In collaboration with maraa, The Polis Project launched Profiles of Dissent — a new series centers on remarkable voices of dissent and courage in India, and their personal and political histories, as a way to reclaim our public spaces. These are prominent writers, poets, activists, and human rights defenders who have been in prison, held under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. They are accused of being members of a banned Maoist organization, plotting to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and inciting violent protests in Bhima Koregaon.
By The Polis Project and maraa
28 May 2020
“At no time have governments been moralists. They never imprisoned people and executed them for having done something. They imprisoned and executed them to keep them from doing something. They imprisoned all those prisoners of war, of course, not for treason to the motherland…They imprisoned all of them to keep them from telling their fellow villagers about Europe. What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve for.”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956
‘Political Prisoner’ is a category of criminal offense that sits most egregiously in any civilized society, especially in countries that call themselves liberal democracies. It is a thought crime: the crime of thinking, acting, speaking, probing, reporting, questioning, demanding rights, and, more importantly, exercising one’s citizenship. But these inhumane incarcerations do not just target private acts of courage, they are bound together with the fundamental questions of citizenship, and with people’s capacity to hold the State accountable. Especially States that are unilaterally and fundamentally remaking their relationship with their people. The assault on the fundamental rights has been consistent and ongoing at a global level and rights-bearing citizens are transformed into consuming subjects of a surveillance State.
In this transforming landscape, dissent is sedition, and resistance is treason.
While the Indian State has a long history of ruthlessly crushing dissent, a new wave of arrests began in 2018. Eleven prominent writers, poets, activists, and human rights defenders have been in prison, held under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. They are accused of being members of a banned Maoist organization, plotting to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and inciting violent protests in Bhima Koregaon. To date, no credible evidence has been produced by the investigating agency, and those accused remain incarcerated without bail. Since the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protest began in December 2019, students, activists, and peaceful protesters have been charged with sedition, targeted with violence, and subjected to arrests. Since then, more arrests have followed specifically targeting local Muslim students leader and protestors, including twenty-seven-year-old student leader Safoora Zargar, who is currently pregnant.
Since the COVID-19 lockdown was announced, India’s leading public intellectuals, opposition leaders, writers, thinkers, activists, and scholars have written various appeals to the Narendra Modi government for the release of India’s political prisoners. They are vulnerable to COVID-19 contagion in the country’s overcrowded jails, where three coronavirus-related deaths have already been reported. In response, the State has doubled down and rejected all the bail applications. It also shifted the seventy-year-old journalist Gautham Navlakha from Delhi’s Tihar Jail to Taloja, without any notice or due process – Taloja is one of the prisons where a convict has already died of COVID-19.
A fearful, weak State silences the voice of dissent. Once it has established repression as a response to critique, it has only one way to go: become a regime of authoritarian terror, where it is the source of dread and fear to its citizens.
How do we live, survive, and respond to this moment?
In collaboration with maraa, The Polis Project is launching Profiles of Dissent. This new series centers on remarkable voices of dissent and courage, and their personal and political histories, as a way to reclaim our public spaces.
Profiles of Dissent is a way to question and critique the State that has used legal means to crush dissent illegally. It also intends to ground the idea that, despite the repression, voices of resistance continue to emerge every day.
The following excerpt is published from maraa, READ ALOUD: Ideas Can Never Be Arrested.
Dr. Varavara Rao is a poet, journalist, and literary critic from Telangana. He taught Telugu literature at the Chanda Kantaiah Memorial College, Warangal. Known as a Marxist critic, Rao was also responsible for founding the Revolutionary Writers’ Association, popularly known as Virasam. Rao was first arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) in Andhra Pradesh in 1973. He was then 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 forty-six 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 seventeen 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 organization Virasam was banned. Following the ban of Virasam, 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.
