As Varavara Rao's Health Worsens in Jail, Family Alleges Severe Negligence by Authorities

Rao, who has been in jail for close to two years, has been unwell since the lockdown and his family claim that he is suffering from memory loss.

Note: This article was originally published on July 11 and was republished on July 12 with details of a press note issued by Varavara Rao’s family.

Mumbai: The health of 78-year-old political activist, poet and writer Varavara Rao, who has been in jail for close to two years, has worsened. His family has alleged that the prison department has been blocking information on his condition from reaching them.

Rao began to deteriorate after he had a fall on May 28 inside the prison. He was in an unconscious state when he was moved to the state-run J.J. hospital for a few days before being moved back to the prison.

His daughter Pavana told The Wire that Rao has not been provided adequate care in the jail and has started losing coherence.

“We got a call from him today and he barely spoke for a minute. He was incoherent and sounded unstable. One of his co-accused who has been assigned duty to take care of him had to step in and inform us that he needs to be urgently moved to a hospital for better treatment,” Pavana said.

Also read: ‘Save His Life’: 40 Poets Write to PM Modi Asking For Varavara Rao’s Release

She mentioned that he has barely been able to move and has been speaking incoherently about incidents from his childhood.

Soon after his health first worsened in May, the family had moved court seeking urgent bail. The family claim that in order to oppose their bail application, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) had moved him back to the prison, abruptly stopping his medication in the process.

Also read: Poet, Activist Varavara Rao Shifted to Hospital After He Faints in Mumbai Jail

“We have consulted specialists here and have found that his sodium and creatinine level was below normal and that there needed to have been a proper investigation into his health condition,” Pavana said. His family said Rao has age-related and other persistent health issues.

The family and Rao’s lawyers have also alleged that the prisons department has not been divulging information on his health. Information on Rao’s health condition first began to trickle in early this month when advocate Susan Abraham spoke to Vernon Gonsalves, her husband and an accused in the case. “Vernon told me that he has been moved in with Rao in the hospital to take care of him. Rao’s condition was deteriorating and that a co-accused has been kept with him in jail hospital,” she informed.

“When he fell sick in May, the police hastily moved him back. And since then, he has been at the jail hospital. However, the family got to know the seriousness of his health condition only today,” his daughter said.

Also read: Bombay High Court Orders a COVID-19 Patient to Return to Prison

Rao, who has been in the jail since his arrest in June 2018, for his alleged role in the Elgar Parishad- Koregaon Bhima case of Maharashtra, was, along with other accused, moved from Pune’s Yerwada prisons to Taloja central jail in the outskirts of Mumbai earlier this year. This was just a few days before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in India. Since then, the condition, especially in Mumbai, has been worrisome.

Close to 500 persons have been infected with coronavirus and four persons have already died across prisons. Rao’s bail application filed on health grounds is at present pending before the Bombay high court.

On Saturday, on receiving the phone call, his lawyer Nihalsing Rathod sent an email to the jail authorities asking for urgent access to his latest medical report. “Provide us the precise descriptions of his health condition,” Rathod wrote in the email. He has also sought for a video call to be arranged between Rao and his family members.

On Sunday, the family held a live press conference, demanding that the poet’s life is in danger. They later issued a press note which is signed by Rao’s wife, Hemalatha Rao, and his daughters Sahaja, Anala and Pavana.

The family raised concerns about Varavara Rao’s health. “As an eloquent and articulate public speaker and writer in Telugu for over five decades, a Telugu teacher for four decades and known for his meticulous memory, this fumbling, incoherence and loss of memory were in themselves strange and frightening,” the note reads.

“His life is the top most concern for us right now,” the letter says.

The complete press note, signed by Rao’s family, has been reproduced below.


Press Note – July 12, 2020

Don’t Kill Varavara Rao in Jail!

We, the family members of Varavara Rao, world-renowned Telugu revolutionary poet and public intellectual, who is incarcerated in Navi Mumbai’s Taloja Jail, are very much worried about his deteriorating health. His health condition has been scary for over six weeks now, ever since he was shifted in an unconscious state to JJ hospital from Taloja Jail on May 28, 2020. Even as he was discharged from the hospital and sent back to his jail three days later; there has been no improvement in his health and he is still in need of emergency healthcare.

The immediate cause of concern now is that we are very much perturbed at the routine phone call we received from him on Saturday evening. Though the earlier two calls on June 24 and July 2 were also worrying with his weak and muffled voice, incoherent speech and abruptly jumping into Hindi. As an eloquent and articulate public speaker and writer in Telugu for over five decades, a Telugu teacher for four decades and known for his meticulous memory, this fumbling, incoherence and loss of memory were in themselves strange and frightening.

But the latest call, on July 11 is much more worrisome as he did not answer straight questions on his health and went into a kind of delirious and hallucinated talk about the funeral of his father and mother, the events that happened seven decades and four decades ago respectively. Then his co-accused companion took the phone from him and informed us that he is not able to walk, go to toilet [sic] and brush his teeth on his own. We were also told that he is always hallucinating that we, family members, were waiting at the jail gate to receive him as he was getting released. His co-prisoner also said he needs immediate medical care for not only physical but also neurological issues. The confusion, loss of memory and incoherence are the results of electrolyte imbalance and fall of Sodium and Potassium levels leading to brain damage. The electrolyte imbalance may be fatal also. Taloja Jail Hospital is not at all equipped to handle this kind of serious ailment either in medical expertise or equipment. Thus it is highly required that he be shifted to a fully equipped super specialty [sic] hospital to save his life and prevent possible brain damage and risk to life due to electrolyte imbalance.

At the present juncture we are leaving aside the pertinent facts like, that the case against him is fabricated; he had to spend 22 months in jails as an undertrial with the process turned into punishment; his bail petitions got rejected at least five times now and even the bail petitions with his age, ill-health and Covid vulnerability as grounds were ignored. His life is the top most concern for us right now. Our present demand is to save his life. We demand the government to shift him to a better hospital or allow us to provide required medical care. We want to remind the government that it has no right to deny the right to life of any person, much less an undertrial prisoner.

P Hemalatha, wife

P Sahaja, P Anala, P Pavana, daughters