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India: release poet P Varavara Rao on medical grounds

Monday 1 June 2020 - 5:55pm

P Varavara Rao (centre)

Update - 22 February 2021

Following repeated denials of his application for bail and after having spent over 150 days in hospital over the last year due to ill health, Varavara Rao has been released on medical bail for six months.

While PEN International welcomes the court's ruling, we remain deeply concerned over the strict conditions imposed on his temporary release, which includes prohibiting him from speaking with media and restricting his location to Mumbai despite his home being in Telangana, located over 750 kilometres away.

Varavara Rao is one of several writers and activists who were initially detained in 2018 for inciting caste violence. They have all completely denied the allegations.

Despite being in detention for over two years, Varavara Rao's trial has yet to begin. There have also been concerns over the legitimacy of the charges, including allegations of evidence tampering.

Update - 16 July 2020

Varavara Rao has tested positive for COVID-19. He has been moved to Mumbai's JJ Hospital for treatment, though reports suggest hospital authorities plan to move Rao to a different hospital. Rao must receive adequate care.

Update - 13 July 2020

"In a civilised society that respects the elderly, cares for the sick, honours its poets, and has room for those who dissent, Varavara Rao would have had the freedom to be with those who love him. But because the state has not yet examined what it calls evidence against him, and because, apparently, it fears he might disappear during the time of a pandemic and lockdown, it refuses to let him be free. It is for the judiciary to do the right thing and display humanity. Justice has to follow due process, and the process is meaningless without mercy."

From PEN Delhi and PEN International's new statement, issued as concerns grow for the health of P Varavara Rao.

1 June 2020

PEN International and PEN Delhi are deeply concerned 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 to 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 Marxist poet and activist, Rao is considered an important figure in Telugu literature, and has since the late 1960s published numerous poetry collections. He is a founder of the Virasam – the Revolutionary Writers Association. 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.

'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

For more information, please contact Sara Whyatt, Asia Programme Coordinator, at PEN International, Koops Mill Mews, Unit A, 162-164 Abbey St, London, SE1 2AN, Tel.+ 44 (0) 20 7405 0338, email:


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