Varavara Rao in Prison: Urban Maoists and Other Enemies of the Indian State


In Captive Imagination, a collection of essays written in the prison during the late 1980s, Varavara Rao, the Telugu poet and a leading Maoist ideologue in India, narrates a rather uncanny state of affairs. Every morning in Rao's prison block, an illiterate prisoner would sit amongst piles of newspapers, and peer blankly into reams of print. “Just looking at the pictures,” he would promptly respond to Rao’s queries, and then go back to staring. Rao writes that it is quite possible that by physically feeling the newspaper—touching the words, smelling the ink, sensing the density of the paper, staring at the photographs—this man was “extracting some news” from the print. In fact, as Rao subtly suggests, inside a prison, a literate man hardly fares any better. He can read the newspaper alright but the newspaper tells him nothing of the actual historical conjuncture.

Rao writes that inside a prison, he does not read newspapers to access what they publish. Instead, he reads them to access what they excise. And the newspapers excise practically everything: “I find nothing about class struggle, or struggles for democratic rights or civil liberties; nothing about tribal revolts, Dalit and women’s liberation movements or environmental movements.” And so, just like his illiterate companion, Rao, too, struggles “to extract” what has not been printed and what, as a result, he cannot read. As he suggestively puts it, the singular tragedy of being incarcerated is not just that one no can longer participate in the ongoing political struggles, but also that, in the prison, one no longer receives any news of them at all.

In the past two years, scores of Dalit, Muslim, and Marxist intellectuals and activists have been arrested and imprisoned across India, without trial or evidence, as part of a brutal political crackdown unleashed by the BJP-led rightwing government. Unsurprisingly, the octogenarian Varavara Rao is one of them. Recently, after contracting Covid-19 in the prison, his mental health severely deteriorated, and following widespread protests, he was shifted to the hospital, while still under police custody.

Given how the newspapers in India have scarcely criticized the widespread rightwing repression, it might seem that Rao’s description of life in the prison has swiftly become true of life in India at large. To quote from a famous poem by Cherabanda Raju, the noted Telugu poet and Rao’s comrade— “The country itself has turned into jail.” The sequence of police arrests started in August 2018, when, as part of the Bhima Koregaon investigation, several activists were simultaneously raided and arrested in the different cities of Faridabad, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Goa, Ranchi and Delhi. The spectral synchronicity with which these events played out was particularly alarming— a midnight hearing in the court, a residence raided at the daybreak, an arrest document typed in a language not known to the accused, an office raided in the owner’s absence, and so on. There were conspiratorial rumblings that the accused had direct links with Maoist insurgents, currently waging armed struggle in the forests of central India.

As expected, over the next few weeks, the rightwing government expertly broadcast state-sponsored paranoia around “Urban Maoism” across the country. Soon, the Indian newspapers and media were rife with reports claiming that multiple Indian cities and universities were overflowing with agents, informants, and sympathizers of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), classified as a terrorist organization and banned by the Indian government in 2009. Four months after the first arrests, the police claimed to have discovered 13 unsigned and undated letters in the electronic devices seized from the arrested intellectuals and activists.

These letters were allegedly written by Maoist insurgents to thank the accused, including Varavara Rao, for their continued support, to share new requirements of M4 rifles and four hundred thousand ammunition rounds, and, most importantly, to disclose their plan to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a public rally. Once made public, the allegations were widely criticized on the grounds that the letters were obviously fake. Soon, it was clear that the ruling government was indiscriminately hounding trade unionists, Marxist and Dalit intellectuals, human rights lawyers, student union activists, and tribal and Dalit rights activists, in the name of Urban Maoism.

Put briefly, it does not really matter whether any of the political prisoners are, indeed, Urban Maoists, or not. The ruling government has successfully rewritten Althusser’s famous drama of interpellation. When an Indian policeman “hails” you in the street as an Urban Maoist, it no longer matters how you respond. If you turn around, you get arrested. And if you keep walking, you still get arrested. Seemingly indiscriminate, and yet, there is a definite order to the madness of this political violence.

