It’s exactly one month since Varavara Rao’s family felt disturbed with his incoherent talk and began emergency efforts to bring the dreadful condition of his health to people’s notice, to appeal to all the systems of governance and to move judiciary seeking an immediate remedy to the risk to his life. However, 720 hours have passed without any ray of hope from anywhere.
Notwithstanding the widespread concern, protest and demand for his immediate release by civil society across the globe as well as in the country, the much-needed response to this life and death situation of a world-renowned, ailing poet was conspicuously absent on the part of the political establishment and the judiciary. The family had only two small mercies in 30 excruciatingly stressful days: a glimpse of Rao and exchange of a few words with him for about half an hour at Sir JJ Hospital in Mumbai on July 15 with permission letter from the jail authorities; later, they had an interaction with him for about 20 minutes on video conference on July 31, on the directions of High Court.
Earlier, on July 11 evening, Varavara Rao’s wife Hemalata received a routine weekly phone call from him while he was in Taloja Jail, Navi Mumbai. By then he was already in the Jail Hospital Ward, after being discharged as “normal and stable” from Sir JJ Hospital on June 1 following four days as in-patient. As the family could not see him in the hospital between May 28 and June 1, as well as in jail between June 1 and July 11, Hemalata was worried about his health. Rao's response to her query on his health utterly shocked her. Instead of answering her, he asked, “have you attended my father’s funeral, I believe 6,000 people came…” The funeral he was talking about took place in 1948, when he was eight years old and she was not even born.
The delirium was going on and his co-accused Vernon Gonsalves, who was also in the same hospital ward, took the phone from him and informed the family that Rao was not able to walk and even brush his teeth by himself. Apart from this precarious physical condition, he was always hallucinating and blabbering in disorientation. The news perturbed the family. From a person who has been a poet, writer and public speaker with meticulous memory for nearly six decades, and who worked as a college teacher for over three decades, this search for words, loss of memory, disorientation, delirium and incoherence were incredibly unimaginable. They suspected that the electrolyte imbalance, diagnosed in Sir JJ Hospital some six weeks ago, might be the culprit again. They thought shifting him to a hospital immediately for better medical care or releasing him on bail and allowing the family to take care of him would be a probable solution.
Shifting to a hospital is a political decision and granting bail is under the purview of the judiciary. Thus, the family began appealing to the state government, in whose jail he was lodged as well as to the Union government, whose investigative agency is spearheading the trial. An interim bail petition based on age, health, and Covid vulnerability, and moved in the last week of June, was already before the Bombay High Court and except asking for expediting it, nothing could be done. The family then wanted to place the whole affair before the people to let them know what was happening to their beloved poet through media hoping it would help in raising the issue and mobilise public opinion to save the life of Rao, who was almost on deathbed.
The family held a video press conference on the morning of July 12 and made a fervent appeal: “Don’t Kill Varavara Rao in Jail”. The event really evoked more response from people at large than expected. About 20,000 viewers watched the press conference with hundreds sharing it on social media. Hundreds of newspapers, TV channels and magazines not only covered the event, but also have written editorials and published opinion columns expressing solidarity and demanding his release. There was a Twitter storm that evening. Many political parties, both in Maharashtra and all-India level, demanded the government to shift him to hospital. Several national and international organisations including UNHCR, NHRC, Amnesty International, PEN International, PEN Delhi, and Indian People’s Theatre Association appealed for the release of the poet. Hundreds of poets, writers, academics and intellectuals, including Noam Chomsky, Jan Bremen, Barbara Harriss-White, Romila Thapar, Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi made individual and joint appeals to the government. There were a lot of protest demonstrations all over the country. A social media site began a campaign of translating and reciting Varavara Rao’s poems into various languages, in order to demand his release. Within hours, his poems were translated into more than 26 languages and recitations were posted on the site. At least a hundred poets from various languages wrote poems about Varavara Rao in an expression of solidarity. A senior poet from Ireland, Gabriel Rosenstock wrote a beautiful protest poem, which was translated immediately into a dozen international languages.
While the response from civil society was so abundantly overwhelming and still coming, the response from the government agencies and judiciary was lukewarm or indifferent. After a lot of pressure from opposition political parties, particularly some concerned individuals and National Human Rights Commission, Maharashtra government conceded to shift him to hospital and he was moved to Sir JJ Hospital on July 13.
Despite the Covid restrictions on travel and meeting people, the family wanted to see him in hospital and with permission from the jail authorities visited the Transit Ward in the hospital. The situation in that stinking, unattended ward was much more pathetic. As a couple of armed guards were waiting at the entrance, Rao was lying in a bed drenched in urine, without any medical help or equipment like drip or catheter or oximeter. Initially, he could not recognise his family members and the hospital authorities sent out the family forcibly within a short time. Hemalata filed an affidavit on the pathetic conditions she saw in the hospital to the High Court, as the bail petition was going to be heard. When the family wanted to see him the next day, they were told that he had tested positive for Covid-19 and hence they could not see him. The apprehension expressed in the bail petition filed two weeks ago came true. Then he was moved to Covid-specialty St Georges Hospital, and later on the intervention of NHRC, to the Nanavati Hospital.
While all this was going on, and even later, neither the jail authorities nor the hospitals ever thought it was necessary to share information on health status, line of treatment and probable risks with the patient’s family. In the absence of official and transparent information on health, rumours and speculations spread. A newspaper reported that doctors suspected dementia and another reported he was suffering from neurological issues and yet another said he suffered a head injury.
On the other hand, the courts of law have not thought it's necessary to take up the bail case of the ailing, 80-year old Covid patient on an urgency basis. The court did not take up the bail petition or Hemalata’s new affidavit on July 17 and went on postponing it to July 20 to July 23 to July 27. In the meanwhile, National Investigation Agency filed a counter alleging that Varavara Rao was trying to take undue benefit of age and Covid!
On July 27, the High Court heard the pleas and directed the hospital to submit Rao's medical report within three days, and then the court would decide whether it could be shared with his family or not. The case was postponed to August 7. It also directed the hospital to allow family to visit “subject to hospital protocols with regard to Covid patients.” The hospital in turn, said the protocols would not permit meeting and allowed a video conference on July 31.
The video conference showed that Rao was still physically weak and psychologically suffering from delirium, incoherence and loss of sense of time. Even as the family was traumatised to see him in such a condition, neither the political establishment nor the judiciary thought it necessary to consider the case either on legal or humanitarian basis or on the basis of principles of natural justice.
At the time of writing this, it is eleven days since the video conference and there is no news from anywhere. No official health bulletin from hospital or jail, not even the medical report submitted to the High Court made available to the family.
If such is the treatment meted out to a highly-respected, world-renowned elderly poet, that too in the face of such a huge expression of solidarity, what would be the attitude of this establishment towards helpless, voiceless adivasis, dalits, minorities, women and all downtrodden?
(N Venugopal Rao is a poet, literary critic and journalist. Views expressed are personal.)