Date of arrest: 28 August 2018
Charges: Varavara Rao was arrested alongside Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Gautam Navlakha, and Arun Ferreira were arrested. He was charged under section: 153A (commits any act which is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities and which disturbs the public tranquility) of the IPC; 120B (criminal conspiracy to commit an offense) of the IPC; 117 (abetting commission of an offence by the public or by more than ten persons), of the IPC; 34 (acts done by several persons with common intention) of the IPC; and sections of the UAPA.
The FIR on the basis of which the arrests made were based on an accusation of being a Maoist, his alleged connections to Elgaar Parishad, and its alleged role in inciting violence in Bhima Koregaon. Varavara Rao was arrested at 6 a.m. on 28 August 2018. The houses of his family were raided as well on the pretense of looking for Rao. Rao had already been arrested once the raid had begun.
Update: A division bench of the Hyderabad High Court on 26 October 2018 extended the house arrest of Rao by three weeks. However, the bench granted liberty to him to avail alternative legal remedies seeking bail or to quash the case registered against him by approaching the courts.
The bench passed the above order in the petition filed by Varavara Rao challenging the validity of transit remands order and his arrest by the police in August this year. He also pleaded to set him at liberty from the alleged illegal custody by Maharashtra police. Rao’s lawyer told the court that he is currently under house arrest for the same case and sought medical help to be extended to him at his home.
The judge directed Telangana police to permit Gandhi Hospital doctors to render medical help to the writer. The counsel for Varavara described as illegal the decision of the CMM court in granting permission to Maharashtra police to take him to Pune. The judge sought the details of the case and posted it to 26 November 2018. Rao was then sentenced to judicial custody for fourteen days and arrested. The police are yet to file a charge-sheet against him as of 23 November 2018, requesting an extension of another ninety days.
Update, May 28, 2020
Varavara Rao is currently imprisoned in Taloja jail in Navi Mumbai. He was previously lodged in Yerawada jail in Pune. Forty prominent writers had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting the release of Rao amid the crisis. On 9 May 2020 three prisoners in the central prisons of Taloja and Yerwada, and in Dhule district passed away due to COVID-19. This important information was hidden, and not immediately reported or disclosed by the prison authorities. It was only reported on 26 May, almost three weeks after the event. On 11 May, The High Powered Committee with Justice AA Sayed, Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Sanjay Chahande, Director General of Prisons SN Pandey, Maharashtra met for the second time since 25 March and decided on further releases. The Committee, however, was not informed of the deaths or the serious dangers the “Bhima Koregaon 11” prisoners face, and excluded prisoners incarcerated under UAPA.
Yet, during the eight weeks of lockdown, the authorities have not allowed even the usual correspondence or visits from the family. His lawyers too were not allowed to visit him. The advocates stated that the prison authorities were unresponsive when they call to enquire about his health condition. This lack of cooperation has left the family very worried and anxious. Varavara Rao’s daughters have appealed to Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, requesting him to release their father by granting temporary bail or parole on the grounds of age, health, and COVID-19 spread. In a letter to Mr. Thackeray on 26 May, daughters P. Sahaja, P. Anala and P. Pavana, also sought permission for family members to visit him personally in jail to ensure his safety and wellbeing. Similar appeals were sent to the Chief Justice of India, the Governor’s office, and the Nationalist Congress Party President, Sharad Pawar. They also appealed for more frequent phone calls and letters, and permission for advocates to meet him. Citing the fact that he is 80 years old and has multiple health issues, the daughters are concerned that he is highly vulnerable to coronavirus. Yet, during the eight weeks of lockdown, the authorities have not allowed even the usual correspondence or visits from the family. His lawyers too were not allowed to visit him. The advocates stated that the prison authorities were unresponsive when they call to enquire about his health condition. This lack of cooperation has left the family very worried and anxious.
At the time of publishing this excerpt, the revolutionary poet remains incarcerated, and his health is deteriorating.
