#ReleaseThePoet: Who is Varavara Rao & Why Do India’s Most Prized Minds Want Him Out of Jail?

Social Commentary

#ReleaseThePoet: Who is Varavara Rao & Why Do India’s Most Prized Minds Want Him Out of Jail?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Telugu poet Varavara Rao has been the subject of much conversation in the last few days, ever since his family held a press conference announcing that his health had been seriously deteriorating in prison.

On Monday, a month after these concerns were first raised, and a petition was signed by 2000 citizens for his release, the activist was finally sent to a hospital for treatment.

Rao, who is 81 years old, was jailed over his alleged role in the Bhima Koregaon violence of January 1, 2018. The police have said that he was among those who gave inflammatory speeches at the Elgaar Parishad event, a day before clashes broke out between Dalits and Marathas.

Among other charges, he was arrested with other prominent activists the same year, over an alleged plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

While charges against the poet, and the other activists, have yet to be proven, his bail application has been rejected twice since.

According to Scroll, an inmate said that Rao was currently not in a position to walk by himself, and needed assistance for basic activity like brushing his teeth and going to the toilet. This, coupled with fears of him catching coronavirus, has led several activists to call for his release, including prominent names like historian Romila Thapar, academic Satish Deshpande, and fellow poet and lyricist Gulzar. The academics said that there was “no reason in law or conscience to hold Varavara Rao”.

A number of concerned citizens have also taken to social media over the last month to demand that the activist be released over his deteriorating health. The calls were reminiscent of those made for Safoora Zargar’s release a month ago.

Congressman Shashi Tharoor was among hundreds of prominent faces who have called for the activist’s release on compassionate grounds.

Rao, an activist and scholar, is also the leader of the Revolutionary Writers Association. His collection of 15 poems have made him one of the most renowned names in Telugu poetry. This isn’t the activist’s first stint in prison, either. The revolutionary poet has been arrested a couple of times in the past — once in 1973 at the behest of the Andhra Pradesh government, and again in 1975 on the eve of the proclamation of Emergency.

Among his other causes, Rao was also a vocal supporter of the Telangana movement.

The activist has now spent over 22 months in prison in connection with the Bhima Koregaon incident, but is still awaiting trial. Now that he’s finally been allowed to receive treatment at Mumbai’s JJ Hospital, hopefully his condition will improve soon.