Elgar Parishad Case: Vernon Gonsalves Is Latest Victim of Prison Staff's Medical Neglect

JJ Hospital has confirmed that Gonsalves has been suffering from dengue for close to two weeks and that he could have developed pneumonia too.

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Mumbai: Over 10 days ago, Vernon Gonsalves, a Mumbai-based human rights activist and one of the 16 persons arrested in the Elgar Parishad case, had a high-grade fever. He fainted several times in jail and at one point couldn’t move. The Taloja central prison staff, however, only administered him paracetamol and refused to refer him to a hospital.

On September 8, only after his wife and also his lawyer Susan Abraham moved the special National Investigation Agency (NIA) court and the court issued an order, he was finally taken to the state-run JJ hospital. By that time, Gonsalves’s condition had already deteriorated and Abraham said he had been put on oxygen support.

JJ Hospital has confirmed that Gonsalves has been suffering from dengue for close to two weeks and that he could have developed pneumonia too.

Gonsalves, a 65-year-old activist, was one of the first persons to be arrested in the Elgar Parishad case of 2018. The Pune police – which investigated the case until end-2019 – claimed that Gonsalves and other accused persons were all “Urban Naxals” and have been involved in anti-national activities. They are also accused of having plotted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Rajiv Gandhi- style assassination”.

The case was later taken over by the NIA in 2020. The case has not made any progress in court and the NIA chargesheet does not mention any plans to assassinate the prime minister. However, independent investigations by both Indian and international media houses have raised serious questions over the veracity of the claims made by the Indian state.

On September 7, as soon as lawyers and Gonsalves’s family found out about his illness, they moved an application for temporary bail before the special NIA court in Mumbai. Larsen Furtado, Gonsalves’s lawyer, in the application, states that he visited Taloja jail on September 7. He was informed by other accused in the case that Gonsalves was in a bad state. His co-accused Sudhir Dhawale, also a rights activist from Mumbai, told Furtado that he had been making notes of Gonsalves’s health in his dairy. According to the noting, on August 30, Gonsalves first fell sick.

“1st day – 30th August: Vernon has fever and cough. When this was reported to the visiting doctor, he gave him 3-days of paracetamol and erythromycin without examining him; till 3rd day – 1 st September, the fever kept recurring and there was continuing cough,” Dhawale notes in his diary.

On day 4, other prison mates appealed to the jail staff and finally, Gonsalves was taken to a doctor. Here, he was again administered some antibiotics but no tests were conducted on him. Only on Day 8, Gonsalves was tested for Malaria. The doctor attending to Gonsalves had told the prison officials that this could be a case of typhoid or dengue. The prison officials, however, did not order tests.

The application states that only after Gonsalves pleaded with folded hands before the Taloja jail officials on September 7, was he finally taken to JJ Hospital. Here, he was put on oxygen support for less than two hours and sent back.

On Thursday, September 8, the application was finally heard by the NIA court and judge R.J. Katariya ordered the prison officials to immediately provide adequate medical care. Gonsalves has now been hospitalised and is under observation. Judge Katariya has also ordered the Taloja jail superintendent U.T. Pawar to be present before the court on September 12 to provide a proper medical update and explain the reasons for the delay caused in providing treatment.

Over the past four years, many among those arrested in the Elgar Parishad case fell severely ill while in jail. Each time, they had to move the trial court and Bombay high court seeking medical intervention. The prison officials’ delay in providing proper medical treatment to 84-year-old Jharkhand-based tribal rights activist Father Stan Swamy, eventually led to his death. Gonsalves, a well-known prisoners’ rights activist, took care of Swamy in his final days. Another prisoner, Varavara Rao fell seriously ill in jail and was later released on bail following the Bombay high court’s order. Last month, the Supreme Court granted him permanent medical bail.