Poet, Revolutionary, Prisoner

Over the past 47 years, successive ruling governments have lodged multiple court cases against Varavara Rao (25 by one count), frequently banned his literary writings and arrested him without evidence or trial. The allegations of being involved in the Maoist insurgency—spanning the wide gamut of “distribution of bombs” to “conspiring to murder”—have never been proved, and Rao has been acquitted in every single case.

Still, Rao is currently spending his tenth year in prison. In contrast to the liberal-left consensus, which fervently laments the paranoia of Urban Maoism as an exceptional assault on our democratic freedoms, Rao’s literary and political experiences tell us that this exception has, in fact, long been the rule, and that the current assault on the so-called Urban Maoists is actually part of a much longer history of political repression, continually shaped by the shifting relationship between capitalism and the Indian state.

Varavara Rao first shot to literary prominence in 1969, when, in the wake of the Naxalbari revolt—the inaugural Mao-inspired revolt in postcolonial India—he published an anthology of young revolutionary poets, called Tiragabadu (Rebel). Popularly known as “literary naxalites,” these poets took the world of Telugu literature by storm. For the next several years, literary quarrels and “poetry wars” made headlines in several prominent newspapers of the day, as Telugu poetry as such became the paradigmatic literary form of the peasants’ and tribals’ political struggles.

In 1970, in the midst of the ongoing Srikakulam peasants’ uprising—a Maoist armed struggle undertaken by peasants and tribals during 1967-70—Rao, along with several other poets, co-founded Viplava Rachayitala Sangham, an autonomous Revolutionary Writers’ Association, popularly known as Virasam. Alongside other revolutionary organizations, such as the Jana Natya Mandali, Virasam has laid the foundations for a capillary network of autonomous literary publishing and folk performance cultures in the region.

In 1973, Rao was detained for the first time under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, and during 1972-74, six issues of Srijana, the unofficial magazine of Virasam edited by Rao, were banned by the state. These events marked the beginning of a long and winding literary career relentlessly riven with relentless detentions, incarcerations, police raids, and political bans. However, despite the brutal state repression, Rao has emerged as a prolific literary writer— publishing 15 books of poetry, 16 collections of essays, 6 books of literary criticism, including the epochal Telangana Liberation Struggle and Telugu Novel, and translations of vast swathes of literature into Telugu, ranging from Ngugi’s Devil on the Cross and Detained, translated in the prison during the late 1980s, to Gulzar’s Suspected Poems, translated again in the prison in 2018.

Although Rao has never directly participated in the Maoist insurgency movements, his literary career has been intimately shaped by the historical ebbs and flows of its struggles, and over the years, he has emerged as a leading Maoist thinker in the country. In 2004, Rao, along with fellow revolutionaries, the balladeer Gaddar and the novelist Kalyan Rao, acted as emissaries for the Maoist Communist Center and the People’s War Group, during peace talks with the state government of Andhra Pradesh. After the talks failed, the two groups joined forces to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist). In the fall out of these events, Virasam was once again banned by the state government.

Living in the baleful shadows of incarceration, Rao has built a literary repertoire of several improvisations. His poetry is best understood in terms of his desire to perpetually recommence his commitments to revolutionary politics, be it in the prison or in the midst of the people, his desire to conjure ever novel ways of responding to those policemen who have continued to hail him as a Communist by the day and a Maoist by the night. Consider, for instance, the following lines from Muktkantham, written after Rao was arrested under the newly instituted Terrorist And Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act in 1985. At the time, the state government in Andhra Pradesh had implemented a blanket ban on all literary and cultural activities, and the state police had started detaining and murdering suspected Maoists and Maoist sympathizers with increasing impunity. Responding to the spiraling political violence, Rao writes: “Property/ Fractures the human world/ Into Custodians and Criminals/ But when I assert and declare/ Banishment of the very thing/ Property’s cage turns me a defendant, all right,/ But/ For the overlord’s eyes/ I am a Communist/ And/ As if nothing can surpass it/ He arraigns me as a/ Naxalite.”

