing them. Within one year of the talks the police killed over 150 Naxalite activists in a cold-blooded manner and described those events as encounters. This kind of brutality was extended to the emissaries also and the police began inventing and fabricating criminal cases against the emissaries. Yet the government continued to pay lip service to have a dialogue with the Naxalites and this desire was expressed several times by the Chief Minister, Home Minister and other important functionaries of the Congress party including the PCC President.
The cases against Varavara Rao and Kalyana Rao, who were arrested on August 19, 2005, are clearly mal-intentioned, baseless, unsubstantiated and vindictive. There is no prima-facie evidence against both of them to be implicated in any of the cases, except some grouse and vindictive attitude on the part of some top bosses of the government and police machinery.
Apart from an earlier case of 1999 (pertaining to a protest meeting against the killings of three top leaders of Peoples War), and the case regarding the ban on Virasam, the remaining six cases pertain to the period of talks between the government and the Naxalites. Varavara Rao’s position as emissary was for a particular purpose accepted by the government and for a particular period. However, just because he was an emissary of a political party at the talks, the police machinery had implicated him in all those crimes alleged to have committed by that party, after the breakdown of the talks. Beginning from Valmiki to Tikkana to Srinatha to Jnanpeeth award winner Indira Goswami who is now an emissary of ULFA, this role is played by dozens of writers and intellectuals in India and elsewhere. But in the entire history, emissaries were never treated in such an uncivilized manner as the government now treats them.
A cursory look at the six cases would reveal the mal-intentions of the police in foisting these cases:
Madigubba case: This case was registered on September 22, 2004 exactly three weeks before the commencement of the talks. Both Varavara Rao and Kalyan Rao were speakers at a public meeting at Madigubba on that date. The case against them is that they provoked the people assembled there to beat up a constable in plain clothes. But the fact is both of them were on the stage when the people started beating the constable and they immediately rushed to the spot to protect the constable. In fact the whole episode was video recorded by several TV channels and played many times on that day and later also. Thus the charges of provocation are concocted and the mal-intentions of the police are evident by the fact that they did not seek the arrest of Varavara Rao and Kalyana Rao for more than 11 months after foisting the case. Only when they were arrested under the APPS Act on August 19, a warrant was secured on August 20 from Anantapur court.
Balanagar case: This case was registered on March 18, 2005, five months after the talks and one month before they withdrew themselves from being emissaries of the Naxalites. The case against the two is that they instigated and provoked the Naxalites to kill a police constable at Balanagar. The FIR, Case Diary and the statements of police witnesses refer to the role of Varavara Rao and Kalyana Rao as emissaries and that is shown as sufficient proof of their complicity! But, their position as emissaries was accepted by the government as a legitimate position and they were accorded due respect by the Home Minister and emissaries of the government at the talks. It is incomprehensible how the same position becomes a sufficient proof for complicity in a crime.
Acchampet case: This case was registered on March 31, 2005, five days before they withdrew from being emissaries. The case is that they directed and instructed the Naxalites to kill two constables. Again it is a clear case of implicating them on a cooked up charge just because they acted as emissaries.
Chilakaluripet case: This case was booked on March 11, 2005, three weeks before the emissaries withdrew from their positions. The case against them is that they issued instructions to blast Chilakaluripet Police Station. It is also a sheer implication by imagination just because they were acting as emissaries.
Ongole case: This case was booked on April 27, 2005, three weeks after they withdrew from their positions as emissaries. The case is that they instigated and provoked the Naxalites to make an attempt on the life of the SP of Prakasam district. No need to say that they were implicated in this case as a revenge for their role as emissaries.
Manthani case: This case pertains to violation of Sec 144 at a public meeting at Begumpet, Karimnagar district. The charge of violating Sec 144 is a regular allegation of police against political adversaries and it is never dealt with such a stringent attitude as is done in this case.
Thus none of the cases against Varavara Rao stands scrutiny of rule of law, natural justice and common sense. They are mere reflections of an intolerant, ruthless, law-breaking and cruel police force.
Besides these cases, Varavara Rao is also undergoing prosecution in a case under the APPS Act, pertaining to the ban on Virasam. This case shows the utter disregard of police to the law of the land. When the government revoked the AP Public Security Act against Virasam through GO Ms No. 503 of 11.11. 2005, the cases against Varavara Rao and Kalyana Rao should have become infructuous and redundant. In the normal course, Public Prosecutor should have informed the court about the redundancy of the cases. However, even after one month, that order has not reached the court and Varavara Rao and Kalyana Rao had to undergo two adjournments of the case after the lifting of the ban.
But, either for Varavara Rao or for Virasam this kind or repressive measures, harassment and threats are not new to experience. Seven issues of Srjana were banned and Varavara Rao and his wife Hemalata have faced trials. As publisher of Srjana, Hemalata was sentenced for three years rigorous imprisonment for publishing a poem supporting 1974 Railway Strike. Their house was attacked several times. Varavara Rao was implicated in about 20 cases between 1974 and 2005 and was acquitted in 12 cases by now. However, constant trial in so many cases took a toll on his health and security of his family. At least for the last ten years, a persistent death threat is hanging above his head.
Sailing against all these odds, Varavara Rao always stood for his ideals. He never left his revolutionary spirit. His commitment was translated into practice in political and literary forms consistently. Two hundred issues of Srjana, before it suspended its publication in 1992 after the first ban on the people’s movements in the state, stand as a demonstration of remarkable achievement in pro-people literary craftsmanship.
Varavara Rao has published nine poetry collections of his own besides editing a number of poetry anthologies. His poetry collections are: Chali Negallu (Camp Fires, 1968), Jeevanaadi (Pulse, 1970), Ooregimpu (Procession, 1973), Swechcha (Freedom, 1978), Samudram (Ocean, 1983), Bhavishyathu Chitrapatam (Portrait of the Future, 1986), Muktakantam (Free Throat, 1990), Aa Rojulu (Those Days, 1998), and Unnadedo Unnattu (As it is, 2000). His poetry has been translated into almost all Indian languages. His poetry collections appeared in Malayalam, Kannada and Hindi and a few Bengali and Hindi literary journals brought out special numbers of his poetry and writings. Besides a number of articles on particular occasions, his thesis on ‘Telangana Liberation Struggle and Telugu Novel – A Study into Interconnection between Society and Literature’ (1983) is considered to be landmark in Marxist literary criticism in Telugu. He published three volumes of literary criticism and a volume of his editorials in Srjana. During his prison days he translated Ngugi wa Thiongo’s prison diary Detained and novel Devil on the Cross into Telugu, besides writing his own prison diary Sahacharulu (1990).
These writings of Varavara Rao speak volumes of his strong bond with the people and his dedicated belief in people’s struggle for better life. By going through any of these writings one can easily understand that the revolutionary fervor of Varavara Rao cannot be crushed, whatever be the attempts of the reactionary forces. In 1973 he wrote,
When crime assumes power
And hunts people treating them as criminals
Everybody who has a voice and keeping silent
Is also a criminal
Varavara Rao would not want to be a criminal and that’s why the real criminals who assumed power are implicating him in criminal charges. The last four decades of his life is a testimony to his determination and the state’s assault on that determination.
December 15, 2005