Thunderbolt on the Western Ghats: Remembering Ajita, Kuppu Devaraj, and the Wretched of the Earth
By Varavara Rao
Thunder bolt on Western Ghats
From the vast plains of Dharmapuri,
Via satyamangalam forests, to the Konkan’s Malabar Coast
Their hard-hitting questions,
Unsettled the static wind
then their drills began in the Western ghats,
Imbibing the spirit of Dandakaranya
With the march past of the armed squads,
The meandering stream of Kaveri
(Jaya, ‘it is time for the SOUTH-WEST Monsoon’, Telugu)
In the Beginning
The march of the armed squads began before the martyrdom of Comrade Saketh Rajan (2005). By then, the three big revolutionary parties leading the armed struggles got united to form the Maoist Party in 2004. The party was endeavoring to create as many Naxalbaris in several areas that eventually would lead to the formation of liberated bases.
Lightning appears on the edges of the clouds and thunderbolt follows the rain. Thunderbolt is attracted by metallic elements like iron, copper, etc. There was a thunderbolt on Chile, for the plunder of copper in 1973. The thunderbolt took away the lives of Salvador Allende and Pablo Neruda’s too. The iron that is essential for steel attracted the thunderbolt to extinguish Kishanji from the Jungle Mahal.
People are the makers of history. They never relent in their march. The march of the Western Ghats to the Eastern Ghats; and from the Jog Falls to Jungle Mahal is going on incessantly. The rivers at the tri-junction – Kabani, Bhavani, Avinash – the water and blood flowing through them, their motion, struggles, and changes are nothing but the various forms Gaia (earth)
‘Has the soil ever lobbied for itself?
When the earth begins to defend itself,
Could anyone stand in opposition?
Have the woods ever sung for itself?
Other than termites about you and me
Is there any self concern for the forest?’
I reached Thrissur on 8th November 2016 to address a meeting held in celebration of the hundred years of the Bolshevik Revolution. Some well-wishers of the Indian Revolution, who were attending the meeting told me about the slapping of murder charges on Prof. Nandini Sundar, Prof. Archana Prasad and Vineet Tiwari of the Joshi Research Centre and Sanjay Parathe, state secretary of the CPI(M) in Chhattisgarh.
They spoke to me on this issue to point out an irony that the Chhattisgarh government was harassing the CPI(M), where it was weaker than the CPI. But in Kerala, where the CPI(M) is in power, it gave blanket powers to the police to shoot the Maoists at sight. For a decade, Operation Thunderbolt has been going on in Kerala. So, the CPI(M) behaves differently when it is in power.
The meeting began on this note.
Ajita and Kuppu Devaraj
Not even a fortnight passed since that meeting. The TVs began broadcasting the news of the ‘encounter’ in Neelambur forest and the death of Kuppu Devaraj (60) alias Yogesh alias Ramesh and Ajita alias Kaveri (45) since the noon of 23rd November. There were unconfirmed reports that one Soman of Wynad was injured and still in the captivity of the police. The in-charge of the Thunderbolt Operation said that eleven guerrillas belonging to three squads had escaped and an intensive search operation was on to catch the escaped guerrillas.
According to the Maoist Party’s political and organizational perspective, the area where the ‘encounter’ was said to have taken place, comes under the Western Ghats Special Guerrilla zone.
The area connects the forests of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The habitat of several flora and fauna of Bandipur and Madumalai forests, the sanctuary of Nilagiri forests are part of this tri-junction area. The Nilagiri forest areas in Tamil Nadu, the Palakkad, Mallapuram, Wynadu forests of Kerala, the southern tip of Karnataka forests – currently popularized by the media as the Tri-junction area are together called Sathyamangalam forest, wherein Veerappan had earlier operated. Munnar of Kerala, a favorite spot of tourists, for its scenic beauty and picturesque landscapes, has thousands of acres under coffee and tea plantations which are owned by the Tatas.
The valleys of Ooty, the forests of Satyamangalam, and the tea gardens of the Wynad area are a visual feast for the tourists. But the people are living in extreme penury despite their back-breaking daily labor. Only humans with hearts can understand the appalling conditions in which people have been living.
