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Indian poet and activist Varavara Rao shifted from prison to hospital due to deteriorating health

Originally published: Peoples Dispatch on July 13 & 15, 2020 by Vennelakanti Ramarao (more by Peoples Dispatch)  | (Posted Jul 17, 2020)

On July 13, Monday, Indian poet and activist Varavara Rao, who is a political prisoner, was shifted from the Taloja prison to the JJ Hospital in Mumbai following a drastic deterioration in his health. Over the weekend, his family had said that Rao, who is 79 years old and has been in prison since late 2018, was beginning to suffer from brain damage.

Varavara Rao is one of the 11 political prisoners arrested in the controversial Elgar Parishad case. He is accused of the outlandish charge of being associated with banned maoist outfits and plotting the murder of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Critics say that Rao, a renowned Telugu intellectual, poet and a professor, is being harassed for being critical of the current establishment.

On the evening of July 11, when Varavara Rao’s wife, Hemalata, 72, asked him over phone if he was okay, he struggled to comprehend the question. “He started talking about his father’s funeral instead,” said a concerned N. Venugopal, Varavara Rao’s nephew.

His father died when he was three years old. It was 75 years ago. He was hallucinating.

Concerned about the deterioration in his health, Rao’s family held a virtual press conference on the morning of July 12 to make some of the details public.

Varavara Rao was first admitted to JJ Hospital in Mumbai on May 28 after he had fallen unconscious in jail. “He was under medical supervision for three days,” his nephew said. He claimed that he was discharged hurriedly on June 1 so “National Investigation Agency [which is probing the case] and prosecution could argue in court that he was fine at the time of discharge.”

In the next 41 days Rao was in prison, the family members spoke to him four times and experienced a steady, alarming deterioration in his health. The four calls happened on June 7, June 24, July 2 and July 11. “The first call was okay,” said Venugopal.

In the second call, his voice was weak, he was incoherent and confused.

On July 2 as well, Rao couldn’t speak properly. But it was the last call on July 11 that sent tremors among the family members.

Besides talking about his father’s funeral, he spoke like a child, said Pavana, his youngest daughter. “My father remembers old, historical dates,” she said.

He is an orator, a public speaker. He has never had a problem with words. But in the last two phone calls, he couldn’t speak with fluency. Between every word, there was a gap. When we asked how he was, he kept repeating ‘I’m good, I’m good’, like a child. It was horrifying.

A tearful Venugopal added, “Don’t kill him in jail. His brain is getting damaged,” after which, Rao’s wife, Hemalata took over and addressed the press in Telugu. She broke down in the middle of the address, which is when Pavana spoke.

At the time of the call, Rao’s co-accused Vernon Gonzales, human rights activist, was with him. Vernon informed the family members that Rao has been “unable to walk on his own, unable to go to loo on his own, unable to brush on his own. Someone is assisting him.” Vernon further told the family that Rao has been hallucinating in the prison hospital, saying his family members are at the gate since he is being released. “We asked him about the treatment inside the hospital and Vernon specifically told us there is no treatment,” said Pavana.

The Elgar Parishad case has to do with violence that broke out in the State of Maharashtra in 2018. Initial investigations pointed to the role of Hindu right-wing fundamentalists. However, the case soon shifted track and activists, left-wing intellectual and critics of the government became suspects.

Ever since the outbreak of coronavirus, the family members of prisoners lodged in the case have been demanding bail on medical conditions. Rao, among them, is in the most precarious state with several comorbidities.

During a pandemic, even if prisons are packed to their original capacity, it is said to be dangerous for the well-being of prisoners. In Maharashtra, the prisons are seriously overcrowded and fertile ground for the spread of coronavirus.

Therefore, on March 23, the Supreme Court of India asked the state governments to decongest prisons in order to prevent the spread of the disease. The Maharashtra government, led by Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, subsequently constituted a high-power committee (HPC) to decide on the release of prisoners.

However, as of May 31, Maharashtra’s 60 prisons had 28,920 inmates. According to the data on June 19, that number stands at 28,950. In other words, 30 prisoners have instead been added in the 20 days of June. The official capacity of all the prisons in the state is actually 24,030. In order to be a safe space during a pandemic, the prisons need to be decongested down to 16,000 inmates.

In Taloja Central Prison, located in Navi Mumbai, there were 2,186 inmates on May 31. On June 19, that number increased to 2,313. The original capacity of the prison is 2,134.

