Bhima Koregaon inmates can barely communicate, worried about their health: Families

A photo of Varavara Rao—an elderly poet who is accused in the Bhima Koregaon case—as he returned home to be placed under house arrest, in Hyderabad, on 30 August 2018. Rao has been lodged in Maharashtra's overcrowded Taloja Central Prison since February 2020. According to his family, his health is deteriorating in prison. PTI
12 July, 2020

On the evening of 11 July, the 81-year-old poet Varavara Rao called his wife, Hemalatha, from the overcrowded Taloja Central Prison in Maharashtra, sounding incoherent and delirious, according to a press release circulated by his family. “He did not answer straight questions on his health and went into a kind of delirious and hallucinated talk about the funeral of his father and mother, the events that happened seven decades and four decades ago respectively,” the family wrote in the press release dated 12 July. According to them, the activist Vernon Gonsalves, who is in the prison with Rao—both accused in the Bhima Koregaon case—“took the phone from him and informed us that he is not able to walk, go to toilet and brush his teeth on his own.”

The family wrote that they were informed that Rao is always hallucinating that his family was “waiting at the jail gate to receive him as he was getting released. His co-prisoner also said he needs immediate medical care for not only physical but also neurological issues.” On 12 July, his wife, Hemalatha, and Rao’s three daughters, visibly distressed and worried, addressed the media appealing to the central and state governments, and the ministry of home affairs to immediately shift Rao to a multi-speciality hospital to treat him for his multiple health ailments. 

That afternoon, Kaustubh Kurlekar, the superintendent of Taloja jail, denied that Rao was severely unwell. “His condition is normal and stable, the issue is regarding his old age, his blood pressure, pulse rate, oxygen level, everything is normal. There is no other issue,” he said over the phone. Referring to the family’s address to the press, he told me, “Some wrong information is going out and that is not good.” He said, “Woh unke baat batayenge, ham hamare baat batayenge”—They will tell their version, we will tell ours.

But Rao’s family has been anxious about his health for months. He is the oldest among 11 individuals who are currently in Maharashtra’s prisons for their alleged involvement in the violence at Bhima Koregaon which occurred in January 2018. His age, coupled with multiple ailments, including coronary artery disease and hypertension, make him vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, which had killed another inmate in Taloja in May. Later that month, Rao himself had to be hospitalised for three days after falling sick and was discharged prematurely, according to his family. Although Rao said he was fine during his last call home, on 24 June, he did not sound like his normal self and spoke as if he was under pressure, his daughter P Pavana told me.

Other than his calls, which would last all of two minutes, there were few ways for the family to know more about Rao’s health. Since the onset of the pandemic, prison authorities significantly reduced permissions for him to communicate with the family. Even after he was hospitalised, the family said, the prison authorities have not been giving them updates about his health. During the last call, on 2 July, too, Pavana said Rao sounded weak, incoherent and disoriented. “We fear there is no improvement in his health condition,” she had told me that day. 

Families and lawyers of others who have been imprisoned in connection to the Bhima Koregaon case have pointed out they are barely able to communicate with the inmates during the pandemic. At least four of the 11 undertrial prisoners have pre-existing medical conditions that make them vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. Moreover, all 11 are currently either lodged in Maharashtra’s Taloja or Byculla jails both of which are overcrowded, according to a petition filed in the Bombay High Court. Although the Supreme Court has emphasised the need to decongest overcrowded jails, till now, all courts have rejected the bail pleas of those implicated in the case that were placed before them. 

Mihir Desai—who represents two accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, Anand Teltumbde and Gonsalves—said that communication with family and lawyers is a problem for all 11 prisoners. Susan Abraham, a lawyer representing two of the accused, reiterated this. The Bombay High Court has also asked Maharashtra government to allow regular telephone access and video-conference facilities to inmates to talk to family members. “None of them have access to their family members,” she said. “In April, the prisoners were allowed one phone call in a month, by May it was changed to once in two weeks and now they are saying once in a week. That too for maximum four minutes,” Abraham, who is also Gonsalves’s wife, told me on 30 June. “Maharashtra government has also passed circular saying that they should be allowed 10 minutes of conversation, none of this has been implemented.” 

Rao’s family, too, said they have barely been able to speak to him for the past four months now. All jail mulakats—meetings with prisoners—were cancelled in Maharashtra when the nationwide lockdown was imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19 in end-March. From then till May, Rao was allowed a total of three calls, each of which lasted for two minutes, Pavana said. Venugopal, Rao’s nephew who is a journalist and activist, told me, “There is no direct information about the situation in the jail.” According to him, Rao had once earlier mentioned that the jail was “crowded” and they were not given “adequate facilities.” 

