Who is Varavara Rao?
“When the victory drum started
In the heart of the masses
You mistook it for a person and
trained your guns
Revolution echoed from all
Being thrown into jail is nothing new to the famous Telugu poet Varavara Rao. He has faced at least 25 cases in the last 45 years. His story can be understood through the history of these arrests and the power of his writings, his poetry, his teaching career and his political understandings and analysis of power and oppression, and the path to liberation.
Varavara Rao, or VV was born into a middle class family in Chinna Pendyala, Warangal District, Andhra Pradesh in 1940. He started publishing his poetry at age 17, in 1957, but got interested in revolutionary theory while working as a lecturer at Mahabubnagar. It was during this time that he founded a literature and poetry group called Sahithee Mithrulu and a non-political journal named Srujana to eventually join the Tirugubadu Kavulu (Rebel Poets), who were sympathetic to the armed struggle going on in Srikakulam.
During this time, VV founded the Virasam or Viplava Rachayitala Sangham (Revolutionary Writers’ Association), an association banned by the Andhra Pradesh government in August 2005. The ban was later struck down by the AP High Court in November 2005.
VV, now 74, has published 15 poetry collections of his own, besides having edited a number of anthologies. His poetry has been translated into almost all Indian languages and have appeared in Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi and Bengali. His thesis on ‘Telangana Liberation Struggle and Telugu Novel – A Study into Interconnection between Society and Literature’ published in 1983 is considered to be one of the finest works of Marxist critical studies done in Telugu. While in prison he translated Kenyan writer, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s prison diary ‘Detained’ and his novel ‘Devil on the Cross’ into Telugu. He also wrote his own prison diary Sahacharulu (1990), which was translated into English as Captive Imagination.
VV was first arrested under the infamous Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) in Andhra Pradesh, in 1973. He was then arrested during Emergency and was re-arrested at the entrance of the jail and kept imprisoned for an additional week when the Emergency was lifted. He survived many attempts on his life post-Emergency.
He was among the 46 accused of conspiring to overthrow the Andhra Pradesh government in the Secunderabad conspiracy case, and was sent to jail once again in 1985. He was also an accused in the Ramnagar conspiracy case where he was accused to have attended a meeting where the plan to kill two Andhra Pradesh Police constables was hatched. He was finally acquitted of the charges after 17 years, in 2003.
He remains a staunch opposer of neo-liberal globalisation and specifically the globalisation policies adopted by Chandrababu Naidu’s government in the ’90s. He went as an emissary for the People’s War Group in the peace negotiations between the Andhra Pradesh government and Naxalites. After multiple rounds of the talks failed, Virasam was banned only to be reinstated later. Following the banning, Rao was arrested once again in 2005 and was released in 2006. He has been arrested four-times since the formation of the new Telangana state in 2014.
VV has faced at least nine cases under the Arms Act of 1959 and the Explosive Substances Act, 1908 over the last four decades. In perhaps the most ridiculous case, he was charged with distributing bombs to ensure the success of a strike against the custodial death of a Radical Students Union activist in 1985. In response, Varavara Rao wrote a memorable poem, titled :
I did not supply the explosives
Nor ideas for that matter
It was you who trod with iron heels
Upon the anthill
And from the trampled earth
Sprouted the ideas of vengeance
It was you who struck the beehive
With your lathi
The sound of the scattering bees
Exploded in your shaken facade
Blotched red with fear
When the victory drum started
In the heart of the masses
You mistook it for a person and
trained your guns
from all horizons …
WHO IS VARAVARA RAO?
Varavara Rao (VV) was born in Warangal in 1940. He finished his MA in Telugu literature from Osmania University. He worked as a lecturer in several colleges and transformation towards revolutionary ideas started in Varavara Rao’s mind during his tenure in Mahabubnagar district.
Varavara Rao has been writing poetry since 1957. Warangal was one of the first places to respond to the Naxalbari movement, which began in Bengal in around 1967. In 1969, with Varavara Rao as one of the driving forces, Warangal saw the rise of a literary group called Thirugubatu Kavulu (Rebel Poets), which associated itself with the armed struggle going on in Andhra’s Srikakulam district then.
Virasam was formed as a culmination of the Srikakulam struggle and Varavara Rao has been a part of its executive committee since its inception. As a part of Virasam, he toured Andhra Pradesh extensively, while continuing his literary endeavours.
Inspired by the proletarian Cultural Revolution on the world stage and the Naxalite politics on the national scene, he entered into an engagement with politics and literature that was to deepen in intensity and commitment over the next five decades. VV worked as a college lecturer until 1988, and spearheaded an energetic literary magazine, Srjana, for several decades. During his many trysts with life in jail as a “prisoner of conscience”, he translated the work of Ngugi Wa Ngugi wa Thiong’o (https://ngugiwathiongo.com/) (the Kenyan novelist, activist and theorist of postcolonial literature) into Telugu, and wrote his own prison diary, Sahacharulu (1990), which was translated into English as Captive Imagination. His varied literary endeavours of the past five decades were recently collected and published in a single volume.
He has around 15 poetry collections against his name. His thesis on ‘Telangana Liberation Struggle and Telugu Novel – A Study into Interconnection between Society and Literature’ is considered to be landmark in Marxist literary criticism in Telugu.
Poetry is a Open Secret
Varavara Rao was arrested in October 1973 under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). He was also arrested during the Emergency and was kept under stringent scrutiny. Unlike other inmates who were released when the Emergency was lifted, Rao was arrested again at the entrance of the jail and kept imprisoned for an additional week.
He survived many attempts on his life post-Emergency.
He was among the 46 accused of conspiring to overthrow the Andhra Pradesh government in the Secunderabad conspiracy case and was sent to jail once again in 1985.
Rao was also an accused in the Ramnagar conspiracy case where he was alleged to have attended a meeting where the plan to kill Andhra Pradesh Police constable Sambaiah and inspector Yadagiri Reddy was hatched. He was finally acquitted of the charges after 17 years in 2003.
He went on to become an emissary for the People’s War Group in peace negotiations between the Andhra Pradesh government and Naxalites. After multiple rounds of talks failed, his organisation Virasam was banned. Following the ban of Virasam, Rao was arrested once again in 2005 under the AP Public Security Act and sent to Chanchalguda Central Prison in Hyderabad. The case was struck down under the Public Security Act on 31 March 2006 and Rao obtained bails in all other cases.
He has been arrested four-times since the formation of the new Telangana state in 2014.
Rao’s name had surfaced in the investigation when Pune police arrested Surendra Gadling from Nagpur in June 2018, in connection with the Elgaar Parishad rally case. A letter was recovered from Gadling in which Rao complimented him on the success of attack launched by Naxalites in Surjagad area of Gadchiroli. He was arrested from his home in Hyderabad on Tuesday, 28 August 2018.
Interviews with VV Rao
A Poet Against the State
The Poet as the Revolutionary
India Civil Watch
E-mail: indiacivilwatch at gmail.co