Venugopal said the family is used to fabricated cases being lodged against Rao, but he has always come out clean. But he was in good health then.

Eventually, with a lump in her throat, and in a quivering voice, Pavana concluded,

If a poet and intellectual like Varavara Rao is going to die in jail because of negligence of the government, that would be pathetic.

(A version of this story, written by Parth MN, was originally published on Newsclick on July 12. It has been updated to reflect recent developments.)

Justice vs. poetic justice

Global corporates and their surrogate political thugs are trying to resolve this crises by Fascism. By crushing the intellectuals who questions, the working class who struggles.


‘I did not supply the explosives
Nor ideas for that matter
It was you who trod with iron heels
Upon the ant hill
And from the trampled earth
Sprouted the idea of vengeance…(REFLECTION–Varavararao,1985)

…. it was the ‘poetic reflection’ of the social dynamics expressed by renowned Indian Telugu poet, journalist, literary critic, public sspeaker Pendyala Varavararao (V.V.) of that time. It explains.. Poetic Justice ie., the fact of experiencing a fitting or deserved retribution for one’s actions. But in the era of Post-truth, as ‘disappearance of shared objective standards of truth’ becomes the order of the day, the essence of ‘poetic justice’ has been upturned. ‘Ant hill’ turned into Cobra’s residence, and that was troded or challenged by the intellectuals (literary and civil rights activists) by their social activities are received poetic justice in the form of imprisonment in different times. V.V. has been lodged in Yerawada jail in connections with Bhima Koregaon case or Elgar Parishad case in November 2018 and then shifted to Taloja jail, Navi Mumbai, India. Public intellectuals with distinguished records as human rights activists have been booked under the provisions of Unlawful Activities (prevention) Act (UAPA), which allow extended detention without trial and bail. Over 130 renowned intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, Nancy Fraser, Indrani chatterjee, Suvir kaul, Wendy Brown and Homi k Bhaba and others from across the world have appealed to President of India, and Chief justice of India for the release of differently abled Prof. G.N. Saibaba (90% disabled with post-polio syndrome) and octogenarian poet (81years) V.V. who are in Maharashtra prisons amid covid 29 outbreak. V.V. is a under trail in Elgar parishad case, while Saibaba is convicted. Both are imprisoned in different cases, facing common charges like links with Maoist party of India, indulging in activities amounting to waging a war against the country. the duo’s deteriorating health conditions, the Covid outbreak in prison posed an increased danger to their lives and they should be immediately released on bail Saibaba who suffers from a number of life-threatening ailments including acute pancreatitis, cardiac complications, hypertension and impacted gallbladder stone, has lost most of the functioning of both his hands since he was imprisoned. While the poet has been suffering from various health ailments in the crowded jail. By the plea of his family members and several sections of the society, V.V. has been admitted to neurology department JJ Hospital in Mumbai.

One of the supreme court benches of India led by Justice Madan B Lokur stated (March, 2020_) that ‘Another important facet of our criminal jurisprudence is that the grant of bail is the general rule and putting a person in jail or in a prison or in a correction home is an exception. Unfortunately, some of these basic principles appear to have been lost sight of with the result that more and more persons are being incarcerated and for longer periods. This does not do any good to our criminal jurisprudence or to our society. To put it shortly, a humane attitude is required to be adopted by a judge while dealing with an application for remanding a suspect or an accused person to police custody or judicial custody. The requirements of Article 21 (right to live with dignity) of the Constitution and the fact that there is enormous overcrowding in prisons, leading to social and other problems. The grant or refusal of bail is entirely within the discretion of the judge hearing the matter and though that discretion is unfettered, it must be exercised judiciously and in a humane manner and compassionately.’ However, they have been conspicuously reluctant to apply this rule in V.V. and others case. Bail pleas have been rejected several times, because he is a senior member of Maoist party, and that he conspired to organize the Elgar Parishad violence. But his advanced age and decandence of health condition clearly indicate that he is no condition to derail the investigation or tamper with evidence. He may be a member of Maoist party that doesn’t matter. ‘The membership of a proscribed organization is not sufficient reason to deem a person as a criminal’ was a ruling given by Supreme court in the past. By this ruling Supreme court negated the Clause-‘the extended detention without trial and bail’ in UAPA. In lieu of that ruling V.V. and his co accused should be given bail. In practice, jurisprudence uprooted into Jail is rule, bail is an exemption.

