Telugu poet Varavara Rao’s lawyer told the Bombay High Court on Monday that his client is “almost on his deathbed”, PTI reported. Rao is an accused in the Elgar Parishad case, and has been in prison since 2018. He had tested positive for the coronavirus last week after he had been admitted to JJ Hospital in Mumbai.

“His condition is very serious,” Rao’s lawyer Sandeep Pasbola told the court. “He hit his head against the hospital bed while he was at the JJ Hospital and sustained severe injuries. Besides Covid-19, he suffers from several ailments, he is hallucinating and is delirious.” Pasbola said that if Rao were to die, it should be in the presence of his

Following this, the court ordered the National Investigation Agency, which is probing the Elgar Parishad case, and the Maharashtra government to inform it of Rao’s health condition. The court also asked the NIA and the Maharashtra government to examine if Rao’s family could be allowed to see him “from a reasonable distance”. A division bench of Justices SS Shinde and SP Tavade asked the two entities to provide the information by July 22.

Pasbola said Rao was in no condition to prejudice the investigation, and added that even the NIA cannot dispute this. However, the court asked the lawyer if it would be counterproductive to move the poet from JJ Hospital to another place given his health condition.

“Also, if he has Covid-19, then how can he meet his family?” the court asked. In response, Pasbola said the family could follow safety measures and see Rao from a distance.

Advocate Deepak Thakare, representing the Maharashtra government, said that the state could arrange for video conferencing facilities for Rao’s family.

Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh, who appeared for the NIA, said coronavirus patients cannot be allowed to meet anybody. He said Rao had been admitted to one of the best hospitals in the country. “We are providing the best treatment to him, all his medical needs are being attended to and we are following ICMR [Indian Council of Medical Research] guidelines in treating him for Covid-19,” Singh said.

A group of 145 international scholars had on Sunday issued a statement demanding the immediate release of Rao and the other activists in the Bhima Koregaon and Elgar Parishad cases. The signatories said that the poet-activist is a “long-time speaker of truth to power”, and alleged that the government has failed to bring the charges to court and start the trial, over the past two years.

Court hears pleas by other accused

The same bench of the Bombay High Court on Monday also heard a plea by Anand Teltumbde and Vernon Gonsalves, other accused in the case. Teltumbde and Gonsalves sought to be tested for the coronavirus, as they had been in close contact with Rao in jail. The court directed the Taloja Jail authorities and the NIA to respond to the petition by July 23. The court noted that some inmates of Taloja Jail had already tested positive for the contagion.

“The prayer in the petition is limited,” the court said. “You carry out the test for Covid-19 and see. If they are negative, then good.”

The court adjourned the hearing of a plea filed by activist Sudha Bharadwaj, another accused in the case, seeking bail on health grounds, after it found the Byculla women prison superintendent’s report on her health illegible. Bharadwaj’s plea will also be heard on July 23. An inmate of the Byculla prison had tested positive for the coronavirus last month.

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.

The 10 persons were later also accused of involvement in a nationwide Maoist conspiracy to destabilise democracy, overthrow of the government by setting up an “anti-fascist front” and plotting to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The activists were also 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 NIA.