Such human beings reached the Adivasis as Maoists, with a determination to build a society of New Human beings through class struggle. The Maoists saw that people are being trampled upon by elephants when they go to collect a few seeds of pepper and coffee’. ‘To light the fire in their hearths, people went into the woods to collect firewood, but their families heard the sounds announcing the death knell of their menfolk, permanently extinguishing the light from their homes’.
As someone said
“there is nothing left here to pillage
There is none left who were not plundered”
The people lost everything-
“their grains, the fruits in the forest,
The nectar of their life, the harvest of their toil
The adolescent girls, the thatched huts with leafy roofs,
Yes, they lost everything”
The Maoists went to work among these “wretched of the earth.”
They were ill but were killed in this forest. 19 bullets pierced his body. She was shot with 6 bullets. He was 60, a diabetic. She was 45, unmarried. Both were born in Dalit families in Tamil Nadu. Maybe in this forest. Perhaps in the neighborhood. But it is definite that the two comrades were caught unarmed, brought here after brutal torture. They were ill but were killed in this forest. 19 bullets pierced his body. She was shot with 6 bullets. He was 60, a diabetic. She was 45, unmarried. Both were born in Dalit families in Tamil Nadu.
Ajita’s father was an Engineer in the Railways overseeing the safety of trains and goods. He was influenced by Maoist ideology. He propagated that ideology. Ajita got attracted to revolutionary politics twenty-five years ago when she was a college student. She was one of the founders’ members of the women’s liberation organization.
Since her younger days, she was suffering from an acute eye disease. Doctors cautioned her of the danger of becoming blind if she did not take proper care. While working for the women’s organization, she graduated in law. She fought for democratic rights as a lawyer. To serve the revolution, she chose to go underground. At the time of her martyrdom, she was a member of the Western Special Zonal Committee. True to her name, Ajita, was invisible. Neither the debility of her eyesight during her youth nor ill-health in middle age could dampen her robust revolutionary spirit.
I knew Kuppu Devaraj as Murthy. He and I worked as executive members in the All India League for Revolutionary Culture (AILRC), between 1983 and 1985. In the later years of the 1980s, he chose underground life. As Ramesh and Yogesh he was a beloved comrade in the revolutionary movement and for the revolutionary people. He was born in Krishnagiri district of Tamilnadu. Dharmapuri, Krishnagiri, North Arcot, Yelagiri Hills were strong revolutionary centers since the Naxalbari days. In the Nilgiri Hills, the revolutionary fire was always alive.
Since 2007, he resurrected the revolutionary movement in the three states, whenever there were losses in leadership. An engineer by profession Com. Devaraj was an artist too. He was a polyglot. He could speak fluently in Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu, and English.
He was born in Tamil Nadu but spent his whole revolutionary life in Karnataka. Under the leadership of Uday (Cherukuri Rajkumar alias Azad), he joined the first-ever state committee of CPI (ML) (People’s War) and became the secretary of its state unit, after Uday joined the Central Committee. In 1995 in the All India Special Conference of the CPI (ML) (People’s War), in the 9th Congress of the CPI (ML) (People’s War), and in the 9th Congress (United Congress) of the CPI (Maoist), he was elected a Central Committee member.
From the period of 1985-87 when there was a crisis in the People’s War party till his last breath he stood as a rock-solid support to the revolutionary rank and file. In a word, he himself was a tri-junction in the Tri-Junction. He was a bright beacon to the movement in the Western Ghats.
‘Wherever there is a forest,
His presence is a must,
His entire body strewn with bullet injuries,
The wounded body symbolizing the devastated countryside,
The villages overwhelming with torture chambers.
His heart is bleeding with bayonet wounds
The bruises of disappeared lives,
His entire life chasing the wailings of helpless Adivasis
He always appears with a robust belief
His heart ever beating the drum for liberation,
His brimmed with a plethora of magnificent dreams
That only the toilers should own the means of production,
That land should belong to the tillers,
That dreams since past generations be realized,
He sowed the seeds of internationalism everywhere.