V.V. is a worshipper of revolution, poet and journalist from Telangana. Known as a Marxist critic, V.V. has written several articles and addressed public gatherings condemning the social system. He was also one of the founders of the Revolutionary Writers’ Association, popularly known as Virasam. He is also considered to be a prolific poet, having published 15 poetry collections of his own. V.V. has been arrested on multiple occasions. He has been arrested four-times since the formation of the new Telangana state in 2014. In connection with an alleged plot by Maoist extremists to assassinate PM Modi, besides V.V., Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bhardwaj and her daughter Anu Bhardwaj were arrested. V.V.’s name had surfaced in the investigation in connection with the Elgaar Parishad rally case. nearly two years ago that the Elgar Parishad, a public gathering of Dalit and Left-leaning groups in Pune on December 31, 2017, was organized to commemoration event by Dalit groups at Bhima Koregaon On January 1, like every year, lakhs of Dalits poured into Bhima Koregaon. The commemoration has a record of being conducted peacefully and the village’s residents have a history of social harmony. In the battle that took place on 1 January 1818 in the village of Koregaon, the British Army comprising Dalit Mahars had defeated upper-caste Peshwas representing Maratha ruler Baji Rao Peshwa. The battle has been seen by the ‘lower-caste’ Mahars as a triumph of their community over the oppressive Peshwas, and has been celebrated on the first day of every new year as an exemplar of Dalit valour and sacrifice. But The battle has come to be seen as a “symbol of Dalit pride“. Ambedkar visited the Bhima-Koregaon war memorial on the 109th anniversary of the battle in 1927. The memorial–a pillar–was constructed in remembrance of the soldiers who died in the battle, and it is said that the pillar included the names of 22 Dalit Mahars who had fought in the battle. Hence, it has been celebrated by the Dalit over the years. The 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence refers to attack on visitors by anti social elements regarding upper castes, and also Hindu fanatics during an annual celebratory gathering at Bhima Koregaon to mark the 200th year of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon victory. Protests broke out violently in several places.. V.V. complemented one of the Dalit leaders organized counter attack. Investigators claim to have unearthed a conspiracy and arrested political activists from across the country–most of them had not attended the Parishad. In August 2018 five activists, including Varavara RaoArun FerreiraSudha Bharadwaj and Gautam Navlakha, were picked up in simultaneous raids across the country, the police alleged that the activists had ties to Maoists, apart from links to the Bhima Koregaon incident. Whatever be the accusations of investigators, it is necessary to have a speedy trial and closure in the case. Keeping renowned and widely respected writers and academicians and civil liberty activists, particularly who are in advanced age and precarious health conditions, as prolonged undertrials without any trial kept in prison under suspicion doesn’t befit a liberal democracy. Which is against democracy that respects freedom of speech, the fundamental right to a fair trial including bail.

Since 2008 the spiralling world socio-economic-ecological (epochal) crisis is at the verge of the Abrupt changes. Several worst world class scenarios are worth exploring. The Masters of Universe Billionaire class and its surrogate political regimes are springing across the globe. In U.S., EU, Russia, China and elsewhere in the Globe Fascist or semi Fascist or draconian authoritarian\small ethnic fascist states came into power. In the COVID-19 scenario Hungary prime minister viktor Orban took the decree of indefinite Rule for himself. Neo Fascism has become the phenomenon now. This is not because of Carona pandemic, but because of Socio-economic-ecological crisis is viraling in the world. Epochal crisis is nothing but virulent phenomenon arising from the corpse of decadent capitalism.

Despite the fact that epochal crisis, these surrogate politicians of billionaire class will want to sustain control. They may think that the fear of the epochal crisis which has made people accept oppressive measures, can be maintained indefinitely through the media and other ideological means they control. Like the lord of the castle, who threw a few gold and silver coins to the starving peasants during famines after bad crops, the lords of today’s capitalism put in effect “quantitative easing,” which is a euphemism for printing a massive amount of money. These measures cannot protect the sinking Global economy. It’s on life support. Global North’s Monopoly capitalism, Global South’s Bureaucratic capitalism is in neck deep crisis. Global corporates and their surrogate political thugs are trying to resolve this crises by Fascism. By crushing the intellectuals who questions, the working class who struggles… But there is no such Global Revolutionary political party which can lead people to resolve these crises by Revolution. In these conditions electoral democratic process has become..

The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.
― Karl Marx

-Vennelakanti Ramarao

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Ex- journalist…

Andhra pradesh-India