Activist and journalist Gautam Navlakha has detailed the condition of a temporary detention facility in Maharashtra, where he is currently being kept before being moved to a central prison. The activist, an accused in the Elgar Parishad case, noted the condition in the school that has been turned into a Covid-19 quarantine facility during a conversation with his partner, Sahba Hussain.

Navlakha told Hussain there was no fresh air at the temporary facility as the inmates are locked up with no place to walk or exercise. The activist said that 350 prisoners were crammed into six rooms, and share three toilets. “He [Navlakha] said that the congestion is such that apart from the fear of Covid-19, inmates are prone to skin infections too,” she wrote in a letter to filmmaker Anand Patwardhan.

She further noted that Taloja jail did not appear to have the space for new prisoners like Navlakha. Given these circumstances it worries me to think about the extreme health risk that he and other inmates are being exposed to on a daily basis,” Hussain wrote.

The Union health ministry’s Monday morning update showed 1,32,075 coronavirus cases in Maharashtra – the worst-hit among all the states in India. Of these, 60,161 people are being treated, 65,744 people have recovered and 6,170 patients have died.

In May, Maharashtra’s prison department decided to set up temporary jails as an attempt to quarantine new prisoners before shifting them to the central prison. The state had then planned to detain inmates at these facilities for a span of 21 days and then move them to central prisons after screenings. However, inmates at Navlakha’s facility had not been shifted even after 21 days, reported The Indian Express.

An unidentified prison department official told the newspaper that a decision will be taken on moving the prisoners, whose quarantine period was over. There are 321 inmates at the temporary facility. The Taloja central jail has a capacity of 2,124 prisoners, with a total of 2,112 currently serving their sentence.

Another unidentified prison official refuted allegations about the deplorable condition of the temporary facilities, and said that it was set up according to the jail manual. The temporary jails were set up across Maharashtra after district collectors allotted the spaces.

“We have so far not received any complaint about the inadequacy of toilets or bathrooms,” Raigad District Collector Nidhi Choudhari told The Indian Express. “The facilities have been set up as per the request made by the prison department.” Choudhari said the school’s authorities had asked for the premises to be given back to them by the end of June, adding that a decision to move the prisoners will be taken accordingly.

Bhima Koregaon and Elgar Parishad cases

On January 1, 2018, violence erupted between Dalits and Marathas near the village of Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra’s Pune district, where lakhs of Dalits had converged to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon. Dalit Mahar soldiers fighting for the British Army defeated the Brahmin Peshwa rulers of the Maratha empire in the battle in 1818. This happened a day after an event in Pune called the Elgar Parishad was organised to commemorate the battle. One person died in violence during a bandh called by Dalit outfits on January 2.

The Pune police conducted raids on several activists in April 2018, followed by two rounds of arrests that targeted 10 activists. On June 6, 2018, they arrested Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen and Mahesh Raut from Nagpur, Sudhir Dhawale from Mumbai, and Rona Wilson from Delhi. On August 28, 2018, the police arrested five more activists – Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao and Gautam Navlakha.

By this time, the accusations against the activists had grown from inciting the violence in Bhima Koregaon to alleged involvement in a nationwide “Maoist” conspiracy to destabilise democracy, overthrow the government by setting up an “anti-fascist front” and plotting to assassinate Narendra Modi. All of the activists were labelled as “urban Naxalites” and accused of being members of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).

The two cases were being investigated by the Pune Police, but earlier this year, the Centre transferred the Elgar Parishad inquiry to the National Investigation Agency.

Last month, the special NIA court in Mumbai rejected the interim bail plea of Sudha Bhardwaj. Bharadwaj had sought temporary bail on medical grounds in view of the health crisis following the coronavirus outbreak.