Vouching for martyrdom to the people
Is not that easy, That is why Martyrdom itself
Learnt lessons afresh from him
(Bhaskaran, from It’s time for the South-West Monsoon, Telugu)
That is why Vijay Kumar was waiting in the Tamilnadu’s Q branch headquarters in Chennai like an eagle for him, for her, for Kabani and for Kaveri, like he was waiting for Kishanji at the border of Jungle Mahal and Jharkhand. Then, he was the director of the CRPF. Now he is the Senior Advisor in the PMO’s Office for Anti-Maoist activities.
His job is to eliminate the Maoists, who are working among the people. That is why he said: “This is a great victory for us and a great loss to the Maoists.” His statements sounded presumptive, and yet he was not sure of himself. That was why the Q Branch warned people not to cooperate in any way, and not to come out from their houses when Devraj’s dead body was brought to Krishnagiri.
Com. Devaraj’s mother, Ammini, and his brother Sridharan went to Mallapuram to collect Devaraj’s mortal remains. The Tamilnadu police threatened Ajitha’s uncle who went to collect her body and forced him to return to Tamilnadu.
The dead bodies of Devaraj and Ajita, lying in the Kozhikode Government Medical College are stirring up the entire Kerala state. People are holding dharnas and raising slogans in protest in front of the Kozhikode government hospital and the district police headquarters. People are sure that it was a fake encounter and are demanding that a re-postmortem should be done and the culprits punished.
In the madness of the modern market world, can any one-stop for a while and try to understand a mother’s anguish over her son’s brutal murder?Ammini, the mother of Com. Devraj, is leading the dharna in front of the police station. She is waiting to have a few last glimpses of her beloved son. Can anyone peep into her heart and fathom the depth of her grief? In the madness of the modern market world, can any one-stop for a while and try to understand a mother’s anguish over her son’s brutal murder?
In Kerala, scores of people including the 78-year-old leader of a mass organization – M.N.Ravunni to the activists of Porattam, Janakeeya Manushyavakasasa Prasthana, Political Prisoners’ release committee, Lawyers, democrats, and people are agitating demanding a judicial inquiry and condemning the fake encounter. This agitation is spreading from Mallapuram to towns and cities.
After four days of dilly-dallying, the Chief Minister Vijayan ordered a magisterial enquiry. The DGP ordered a Crime Branch enquiry. This has not satisfied any one including the Marxist party veteran and former Chief Minister Atchuthanandan. The CPI unequivocally said that this method of physical elimination of Maoists could never be an acceptable form, as far as their party was concerned.
This pressure is due to the influence of the revolutionaries over the people. This is due to the respect towards democrats in Kerala. This is the biggest encounter after the Verghese encounter. In 2007 when Sande Rajamouli alias Prasad was part of the Western Ghats revolutionary movement, APSIB and AP Greyhounds under the leadership of Stephen Ravindra caught him at Kollam, brought him to Hindupur in A.P and Killed him.
The previous Congress Government arrested several leaders- Muralidharan, Veera Mani, Kannan, Rupesh, Shyna and Anup – of the Western Ghats revolutionary movement. They are kept in various jails like Pune, Coimbattore, etc.
The sessions court allowed the petition to conduct the re-postmortem. The court ordered that the dead bodies be preserved till December 5th and the report of the Postmortem be submitted to the court meanwhile. A joint action committee was formed to continue the agitation. A big rally is being planned on December 9th by the Joint Action Committee. On Dec 3rd and 4th, a fact-finding committee of various democratic rights organizations all over India is going to the area to investigate the “encounter”.
Let us hope that an upsurge like the one that came in the wake of the brutal killings of Sruthi and Sagar in Telangana would ensue after the martyrdom of Com. Devraj and Ajita.
