Six months after Delhi University professor GN Saibaba was arrested by the Maharashtra police for having alleged links with Maoists, an academician from Vishakapatnam has been taken into custody on similar charges.

Late on Wednesday night, professor Jarla Appa Rao of Andhra University was detained by the local police and charged with supplying explosives to Maoists in the district’s tribal areas. Rao is the head of the University’s Telugu department and is also a prominent advocate of tribal rights in the region.

Rao’s family claims that his arrest was carried out in the style of a kidnapping: at around 2 am, a group of plain-clothes men allegedly barged into Rao’s home in the campus staff quarters and forced him into a van in the presence of his wife, Mynavathi, without producing any arrest warrant. The police confirmed the arrest later on Thursday morning, when Rao’s family went to file a kidnapping complaint.

All through Thursday, Rao’s students, colleagues and friends staged demonstrations before the police to demand the release of the professor. Those close to him claim that Rao could not have been involved with illegal activities associated with Maoists, even though he actively spoke out against bauxite mining and other activities infringing on tribal rights.

A voice for tribals

Rao, who belongs to the Walmiki tribe, grew up in Vishakapatnam district’s Korrapalli village. He has a Masters and a PhD from Hyderabad Central University and worked briefly at the Government Degree College in Chintapalli before getting a teaching job at the Andhra University in 2006. As the head of department, he currently has around 15 research scholars studying under him.

“He worked very hard to become an associate professor and has always given donations to students who need financial help,” said VV Balakrishna, an advocate and a member of the non-profit Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners. He has known Rao for the past 14 years.

Balakrishna describes Rao as an advisor for students, particularly tribal students who need any kind of help. “He represents the poor and marginalised tribals whenever there is a violation of their rights, and he calls me for legal help if any innocent student is implicated on false charges.”

When new students from scheduled tribes move to Vishakapatnam, Rao has a reputation for giving them accommodation in his own house. His PhD thesis is on tribal culture.

“I used to lend books to him when he was a student, and he became a good friend,” said Chalasani Prasad, a senior member of the Revolutionary Writers Association in Vishakapatnam who owns a huge private library. “He has always leaned towards the causes, cultures and struggles of the tribal population.”

He knew he could be arrested

As a professor and an activist, Rao has always been vocal about his views, and has organised talks and seminars on tribal culture and rights at the university.

“Like any other tribal, he is against bauxite mining and all other activities violating tribal rights, but unlike others, he has not been afraid to speak out against these issues,” said KP Subbarao, a professor in the education department of Andhra University and a colleague of Rao's.

For the past few years, Rao has been speaking out about proposed plans for bauxite mining in areas such as Chintapalli, Araku and areas close to the state’s border with Odisha.

“He had frequently received police threats in the past, so he was aware that the police could one day just swoop down on him,” said Subbarao. “But the charges levied against him are completely false.”