PEN Delhi joins PEN International in expressing deep concern for the welfare of Indian poet P. Varavara Rao who has been in detention since November 2018. Aged 81 and in poor health, a bail hearing for Rao was due on 2 June 2020. He had been admitted into the hospital for his failing health last week, but was discharged one day before the hearing, on 1 June 2020, and sent back to jail. The bail hearing has now been postponed to 5 June 2020. Given his fragile state of health – especially in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak – and questions surrounding the validity of the charges under which he is held, PEN is calling for him to be released on medical grounds.

A poet and activist, Rao is considered an important figure in Telugu literature, and has since the late 1960s published numerous poetry collections. From 1966 to 1992 he ran Srujana (Creation), a monthly journal focusing on modern Telugu literature.

Rao served several stints in prison through the 1970s to the late 1980s for his writing and activism. Between 1973 and 2014 he was implicated in 25 cases with serious charges, but the prosecution could not prove a single charge in a single case and he was acquitted by law courts in all the cases. His latest arrest took place in November 2018, and he has been detained ever since. Rao is accused of his purported connection with an alleged plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, commentators believe that he is being held for his views and that he is being penalized for his continued radical left activities and advocacy for the underprivileged communities in India, including indigenous tribal groups. Several appeals that he be freed on bail in the past year have been rejected.

‘By keeping an ailing 81year old Varavara Rao in jail in the times of the pandemic, the Indian state is only demonstrating that it is interested in turning the process into punishment. In the first place his arrest is wrong and then the insistence of the state not to allow him bail is proof that it doesn’t want to let any free and dissenting voice remain active.’

– Apoorvanand, Board Member, PEN Delhi (you can also read Apoorvanand’s piece on P. Varavara Rao, in Hindi, here)

‘For a country that claims to venerate its poets and writers, reveres its elders, and says it is compassionate towards those vulnerable to illness, India’s stubborn refusal to consider appeals of Varavara Rao, the 81-year-old poet currently in custody, is profoundly wrong. The way to address questions raised by writers who challenge the state is of dialogue and counter-arguments, not detention. Varavara Rao is not well and ailing; his family, his readers, and writers around the world are concerned about his health. We join the appeal for his release on medical grounds.’

– Salil Tripathi, Chair, PEN International Writers in Prison Committee


by Varavara Rao

It is hard to be clean

After the lines are drawn

Nor it is good to respect protocol

While talking about Naxalbari

It does not suit to tune anger

As profound as singing anguish

Yelling against

The blood stained hands

Should be at the top of your voice

But beside an obscure poem

Smelling new paper or printing ink

Nothing could be recognised

Except your photo

An eagle in the skies

Or a bear in the woods

Or a racing hound

Sniffs anything easily

Why don’t you speak out

About that which all of us react to

When even the nascent flowers

Are soaked in blood

You cannot conceal ideas

Within diapers or layers

The hands that clean the wounds

The hands that aim arrows

The hands that compose tunes

Have become open sores being wet for long

They have become the hardened blood

Turned to people’s flags after song and dance

Duty of a chisel is

To fill life into stone

But not turning life into a sculpture

Turn of phrase, don’t get scared

Come out with plain speak

That touches the heart


July 10, 1989

Translated by N Venugopal

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