Above all, there should be dignity and respect in the affairs related to the birth or death of human beings. Demanding democratic justice is a natural, civilized requisite that needs to be implemented in daily lives. People would agitate to get such demands fulfilled.This is just not to talk about the Q Branch, the SIB, the Greyhounds, and the NIA. Nor is it about just the Green Hunt Operation, Operation Thunderbolt and the mission-2016, etc. And it is also not about only the re-postmortems, judicial enquiries, punishment to the culprits and handling of the dead bodies to their kith and kin. All this needs to be done. Above all, there should be dignity and respect in the affairs related to the birth or death of human beings. Demanding democratic justice is a natural, civilized requisite that needs to be implemented in daily lives. People would agitate to get such demands fulfilled.
But with an incorrigible revolutionary optimism, I would say that behind every thunderbolt there would be lightening. Behind every spring cloud, there would be streaks of lightning. Behind a dark night, a dawn is not far off.People are struggling for loftier ideals too, not confining to these demands. They are yearning for a radical change. Yes, it started 50 Springs ago (you may say that there were autumns too). But with an incorrigible revolutionary optimism, I would say that behind every thunderbolt there would be lightening. Behind every spring cloud, there would be streaks of lightning. Behind a dark night, a dawn is not far off.
A Struggle between two world outlooks
Today’s issue is the struggle between the two world outlooks. A conflict between two states. A battle between death and life. Imperialism is moribund. It is synonymous with the market. In daily life, it reveals in a gargantuan form appearing in its real form of attacks, wars, violence, and destruction. The laboring masses would fight it out with the weapon of class struggle. They are workers and peasants and in the social parlance – Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, and Women. They are the people who are facing exploitation and suppression. When people begin to upend the suppression, the struggle graduates into a guerilla struggle and it develops into people’s war.The people’s war has a basis in the political economy. The political economy of a development model found upon them by a world bank model – i.e. imperialist globalization. People, under the leadership of revolutionary politics, are doing an experiment in the establishment of a New Democratic system from the grassroots. The people’s war has a basis in the political economy. The political economy of a development model found upon them by a world bank model – i.e. imperialist globalization. People, under the leadership of revolutionary politics, are doing an experiment in the establishment of a New Democratic system from the grassroots. In Telangana, in Dandakaranya for twenty years, in Saranda of Jharkhand, in the tri-junction of the Western Ghats, these experiments are being done.
Maybe the forces in Telangana got defeated but are again emerging, though slowly. In the AOB region from the days of Narayanpatna to yesterday’s Malkangiri, the revolutionaries may be experiencing ups and downs. Comrades Saket, Devraj, and Ajita, traversing along with the tides and the ebbs, did their bit to build a revolutionary movement in the Western Ghats. Despite setbacks, this is a nonnegotiable fundamental struggle. A humane struggle of revolutionaries whose Weltanschauung (worldview) is class struggle.
This struggle is the continuation of the Paris commune, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Chinese people’s Revolution and is an advancing revolutionary movement with all its highs and lows. In this protracted path, we saw the Che Guveras and Castros. The grit and sacrifice of them who stood against imperialism definitely inspired us. LTTE struggle, for now, is no more. But we are not remembering the martyrdom of Prabhakaran along with son Balachandran with pessimism. By the way, Com. Devaraj wrote an analytical and incisive article on the Eelam struggle and on the martyrdom of Prabhakaran explaining what lessons need to be learned.
Defeat and victory are inseparable twins in the course of the revolution. The commitment and sacrifice are the dual values that bind the twins dialectically. The world outlook of the class struggle and its ideological moorings would help overcome the pessimism in times of defeat and complacency in victory and eventually drive towards the ultimate victory.
In this protracted war, Obviously Devraj and Ajita who dared to scale the heights were not the only ones. Neither would they be the last ones.
In the liberation struggle of the land, they become martyrs. They are in eternal sleep in the hospital. They would soon integrate with the soil, whose liberation they dreamt during the better part of their life and further enhancing our determination in their unfulfilled dreams.
“During the spring,
The bloody streaks eclipsed
The thunders erupted behind the clouds
The sacrifices could emerge as a mighty typhoon
To obliterate all the relics of human suffering”