As the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic looms large and prisons are potentially becoming dangerous hotspots of contagion, 40 eminent poets from across India have penned an open letter to the Prime Minister of India seeking urgent release of celebrated octogenarian Telugu poet Varavara Rao.
Rao has been in the prison since November 2018 after he, along with eight other intellectuals and activists, were charged under various provisions of the controversial UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) for the violence that took place at Maharashtra’s Bhima-Koregaon village near Pune during an annual celebration on December 31, 2017.
In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, now 40 eminent poets from all parts of India have written to the Prime Minister saying that the octogenarian “runs a very high risk of infection considering his age, deteriorating health and the crowding situation in jail.”
Earlier, even the Supreme Court had ordered all states to consider releasing some prisoners on parole to reduce overcrowding in prisons in the time of the pandemic.
The signatories of the letter include Padma Bhushan and Sahitya Akademi Award-winning poet Gulzar, Ashok Vajpeyi, Jeet Thayil, Mangalesh Dabral, Satchidanandan, Sivareddy, Chandrakant Patil, Yumlembam Ibomcha, Subodh Sarkar, Keki M Daruwalla, E V Ramakrishnan, V M Girija and Meena Kandasamy among others.
“It has been argued that the cases against them are framed as part of the move to crush voices of dissent and criticism against the government and those in power,” reads the letter.
According to the letter, Vernon Gonsalves, a fellow prisoner, had sent a message to the advocate drawing attention to Rao’s worrisome health condition.
“In this context, we see the plea for help with the utmost concern. We, poets from various languages in India, request the Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, to release poet Varavara Rao urgently and save his life. We also request the Prime Minister to consider the release of all other detainees in high-risk category, in the light of the pandemic,” the poets wrote.
Earlier, a group of activists and intellectuals including writers Arundhati Roy, K Satchidanandan, journalist BRP Bhaskar and academics Dilip Menon and Benjamin Zachariah, had sought bail or parole for political and under-trial prisoners in an open letter to the Central and State governments.
Since 2018, several intellectuals and activists involved with the Elgar Parishad, “a collective of progressive Ambedkarite organisations and activists”, have been arrested in connection with the violence in Bhima Koregaon. In February, the Centre had transferred the case to National Investigation Agency (NIA) from Maharashtra Police.
On April 14, two more intellectuals/activists, Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha, had to surrender to the NIA in connection with the case.