The Indian poet Varavara Rao was arrested and jailed in the aftermath of a violent protest at Bhima Koregan on 1 January 2018. Alongside ten other defendants, Varavara Rao denies all the charges raised against him. The elderly poet contracted COVID-19 while in prison and has been over two years in jail under appalling conditions without trial.
‘In India,’ Arundhati Roy wrote in 2002, ‘if you are a butcher or a genocidist who happens to be a politician, you have every reason to be optimistic.’ Roy was referring to Narendra Modi, then the head of the state of Gujarat, and now (proving Roy’s characteristic clarity of political perception prophetic) the national prime minister. Modi was implicated in the notorious 2002 Gujarat riots, in which at least 1,000 Muslims were killed.
Modi’s leadership of India since 2014 has realised on a new scale violent doctrines of Hindu nationalism and caste supremacy, alongside the corporate- and elite-oriented evisceration of the public sphere that Roy could discern in outline in the form of Modi the administrator and pogromist years ago. Modi is head of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the parliamentary wing of an extreme Hindu nationalist mass movement, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), considered by historian Benjamin Zachariah to be ‘the longest running fascist organization in the world.’
Today in India, nine people own as much as the combined wealth of the bottom five hundred million; small farmers unable to survive in competition with agri-giants like Monsanto are killing themselves in their tens of thousands every year; eight million indigenous peoples currently face forced displacement from their lands and forests by order of the Supreme Court; Muslims are demonised by the State and targeted in street-level, paramilitary violence by Hindu nationalists; while Kashmir remains under increasingly trigger-happy military occupation. Capitalism in India (as elsewhere) is nourished and sustained by a combination of state-sanctioned terror, environmental and nationalist violence, and a versatile discourse (developed by the BJP) of toxic and divisive patriotism. And that was before the catastrophe of Covid-19 arrived, presenting the opportunity, as Naomi Klein has observed, for a ‘pandemic shock doctrine‘ to be implemented.
Modi’s reign has also witnessed the dogged persecution of artists and intellectuals considered to be enemies of the BJP programme. Eighty-one-year-old Marxist and Telugu-language poet, Varavara Rao, described by supporters as now suffering from ‘deteriorating’ health and acutely vulnerable to the Coronavirus, has been imprisoned without bail since 2018: ostensibly on the charge of conspiring to assassinate Modi himself, the embodiment (as ‘strongman’) of the Hindu nationalist state in all its free-market extremism and sectarian thuggery, its vitriol and paranoia. As is true of Kurdish and Palestinian artists incarcerated for the supposedly seditious content of their works by self-described democracies – Turkey and Israel, respectively – Rao is emblematic of an art that by its very existence speaks truth to power, and, like a human mirror, exposes the ugliness and brutality by which that power maintains itself in reality. He is a poet who refuses to cater to the self-glorifying, chauvinist fantasies of national destiny that the leaders of the Indian state concoct.
The blood stained hands
Should be at the top of your voice
Rao declares in one of his most resonant poems, which goes on to suggest that the artist who can:
Come out with plain speak
That touches the heart
… will have paid some service to the human project. For Rao, crucially, this project is intrinsically revolutionary and emancipatory, as his own founding of Virasam – the Revolutionary Writers Association and his lifelong championing of the rights (as well as the languages and traditions) of indigenous and other minority populations evidences. Rao, in his poetry as in his politics, represents exactly that diversity and cultural openness, that outward-looking creativity and commitment to connection and understanding, that is the antithesis of the BJP (and other similar authoritarian, free-market and proto-fascist forces across the globe). Indeed, his poems and example may be seen as testament to, as alternative expressions of, the spirit of collective good and mutual aid that has been adopted in action by volunteers in the state of Kerala, who in cooperation with Communist and Leftist organisations have self-organised for the welfare and safety of their communities throughout the period of the pandemic. Rao’s work has always anticipated and affirmed the radical, human potential that the collective action of these volunteers has now made manifest.
Likewise, in their own way the international campaigns in solidarity with Rao demonstrate the possibility that such values exist, and that such modes of collective organisation as those above may be replicated, in other communities and situations around the globe. Including here, in Ireland, where the current centre-right coalition government has already indicated its disdain for the security and rights of low-wage, essential workers, hinting at the further defunding of the public (including culture, Irish-language, and heritage) sphere. The leader of the Irish Green Party sleeps, while the increasingly visible racism, fascism, and homophobia of the grassroots far-right threatens to normalise the idea of bigoted whiteness as the mark of ‘Irish’ identity. Against such developments, communities on the ground, artists among them, should be unafraid of learning from Rao’s work and “Yelling […] at the top of your voice” for inclusivity, mutuality, and radical democracy as the basis of our life in common.
