Mumbai: Telugu poet, writer and activist Varavara Rao was 78 years old when the Pune police arrested him in August 2018. At the time of his arrest, Rao was already suffering from several age-related health issues. His prolonged incarceration, coupled with the lack of medical care in prison and the sudden outbreak of COVID-19, has exacerbated his condition even further.
In May, Rao first showed signs of serious illness. He had fallen on the ground unconscious inside Taloja central prison and had to be rushed to the state-run JJ hospital for treatment. Along with physical frailty, Rao had developed a serious neurological illness.
Ever since, Rao’s health has only continued to deteriorate. His family, lawyers and human rights defenders have been rallying for his release – but it has been denied on each occasion.
Rao, accused of being an “urban Naxal”, is one of the 16 activists and academics who have been arrested for allegedly instigating violence at Bhima Koregaon near Pune on January 1, 2018. They have been arrested for their alleged role in arranging the Elgar Parishad conclave on December 31, 2017, at Shaniwarwada in Pune, which according to the investigating agency had led to a violent attack on the Dalit community visiting Bhima Koregaon the next day.
The case, which was earlier with the state police (under BJP rule in Maharashtra), was handed over to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in January this year. The current tri-party government in the state – of the Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party and Congress – had equivocally opposed the Centre’s decision to take over the case and has maintained that human rights defenders were unfairly targeted and wrongly implicated in a politically motivated case. Both NCP chief Sharad Pawar and the state home minister have on multiple occasions announced their intention to set up a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe the matter.
Going by the state’s response so far, one would assume that they are empathetic towards the human rights defenders who are in jail and at the least, their right to dignity and access to medical care would be ensured. But that did not happen. It took several months of legal battle to even get Rao access to specialised doctors at a private Nanavati hospital, that too only after the Bombay high court’s order on November 18.
Another accused, Ranchi-based 83-year-old Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist Stan Swamy, had to move court for a straw and sipper to drink water, as he cannot hold a glass because of Parkinson’s disease. “I had brought with me a “sipper-tumbler”, to drink tea and water. However, the same was disallowed at the prison gate, on entry on 9 October. Now, I am using a baby-sipper mug, which I purchased through the prison hospital. I have communicated this need to our lawyers. I am still waiting to receive the sipper-tumbler,” Swamy wrote in one of his letters from prison.
Rao’s bail plea on medical grounds and the writ petition filed by his wife, Pendyala Hemlatha, stating that his incarceration was a violation of his right to health and life, were moved simultaneously. The NIA, expectedly, opposed his bail. Along with the charges levelled in the chargesheet, the central agency also filed an affidavit providing a table of 24 cases from the past. Among them, his lawyer Satyanarayana Iyer says, in 23 cases, Rao has already been either acquitted or discharged.
Along with the NIA, the state too has a role to play, particularly in the application moved on medical grounds. But somehow, instead of presenting a fair picture, the state went on the defensive, even alleging that Rao’s lawyers and family were making false claims.
Prisons are a state subject, and regardless of which agency is handling the investigation, it is for the state to ensure that an accused person’s basic rights are safeguarded. But when it came to providing medical attention to Rao, the state prison and health department faltered. When Rao’s family tried to meet him at JJ hospital in May, they found him in an inhuman condition, lying in a pool of urine. Here, he allegedly suffered a head injury. Rao was delirious and was not attended to by any doctors, the family had alleged. He was soon moved to St. George hospital, another state-run hospital, and also a nodal centre for COVID-19 in the city after Rao had tested positive for the virus.
Following the family’s insistence, Rao was moved to Nanavati hospital on July 19 but his family and lawyers had alleged that he was abruptly sent back to Taloja central prison within days. Senior advocate Indira Jaisingh, representing Rao in the Bombay high court, had pointed out that even after constant follow-ups the family was denied his hospital discharge reports. In fact, the state has not made any medical report on Rao available after July 30.
Jaising : Till today Nanavati discharge report is not made available to the family.
Only those reports will tell us what action has been taken or not taken. Nanavati Hospital discharge report, JJ hospital and St George Hospital discharge reports are not available.#varavararao
— Live Law (@LiveLawIndia) November 18, 2020
“The family has been kept in the dark about his health. The Taloja jail hospital is incapable of taking care of him,” Jaisingh argued before the high court on November 18, further adding, “There is a reasonable apprehension that he (Varavara Rao) will die in custody.” At Taloja prison, in the absence of a medical attendant, two of his co-accused – Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira – were taking care of Rao. During several phone calls, they had conveyed to the lawyers that Rao had been bedridden, in diapers, with a catheter. “His catheter was not changed for three months,” Jaisingh had informed the court.
On November 12, the Bombay high court had directed the state authorities to conduct a medical check-up via videoconferencing. For a man suffering from dementia, a neurological condition, the presence of a neurologist was a must. So was the presence of a urologist since Rao had been complaining of a urinary tract infection for months. Both specialists, however, were absent. Jaisingh had also pointed out several inconsistencies – including his age and date of a check-up – in Rao’s test reports that were obtained from a laboratory in Panvel.
The deterioration of Rao’s health may have been avoidable. The state ought to have had ensured proper medical treatment for him. If a prisoner who enjoys the privilege of being represented by some of the best legal minds of the country is treated so inhumanely, one can only imagine the condition of the 4,124 other prisoners lodged (as of October 31) in Taloja prison. Despite the pandemic, Taloja prison has a whopping 194% occupancy rate (the average occupancy rate in the state’s prisons stands at 126%) and at least two persons (and a total of six prisoners in state prisons) have died due to the coronavirus.
The Wire has been consistently reporting about the lack of medical facilities in Indian prisons and how the situation only got worse for prisoners during the pandemic. An average of 1,800 deaths have been recorded in the prisons of India every year. Even while most deaths are categorised as “natural”, the reasons and circumstances of these deaths suggest that most lives could have been saved if timely medical intervention had been made available.
In such worrying times, by failing to respond to an octogenarian prisoner, and most importantly someone who is incarcerated in a politically motivated case, the Maharashtra government has failed in protecting a citizen’s right to life and dignity.