A group of 145 international scholars on Sunday issued a statement demanding the immediate release of 80-year-old Telugu poet Varavara Rao and the other 10 activists accused in the Elgar Parishad case, amid the coronavirus outbreak. Rao, who has been imprisoned in Mumbai’s Taloja jail since 2018, tested positive for the coronavirus on July 16.

The signatories said that the poet-activist and a “long-time speaker of truth to power” along with other activists have been charged with inciting violence in Bhima Koregaon, a charge they said is widely regarded as false. They added that over the past two years, the government has failed to bring the charges to court and start the trial.

“Conditions in the jails in which these prisoners of conscience have been kept are said to be unhealthy and the threat of spread of infection has grown,” the scholars said. “Rao, who is 80 years old, has now tested positive for Covid-19 and is seriously ill with several comorbidities. His condition suggests clear neglect of his health by the authorities. We join other international scholars in appealing for the immediate release of Rao and the other Elgar Parishad activists.”

The signatories of the statement include Noam Chomsky, Barbara Harriss-White, Jonathan Spencer, Jens Lerche, Indrajit Roy, David Mosse, among others.

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Rao was shifted from Mumbai’s St George Hospital to Nanavati Hospital on Sunday. Thousands of people had earlier urged the authorities to ensure he got medical care, amid reports of his deteriorating health, especially given the coronavirus crisis.

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 asked the authorities to submit a report on Rao’s health within two weeks.

Rao has been lodged at the Taloja jail since his arrest on August 31, 2018, and is still awaiting trial. On July 12, Rao’s family held a press conference during which they expressed grave concern about his failing health. The family said that he was hallucinating and failing to perform even basic chores in jail.

Activists Vernon Gonsalves and Anand Teltumbde, who are Rao’s fellow inmates at Taloja Jail, had on Friday filed a petition in the Bombay High Court, asking that they be tested for the coronavirus since they had close contact with him in jail. The activists’ petition stated that they were in the high coronavirus risk group because of their age and underlying health conditions.

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.