Incarcerated for nearly half a decade and subjected to yet more court-cases in prison, Rao had faced an urgent conundrum: how to recommence his literary commitments to revolutionary politics in the face of severe political repression? An unlikely comparison, to be sure, but Rao’s way out recalls the strategies adopted by the communards in Paris, while trying to evade the iron strictures of political censorship. As Kristin Ross memorably puts it, in the build-up to the Paris Commune “one could not speak against the emperor or his various functionaries but one could still advocate for an end to private property.”

The same turned out to be true of Rao, too. He could not directly speak against the postcolonial nation-state or its various functionaries, but he could still improvise a new political grammar, as it were, and continue to hone and make palpable those political antagonisms that had singularly riddled his historical conjuncture. Slyly circumventing the prevalent caricatures of “Nationalism” and “Left Wing Extremism,” Rao centers his poetic attention on “property,” which, as it turns out, holds the historical key for understanding the perpetual crackdown against political and ideological proponents of Maoism in postcolonial India.

The Beginnings of “Urban Maoism”

In 2009, shortly after the Congress-led UPA coalition was re-elected, Manmohan Singh, the then Prime Minister and the noted architect of India’s “neoliberal turn,” declared the Maoists to be “the single biggest internal threat to India’s national security.” In a public statement, Singh, a clear-eyed free market economist if there ever was, expounded further— “if left-wing extremism continues to flourish in important parts of our country, which have tremendous natural resources of minerals, that will certainly affect the climate for investment.” In short, the Maoists were deemed a threat to national security because they openly resisted the Indian state’s promise of a seamless capitalist accumulation. Little wonder, then, that the Congress-led UPA coalition, ably supported by the parliamentary left, initiated a full-blown war against CPI (Maoist), and started selling the forested homelands of the tribal peoples by signing several hundred MoUs with different industrial, hydro-electric, and mining companies.

As of now, the Maoist tactic of “protracted armed struggle” seeks to prevent the state-led introduction of capitalism in the forests of central India. And yet, the Party’s characterization of the entire country as a “semi-feudal, semi-colonial, comprador state” and its attempts to generalize this tactic to the rest of the country, where large swathes of industrial and agrarian workers have not only been already dispossessed but are now being thrust into the precarious circuits of informal economy, seem anachronistic at best. Increasingly hemmed in by the paramilitary forces, split off from the numerous peasants’ and workers’ mass movements brewing in the rest of the country, and facing growing allegations of rampant authoritarianism and casteism within its ranks, the Maoist struggle seems to be fast reaching a tipping point.

In his role as a leading Maoist ideologue, Rao, too, has been a staunch proponent of the “semi-feudal thesis,” and seems to have been caught on the wrong side of the recent criticisms of discrimination with Dalits within the Maoist ranks. Only time will tell whether the Maoists will continue to sacrifice more cadres in their attempts to prevent the rise of capitalism in the so-called “semi-feudal, semi-colonial, comprador state,” or whether, becoming mindful of the actual exigencies of capitalist accumulation in India, they will join the emerging struggles for a revolutionary abolition of capitalism.

In 2019, shortly after the BJP-led rightwing government was re-elected, Home Minister Amit Shah formally exhorted the paramilitary forces to start targeting the so-called Urban Maoists. Shah was building on the blueprint of political repression sketched out by his predecessors. To put the past two decades in perspective— if during its reign, the UPA coalition initiated a militarized crackdown against the tribals and the Maoists in the forests of central India, then BJP-led NDA coalition has started generalizing this crackdown across the entire country. Given how public universities, of all places, have become theaters of increasingly militarized violence in India, it is anyone’s guess that the war for capitalist accumulation has long swelled beyond the confines of the forests of central India. Meanwhile, “Urban Maoism” has become a shorthand for anyone who stands in the way of this ratcheting juggernaut.

Still, there is, to be sure, a significant difference between the two political paradigms, not the least of which concerns the current BJP’s project of Hindu majoritarianism. For one, the Urban Maoists are only the latest addition to a much larger, and constantly growing, list of the enemies of the “Hindu nation,” which already includes leftist student unions, Muslims, Dalits, “illegal” migrants, and so on. Under the reign of the BJP-led rightwing, the relationship between the Indian state and capitalism is becoming more volatile and unpredictable by the day.

