The family of Telugu poet-activist Varavara Rao has written to Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh alleging that they have been denied any information on the activist’s health condition or treatment for the last twelve days. They said it was the duty of the government to give access to information about his health as per the Charter of Patient Rights prepared by the Union health ministry. A copy of the letter was also sent to the Additional Director General of Prisons.

Rao, who has been imprisoned in Mumbai’s Taloja jail since 2018 in connection with the Elgar Parishad case, had tested positive for the coronavirus earlier this month. On July 19, he was shifted from Mumbai’s St George Hospital to Nanavati Hospital for treatment. Thousands of people had urged the authorities to ensure he got medical care, amid reports of his deteriorating health, especially given the pandemic. However, last week, his lawyer told the Bombay High Court that Rao was “almost on his deathbed”.

Rao’s family said that from the time he was shifted out of Taloja Jail to JJ Hospital, later to St George’s hospital and then to Nanavati hospital, the only official information provided to them was that he had tested positive for the Covid-19 on July 16. “We have been calling Taloja jail ever since he was transferred to Nanavati Hospital,” they said. “On July 22, the jail personnel picked up our call and said that the jail hospital/ jail doctor might have information about Rao’s health. We tried to contact the jail hospital but there was no response.”

The family said their lawyer called the jail superintendent on July 22. But once she introduced herself, the call was disconnected. The lawyer then sent a text message on the same number, but that too was left unanswered. When the family called the Taloja jail again on July 24, the person that answered the phone said he had no information about Rao’s health.

“We have been calling Nanavati Hospital also every day since July 20, 2020, but received no response from them,” the letter said. When Rao’s daughter Pavana contacted the hospital spokesperson six days later, they were informed that the hospital has been regularly updating the jail authorities about Rao’s health. “It is a mystery why this information is not passed on to the family by the jail authorities,” the letter said.

“It is very clear that the jail authorities have regular updates about Rao’s health,” the family said. “Rao is an under-trial prisoner in your custody and the jail authorities have the responsibility to give us regular updates or instruct the Nanavati hospital to release regular health bulletins.”

They said that it was “ethical and inhuman” to withhold information about his health. “We, therefore, request you to direct Taloja jail authorities or Nanavati Hospital to provide regular updates on Rao’s health status, the diagnosis of his health problems and line of treatment to us,” the letter said.

Rao’s family has repeatedly expressed grave concern about the activist’s failing health. At a press conference organised earlier this month, Pavana had said that a co-prisoner told the family that Rao needed 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.”

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.