Mumbai: Poet and political thinker Varavara Rao is 79 years old and has been suffering from a neurological disorder.
He has tested positive for COVID-19 and doctors have suggested that he is showing signs of dementia. In May, after his health worsened, he had to be moved to the state-run JJ hospital. Since then, he has moved from prison hospital to JJ, St. George and now at the private Nanavati Hospital.
All of this notwithstanding, last week, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) claimed that none of this “necessitates him to immediately obtain treatment in [a] multi-specialty hospital”.
Rao has been represented by advocates Sudeep Pasbola and R. Sathyanarayanan and his most recent bail application was moved on health grounds.
In a 172-page affidavit filed before the Bombay high court, the agency has claimed that the veteran activist is taking “undue benefit of his situation” in seeking bail from the court. Rao has been in jail since his arrest in June 2018 for his alleged role in the Elgar Parishad-Koregaon Bhima case in Maharashtra.
The NIA affidavit filed by the investigating officer and superintendent of police Vikram Khalate claims, “The appellant accused Varavara Rao under the garb of the current situation on the account of global pandemic COVID-19 and his old age, is trying to take an undue benefit.”
Khalate further states that “the argument with respect to the medical condition of the petitioner (Rao) has no merit.” He adds that the special NIA court while rejecting Rao’s bail application had taken his health condition into consideration and the order was passed keeping in mind the accusation against him.
Rao’s family and his lawyers have repeatedly stated that his health has dramatically deteriorated in jail because of lack of adequate medical care. His wife Hemalata, who had spoken to him on two occasions has claimed that his speech has lost coherence and he has been having trouble recognising family members. His family fears that if Rao continues to be in jail, it will cause irreversible damage to his mental and physical health.
Rao’s family said that when they met him at JJ Hospital last week, they discovered that he had been lying unattended on a soiled bed, without any medical care. In fact, at JJ Hospital, Rao suffered a head injury, which the hospital claims that he sustained while reaching for a glass of water.
All of this, according to the NIA, is merely a misuse of his health condition to avail himself of bail.
Rao, along with 10 others, have been arrested and booked under several sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Indian Penal Code. The Pune police which was handling the case until December last year has accused all arrested persons, branded “Urban Naxals,” of having been involved in banned activities that were meant to “destabilise” the country.
So far, the police have filed chargesheets against nine persons, including Rao. In the supplementary chargesheet filed in February last year, the Pune police have alleged that Rao is a senior member of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and had conspired with co-accused Rona Wilson and one Prashanto Bose, secretary of the Eastern Regional Bureau of the banned party, to purchase ammunition from Basanta, a senior member of Nepal’s Maoist organisation.
The chargesheet has also claimed that Rao was involved in raising funds and distributing it among other members of the CPI (Maoist) party. The agency has accused him of being “president” of “one Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF),” which according to the NIA is a frontal organisation for the Maoists and is involved in “spreading their ideology”.
The police had made these claims on the basis of letters leaked by personnel of Pune Police to the media in 2018, much before any chargesheet was filed.
The police have neither seized any documents or items nor have they clarified if the “purchased ammunition” could be linked to the violence at Bhima Koregaon.
Maharashtra, which had one of the highest prison overcrowding, has been slow in responding to the apex court’s orders and almost all of its 60 prisons have seen an outbreak. So far, over 500 people have tested positive and four have died due to the coronavirus.
Acknowledging the vulnerable condition of incarcerated persons and their high chances of getting infected by the coronavirus, the Supreme Court on March 23, had suo motu issued an order directing every state to set up a high-powered committee, tabulate elaborate criteria and eventually decongest prisons.
In Maharashtra, the committee exempted those booked under the special laws like the UAPA, MCOCA, PMLA, MPID, NDPS, etc. (which provide for additional restrictions on bail, in addition to those under the Code of Criminal Procedure). Rao and several others facing similar circumstances could not avail themselves of bail under the high-powered committee’s stipulated exception.
“…[T]he applicant (Rao) has been charged with serious offences under UAPA, along with the provisions of the Indian Penal Code wherein prescribed punishment is more than seven years and may extend to imprisonment for life, and the totality of facts including the fact that adequate evidence have been placed on record to prove Rao’s complicity in the case,” the NIA affidavit claimed.