Rao was arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case in August 2018 and shifted to the Taloja jail in February this year. As of 19 June, keeping precautions related to the novel coronavirus in mind, Taloja jail would have to release 897 prisons, according to a public-interest litigation filed by the human-rights organisation People’s Union for Civil Liberties, or PUCL, in the Bombay High Court on prison conditions in the pandemic. As a part of this case, on 25 May, the Maharashtra government filed an affidavit before the court, stating that three prisoners had died in the state’s Taloja, Yerwada and Dhule prisons. The prisoners were tested positive for COVID-19 after their death. 

Around that time, Rao’s daughters were struggling to get information about their father’s health and the medical facilities available to him, Pavana told me. In a letter dated 25 May to Uddhav Thackeray, the chief minister of Maharashtra, Rao’s three daughters wrote, “When the advocate called, the staff at the Taloja jail picked up the phone but did not respond. We are very worried and anxious about our father’s well-being.” The news about a COVID-19 death in the prison compounded their worries. “On 26 May, we came to know through an inmate that he had some urinary problem and his body was swollen,” Pavana said. “But there was no way to get information directly, so we had to make public statements appealing to central, Telangana and Maharashtra governments, and write letters to the chief ministers of Maharashtra and Telangana, governor and chief justice of Maharashtra.” 

Subsequently, Rao’s health deteriorated and he fell unconscious. On 28 May, the prison authorities shifted him to Maharashtra’s JJ Hospital, without informing the family of this development, according to Pavana. It was only the next day that officers from the Chikkadpally police station in Hyderabad told the family that Rao was shifted out of prison for treatment. “There was just this one-line information,” Pavana said. “When we asked for more details, they just said that they got the information from Vishrambaug police station in Pune where the case was filed initially.” Two days later, his family wrote to Subodh Kumar Jaiswal, the state’s director general of police, asking for details of the hospitalisation, current ailments and line of treatment, and request him to allow a video call, Pavana said. There was no response to any of the family’s letters. 

Rao was discharged from the hospital within three days. According to his medical reports—which The Caravan has seen—he was diagnosed with dyselectrolytemia, a condition caused by the imbalance of electrolytes in the blood, which is reflected in the sodium levels of the body. On 30 May, a day before his discharge, Rao’s sodium level was 113.16 milliequivalents per litre against the normal range of 135–145, and potassium level was 3.55 milliequivalents per litre against the normal range of 3.5–5. “Sodium was below and potassium was just touching the required level. Without even checking if his condition has stabilised, he was hurriedly discharged,” Venugopal said. Pavana told me, “According to the medical opinion we got, electrolyte loss could be fatal if not given proper treatment on time.”

Rao’s family and lawyers suspected that he was shifted out of the hospital prematurely to stop him from getting bail. “When he was at JJ,” Venugopal said, “his health condition was in the open and everybody was registering their protests. The police did not want this and he was sent back to jail to ensure that he was again incommunicado.” On 2 June, a special court of the National Investigation Agency was supposed to hear a bail petition filed on his behalf, on the grounds of his old age, deteriorating health and the pandemic. “We feel that they wanted to show that they have taken him to JJ, he was discharged and there was no need to give bail,” Venugopal added. Abraham, a lawyer representing him, also reiterated this. “Because his bail application was pending in the sessions court, they just admitted him for three days. He is in an elderly person, he should have been allowed to recover fully.” On 2 June, a medical report from JJ hospital was filed before the court to the effect that he had been treated and was stable. 

The family said even after prison authorities shifted him back to the jail they have been kept in the dark about his health. “The JJ hospital had given directions to test electrolyte level in 14 days, and no review or test have been done,” Venugopal said. “Nothing has been done in this one month and we don’t know what kind of treatment he is being given.” When Rao was hospitalised, Maharashtra’s additional director general of prisons, Sunil Ramanand, had told The Hindu, “We can try and make an arrangement for video conferencing in the jail.” But Pavana said, “When he was shifted back to jail hospital, we again requested to give us a video call. But nothing happened, our requests were not taken into consideration.” 

