From the senior activists and lawyers to younger activists like Safoora Zargar, the state has walked at turtle space in granting bail or even protecting the health of the political prisoners during a pandemic. The state of our prisons and the necessity to decongest them is well known. The author explores the democratic and constitutional implications on keeping political prisoners, with comorbidities, locked during a pandemic.
Last night, 81-year-old ailing poet and activist Varavara Rao was taken to Sir J J Hospital by prison officials following much public criticism of their apathetic conduct towards his deteriorating health. His family has filed a Writ Petition at the Bombay High Court seeking immediate bail on medical grounds. The family, in a press statement released on July 12, appealed “Don’t Kill Vara Vara Rao in Jail”.
The poet was last taken to Sir J J Hospital from Taloja Jail on May 28 in an unconscious state. The family learned of this development the next day when the local police informed them without providing any status on his health condition. They also came to later know that on May 26, unable to support himself, he had fallen in the prison bathroom. He had developed urinary tract issues and his body had become swollen. Sympathetic inmates informed the family knowing that he had stopped consuming food and was put on a liquid diet due to his deteriorating health.
On June 2, his bail application came up for hearing in the special court of National Investigative Agency. J J Hospital submitted to the court that he had been treated and was stable. Subsequently, with no further information. He was discharged and moved back to Taloja Jail.
Since the lockdown, the family has been unable to communicate with the poet. Following court directions, he could call his family for precisely two minutes once or twice a fortnight. It is during one such brief phone that the family got alarmed when Rao sounded delirious and was unable to lucidly communicate with them.
With no mode of communication and the lack of information provided by the state, the health status of numerous political prisoners is a mystery.
Rao is the oldest of the co-accused in the Elgar Parishad case. His co-accused Anand Teltumbde, 70, has respiratory issues while Gautam Navlakha, 67, suffers from hypertension, Shoma Sen, 61, is an arthritis patient, and Sudha Bharadwaj, 58, suffers from hypertension and diabetes.
Sudha Bharadwaj in her application to the court argued that social distancing was impossible in the overcrowded barracks of Byculla Jail. Anand Teltumbde was sent to Arthur Road Jail, a COVID hotspot, by the court after he was denied bail. Reportedly, Assam’s mass leader Akhil Gogoi has tested positive in jail but has still not been shifted to a hospital. Yet, what is most worrying is that no steps have been taken towards securing their health within the prison premises. There would be many others we do not even know of as they are not well-known.
COVID cases are surging in Maharashtra’s prisons. As many as 596 inmates and 167 prison staff have tested positive. The High Power Committee set up following Supreme Court directions to decongest prisons during the pandemic, has excluded prisoners charged under special laws from eligibility to be released. The guidelines also state that prisoners above 65 years of age have to housed separately from prisoners of lower age groups. However, the social distancing within prisoners above 65 years remains to be addressed.
Further, patients with co-morbidities have to be monitored regularly. But there is little information on its implementation, and little faith in the qualification and infrastructural ability to carry out this exercise effectively.
Speaking to Caravan, the Superintendent of the Jail stated that Rao’s condition was normal and that the family through its press release was sending out wrong information. Arguably, this can be easily resolved if the family and his lawyers were to be provided with the ‘correct information’. The prison authorities repeatedly failed to submit his health reports to the court during his bail hearing. When it was finally submitted, the same was not provided to his lawyers. The court rejected the bail application without hearing the submission of Rao’s lawyers.
Supervision of the conduct of jail authorities with respect to the health of prisoners is almost not there due to the pandemic.
The Writ Petition by Vara Vara Rao notes the abysmal condition of the prison hospital at whose mercy his, and thousands of other inmates, rests. His lawyers note that the prison hospital has merely ten beds for about 3000 prisoners, and the infrastructural facilities available do not even meet the mark of a clinic. The ‘alertness’ of prison authorities is reflected in the death of an inmate, who tested positive for COVID after his death.
The lawyers in the Writ Petition have drawn upon major inconsistencies between the medical report by J J Hospital and the Prison Hospital report, both of which came within a gap of merely eight days for the same patient. The petition further points out that while Rao was incarcerated in the Yervada Prison, he received regular medical attention under the supervision of the Trial Judge. However, the same is not available at Taloja Jail and due to the pandemic, there is no way of supervising his treatment.
The NIA while opposing Sudha Bharadwaj’s bail application at the Bombay High Court has argued that she is taking undue advantage of a pandemic. One wonders what these “advantages” are in keeping one’s health safe in a pandemic in an overcrowded prison.
None of the accused are flight risks, which is a primary consideration in granting bail applications even in non-pandemic circumstances. However, the state takes the support of draconian laws like NSA and UAPA to deny the activists their humanitarian and fundamental rights during a pandemic and a lockdown. Provisioners are neither being produced in court nor being allowed to address the court through video inference. This is mostly because despite being special statutes, the undertrials under these laws are no different when it comes to their constitutional right to life.
(The author is socio-legal researcher. Views expressed are personal.)