The health condition of Telugu poet Varavara Rao, an accused in the Elgar Parishad case, has been deteriorating in jail, The Indian Express reported on Sunday. The 81-year-old has been lodged at Taloja jail in Mumbai since his arrest on August 31, 2018.
Last month, Rao was admitted to JJ Hospital after he fell unconscious. He was discharged within a few days. Fourteen MPs had also written a letter to Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray requesting urgent attention to Rao’s health and to transfer him from the jail to a hospital.
His lawyer and family told the newspaper that they received a phone call from him on Saturday. During the conversation, which lasted for 1.5 minutes, Rao was unable to speak coherently. A co-inmate, who spoke to the family, informed them that he has been dependent on others for daily chores as his condition has worsened in the last week.
“He was incoherent on the phone call speaking about past events that occurred 50 years ago like they were happening now indicating a neurological disorder,” Rao’s daughter Pavana said. “When he was admitted to JJ Hospital, his medical reports said that he had atrophy. We consulted a doctor here and fear that the lack of medical attention is causing damage to his cells and any further delay will only worsen his condition. We were told he’s not being given any medical treatment in the jail.”
The poet’s lawyer Nihalsing Rathod has sought medical reports of his from the prison superintendent of Taloja jail. In an email, Rathod said Rao is bed-ridden and his condition is “extremely dilapidated” currently. He also sought that Rao be given the video call facility so that his family can see him.
An prison official told The Indian Express that Rao has been kept in the hospital ward of the jail as he has “age-related” ailments.
At a virtual Zoom press conference on Sunday, Rao’s family urged authorities to save his life and shift him to a hospital. Rao’s family said they received three phone calls from him on June 24, July 2 and July 11, adding that the last call was “much more worrisome” as he could not answer questions and seemed to be kind of delirious. Rao spoke about his father’s funeral, which took place 75 years ago, the family said, adding that he is unable to walk on his own.
“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,” his daughter added. “We were also told that he is always hallucinating. He sees us and other family members waiting at the jail gate to receive as if he is getting released.”
Pavana said the co-prisoner told the family that he needs immediate medical care to cure both physical and neurological problems. “The confusion, loss of memory and incoherence are the results of electrolyte imbalance and fall of sodium and potassium levels leading to brain damage,” she added. “This electrolyte imbalance may be fatal also. Taloja Jail Hospital is not at all equipped to handle this kind of serious medical condition. It is highly required that he be shifted to a fully equipped super specialty hospital to save his life and prevent possible brain damage and risk to life due to electrolyte imbalance.”
Stating that bail plea has been rejected five times, the poet’s nephew N Venugopal said: “Our single demand is to shift him to a multi-speciality hospital”, according to The New Indian Express.
On July 3, a special court in Mumbai had rejected Rao’s application for interim bail. His appeal is pending before the Bombay High Court. Rao had filed a plea for interim bail along with activist Shoma Sen, based on the recommendations of a high-powered committee constituted on orders of the Supreme Court to decongest jails. The activists had said they fall in the high-risk group of contracting the virus because of their underlying medical conditions.
However, the special court had said the superintendents of the prisons have been directed to take appropriate measures in such cases. In Rao’s case, the court rejected the bail saying he was immediately shifted to the hospital for further treatment and proper medical aid was provided to him.
On June 22, activist Gautam Navlakha, another accused in the case, had highlighted the “deplorable conditions” in a school turned into a quarantine facility in Maharashtra where he was moved. Navlakha described the situation at the interim facility during a phone conversation with his partner, Sahba Hussain.
Navlakha, Sen and Rao are among the people who are accused of making inflammatory speeches at the Elgar Parishad conclave held at Shaniwar Wada in Pune on December 31, 2017, which triggered violence at Bhima-Koregaon war memorial the next day.
In April, eminent personalities from across the country had called for Rao’s immediate release. The letter, submitted to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was signed by several artistes, including poet and lyricist Gulzar.
“Sri Varavara Rao, renowned poet, writer and harbinger of change in modern Telugu poetry, eighty years of age, runs very high risk of ailment considering his age, deteriorating health and the crowding situation in jail,” their statement said, according to counter currents.org. “Sri Vernon Gonsalves, a fellow prisoner, had sent a message to the advocate drawing attention to the worrisome health condition of Sri Rao. In this context, we see the plea for help with utmost concern.”
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.