The biography of Varavara Rao
For a full account of the life, poetry and activism of Varavara Rao, please read The Making of Varvara Rao by his nephew, N. Venugopal.
Gabriel Rosenstock speaks out on behalf of Varavara Rao
Such themes also animate Gabriel Rosenstock’s dual-language poem of support for Rao.
LITIR CHUN NA hINDIA
(An file Teileagúise Varavara Rao i bpríosún)
An mbíonn meangadh ar bhéal an bhandé Saraswati
Nuair a chuireann tú do chuid filí i bpríosún
Speabhraídí orthu, buailte ag an gCóivid,
Ina suí i lochán fuail?
An sásta atá Saraswati?
A Varavara Rao, seolaim chugat na briathra seo
Is mé ag súil go lonróidís
Ina ndeannach scaipthe
A mbéarfaidh ga gréine orthu –
A India! An ligeann tú do sholas na camhaoire
Teacht isteach ina chillín gan cuardach a dhéanamh air
Nó solas na gealaí
Nó na réaltaí i gcéin?
Éagann meangadh beannaitheach Saraswati Ar a béal
LETTER TO INDIA
(On the imprisonment of Telugu-language poet Varavara Rao)
Does the goddess Saraswati smile
When you imprison your poets
When, Covid-stricken, they hallucinate
Sitting in a puddle of urine?
Is Saraswati pleased?
Varavara Rao, I send you these words
That they might glow
Like scattered motes of dust
Caught in fleeting sunshine –
Oh, India! Do you allow
The light of dawn to enter his cell without being searched
Or the light of the moon
Or distant stars?
Saraswati’s beatific smile Is fading on her lips.
Gabriel Rosenstock is a poet, haikuist, tankaist and activist who works primarily in the Irish language. Curator of the Irish writers’ contribution to the Kerala Literature Festival 2018, where Ireland was the guest of honour, Gabriel has strong links to India’s community of writers, poets and activists.
He has put out this call to individuals, groups and schools:
It would be a consolation, indeed, if people took a few minutes today to write to him – whatever your walk of life. Send him a letter, a poem, a gift, a book – anything. If you know of any group – a school, for instance – that would send him a ‘Get Well’ card, such a gesture would be very helpful as he is being held in conditions which have worsened his many ailments.
The address to write to is: P Varavara Rao, Under-Trial prisoner, MB-238, Cell No. 2, Circle No. HP-I, Taloja Centra Prison, Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, Maharashtra, India – 410210.
One of the other Irish writers who participated at the Kerala Literature Festival in 2018 is Independent Left’s Conor Kostick. Conor is the Disputes Officer of the Irish Writers Union and raised the case of Varavara Rao at the executive as a clear example of state persecution against a poet, one that deserves a response from the whole community of Irish writers, both to condemn the treatment of Varavara Rao and to express solidarity with the embattled writer.
The Irish Writers Union joined with the Board of Scottish PEN, Wales PEN Cymru, PEN America, PEN Canada and others in signing an appeal for the urgent release of Varavara Rao.
Pen International and Varavara Rao
They plan to publish Gabriel Rosenstock’s poem Letter to India, which has also been translated into Greek.
ΕΠΙΣΤΟΛΗ ΣΤΗΝ ΙΝΔΙΑ
(Για τη φυλάκιση του ποιητή της γλώσσας
Τέλουγκου, Βάραβάρα Ράο)
Χαμογελά η θεά Σαράσβατι
Όταν φυλακίζεις τους ποιητές σου
Όταν, γεμάτοι Covid, έχουν παραισθήσεις
Καθισμένοι σε μια λίμνη από ούρα;
Είναι η Σαράσβατι ευχαριστημένη;
Βάραβάρα Ράο, σου στέλνω αυτές τις λέξεις
που μπορεί να λάμψουν
σαν σκόρπιοι κόκκοι άμμου
στο φευγαλέo φως του ήλιου –
Ω, Ινδία! Aφήνεις
Το φως της αυγής να μπει στο κελί του χωρίς να
Ή το φως της σελήνης
Ή τα μακρινά άστρα;
Το μακάριο χαμόγελο της Σαράσβατι
Σβήνει στα χείλη της.
(Greek version: Sarah Thilykou)
Sarah Thilykou is a poet, editor and translator from Thessaloniki, Greece.