Criminal negligence, if not deliberate vendetta, on the part of various organs of the government – police, prison, hospital and court – is the cause of octogenarian poet Varavara Rao’s deteriorating health condition. Rao, who tested positive for Coronavirus, is currently admitted to St George’s Hospital in Mumbai.
Even though Rao was incarcerated for over seven years between 1973 and 2005, implicated in 25 cases and acquitted as “not-guilty” in all of them, the current imprisonment since November 2018 has taken a high toll on his health. While he had to suffer his earlier imprisonment between his thirties to sixties, the present incarceration is in his advanced age of 80s. Though he was suffering from various health issues like acidity, hypertension, hemorrhoids, coronary artery disease and oedema that he developed during his earlier prison life, it is the present jail conditions that have caused electrolyte imbalance, neurological deficiencies and aggravated prostate gland issues.
Being a gregarious, socially-concerned public intellectual as well as a prolific reader and writer, who did not spend a day without reading and writing, the particular solitude he has undergone in recent months, with family and lawyer visits suspended, newspapers and books not allowed, confined in jail hospital ward incommunicado for weeks together, destroyed both his physiological and psychological condition.
The responsibility of police for this sad state of affairs begins from January 2018 when they desisted from proceeding on a genuine complaint on Bhima-Koregaon violence against the real perpetrators, but proceeded on a fake complaint filed a week later against Elgar Parishad meeting. In an upside down case, the case was filed against those who had nothing to do with the violence and who actually were opposing the violence. Then, in innumerable twists and turns, the simple case of arson and rioting at one place was enlarged as a criminal conspiracy against the state spread over the country. Then, an allegation of assassination attempt on the Prime Minister, based on a fabricated “electronic evidence”, was added and a country-wide swoop down followed. Sixteen months after the first arrests in the case, the case did not move an inch and more and more proof of the fake evidence began coming up.
At that juncture, the state government changed and the new dispensation wanted to investigate the case. A leader of the new regime went to the extent of naming two police officers of cooking up the evidence and mooting to form a Special Investigation Team to find out the veracity of the evidence. Just as these moves were being contemplated, the Union Home Ministry took over the case and transferred it to the National Investigation Agency. However, even after four months, the super cop could neither gather any genuine evidence nor move the case an inch ahead, while eleven accused are languishing in jail without any trial.
The prisons in Maharashtra, particularly Yerawada, in which they were lodged till February 26, 2020 and Taloja, Navi Mumbai, do not have any provision to handle prisoners like academics, poets, writers, lawyers and human rights defenders. There are no reading and writing facilities, not even a chair to sit, no cot to sleep and poor lighting. Especially their entry into Taloja and lockdown due to Covid-19 coincided and, thus, the prisoners were denied mandatory visits of family and lawyers; letters were stopped as postal services were suspended. They were not brought to court due to transportation issues and they were made incommunicado in their solitary cells.
In the case of Varavara Rao, who lives on meeting people, reading and writing, this was a severe blow and he -- both physically and mentally -- could not take it. Being a college teacher, poet, writer and public speaker in Telugu for over six decades, he was already suffering from isolation and the Taloja solitude was a further assault. Thus, he fell unconscious in jail and was shifted to JJ Hospital on May 28.
By the time he was brought to the hospital, his Sodium and Potassium levels were dangerously low. After three days, even as the electrolyte balance had not recovered fully, the hospital discharged him and sent him back to the jail. The low Sodium and Potassium levels cause confusion, incoherence, loss of memory. His family has been making the same complaint after getting his phone calls on June 24, July 2 and July 11. That means both the hospital and jail erred in hurriedly discharging him and not maintaining his electrolyte levels, allowing his health to deteriorate. Thus, he had to be brought to the same JJ Hospital again on July 13. When his family visited him on July 15, he was lying shabbily without any assistance in the Transit Ward. The same symptoms of confusion and incoherence were visible.
Even as it is known that he suffers from electrolyte imbalance, there was no equipment to check his oxygen levels. On July 16, he tested positive for Covid-19 and was moved to another hospital. Since Covid hospitals are guarded enclosures, there is no transparent information on his health status and the line of treatment.
The major responsibility of this persisting incarceration, despite his age, health issues and Covid vulnerability, lies with the judicial administration. While Indian jurisprudence believes in the principle of ‘bail is rule and jail is exception’, as set up by Justice V R Krishna Iyer in a famous Supreme Court case in 1977, in this case, Varavara Rao and all his co-accused have been consistently denied bail. Varavara Rao himself was denied bail at variousoccasions -- at least five times in the last 15 months. All kinds of bail applications – based on technical grounds of not filing chargesheet within stipulated time, on merits and on health and age grounds – were rejected by courts.
Even after the outbreak of Covid and Supreme Court guidelines to decongest prisons and release Covid-vulnerable prisoners on parole, lower courts seem to follow the directions of police rather than superior Court. NIA Special Sessions Court rejected his bail application on March 30, saying that there was “no change in circumstances” from the earlier bail rejections. Another interim bail application was rejected by the same court on June 24, showing the hospital’s medical report of the patient being “stable and discharged”. An appeal in the High Court on the interim bail has been dragging on for the last three weeks while Rao’s health condition is deteriorating by the day.
Even though Article 21 of the Indian Constitution says, “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law,” Varavara Rao is being deprived of his right to life and being wantonly pushed to death by police, prison, hospital and court in tandem.
(N Venugopal Rao is a poet, literary critic and a journalist. Views expressed are personal)