Mumbai: Delhi University associate professor of English, Hany Babu M.T, arrested in connection with the Elgar Parishad case has been complaining of an acute eye infection, pain, and gradual loss of vision since May 3. His family and lawyers have accused the prison authorities of denying immediate medical treatment to him.
Jenny Rowena, his wife and also an academic teacher at Miranda House, told The Wire that she, other family members, and lawyers have been frantically calling the Taloja jail authorities to speak to Babu but have been denied access. “His eye began to swell up on May 3. He was given antibiotics but that did not help. The infection has now spread across his face, causing loss of vision. His ears, cheeks and forehead too are infected and we are worried that this delay (in getting adequate medical treatment) could even affect his brain,” Rowena said.
Babu, 55, was arrested on July 28 last year by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and has since been in Taloja central prison. The prison, meant to accommodate 2,124 prisoners, is overcrowded and houses over 3,500 (at 166% occupancy) prisoners. Besides being overcrowded, the prison lacks medical facilities and adequate staff. Under the Maharashtra Prison Rules, amended in 2015, this central prison has a sanctioned post for three allopathy doctors. But the state prison department has deputed three ayurvedic doctors instead.
Crowding in prisons has dire consequences for the health of those incarcerated as resources are limited and have to be shared amongst a large number of people. Rowena shared that due to an acute water shortage in the prison, Babu has not had access to clean water to “even bathe his eye and is forced to dress his eye with soiled towels”. Rowena, along with Babu’s brothers – Harish MT & MT Ansari – released a statement on Tuesday evening appealing to the state prison authorities for urgent medical care.
This is not the first time that frantic appeals have been made to the Maharashtra state government for urgent medical help. Other arrested activists and academics like Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Father Stan Swamy, Shoma Sen, Anand Teltumbde, and Varavara Rao have had to make several representations before the government and courts for basic medical treatments. The state has, on most occasions remained unresponsive, causing serious implications to their health.
Lack of medical care in prisons has proved fatal, causing close to 1,800 deaths across over 1,339 prisons in India. The COVID-19 pandemic has only further exacerbated the situation. In Maharashtra, according to the information provided by the state prison officials to the Bombay high court, close to 250 prisoners and 170 prison officials have tested positive for the coronavirus. The Bombay high court has suo motu taken up the matter of congestion in Maharashtra’s prisons.
Even as the prison department continues to drag its feet, prisoners as young as 22 have died due to the coronavirus outbreak at Taloja prison.
Due to the pandemic, family members and lawyers alike are denied jail mulaqats (visits). They are dependent on jail authorities to make phone – either audio or video – calls available. “On May 7, when Babu was taken to a government hospital at Vashi, he was administered medicines of bacterial infection. The doctor treating him told us that Babu needs a repeat consultation within two days. But that was not arranged and the prison authorities claim that he was not taken to the hospital due to lack of escorts,” Rowena shared.
The lawyers, she said, have been making repeated calls and sending emails to the jail officials but to no avail. “On May 10, the lawyer, Payoshi Roy, called eight times just to be able to speak to the jail superintendent and get an exact update on Babu’s health condition. But she was denied access,” Rowena said. The Wire tried to contact Taloja superintendent Kaustubh Kurlekar for his comment, but he could not be reached.
Babu, a vocal anti-caste crusader, is one of the 16 persons arrested in the ongoing Elgar Parishad investigation handled by the NIA. According to the NIA, those arrested had “active links” with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and had helped organise the ‘Elgar Parishad’ of December 31, 2017, under the banner of the ‘Bhima Koregaon Shaurya Din Prerana Abhiyan’ in Pune.
The police’s case is that this cultural gathering in Pune’s Shaniwarwada area, known to be a predominantly Brahmin hub had incited Dalit youth across Maharashtra against the Bharatiya Janata Party and ‘Brahmin-oriented Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’, leading to violent retaliation across the state. The speeches given at the Elgar Parishad were allegedly inflammatory, and carried the intention of “harming the democratic fabric of the country”. The police versions have changed several times in the past three years and defence lawyers have maintained that the activists have been arrested as a part of a political vendetta with no evidence against them.