The National Investigation Agency on Tuesday told the Bombay High Court that Telugu poet and activist Varavara Rao, accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, was “fit enough” to be shifted back to the Taloja Jail in Navi Mumbai from a private hospital where he is currently admitted, PTI reported.
A bench of Justices SS Shinde and Justice MS Karnik, however, allowed Rao to stay in the hospital till the next hearing on December 21. “The earlier order will have to continue,” the court said, while hearing a petition filed by Rao’s wife, P Hemalatha, seeking proper treatment and bail for him on medical grounds. “We cannot break the hospital treatment procedure.”
Rao was shifted to the the Nanavati hospital in Mumbai after the High Court on November 18 had observed that he was “almost on deathbed”. It had ruled that Rao should not be discharged from the hospital without informing the court, and that his family should be allowed to meet him at the hospital.
On December 3, the Bombay High Court had noted that the condition of Rao has improved, but said that he will continue to remain at Mumbai’s Nanavati Hospital till December 14.
During the hearing on Tuesday, senior counsels Indira Jaising and Anand Grover, appearing for Rao, urged the High Court to grant him bail. They also pleaded that Rao be permitted to go back to his home in Hyderabad for treatment.
Grover said the 81-year-old poet was suffering from inherent medical problems since the time of his arrest in 2018. Authorities at Taloja prison in Navi Mumbai did not have the expertise or medical infrastructure required to treat him, he said.
“He has been tried for 24 cases in his lifetime which is not a joke for anyone, and he has been acquitted in all of them,” Grover told the High Court. “He has been chargesheeted and acquitted. He never absconded and has stood trial and he will stand trial here as well, and that should be considered while granting him bail.”
Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh, appearing for the NIA objected to this, saying that Rao had applied for bail on medical grounds and hence, his counsels must not argue on the merits of the case.
Advocate Jaising, meanwhile, pleaded the court to allow Rao’s lawyers to meet him at the hospital. To this, the bench said lawyers could send a written legal correspondence to Rao through his wife, who was permitted to meet him.
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Rao was taken into custody for his alleged role in the Bhima Koregaon case on November 17, 2018, after spending days under house arrest. He is 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 between Maratha and Dalit groups near Bhima Koregaon village on January 1, 2018.
Since his arrest, Rao has been in and out of hospitals, owing to his poor health. On July 16 this year, the activist had tested positive for coronavirus, after which he was shifted to Nanavati Hospital. He was discharged following a final assessment report on July 30 and sent back to the Taloja prison.
On November 18, the Bombay High Court had noted that the 81-year-old suffered from neurological ailments and also needed post-Covid care. “A person was on death bed and in such circumstances the state government cannot say that he should be treated in the jail,” the court had said. Following this, the Maharashtra government had agreed to shift Rao from Taloja prison to the Nanavati hospital and bear the expenses of his treatment.
Bombay High Court refers to Arnab Goswami case
During the hearing on Tuesday, the Bombay High Court noted that recently the Supreme Court, while granting interim relief to Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami, had asked High Courts to exercise their jurisdiction to uphold personal liberty.
“The Supreme Court in Goswami’s judgment has also held that the high court has wide powers under [Article] 226,” the High Court said, referring to the hearing on November 27. “It has been made clear by the SC that interim bail can be granted under Article 226 which was earlier a grey area.”
The Supreme Court has specifically said that the High Court can give interim bail, even when lower courts have not been approached, the bench said. “There are paragraphs devoted to this,” it had said.