The Supreme Court on Thursday refused to grant bail to Telugu poet and activist Varavara Rao who was arrested two years ago in connection with the ongoing investigation into the Bhima Koregaon case, The Hindu reported. The court, however, requested the Bombay High Court to consider Rao’s existing pleas for medical bail at the earliest.

A bench of Justices UU Lalit, Vineet Saran and Ravindra Bhat made the observations while hearing a plea filed by the activist’s wife, claiming that his continued custody amounted to cruel and inhuman treatment. The petition, filed by Pendyala Hemalatha, asked that during the pendency of the petition, the 81-year-old accused should be released on temporary medical bail.

Senior advocate Indira Jaising, appearing on behalf of Hemlatha, told the court that denying Rao bail despite his serious medical condition was a violation of his right to health, Live Law reported. She said the petitioner’s right to life and dignity was also being violated.

Jaising cited Rao’s medical reports from the Nanavati Hospital in Mumbai, where the activist was shifted in July as his health had worsened after he contracted the coronavirus. She argued that given his age, other illnesses and co-morbidities, the hospital had clearly stated in a report at the end of July that “the patient requires close monitoring”.

Rao had suffered a fall at St George Hospital and injured his head. A medical report on July 30 from the Nanavati Hospital, ordered by the High Court, found that the accident, coupled with his Covid-19 infection, had led to neurological problems.

Jainsing argued that despite this, the authorities on August 28 hurriedly moved Rao back to Taloja Jail without informing Rao’s family, just to “avoid judicial determination of his bail on medical grounds”.

“I would not like to be responsible for a custodial death,” Jaising told the bench, and urged them to at least consider ordering Rao’s transfer to Nanavati Hospital till the Bombay High Court took up the matter, according to The Quint.

Justice Lalit said the case had “three dimensions”. First, a competent court had taken cognisance of the case, and therefore Rao’s detention was not “per se illegal”. Second, the question of bail was under the consideration of the High Court. Finally, the issue giving Rao bail, either on merits of the case or on medical grounds, was being looked into by the High Court. “So, how do we [Supreme Court] hear the case now”, Justice Lalit asked.

At one point, Justice Saran considered sending Rao back to the Nanavati Hospital. Justice Lalit said Rao could be medically observed in the hospital till the High Court took a call.

But Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the National Investigation, which is conducting the investigation into the Bhima Koregaon case under the UAPA, opposed this. Mehta argued that every prisoner’s health was a concern for the government and such an order in Rao’s case may lead to other prisoners also seeking the same relief on medical grounds.

Justice Bhatt countered him and said that should not be a deterrent. “If the health condition of every prisoner requires that [sending him or her to the hospital for treatment], then every prisoner should be sent,” he told Mehta. “Health is health...Who would want a death in jail?”

The judges expressed concern that the Bombay High Court had failed to list the matter for so long, but declined to take any action, saying the High Court was already seized of the relevant issues in the case. The bench asked the High Court to take up a writ petition for him to be given treatment at a specialty hospital within seven days of being filed.

Rao is among the activists and academics who have been 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.