When I spoke to Kurlekar on 12 July, he denied the family’s allegations. Kurlekar told me that Rao did not fall unconscious, even though his medical report mentioned that he had complained of one episode of syncope. He also dismissed the complaint that Rao was discharged prematurely. “Whatever treatment was needed was given and he was discharged after that,” he said. There are three doctors available to check on the patients. For treatment, patients are sent to JJ Hospital, according to Kurlekar. He claimed that the medicines prescribed by JJ Hospital are being provided to Rao.

When I asked him whether Rao’s pending electrolyte test, Kurlekar replied that it was not done yet, but will be done tomorrow or day after. He said that the follow-up treatment will be done as per the availability of police escorts. “We have placed a request for this day before yesterday and yesterday and whenever the guards are available, we will take him,” he told me. “All the prisoners here are stable and they don’t have any problems. He is 81 years old and whatever problem someone will have at that age, that is his only health issue.” Kurlekar claimed that the doctors are seeing him every day. 

But even after he was discharged from prison, Rao’s two-minute calls to his family did not offer any reassurance to them, according to Pavana. On 7 June, Rao called them and said he was in the jail hospital. “His voice was muffled and words unclear,” she said. “Though he was telling us that he was fine and not facing any problem, we could clearly understand that he was unable to hear anything. My mother was shouting at the top of her voice, but he was not responding to her questions.” According to Pavana, Rao did not call them till 24 June. “During this time, we were repeatedly calling the jail authorities to find out when he could call again and what his condition was, but we couldn’t get any information,” Pavana said.  

When Rao called on 24 June, Hemalatha spoke to him, Pavana told me. “We could clearly understand that his condition had not improved,” Pavana, who was with her mother during the call, said. “He sounded disoriented and incoherent. We were startled when he started talking to my mother in Hindi. He never speaks to us in Hindi.” Pavana said her mother asked him why he was speaking in Hindi. He replied, “Oh, Telugu mein baat karna hai?”—Should I speak in Telugu?—and then switched to Telugu.

Pavana said there was no logical reason for him to speak to his family in Hindi. “Whenever family members or some Telugu-speaking person visits him, he would say he is very happy as he doesn’t get to speak to anyone in Telugu there.” The family found the conversation to be odd. “It could either be that the jail authorities insisted for him to speak in Hindi or he has become disoriented or not conscious enough to realise that he was talking to his wife,” Pavana said. “He is a public speaker and writer and has an eloquent manner of speech. But this time over phone he was searching for words while talking to my mom.” 

The family found no respite from the NIA court, despite Rao being at a higher risk to the novel coronavirus. To decongest prisons in light of the pandemic, a high-powered committee was set up in Maharashtra on the directions of the Supreme Court. On 11 May, the committee reportedly suggested the temporary release of prisoners including “those above 60 years age … and/or those with underlying medical conditions which puts them at higher risk for severe illnesses from COVID-19.” Four days later, the lawyers of Rao and the 62-year-old academic Shoma Sen, a co-accused, filed bail applications for their clients. But on 26 June, the court rejected their bails because the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 2019, that they have been booked under did not support bail. 

Pavana said, “By the time we move the court with another bail petition, what would be his condition, we don’t know.” Rao’s lawyer Abraham told me on 30 June that the family still has no communication from jail officials. Satyanarayan, another lawyer who represents Rao, said that he had appealed for bail in the Bombay High Court and asked for reports on his health in it, but the request is still pending before the court. The next  hearing for the case is on 17 July. He told me, “At least at the age of 81, they should consider the case on humanitarian ground.” 

Sen’s daughter, Koel Sen, also voiced similar issues. She said she was worried that COVID-19 cases are on the rise and her mother’s immunity is low. “Are they going to wait for my mother to fall ill or catch COVID and then release her? Why can’t they release her on interim bail and keep her under house arrest?”

Abraham, who is also representing Sen, said she is suffering from osteoarthritis, glaucoma and high-blood pressure. “Sen’s health condition is very bad,” she said. “Her glaucoma has not been checked for the last four months, she has severe arthritis and her right knee is not functioning. She needs assistance.”

Koel elaborated on the health issues her mother has been facing at the Byculla women’s prison in Maharashtra, where she is currently lodged. “Eye drops could not be couriered till now because of the lockdown,” Koel told me. According to Koel, Sen has pain in her knee because of arthritis which is now aggravated as she is provided “one mat to sleep on the floor.” She said her mother’s doctor had advised her not to sit on the floor. “Her knees are in such a bad shape that she is unable to walk properly, she is limping,” Koel said. “She did mention this in the court during the last bail hearing, but, of course, they are paying no heed.” 

