New Delhi: The Bombay high court on Monday granted poet and rights activist Varavara Rao six months’ bail on medical grounds. Within this period, however, the poet must remain within the jurisdiction of the special National Investigation Agency (NIA) court that is hearing the charges against him in the Elgar Parishad case, the court said.
Rao has been at Mumbai’s Nanavati hospital since last year, where he was shifted from Tajola jail due to his illness. Several petitions have been moved to the court, the NIA and the state government for his release.
This is the first time in over 32 months that any arrested person will be freed on bail in the Elgar Parishad case. Rao, who had fallen seriously ill early last year, has been in the hospital ever since.
“With all humility and human considerations, we are of the opinion that this is a fit case for allowing the relief,” a bench of Justices S.S. Shinde and Manish Pitale said on Monday. “We feel that with the condition of the undertrial, it would be inappropriate to send him back [to jail from hospital]. It would be appropriate to impose such conditions.”
After the six months are over, the bench said, Rao must report back to Tajola prison in Mumbai. For the period of his bail, it added, he must remain within the NIA court’s jurisdiction and “not indulge in any activities or similar activities which led to the registering of the FIR”. The NIA court’s jurisdiction extends across Maharashtra.
The additional solicitor general, appearing for the NIA, asked for a stay of three weeks on the bail order. The court rejected this plea, saying that since the Nanavati Hospital has deemed him fit for release (and to be sent back to prison if he is not released on bail), he must be released now.
“Rao has to attend trial whenever necessary, but can apply for exemption from physical appearance,” Bar and Bench quoted Justice Shinde as saying.
The NIA had earlier opposed Rao’s bail plea, saying he was not suffering from dementia and only being treated for “age-related ailments”. This claim had been strongly opposed by Rao’s family and lawyers, and the court too had not been convinced.
The bench was hearing three petitions: a writ petition seeking Rao’s complete medical records, a bail plea on medical grounds filed by Rao, and a writ petition filed by Rao’s wife Hemlatha alleging a breach of his fundamental rights owing to lack of medical care during his continued incarceration.
His family has alleged through repeated petitions that his treatment, while incarcerated, has been little more than ‘inhuman’. Rao has lost over 18 kgs while in jail and was bed-ridden, his family had said last October.
Following the NIA’s submission, the court pointed out that as per medical reports, Rao was being given over 20 pills a day. “Just see the list of medicines being given to him everyday. He is sustaining on these medicines. So, he’s continuously on medical support,” the high court said.
On July 16 last year, Rao had tested positive for COVID-19 after which he was shifted to the Nanavati Hospital. He was discharged from the Nanavati Hospital following a final assessment report on July 30 and sent back to the Taloja prison. A few months before, that he had fallen unconscious in the prison and had to be rushed to the hospital in a delirious state. His family has time and again urged both the government and civil society to release him on bail on humanitarian grounds.
In December last year, he was admitted to the Nanavati Hospital again following the intervention of a bench of Justice Shinde and Justice M.S. Karnik.
As The Wire has reported before, while the NIA has been actively opposing Rao’s bail despite his medical condition, the Maharashtra government too has done little to ensure that the poet received timely medical attention. While the state government has opposed the wrongful incarceration of activists arrested in the case, the poet’s lawyers had to approach the high court to ensure proper medical care. The Maharashtra prison department had also failed to provide timely medical treatment to other co-accused in the case.
Rao is among the activists, poets, lawyers and scholars arrested in the Elgar Parishad case. In a big revelation recently, an American digital forensics firm Arsenal Consulting found that some of the incriminating evidence being cited by the NIA recovered from arrested rights activist Rona Wilson’s laptop had been “planted” by a cyber attacker. According to the cyber investigation conducted by Arsenal Consulting, Rao’s email ID was hacked into to send malware to Wilson and a few others related to the case.
Like Rao, several other arrested activists, including Jharkhand-based human rights defender Father Stan Swamy, academic and civil liberties activist Anand Teltumbde, journalist and activist Gautam Navlakha, retired professor Shoma Sen and academic and lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, have moved petitions after their health conditions deteriorated in prison. The courts, however, have denied them relief.