Mumbai: A day after father Stan Swamy was taken to the Taloja Central prison from the JJ hospital, the Bombay high court has directed the prison authorities to make arrangements to take him back to the hospital for further detailed tests. The division bench of Justices S.J. Kathawalla and Surendra Tavade have also directed the dean of JJ hospital to constitute a committee of doctors including a neuro-physician, ENT, orthopaedic, general physician and any other doctor who might be required to examine Swamy.
The report has to be submitted to the court on May 21, when it is scheduled to hear the case again. The court has also directed the prison to produce Swamy before the court through a video conferencing facility.
While defence lawyer Mihir Desai listed the several ailments that Swamy has been suffering with since his arrest, advocate J.P. Yagnik appearing for the state informed the court that Swamy has not complained and in fact seems “satisfied” with the provisions made available to him in jail. In a report submitted by the Taloja prison, it is claimed that Swamy has been “hemodynamically stable, provided with two attendants (both undertrial prisoners, who according to the prison officials had volunteered to help Swamy), hot water for bathing and a high protein diet”.
It took several online petitions, incessant follow ups with the Maharashtra state ministers and a member of parliament, and an urgent petition before the Bombay high court to move Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist, to a hospital on Tuesday. But within hours, he was sent back to the Taloja central prison, where he has been lodged since October last year.
Swamy, who was arrested in connection with the Elgar Parishad case, has been suffering from fever, a severe cough, headache and upset stomach for the past week. But he was neither tested for COVID- 19 nor provided with any medical care until May 18. On Tuesday, however, he was taken to the state-run JJ Hospital after 2 pm and then sent back to Taloja jail around midnight, the hospital’s dean Dr Ranjit Mankeshwar confirmed to The Wire.
Mankeshwar attributed Swamy’s failing health to Parkinson’s disease. “Swamy has been suffering from advanced Parkinson’s and had missed his medication for two days. He was tested, medicines were administered and he was sent back to jail after his health condition had stabilised,” Mankeshwar told The Wire. He also claimed that Swamy did not complain of fever and only had aggravated tremors (a sign of Parkinson’s disease). Swamy was not tested for COVID-19. Mankeshwar said since he did not show symptoms, an RT-PCR test was not conducted on Swamy.
This is not the first time that Swamy’s health has failed. Basic medical care – a right of every prisoner – was denied to him ever since he was arrested last year. Swamy, unable to drink water from a glass, had requested for a sipper in jail. It was made available only after his lawyers moved the Bombay high court.
Taloja jail, like most other prisons in the state, lacks proper medical facilities. Over 3,500 prisoners here are handled by three Ayurvedic doctors. These doctors, although not qualified, have been accused of administering allopathic medicines to the prisoners. In the case of Swamy too, allopathic medicines were given to him, his lawyers have alleged.
“It is pertinent to note that while Ole-5 is an antipsychotic drug used in the treatment of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and mania, the appellant (Swamy) has not been diagnosed with any of the said disorders. The Appellant has been prescribed antibiotics by the said doctor, who it is pertinent to note is not a practitioner of allopathic medicine,” the note submitted to the court says.
The Maharashtra government has done very little to carry out a COVID-19 vaccination drive in prisons. Swamy, who should have been vaccinated right after the drive began in February, was left out until yesterday. A little before he was taken to JJ hospital, the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine was administered to him, a prison official confirmed.
Medical help was made available for the 84-year-old priest only after several Jesuits across India wrote to state home minister Dilip Walse Patil seeking immediate care. Swamy’s legal team, led by senior lawyer Mihir Desai, has moved a note seeking urgent hearing. The court accepted and the hearing is currently ongoing.
Besides the home department, his friends and colleagues had also approached MP Supriya Sule urging for immediate intervention. “Fr. Stan has been shifted to JJ hospital for treatment… This has taken place because the home minister of MH (Maharashtra) has intervened on the request made through Ms. Supriya Sule,” one of his colleagues wrote on social media.
The note moved before the high court is based on Swamy’s conversation with his long-time friend and colleague, Father Joseph Xavier, on May 14. Soon after the conversation, Fr. Xavier had addressed the media and said that Swamy who did not complain about his health condition had for the first time mentioned that “He is weak.” Right since his arrest, Swamy has been showing symptoms of advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease. And now he has debilitating tremors in both arms, which Fr. Xavier has pointed out almost impairs him from accomplishing basic and essential daily tasks such as eating food, drink water and putting on clothes and taking a bath, without the assistance of fellow prisoners.
