Eighty-year-old Varavara Rao asked for a mattress to sleep on inside Pune’s Yerawada Central Jail last month. He was given extra blankets instead. When his lawyer challenged this in court, the authorities took back the blankets.
Rao, a poet and activist from Hyderabad, is among nine people arrested in June and August in the Bhima Koregaon case. The Maharashtra police claim these people collaborated with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) to incite caste violence in Bhima Koregaon village near Pune on January 1, 2018. This was part of a larger conspiracy to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi and destabilise India, the police said in a chargesheet filed in November. Security experts have questioned these claims, saying the allegations had “the hallmarks of a fabrication”.
The Pune police made a fresh arrest on February 2, when it picked up academic Anand Teltumbde from Mumbai. It released him a day later, after a court held his arrest was illegal. The Bombay High Court later granted him protection from arrest till February 12.
In mid-January, Teltumbde had released an open letter, describing how his hopes had been shattered by the Supreme Court’s refusal to quash charges against him earlier that month. “For me, arrest means not simply the hardship of prison life,” wrote Teltumbde, a senior professor at the Goa Institute of Management, who is also a prolific writer. “It will keep me away from my laptop which has been integral with my body, from my library which has been part of my life, half-written manuscripts of books committed to various publishers, my research papers which are in various stages of completion, my students who staked their future on my professional reputation, my institute that invested so many resources in my name and recently appointed me to its board of governors.”
This is not an unfair assumption. Scroll.in spoke to the relatives and lawyers of the nine others arrested in the case, who are being held in Yerawada Central Jail. They say the prisoners have had to approach the courts for even basic amenities such as clothes, medical records and reading material. According to an estimate by one advocate, they have filed around 25 applications for food, clothes and books since June.
Rao’s application for a mattress is still pending.
One of the early complaints came from Shoma Sen, former head of the English department at Nagpur University, who was arrested from Nagpur in June.
“My mother has had acute arthritis for the last 15 years and was unable to squat to use the toilet,” Sen’s daughter Koel Sen said.
That month itself, Shoma Sen requested a portable commode that would be paid for by her family. The jail authorities rejected this request, saying that they would then have to provide similar facilities to other inmates. It asked for a medical certificate. Even after a court ordered the jail to provide the portable commode to Sen, the authorities delayed providing her with one.
“This was indirect torture,” said Koel Sen. “Finally, when we got the media involved, they got a commode the next day. But for two months, she was suffering because of this.”
Mahesh Raut, a former Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow and Forest Rights Act activist, was arrested in June from Nagpur, where he had gone to get his gall bladder medically examined as it had been bleeding. Raut was supposed to get a biopsy done to check if the organ was cancerous. On June 23, two weeks after his arrest, when this was brought to the attention of the court, it ordered the authorities to have Raut taken to a doctor, said Nihalsingh Rathod, his advocate.
The authorities complied once. The doctor in question asked for Raut to be brought back for a re-examination, but the jail authorities have delayed this. Each time Raut is to be produced in court, they take him to hospital the day before without checking whether the doctor is available, said Rathod. Raut has not managed to see a doctor since June.
Advocate Surendra Gadling, also arrested in June, is a highly regarded human rights lawyer, who has successfully fought several cases of people charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for being alleged Naxalites. In June, two days after his arrest, Gadling suffered from high blood pressure, leading to fears of a cardiac arrest. He was taken to Pune’s Sassoon Hospital for treatment, where his wife was not permitted to meet him. Though his wife was subsequently asked to buy around Rs 15,000 worth of medicines, these did not immediately reach him.
Gadling wanted to have his medical records from that period examined by an outside expert as he feared the angiography he underwent at the hospital showed blockages in his arteries. But seven months on, the hospital and jail authorities have refused to release these records to him.
A place beyond hope
Yerawada Central Jail, which is also home to the Inspectorate General of Prisons, is the largest jail in Maharashtra. It is overcrowded – in 2017, there were around 5,000 inmates in the jail meant for 2,500 people – and also notorious for its harsh treatment of prisoners, whether they are convicts or undertrials.
Presumed innocent, undertrials are granted more privileges, but not in Yerawada, say lawyers. They say particularly those charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and other similar Acts have to fight for each right.
“When people enter this jail, they go in accepting that they are entering a place that is beyond hope or control,” said Rohan Nahar, an advocate representing two of the accused. “Only rarely do people approach courts for their rights, and in this case, it is only because they are educated and know their rights.”
A former inmate who did not want to be identified said the prison conditions were appalling. “If there are water cuts from the city, sometimes we went for two days without water,” the inmate said. “They will use clean water to wash the floors and give us dirty water to bathe with. It is like hell.”
No book requests
Gadling, as an experienced advocate, has been defending himself in court. In June, he requested seven books, including those on law such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, the Criminal Manual and the Constitution of India. The court allowed this request. When Rathod went to give him the books, however, the authorities did not initially allow him to hand them over.
Authorities interfered in other ways. When Rathod drafted a bail application for Gadling in July and sent it to him for his approval, the authorities opened it and returned the letter to Rathod. Another senior lawyer sent Gadling notes on the case. This too was returned – the notes inside had been ripped up.
It is not just law books. Raut requested a copy of the award-winning Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India by Akshaya Mukul in September. Government pleaders argued that the book was scandalous and spoke against the government and refused to allow it to him. All books requested by the nine arrested activists are taken to the public prosecutor first, who examines them.
At first, the jailer refused such book requests, saying that the library had 30,000 books so there was no reason to allow more such books in a congested prison, said Rahul Deshmukh, the advocate for two of the accused. The court finally allowed up to 20 books, with the jailer agreeing to release seven to nine books to the prisoners at a time, with the rest kept in the library.
Scroll.in contacted the office of the deputy inspector general of prisons in Maharashtra, which is based in Yerawada Central Jail. He was not available for comment.
No awareness of rights
Few undertrials here are aware of their rights.
For instance, since video conferencing was introduced around five years ago, undertrials are rarely produced in court on the dates of their hearings. Instead, they are made to stay inside the jail with police officials around them who can threaten them if they attempt to make submissions to their lawyers. Police are also present when people meet their advocates, meaning that some undertrials might never be able to have confidential meetings with their lawyers.
“For poor people who are in jail, they might not come outside the walls even once for years, even for petty crimes,” said the former inmate. “And if we complain, they block our meetings or video conferences so we have no way to contact the outside world.”
Since the nine accused activists are in a high-profile case, they have been taken to court for their hearings, leading to other undertrials asking for the same.
Showing how unprepared the court is for such appearances, the court lock-up has no toilet facilities. This means undertrials are frequently forced to relieve themselves in these rooms, Rathod said. Only after Gadling filed an application for toilet facilities were they permitted to be taken to a lavatory for breaks. The lock-up in the court still has no lights or fan, Rathod said.