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'Release Varavara Rao': Why is Twitter Calling for Transfer of Ailing Telugu Poet from Mumbai Prison?

File photo of activist-poet Varavara Rao. (Image: PTI)

File photo of activist-poet Varavara Rao. (Image: PTI)

Varavara Rao, the 80-year-old poet and activist, has been in prison for 22 months and denied bail despite ill-health amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

A day after the family of incarcerated 80-year-old poet and activist Varavara Rao addressed the media on his allegedly deteriorating health condition, social media has been filled with angry messages calling for his release.

Rao, who has been in Mumbai's Taloja prison in Navi Mumbai since February in connection to the Elgar Parishad case from December 2017, has allegedly been ill in prison and his family fears that he might die in jail.

'Don't kill Varavara Rao in Jail'

Rao's family released a press release in which they outlined the poet's ailing condition.

Addressing the media, Rao's wife Hemlatha Rao, and daughter Pavana said that Rao had been incoherent in speech and having hallucinations. They said he was unable to take care of himself on his own. Rao, who ha been known for his eloquence, was allegedly "rambling". In prison, he is being helped by fellow activist and co-accused Vernon Gonsalves, who has been helping the esteemed Telugu poet and former professor with daily activities such as washing up and going to the bathroom.

As news of Rao's deplorable condition broke, the poet's friends, colleagues, former students, and well-wishers took to social media to share their outrage. Many questioned the logic behind denying the former professor bail despite being an ailing octogenarian in ill-health.

Who is Vervara Rao?

Rao is a revered Telugu poet, scholar and activist who is also the leader of the Revolutionary Writers Association (RWA). He is one of the most renowned names in Telugu poetry and has written nearly 15 collections of poems. Rao and 10 other activists were arrested in the Elgar Parishad-Maoist link case which, authorities believe, led to the Bhima Koregaon massacre. Rao, who was arrested along with ten others in the Elgar Parishad case, was first put under house arrest from August 2019 to November 2018. After that, he was lodged in the Pune's Yarwada jail till February 2019. He has been in the Taloja prison along with the other male accused in the case including Gonsalves, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira and others after the case was transferred to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) by the Centre in January this year.

Why is he in prison?

On December 31, 2017, Rao and all the others co-accused in the case were present in Bhima Koregaon, a small village in Pune, Maharashtra, to speak at Elgar Parishad conclave. The conclave came at a time when the area, which has a deep history of Dalit nationalist pride and rivalry with upper-caste Pehswas, was simmering after the statue of remains of a Maratha leader were found to be desecrated.

On January 1, on the 200th-anniversary celebration marking the Bhima Koregaon battle in which British troops consisting of Dalit soldiers emerged victorious over the upper-caste Peshwa troops, violence broke out between the largely Dalit crowds that had gathered to celebrate the victory and alleged saffron groups allegedly disrupted the event. At least one person was killed in the violence and several others injured. In the course of the year, Maharashtra police launched a nation-wide crackdown on activists and professors who spoke at the conclave, claiming that inflammatory speeches made at the conclave caused violence.

A history of dissent

This is not Rao's first stint in prison, however. The revolutionary poet whose works are often aimed to take shots at the ruling regime have seldom sat well with authorities and governments. He was arrested several times from 1973 to 75, first under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) in October 1973 and subsequently in connection to the Secunderabad conspiracy case in 1974 at the behest of the then Andhra Pradesh state government. He and others were acquitted in the case in 1989. The poet was again arrested during the Emergency era under then Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on the very eve of the proclamation of Emergency on 26 June 1975.

Rao also been a vocal supporter of the Telangana Movement and has even acted as an emissary for the Maoists who had been invited by the Telugu Desam Party in 2001 for negotiating peace talks.

Calls for release

Rao has been in jail for over 22 months. In this time, several activists, scholars, celebrities, thinkers, and politicians have come forth to call for the release and of Rao and his co-accused including Sudha Bhardwaj and Dr Soma Sen as well as Anand Teltumbde.

Previously, 100 intellectuals including Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, Homi K. Bhabha, and others made an appeal to the President to release Rao along with professor GN Saibaba.

Earlier in June, filmmakers such as Aparna Sen, Anurag Kashyap, and others such as actor Soumitra Chatterjee, Naseeruddin Shah, and author Amitav Ghosh launched an appeal to release Rao and other political prisoners. Several critics have referred to the arrests and denial of bail to the accused academics and scholars as a which hunt.

Since news of Rao's ill health broke out on May 28, 2020, and was temporarily shifted to JJ Hospital before being shifted back to jail, many including historian Romila Thapar as well as certain political leaders have called for providing proper medical attention to Rao. Thapar and others including Prabhat Patnaik, Devaki Jain, Maja Daruwala & Satish Deshpande have also filed an appeal in Supreme Court, seeking an urgent transfer of the poet to a hospital.

Maharashtra State housing minister Dr Jitendra Awhad of NCP tweeted his support for Rao and appealed to Home Minister Anil Deskhmukh to shift Rao to a hospital. "We are extremely worried about Varvara Rao's health condition. His possession is under Home Ministry of Central Govt and not under Maharashtra Govt. We appeal to the Central Govt to urgently shift him to a hospital," he tweeted.

Social media outrage

Since Rao's family took to the media to express their desperate concerns about Rao's deteriorating health, social media has been filled with anger and outrage against the ailing and elderly poet's incarceration. Activists such as Harsh Mander and Medha Patkar have raised their voices along with hundreds of the artists, students, academics and ordinary netizens.

Two cases of coronavirus have already been reported from Taloja prison.

Rao's bail pleas, including those filed for relief on the ground of his age, ill-health, and risk of COVID-19, have been rejected on multiple occasions.

A similar incident happened in the case of student Safoora Zargar who was incarcerated for months despite being pregnant in connection to inciting violence in Delhi in February this year. Zargar was finally given bail after multiple attempts.

In the latest update, on Monday, Rao approached the Bombay High Court seeking temporary bail owing to his deteriorating medical condition and the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic.