Mumbai: The activists and academics arrested in the Elgar Parishad case now have a new challenge before them – the possibility of being separated and thrown into different prisons across the state.
Claiming that the lawyers and family members of those arrested in the Elgar Parishad case have been giving “fake information” to the media, the Taloja central jail superintendent last week moved an application before the special National Investigation Agency (NIA) court seeking transfer of the accused from Taloja to different jails in the state.
This is the third such attempt made by jail superintendent Kaustubh Kuralekar in the past six months.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a brutal impact on prisons across the country. Several prisoners have been infected and many have died after testing positive. Many of the 16 arrested in connection with the ongoing Elgar Parishad case have tested COVID-19-positive since March 2020.
The latest among them was the 84- year-old Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist, Stan Swamy, and 54- year old Delhi University associate professor Hany Babu. Both were moved to private hospitals in Mumbai after their respective medical conditions deteriorated severely.
Taloja prison is one of the worst impacted in the pandemic.
With over 2,700 prisoners occupying a space meant for 2,124, physical distancing has been virtually impossible in this prison.
And to make things worse, Taloja prison, like most other prisons in the state, lacks basic medical facilities. Three Ayurvedic doctors have been handling healthcare in the prison for the longest time. Each time someone among those arrested in the Elgar Parishad case has fallen ill, they have had to move Bombay high court to ensure adequate treatment is made available to them.
This, the jail superintendent, in his application before the special NIA judge Dinesh Kothalikar has claimed to be fake information.
Even before the pandemic hit India, the Supreme Court had warned of its serious impact on prisons and had directed state governments to set up a high-power committee and implement their own ways to decongest prisons. Following this order, Maharashtra state, which has the capacity to house 24,000 prisoners, was expected to bring the prison population down by 50%. But over a year after that order and following several subsequent orders and directions by the Bombay high court, Maharashtra still houses close to 34,000 prisoners.
Among the 16 arrested in Elgar Parishad case, only one person – 80-year-old poet and political activist Varavara Rao – has been released on bail. This happened after he was infected with COVID-19 and his health condition worsened drastically. He was arrested in August 2018 and spent a large part of his incarceration in the hospital.
Besides Swamy and Rao, the others arrested in the case include Sudhir Dhawale, a writer and Mumbai-based Dalit rights activist, Surendra Gadling, a UAPA expert and lawyer from Nagpur, Mahesh Raut, a young activist on displacement issues from Gadchiroli, Shoma Sen, a university professor and head of the English literature department at Nagpur University, Rona Wilson, a Delhi-based prisoners’ rights activist, advocates Arun Ferreira and Sudha Bharadwaj, activist Vernon Gonsalves, academic and civil liberties activist Anand Teltumbde, journalist and activist Gautam Navalakha, Delhi University associate professor Hany Babu and Kabir Kala Manch cultural activists Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor and Jyoti Jagtap.
The first application to move the accused persons out of Taloja jail was made in March; the second application is of June 3. The third application was last week, on June 24.
Talking to The Wire, jail superintendent Kaustubh Kuralekar said that while jail authorities have already secured a court order to move them, a decision has not been taken yet.
There are several Supreme Court and high court rulings against such arbitrary transfer of prisoners.
In the landmark Sunil Batra versus Delhi Administration case, the Supreme Court had held that “transfer of a prisoner to a distant prison where visits or society of friends or relations may be snapped was violation of Article 21 (Right to Life) of the Constitution of India”.
This point has been reiterated from time to time in many other judgments.
Prisoners and their families have had to constantly petition the state government and Bombay high court to ensure that their fundamental rights are not violated. Soon after Kuralekar moved the special NIA court seeking transfer of accused persons, a delegation of family members and lawyers met Nationalist Congress Party leader and MP Supriya Sule to ensure that the state does not take any drastic step.
“We were assured that the state is with us in this and no one would be moved out. In fact, the jail superintendent had contacted relatives of each arrested person and informed that no one would be moved out without their consent. But a few days later another application was moved before the NIA court,” a distressed family member told The Wire.
The arrests in Elgar Parishad case were first made when the Bharatiya Janata Party was in power in the state. The case, handled by the local Pune Police, was handed over to the NIA soon after the tri-party Maha Vikas Aghadi formed the government in the state.
Soon after this government came to power in November 2019, the parties’ senior leadership had spoken against the “dubious nature” of the investigation carried out in the Elgar Parishad case. While NCP chief Sharad Pawar had promised to set up a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe the violence that broke out at Bhima Koregaon on January 1, several other congress and NCP leaders also openly empathised with the arrested activists.
This, however, did not ensure the activists’ humane treatment in jail – something that was well within the control of the state government. Prisons are a state subject and the state home department is directly responsible for the welfare and rights of those incarcerated.