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Joint Statement: Freedom for Varavara Rao

Wednesday 11 August 2021 - 12:00pm


Varavara Rao (CC: Wikimedia)

As PEN Centres we wish to highlight the case of renowned Indian poet, Varavara Rao, to all those who care about the defense of freedom of expression for writers. We call for all charges to be dropped against Rao, and hope that you will join our campaign to ensure his freedom.

Varavara Rao is an 82-year-old poet and activist who was arrested in 2018 along with several other activists in India on charges of inciting violence under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The charges relate to Elgaar Parishad, a non-profit event held on 31 December 2017 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon Bhima. The controversial Bhima Koregaon case, and the arrests and incarcerations associated with it, shocked us and many other human rights organisations around the world.

Since his 2018 arrest, Rao has been held in appalling conditions. The notorious Taloja Central Prison where he has been held took no account of his age and fragility. In July 2020, he tested positive for Covid-19 and was moved to JJ Hospital in Mumbai. Here, his visiting relatives reportedly found him unattended and delirious on a urine-soaked bed.

On 22 February 2021, Rao was released from custody on an interim bail agreement, after the Bombay High Court conceded that ‘…the hospital at the Taloja Central Prison is not adequately equipped to take care of the undertrial, given his advanced age and various health conditions. Sending the undertrial back to Taloja Central Prison would certainly endanger his life.’

Our relief when this decision was reached by the Bombay High Court is now tempered with grave fears that he will be returned to jail when this six-month bail period ends. We also remain deeply concerned over the bail conditions imposed on Rao, which include prohibiting him from speaking with media and restricting his movements to the Mumbai area, hundreds of kilometres from his hometown of Telangana.

Sharing her fears for Rao’s future, Scottish PEN Trustee and Writers at Risk Committee member Bashabi Fraser said:

‘We do not want Varavara Rao to be returned to jail to meet the same fate as the humanitarian social worker, 84-year-old Father Stan Swamy, an innocent man who was incarcerated as a political prisoner and died in jail in early July 2021. Father Swamy had been held without trial charged on the same Elgaar Parishad case as the much respected 82-year-old poet activist, Varavara Rao. Varavara Rao has been wrongly accused. We demand that all fabricated charges are dropped against Rao and he is allowed to live as a free man with dignity’.

A Marxist poet and activist, Rao is an important figure in Telugu literature, and has published over 15 poetry collections since the 1960s. He is a founder of the Virasam – the Revolutionary Writers Association, and ran Srujana (Creation), a monthly journal focusing on modern Telugu literature, for over 25 years. His prison diary - Captive Imagination - was published in English in 2010. Rao is well known for his campaigning work to secure land and labour rights for Indian workers, and PEN Centres have been advocating for his freedom since his arrest in 2018. A poetry anthology dedicated to Rao, entitled Freedom Raga, was published last year and an anthology of his work in English is forthcoming from Penguin India this autumn.

June Considine, co-founder of the Freedom to Write Campaign (Ireland) and Board member of Irish PEN, made the following call to Indian authorities:

‘Now in his eighty-second year, Rao’s reputation as a poet has garnered him an international audience. He is widely respected for his principles and defense of human rights. We hope that the Indian authorities will afford him those same democratic liberties and take account of his distinguished career, his great age and declining health. This humanitarian gesture will reflect the true value of a functioning democracy’

We, the undersigned PEN Centres, call for the immediate release of Varavara Rao and fellow Elgaar Parishad activists and for the release of all prisoners being held for exercising their right to peaceful freedom of expression.

  • Scottish PEN
  • Irish PEN
  • PEN International
  • English PEN
  • PEN Delhi

To support our call to action please consider the following:

  • Write to representatives of the government of India in your country expressing your concern.
  • Write to the Honorable Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.
  • Write to your country’s Foreign Ministry about the case.
  • Inform local and online news and media outlets about the case.
  • Read Varavara Rao’s work and share it with your friends. Consider holding an event in support of Varavara Rao around the time of his bail hearing.
  • Join your local PEN Centre, inform yourself about this and other cases, get involved.