Updated: Jul 18, 2020
Bengaluru: “We make only one demand. Don't kill him in jail.”
A day after a worrying phone call from Telugu intellectual, former college lecturer, political activist and poet Varavara Rao to his wife from Taloja Jail on Mumbai’s outskirts, where he is incarcerated in connection with the Bhima-Koregaon case, Rao’s nephew N Venugopal Rao broke down as he made this appeal in a Zoom press conference.
Since his arrest in June 2018, the 79-year-old, a prolific writer whose poetry has been translated into several Indian languages, has spent 22 months in three jails and has been refused bail five times.
“It’s heartbreaking. It almost appears as if they want him dead,” said poet and novelist Meena Kandasamy. “They are flouting human rights, the rights of undertrials, the rights of political dissidents. Not giving someone treatment is in effect letting them die.”
Rao is one of the ‘Bhima Koregaon 11’, a term used for 11 writers, academics, lawyers, journalists and human rights defenders arrested from across India over June and August 2018 and most recently in April 2020.
In December 2019, after the new Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress alliance in Maharashtra made public its intent to re-investigate the Bhima-Koregaon cases, the Narendra Modi government quickly transferred the investigation to the central National Investigation Agency (NIA).
Varavara was moved from Yerwada Central Jail in Pune to Mumbai’s Arthur Road Jail and then Taloja Central Jail, where nine of the 11 are imprisoned. Most are above 60, making them vulnerable to Covid-19 in the overcrowded jail.
For The First Time, Lost For Words
On 19 June, 15 members of parliament wrote a letter to Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray asking for Varavara Rao to be shifted to hospital because of his deteriorating health.
“The present level of care provided in the jail is not acceptable,” they wrote. “We request you to give him the necessary and urgent medical attention by moving him to a hospital.”
"I'm really sad that the letter did not get the attention it deserved," Manoj Kumar Jha, a member of the Rajya Sabha and the spokesperson of the Rashtriya Janata Dal told Article 14.
He added that the letter was a non-partisan appeal written because of the poet's age, deteriorating health and the Covid-19 pandemic. "I'm very happy that everyone is praying for Amitabh Bachchan and family but I'm worried that Varavara Rao doesn't figure in our collective consciousness. I feel very strongly about it."
Bachchan and members of his family have tested positive for Covid-19.
Venugopal said that when his uncle called his wife P Hemalatha on the evening of 4 July 2020, he was “not able to speak properly, confused, jumping into Hindi (they normally speak in Telugu)”.
On 11 July, when he called, he sounded worse. “He started talking about the funeral of his father that happened when he was 3 years old, about 75 years ago. He was in delirium and hallucinating,” Venugopal said, adding that Varavara Rao’s condition was a result of an electrolyte imbalance, and his sodium and potassium levels were dangerously low.
The family said his co-accused and former academic Vernon Gonsalves took the phone from him and told them that Varavara was “unable to walk on his own, unable to go to the loo, to wash himself or to brush his teeth”.
“Vernon has been assisting him all the time,” Venugopal said. “He told us
that he heard him hallucinating. He has been saying the family members were waiting at the gate to receive him as he was being released. This is extremely worrisome. The state is trying to kill him.”
Varavara Rao’s youngest daughter, Pavana, said that though her father had begun to mumble even earlier, on calls he made from jail on 7 June and 24 June, “he was able to understand what we were saying and could give us instructions about the case. But it was really very horrifying to us the way he spoke on 2 July and 11 July”.
“My father is a well known orator and speaker,” Pavana said at the press conference. “He never had to search for words before.”
Yet in the 11 July phone call Varavara Rao was unable to string together a coherent sentence, said Pavana. “There was a gap of 20 to 30 seconds between words, he kept repeating words, speaking like a child.”
No Stranger To Imprisonment
Varavara Rao is no stranger to imprisonment. From his first arrest in 1973, he has spent more than seven years in various prisons, mostly in the former Andhra Pradesh state.
In the past few decades, he has been named in 25 cases, with charges ranging from rioting and murder to use of explosives. He was acquitted in all, wrote Venugopal, his nephew, in theleaflet.in in 2018, after he was arrested for the Bhima-Koregaon case.
“His health condition has been scary for over six weeks now, ever since he was shifted in an unconscious state to JJ Hospital from Taloja Jail on May 28, 2020,” the family said in a statement issued after the press conference. “Even as he was discharged from the hospital and sent back to jail three days later, there has been no improvement in his health and he is still in need of emergency health care.”
Rao's lawyer Advocate R Satyanarayan said on his legal team were in the NIA Sessions Court on 28, 29 and 30 May to press for urgent medical attention for Varavara Rao's deteriorating health. "Through our applications we obtained orders for both Taloja jail hospital and JJ Hospital to submit reports to court. Despite clear reports of his poor health and the amended High Powered Committee's notification of 11 May saying that those above 60 and those with health issues ought to be considered for release from prison, the sessions court rejected his bail plea," Satyanarayan said.
"An appeal has been filed in the High Court which is now posted for 17 July. Meanwhile an urgent application has been moved for an earlier hearing," he added.
The police have charged the activists under the Indian Penal Code and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for inciting violence and communal enmity, “giving provocative presentations and speeches”, and said they had links to the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).
Prison has never dampened Rao’s spirit. “The imaginative political prisoner’s waiting is like an eternal flame,” he wrote in Captive Imagination: A Prison Diary, published in 2010. “It burns bright and clear as hope, flickering constantly in the winds of liberty, never for a moment ceasing its vigil.” The book is a collection of essays, written during his time in Secunderabad Jail from 1985 to 1989.
Birds perched on the barbed wire of the jail,
Jasmine shoots springing up from prisoners’ sweat.
Rao wrote these lines about what he saw in Musheerabad Jail in Secunderabad as one of 42 poets and writers accused in 1974 in what came to be known as the Secunderabad Conspiracy Case. Acquitted in 1989 after a 15-year trial, they were accused of “indulging in systematic propaganda through their writings and speeches inciting people and particularly the students to resort to violence to overthrow the Government by an armed revolution”.
Rao wrote that poetry was a synonym for suffering and a way to end suffering. “It is the way I speak to the world outside. Poetry is like a hand stretched out in friendship, a human bond,” he wrote in his book. “It is like the flutter of a heart held in an open palm.”
“Convinced of poetry’s potential for redressing imbalances in the world where people are actually killed for their convictions, V V risked his life and writing over decades,” his translator D Venkat Rao once said. “He sees poetry, love and collective struggles as primal forces to contend with the violence unleashed by the state on the nameless and common people who begin questioning.”
Chitrangada Choudhury contributed to this story
(Priya Ramani and Chitrangada Choudhury are members of the Article 14 editorial board.)