Jailed activists Vernon Gonsalves and Anand Teltumbde on Friday filed a petition in the Bombay High Court, asking that they be tested for the coronavirus, days after poet-activist Varavara Rao – their fellow inmate at Mumbai’s Taloja jail – was found to have contracted the infection. All the three activists have been jailed in the Elgar Parishad case.
Gonsalves and Teltumbde’s petition, cited by Sabrang, said that they were in close contact with Rao in jail. “There is an urgent need to conduct swab tests for the petitioners and make arrangements for them accordingly,” the petition said. “The petitioners, who are presently lodged at Taloja Central Prison, are in grave risk and danger of their lives. The Petitioners are under an imminent threat of contracting Covid 19 virus or have already contacted the same.”
The petition also stated that the activists were in the high coronavirus risk group because of their age and underlying health conditions.
The activists’ petition also urged the court to decide whether they should be moved to a hospital immediately and kept in isolation or moved to any such space where physical distance could be observed.
Rao, who tested positive for the coronavirus on Wednesday, was moved to Mumbai’s JJ Hospital from jail earlier this week. Thousands of people had urged the authorities to ensure he got medical care, amid reports of his deteriorating health. Gonsalves’ wife Susan Abraham had said that he was also at risk of contracting the infection as he was made to look after Rao in prison.
Earlier on Friday, the National Human Rights Commission sent notices to the Chief Secretary and the Director General (Prisons), Maharashtra, over Rao’s worsening health. The NHRC has sought a report from the authorities concerned within two weeks.
Rao, Teltumbde and Gonsalves 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 Bhima-Koregaon war memorial the next day.
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.