Amid pandemic, India’s political prisoners struggle with failing health in unequipped jails

22 June 2021
Activists and students participate in a protest against the arrest of five individuals in the Bhima Koregaon case, on 29 August 2018. As of 6 June, five of the sixteen individuals arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case have spent over three years in jail without a trial.
Indraneel Chowdhury / NurPhoto / Getty Images
Activists and students participate in a protest against the arrest of five individuals in the Bhima Koregaon case, on 29 August 2018. As of 6 June, five of the sixteen individuals arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case have spent over three years in jail without a trial.
Indraneel Chowdhury / NurPhoto / Getty Images

As of 6 June this year, five of the 16 persons accused in the Bhima Koregaon case have spent over three years in jail without trial. These 16 individuals include lawyers, academics, a poet, a priest and activists. They are among scores of political prisoners in the country who have been arrested under the Narendra Modi government. Seven of the 16 have tested positive for COVID-19, and many of the others suffer from serious conditions, including comorbidities. Despite a rampaging second wave and increasing reports about worsening health conditions in jails, India appears intent on keeping its political prisoners behind bars.

Mahesh Raut, Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor—three of the 16 individuals accused of a conspiracy to foment violence at Bhima Koregaon, near Pune, on 1 January 2018—are among those who tested positive for the coronavirus. All three tested positive in Mumbai’s Taloja jail on 2 June. “They haven’t been given any COVID medicines yet—not even vitamin tablets,” their lawyer, Nihalsingh Rathod, told me the next day.

Rathod added that they were not provided nutritious food prescribed to COVID-19 patients, and were still given the regular prison food that lacked nutrition. “They are being kept in a small congested room of 15x8 size along with a few others inside the Taloja jail,” he said. “The jail authorities claim to be providing everything, but the patients are not even given hot water. The toilet facilities, sanitation and other COVID precautions are not in place.” Kaustubh Kurlekar, the superintendent of Taloja jail, did not respond to emailed queries.

Raut, Gorkhe and Gaichor were among at least eleven COVID-19 cases that spread among inmates of Taloja at the time, during the first week of June. The 13 men among the individuals accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, or the BK-16 as they have come to be called, are currently incarcerated in the Taloja Central Jail, and the three women—Sudha Bhardwaj, Shoma Sen and Jyoti Jagtap—are held in Maharashtra’s Byculla Jail. According to Shoma’s daughter, Koel, her mother is held in a small barrack in Byculla with around 40 other women.

Raut, Gorkhe and Gaichor tested positive during a drive conducted after Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest, was shifted from Taloja jail to the Holy Family Hospital in Navi Mumbai. Despite Swamy’s health deteriorating for several days, the National Investigation Agency, which is investigating the Bhima Koregaon case, opposed his plea for medical treatment on multiple occasions. He was finally shifted to a private hospital, but only after the Bombay High Court instructed the jail authorities to do so on 28 May. Two weeks earlier, Hany Babu, a professor and another member of the BK-16, had also tested positive for the coronavirus. By then, it had been nearly two weeks since he had also developed an eye infection with symptoms resembling the deadly mucormycosis epidemic affecting COVID-19 patients. Babu, too, had to move the courts several times, challenged at every stage by the NIA, before receiving adequate medical care.

Nileena MS is a reporting fellow with The Caravan. She can be reached at nileenams@protonmail.com.

Keywords: Bhima Koregaon prisoners COVID-19 NIA Delhi Violence siddique kappan
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