In the past year, the BJP-led rightwing government has passed a series of different laws, which, on the one hand, propose to drastically alter the religious and demographic composition of the country, and on the other hand, mandate new “ground zeroes”—spanning public universities to agricultural sector—for renewing an increasingly stuttering national economy. Meanwhile, the ranks of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organization of BJP, have dramatically swelled in the past two decades. The Hindu supremacist group currently operates over 57,000 shakhas (branches) across the country, and boasts of an armed militia of over 600,000 “volunteers,” responsible for regularly perpetrating numerous attacks on the minorities, ranging from “cow lynchings” to pogroms.

Beginning in late November 2019, there emerged a nationwide mass movement against the new citizenship laws, which openly discriminate against the country’s Muslim populations and implement a National Register of Citizens, seeking to “weed out” the so-called illegal migrants from the country. As the tangle of public sit-ins and occupations began to unspool across the country, scores of intellectuals and activists—from the women of Shaheen Bagh to the students of Jamia Milia Islamia, from Chandrashekhar Azad to Sharjeel Imaam—were identified as newer threats to national security by the ruling rightwing government.

But like all mass movements, this one, too, was riven with numerous contradictions, the most notable of which concerned the simmering tensions between its liberal and leftist strands. While the former emphasized the ideals of secular nationalism as an alternative to the rightwing politics of communal hatred, the latter insisted that the secular-liberal core of Indian democracy, traditionally represented by the Congress Party, has long made its peace with the brutal imperatives of capitalist accumulation, and that upholding “capitalism in a secular nation-state” against “capitalism in a Hindu nation-state” can hardly count as resistance.

While the sit-ins and the occupations were quite widely valorized as spectacular insignias of democratic dissent, there was also a small, but growing, political tendency, which articulated the rise of the Hindu rightwing in terms of the shifting relationship between capitalism and the Indian state, and emphatically argued that to agree to be nationalists, of whatever stripe, is to agree to be the servile agents of capitalism.

Less than two months later, this emergent mass movement was brutally crushed by a state-sponsored pogrom against Muslim communities in New Delhi, accompanied by police and rightwing assaults on public universities across several Indian cities. In the fallout of these events, numerous students, activists, and intellectuals were arrested, and most of them, just like Rao, currently remain incarcerated. Still, notwithstanding this violent defeat, the mass movement managed to at least put in motion the collective struggle to improvise a new political grammar for comprehending and combating the rise of the Hindu rightwing. Resistance—howsoever fractious and, at times, admittedly undercooked—is on its way, and quite literally so.

Over the past week, more than three hundred thousand farmers, led by thirty-two agrarian workers’ and farmers’ unions, have broken barricade after barricade to descend upon New Delhi. They are protesting against the three agrarian bills recently passed by the ruling government, which intends to open India’s agricultural sector to a host of different financial and corporate interests. As the rank-and-file engages the paramilitary forces in a series of pitched battles, braving a barrage of lathis, tear gas, and water cannons, a troupe of young women stationed at one of the Delhi borders are performing poems by Sant Ram Udasi and Avtar Singh Pash, the foremost revolutionary poets of Punjab, to loud applause from the farmers. Just like Varavara Rao, these poets, too, had emerged during the Maoist insurgencies of late 1960s. And these women are singing for Rao, too, just like Rao sang for the people, for nearly half a century. Although it has received little attention in the public sphere, one of the prominent demands on the unions’ charter reads— “Immediately release all political prisoners.”

Perhaps, released from the prison, Rao could yet find a modicum of freedom in a world where, as he ruefully puts it in his prison notebook, “freedom remains an alien concept.”

Aditya Bahl is a writer based in Baltimore. He is the author of three chapbooks of poetry and is currently pursuing his PhD at Johns Hopkins University. His dissertation traces the world-historical emergence of poetry as a modern literary genre.