For the Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2019, Chitra Ramaswamy wrote a letter of solidarity to imprisoned Indian poet and activist, Varavara RaoNovember 15, 2019
Varavara Rao – or VV as he is better known – is a well-known Telugu revolutionary poet, public speaker, literary critic, journalist and political activist. His poetry has been translated into almost every Indian language. Varavara Rao is regarded as one of the finest Marxist critics in Telugu literature.
As a “prisoner of conscience”, he has been imprisoned regularly and during his periods in prison, he translated the work of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o into Telugu, and wrote his own prison diary, Sahacharulu.
In 2018, VV attended a conference organised by around 250 Dalit and Bahujan groups aimed at combatting communalism and the rise in violence by Hindutva groups, particularly in the name of cow protection. In August 2018 the Pune police carried out searches of nine rights activists, and arrested five of them including Varavara Rao. The Supreme Court ordered them to be place under house arrest. The apex court extended the house arrest until September 17, 2018. The house arrest was further extended by another four weeks by the court, before moving VV to prison.
The legal action against Varavara Rao and his fellow activists is still ongoing, with little clarity as to what is expected. He is remains in prison awaiting charge, prevented from writing or reading anything in Telugu.
In the 16 July 2020 report in newsclick.in ‘We Found Him Lying on Urine-Soaked Bed says Varavara Rao’ Family’ speaks of the terrible condition his family found him in when they visited him in JJ Hospital in Mumbai. They found him unattended except for a policeman keeping watch.
He has been in the infamous Taloja Jail in New Mumbai in spite of his frail condition, where his condition deteriorated and he has now tested positive for COVID-19 after being moved to JJ Hospital. His family’s plea for justice for Varavara Rao is based on Article 21: ‘ the Right to Life and immediately intervene’ and their prayer to the authorities ‘Don’t kill him in jail’ could apply to the writers and journalists languishing in India’s prisons in these uncertain times.
Dear Varavara Rao (or, as many know you, VV),
It has been more than a year since the Karnataka police arrested you – and four other activists – in Pune over an alleged conspiracy to assassinate Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister. You were placed first under house arrest, and then jailed despite your defence counsel, and many other supporters, claiming that not a shred of evidence exists against you. This is not the first time, I have come to discover. In your long, courageous life the days you have spent in prison have over decades mounted up to six years. You have been implicated in eighteen cases, and acquitted in all but one, which has been pending since 1986. As the son of a fellow activist detained alongside you put it, “the process is becoming the punishment”.
As the son of a fellow activist detained alongside you put it, “the process is becoming the punishment”.
I do not know you, Varavara Rao. And until I sat down to pen this letter, the first one like it I have ever written, I am ashamed to say I had never heard of you. You, a revolutionary poet, journalist, critic, public intellectual, and one of the finest Marxist critics in Telugu literature. You, a man in his late seventies, the same age as my own father, who grew up in the same southern state as you, then known as Mysore. You, a prisoner of conscience who was first arrested in 1973, six years before I, the daughter of south Indian immigrants, was born in another country. The one, in fact, that colonised your country, our country, for two centuries.
Our lives have nothing in common. The truth is, I feel self-conscious and a bit silly writing this letter to you at all because what could I possibly have to say that might offer a sliver of solace and hope to you? I, a British Indian journalist and author who has had the lifelong privilege of being able to think, write, and live as I choose? And you, a man who has also lived and written according to his beliefs, but for this fundamental human right has had his freedom seized time and time again. When I meditate on this, I am silenced. The words will not come. But then I read the generous and humane words that you, yourself, wrote when you were jailed in the 1980s and penned a prison diary – apparently with tooth-brushing sticks! – and I realise that reaching out, for whatever reason, is a mark of respect. A hand extended, across troubled waters, from another country. My country. The country where I type these words in the freedom of my own home, but also one in which democracy, in the so-called mother of parliaments, is under threat.
But then I read the generous and humane words that you, yourself, wrote when you were jailed in the 1980s and penned a prison diary – apparently with tooth-brushing sticks! – and I realise that reaching out, for whatever reason, is a mark of respect.
So if you don’t object to me quoting your own words back at you, here they are…
“A man’s death perturbs me
I may not have any acquaintance
Or I might not have the heard the name.
But when you know that he is a man
How can it be
That he is not related to you or me.”
So VV, we are not related but we are connected. I thank you for your daily resistance. You are in my thoughts. I sincerely hope our countries, and all others where there are people fighting for their rights, find their way soon.
Oh, and by the way, did you know my mother’s maiden name is Rao?
Chitra Ramaswamy is an award-winning journalist and author. Her first book, Expecting: The Inner Life of Pregnancy, was published by Saraband in April 2016. It won the Saltire First Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Polari Prize. She has essays in Nasty Women, The Freedom Papers, and The Bi:ble, and was one of the writers who contributed to Edinburgh’s 2018 Message From The Skies project. She writes mainly for The Guardian, is a columnist for the National Trust for Scotland and Holyrood magazines, and broadcasts regularly for BBC Radio Scotland. She lives in Edinburgh with her partner, two young children and rescue dog, and is currently working on her second book.