India: Voice of a Revolution

Dsc_0286_2rao_2After a lifetime of spouting anti-govern ment vitriol, Varavara Rao has an easy smile. But when the silver-haired revolutionary poet greeted me at his Hyderabad apartment, his eyes burned like those of a man with plenty more in his tank.

The 67-year-old Rao has been the voice of India's Maoist movement since it began four decades ago. His advocacy of armed struggle against the government -- a view that stands in tact today -- moved him to found the Revolutionary Writers' Association in 1970 in support of the Naxalbari uprising.

"We wanted to inspire people to take up arms to achieve power," he said. "For saying this, naturally, we had to face the onslaught of the state."

To be sure. Along the way he has served several terms in jail, including three and half years in solitary confinement. By his count, out of forty cases in which he's been implicated, he was acquitted 34 times; six are still pending.

As the acting head of the Revolutionary Writer's Association, he represented the Maoists in 2004 peace talks with the Andhra Pradesh government. They broke down, a result he attributes to the government's demand the Naxalites lay down their arms while continuing an ideologicial campaign. He conceded that the ensuing state crackdown against the Naxalites has worked to a degree due to "repressive" measures and a state "coolie" system that relies on traitors.

But, like a reflex, Rao insisted the movement is regrouping elsewhere in what he called its "mobile war stage." And having faced setbacks before, it will rise "like the phoenix bird."

Critics of the movement counter that intimidation tactics and killings have eroded the rural support base. Asked why many people say the Naxalite movement began with a legitimate agenda and has since been corrupted, Rao launched into a heated tirade against the Indian government's neglect of its rural poor, the destruction of the country's heartlands by profit-hungry corporations, the World Bank, and the ever-dangerous threat of American imperialism.

He even drew a comparison to the abuse of "Red Indians" by the U.S. government, saying the same wholesale persecution could happen in India.

But he didn't want to offend his American guest. "Of course I'm talking about the government, not you, and specific parts of the government at that," he added. "Everybody knows that the corporations run America."

Rao ticked off a number of Indian companies that have displaced tribals and lower-caste members to build factories and mines. Then he went on to blame government-created Special Economic Zones for foreign companies for muscling in on Indian businesses. In all the excitement, I got sort of tangled in the web of blame.

Still, at the roots of his argument, he had a point. India's annual growth rate of more than 9 percent continues to skip by tribals and lower-caste communties. In fact, a significant part comes at their expense.

Commercial forestry and mining concessions in the resource-rich tribal areas, according to one sociologist, leave them five times more likely that non-tribals to have their property seized by the state.