At least 2,000 citizens have appealed to the Maharashtra government to ensure that Telugu poet and activist Varavara Rao, who is lodged in Mumbai’s Taloja jail in connection with the Elgar Parishad case, got immediate medical care due to his deteriorating health, especially given the coronavirus crisis. “Nothing under law allows the state to endanger the life of an 81-year-old person in the face of this dreaded pandemic,” they said in a petition.

Rao has been lodged at the jail since his arrest on August 31, 2018, and is still awaiting trial. The signatories pointed out that Rao’s family members have expressed grave concern about his failing health. “According to his family, he is hallucinating, unable to walk, go to the toilet and even brush his teeth on his own,” the petition said. “Repeated applications for bail and for external medical assistance have been denied to him by the courts over the two years based on objections of the public prosecutor and assurances of provision of adequate care at the jail.”

They said his health has worsened since he fell unconscious on May 28. He was admitted to the JJ Hospital but discharged within a few days. “In fact, soon after his fall in May, the family had moved court seeking urgent bail but the National Investigation Agency moved him back to prison from the hospital, abruptly stopping his treatment and medication in the process which further aggravated the health crisis,” the signatories added.

At an online press conference on Sunday, Rao’s family had said the poet’s health has been a cause of worry for over a month now. They said that their last telephone conversation with Rao, on July 11, had only increased their fears. A fellow inmate had informed the family that Rao was not in a position to even walk by himself. He needed assistance in carrying out daily chores such as brushing his teeth and going to the toilet. He was hallucinating and spoke about his father’s funeral, an event that took place 75 years ago, the family said.

Rao’s daughter Pavana said her father suffered from electrolyte imbalance as per medical reports, which could be fatal if not treated.

The signatories also noted that Mumbai was one of the worst-hit cities due to the coronavirus pandemic. “The number of Covid-19 cases across Maharashtra’s prisons is nearing 800 and the death toll already stands at four,” they said. “Bombay High Court itself has stated that the coronavirus tests being conducted on inmates lodged in jails and correctional homes in Maharashtra were not sufficient.”

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.

“The recommendation of the high powered committee is based on Article 21 of the constitution that guarantees the right to life of every person under law,” the statement by the citizens said.

They urged the Narendra Modi government to not let Rao and other political prisoners die in jail during the escalating health crisis. “We demand the immediate release of Varavara Rao on bail such that he can receive appropriate medical care and recover from his current illness,” the signatories added.

Calls for Rao’s release intensify

Earlier in the day, the People’s Union for Democratic Rights expressed shock at the poet’s deteriorating health condition, and called for him to immediately be released. The organisation accused the jail administration of failing to take care of those in custody. On Sunday, a group of four civil society members – historian Romila Thapar, economists Prabhat Patnaik and Devaki Jain, and academic Satish Deshpande – demanded that Rao be immediately moved to a hospital.

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.

Activists Gautam Navlakha, Shoma 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 the authorities claim triggered violence at the Bhima-Koregaon war memorial the next day.