The note before the court captures Xavier’s conversations with Swamy, along with other observations. “Father Joseph, who knows him from decades has informed that Father Stan hardly ever complains even if he is undergoing acute pain and the fact that he spoke about his illness is itself an indication that Father Stan’s health is very bad and deteriorating,” the note sent to the high court says.
While rejecting bail application of another co-accused and activist and journalist Gautam Navlakha, the Supreme Court had found merit in treating house arrest as an alternative form of detention. Taking a cue from here, in Swamy’s case, his lawyers have made a suggestion for house arrest for Swamy to ensure he receives medical attention and doesn’t suffer any further in prison.
Prisoners in Maharashtra have had to face several difficulties since the outbreak of COVID-19 in March last year. While the Supreme Court in a suo motu judgement had ordered states to decongest the space by releasing prisoners en masse, in Maharashtra the order was barely honoured. While a few thousand were released in the initial months, the prisons are back to being overcrowded again. In the space meant to accommodate around 21,000 prisoners, more than 36,000 are lodged right now.
Taloja prison, where all the male accused in the Elgar Parishad case are lodged, is particularly badly affected. Last week, Swamy’s co-accused and Delhi University associate professor Hany Babu had tested positive for COVID-19. He had been suffering from an acute eye infection which had rendered him almost blind in one eye. But he too was moved to a hospital after his family raised alarm and it was reported in the media extensively. Around the same time, an application was moved seeking urgent attention to labour rights lawyer and activist Sudha Bharadwaj’s deteriorating health condition in Byculla women’s prison.
The Elgar Parishad case is being handled by the National Investigation Agency, which is a central agency. But the activists and lawyers are lodged in the prisons of Maharashtra. The state, then, has no excuse for not ensuring medical treatment on time. For decongestion, a high-powered committee was set up last year on the apex court’s direction. This committee, after some cursory work, failed to carry out its mandate. The committee had not met since May 3 last year. Only after the Bombay high court suo motu took up the matter of prison conditions during the pandemic early last month, was the high-powered committee directed to meet once again.
Taloja prison, meant to accommodate 2,124 prisoners, is overcrowded and houses over 3,500 (at 166% occupancy) prisoners. In the note moved before the Bombay high court, Swamy’s lawyers have pointed out the poor conditions inside the prison, which makes it difficult to maintain any kind of physical distancing.
This is not the first time that Swamy’s lawyers have moved the court seeking bail. He was arrested on October 8 last year. Just a day later, the NIA had filed a supplementary chargesheet in the case, Swamy’s custody was thus not required for the investigation. Immediately on arrest, he was sent to judicial custody. The 84 year old with severe ailments continues to be in jail in the politically motivated case, even while serious loopholes and inconsistencies in the investigating agency’s version have been exposed from time to time.
The NIA has opposed bail for Swamy and other arrested lawyers, activists and academics several times.
In all, 16 persons were arrested in the case. Of them, 80-year-old writer and poet Varavara Rao was released on bail after his health condition deteriorated drastically. After being released on bail, Rao has been undergoing treatment in Mumbai, as the bail condition doesn’t allow him to travel outside the city limits.
Swamy, a tribal rights activist working in Jharkhand for over three decades, was subjected to police scrutiny and raids in 2018. Swamy felt that he was targeted for his years of work among young Adivasis and moolvasis (the original inhabitants) who were falsely branded “Naxals” and indiscriminately arrested.
In an over 10,000-page chargesheet, the NIA has claimed that Swamy is an active member of the banned CPI (Maoist) organisation and was allegedly involved actively in its activities. Swamy, the NIA claims, was in communication with other CPI (Maoist) cadres. “He propagated among cadres that the arrest of urban CPI (Maoist) cadres from different parts of the country, particularly in Maharashtra has caused huge irrevocable damage to CPI (Maoist). He received funds from other Maoist cadres for the furtherance of the activities of CPI (Maoist). He is convenor of PPSC (Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee), a frontal organization of CPI (Maoist). The incriminating documents related to communications for furthering the activities of CPI (Maoist) and propaganda material of the CPI (Maoist), as well as literature, were seized from his possession,” the NIA has claimed.
When the Mahavikas Aghadi government came to power, it had made several promises including setting up a committee to find out the truth behind the violence that broke out at Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 2018. It has been over a year and a half, but the committee has not been set up. Meanwhile, each time the activists arrested in the case have complained of a violation of their human rights or inadequate health provisions in jail, the state has only tried to cover up and taken a defensive stand.
Since Swamy, along with 15 others, has been booked under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, bail has been virtually impossible. By the time the case comes up for hearing, each one of them will have spent several years in jail.