The families and friends of activists arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case on Tuesday wrote to Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, demanding the immediate release of the undertrials in light of the threats posed to their life and health amid the devastating second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
“As India reports over 20.2 million cases of Covid-19 in beginning of the month, and as news is rife with the healthcare system being overwhelmed, we are increasingly worried about the medical assistance that would be available to the prison inmates should they contract the deadly disease,” they wrote.
The families urged Thackeray to recommend to the High-Power Committee – constituted on the directions of the Supreme Court – to release the undertrials at least on interim bail.
They said their anxieties had been further heightened amid reports about prison authorities and inmates testing positive in the Taloja and Byculla jails of Mumbai, where the activists are currently lodged.
Their letter pointed out that many of the accused were over 60 years with co-morbidities and were therefore susceptible to rapid deterioration of health if they get infected.
“Father Stan Swamy, 83 years old is a known case of Parkinson’s Disease. Dr Anand Teltumbde, 72 years old is an asthmatic.” the families said. “These health conditions predispose them to worse health outcomes in the event of Covid-19 infection.”
Although vaccination is believed to reduce the lethality of the Covid -19 infection, the families said that only four accused – Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gonsalves, Sudha Bharadwaj and Shoma Sen – have received the first dose of the vaccine as of last week of April.
“Both Sudha Bharadwaj and Shoma Sen have a history of co-morbodities which make them susceptible to Covid-19,” the letter stated. “Sudha Bhardwaj is currently undergoing treatment for health complaints.”
Meanwhile, activist Jyoti Jagtap tested positive and had been quarantined with other Covid cases from Byculla Prison, while Delhi University Professor Hany Babu is currently suffering from severe eye infection, which is adversely affecting his vision, the families wrote.
Besides, the families alleged that prison authorities were disrupting the usual communication channels amid the pandemic. “Although letters have been written by the BK [Bhima Koregaon] detainees in Taloja Prison on several occasions in the past two months, we, the families have not received most letters from them,” the letter said. “The few letters that have reached the families, were posted and delivered after delays of over a month.”
The families added that they were equally concerned about whether the activists were receiving the letters they wrote to them on time. “Letters have been a crucial means of communication for the undertrial detainees and their families, friends and lawyers, to cut this lifeline has been cruel and unjust,” they said.
Even physical meetings with the detainees have been stopped, leaving families on the mercy of four to five minute-long phone calls which they can make once in 10 days, the letter said.
Several activists and academics 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 the violence at Bhima-Koregaon war memorial the next day. One person was killed and several others were injured in the incident.
Only Telugu poet and activist Varavara Rao, one of the accused in the case, was granted bail on medical grounds for six months in February by the Bombay High Court.