Jailed activist Varavara Rao hospitalised

Published : July 13, 2020 21:41 IST

P. Varavara Rao being brought to a court in Mumbai on February 28. Photo: PTI

P. Varavara Rao, Telugu litterateur, Marxist ideologue and rights activist who has been in jail for about two years now, has been shifted to a private hospital owing to a rapid deterioration in his health. Under pressure from Varavara Rao’s family and several public appeals to provide adequate medical attention to the ailing 79-year-old, the State government finally moved him to the state-run J.J. Hospital in Mumbai on July 13. He  was imprisoned in June 2018 in connection with the Elgar Parishad conference, which the authorities say was responsible for a clash between Marathas and Dalits at Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra in 2018. Varavara Rao and ten others have been charged with links to banned Maoist groups and for being part of a conspiracy that apparently planned to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Alarmed by his condition in Mumbai’s Taloja jail, Varavara Rao’s family issued a press statement on July 12, demanding that immediate medical attention be provided to him. Titled “Don’t kill Varavara Rao in Jail”, the statement says: “The immediate cause of concern now is that we are very much perturbed at the routine phone call we received from him on Saturday evening. Though the earlier two calls on June 24 and July 2 were also worrying with his weak and muffled voice, incoherent speech and abruptly jumping into Hindi. As an eloquent and articulate public speaker and writer in Telugu for over five decades, a Telugu teacher for four decades and known for his meticulous memory, this fumbling, incoherence and loss of memory were in themselves strange and frightening. But the latest call, on July 11, is much more worrisome as he did not answer straight questions on his health and went into a kind of delirious and hallucinated talk about the funeral of his father and mother, the events that happened seven decades and four decades ago respectively.”

According to Varavara Rao’s daughter Pavana, he could barely speak for a minute when they called him over the phone. She told the media that his health had been deteriorating since he had a fall in his cell on May 28. Accusing the prison authorities of neglect and not providing adequate medical attention, Pavana said it was only after Vernon Gonsalves, his cell mate and co-accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, told her that her father needed physical help in doing the most basic activities, such as eating and using the washroom, did she realise how grave the situation was. The confusion and loss of memory could be from a dip in her father’s sodium and potassium levels, which could be fatal if not treated, she said. The family members also said the prison authorities were not providing the family with accurate information regarding Varavara Rao.

Bail denied

On July 13, Varavara Rao’s lawyer filed an urgent writ petition in the Bombay High Court against an order of the Special National Investigation Agency (NIA) Court in Mumbai rejecting an interim bail application filed on his behalf on June 26 citing ill health and susceptibility to COVID-19 in prison. The NIA, however, said that as the poet had been charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), bail could not be given, as the law does not provide for it.

Until January 2020, the Pune police had been handling the Bhima Koregaon case. In a sudden turn of events, after the new Maharashtra State government assumed office, the case was transferred to the NIA. It appeared that the Centre was apprehensive of the possibility of the new government reviewing the case and releasing the activists.

The case

Eleven activists were arrested for their allegedly provocative speeches during the Elgar Parishad in Pune on December 31, 2017. The gathering was primarily attended by Dalit and human rights activists commemorating the 200th year anniversary of the military victory of Dalits over Peshwas. On January 1, 2018, as thousands of Dalits made the pilgrimage to the Bhima Koregaon site near Ahmednagar, Maratha youth, instigated by a few self-proclaimed Maratha leaders, reportedly attacked them. The youth were reportedly seen in the locality a day prior to the Elgar Parishad. One person died in the violence and hundreds were injured.

Instead of going after the perpetrators of the violence, the police went on a nationwide hunt and arrested rights activists, social workers, academicians and litterateurs on the grounds that they were involved in the Elgar Parishad and were part of a conspiracy, allegedly planned by the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), to assassinate Narendra Modi. Appeals for an independent probe by the Supreme Court were met with resistance by the State government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party then. Two years after the incident, investigation agencies have produced little evidence to indict the arrested.

Civil society activists’ statement

With regard to Varavara Rao’s condition, civil rights activists and prominent personalities, including historian Romila Thapar, lawyer Maja Daruwala, economists Prabhat Patnaik and Devaki Jain, have written to the Maharashtra government to provide the poet with immediate medical attention. Their statement said: “To knowingly risk the life of a person in state custody by refusing proper medical treatment would amount to an ‘encounter’. Mr [Varavara] Rao poses no flight risk and has voluntarily submitted to all investigations for the past 22 months. There is no reason in law or conscience to hold him in circumstances that increase risk to his fragile health. The authorities need to assure the nation that the Indian State respects the rule of law and the Constitution, by ensuring proper treatment for Mr Rao.”

In a statement, the State committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Maharashtra State Committee said: “We demand that looking at the dangerous spread of COVID-19, all these public intellectuals put in prisons under fabricated charges be released forthwith. The Uddhav Thackeray government should not fall prey to the Machiavellian machinations of the Centre that it would be the Maharashtra government who would be put in the dock, in case something unfortunate and untoward happens. We fervently hope good sense will prevail and the Maharashtra government will take firm and proper action in this respect. The first step must be to expeditiously shift Varavara Rao to a well-equipped hospital in Mumbai.”

In April this year, 40 well-known Indian poets had written to the Prime Minister demanding the release of Varavara Rao and other activists arrested along with him—Anand Teltumbde, Vernon Gonsalves, Shoma Sen, Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira, Gautam Navlakha, Sudhir Dhawale, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut and Roma Wilson. In what seems to be a concerted effort to muffle the voice of dissent and to target activists who the state believes pose a threat to national security, the government has turned a deaf ear to pleas for release or for following due process in the trial.