According to Koel, between May and June, her mother was allowed only a total of three phone calls, each of which lasted for two minutes. During these short conversations, Koel said, they were not able to discuss the availability of medical staff or facilities at the jail. Her mother had informed her that the prison authorities are providing inmates with sanitisers and face masks, and conducting regular health check-ups. “They are not letting us to find out the truth about what is really going on inside. As of now, Ma is fine and safe, but what guarantee do we have of her health.” 

It was only on 10 July that Sen was allowed a 10-minute-long call, Koel said. During the call, Koel said her mother told her that all the prisoners above 60 years of age have now been shifted to a separate barrack. Earlier, Koel said, her mother along with Sudha Bharadwaj—a 59-year-old activist who is also accused in the Bhima Koregaon case—were housed in a barrack with around 30 inmates. “Though they are saying that there will take more precautions for inmates in the barrack, there is no scope for social distancing as they are keeping 40 senior citizens in close proximity inside,” Koel said. “I am scared of her health and safety.” 

Jayant Naik, the superintendent of Byculla jail, told me on 12 July that two doctors are available to attend the prison inmates at Byculla. When asked about the health condition of Sen and Bhardwaj, he said he did not know about them and will have information only after the weekend. “There is no problem with communication. Facilities to make phone calls are provided here,” he said.

Minal Gadling, the wife of another inmate Surendra Gadling, raised similar concerns in an affidavit she filed before the court as a part of PUCL’s petition. In it, she wrote that her second last phone call with her husband, on 9 June, lasted for only two minutes, out of which around 30 seconds was gone into ascertaining her identity. The next call came on 18 June, she wrote, and lasted for about four minutes. During the conversation, Surendra, who suffers from blood-pressure issues and diabetes, had urgently asked for apparatus to check his blood pressure and a glucometer. Minal wrote that her husband had “sounded extremely helpless and ill,” and sounded “hesitant in giving proper answers to questions about his health condition.” Surendra’s family believes that the inmates are under considerable pressure to not reveal what is happening in the prison. When asked about his health, Kurlekar said on 12 July, Whoever has diabetes and BP, doctors monitor it. At government cost, we are providing medicines to those who don't have it. Whoever has any issues, treatment is provided.” 

A day earlier, Minal told me that the phone calls lasted three or four minutes, but in the last three weeks Surendra had been calling every week. “Calls should be allowed for some more time. We are not able to communicate properly now.” Due to the pandemic, she said, the family had not been able to send medicines and other essentials to him. She added that she does not know anything about the medical facilities and availability of doctors at the prison. 

“Last time when I had visited Surendra in prison on 13 March, he had told me that there were 30 inmates in one barrack and it was congested,” Minal told me. “He is appearing for himself in the case, and he has to read books and documents and there is no place to keep all this there. They are not able to keep their things in the barrack. In such a situation how is physical distancing possible? It is very risky for people suffering from diabetes and BP.”

A few weeks earlier, on 22 June, Sahba Husain, the partner of Gautam Navlakha, an activist and another undertrial prisoner in the case, had raised similar concerns in an email to Desai, the lawyer. She wrote that Navlakha called her after a gap of 15 days, on 20 June, wherein he shared details about the abysmal condition of the quarantine facility where he had been kept, at a school in Khargar, Taloja, even after completing the quarantine period. According to the email, Navlakha said that around three hundred and fifty inmates were crammed in six classrooms at the school. Due to lack of space, people were sleeping in corridors and passages. The facility had only three toilets, seven urinals and one bathing facility without a bucket or mug. This violated the Maharashtra jail manual which prescribes well-ventilated space with one toilet for every six persons. Husain added that Navlakha is also suffering from acute digestive ailments. “The doctor has given him iron tablets due to his weakness and deteriorating health condition,” she wrote.

On 12 July, Sahba told me that he has been shifted out of the school. “He spent another 15 days in lockup in the hospital ward. He has now been shifted to the barracks.” Sahba said that Navlakha has still not been able to call his lawyer as they have to get permission for the same through email. Sending basic things like medicines and clothes is also very difficult due to the pandemic, Sahba told me.  “Gautam called me three days ago, after eight days gap. The calls last around three–four minutes, they should at least give a minimum of five minutes.” 

Kurlekar denied receiving any complaints regarding inmates not being able to communicate with their families. “There are facilities for video and voice calls, and we have extended the time now to 10 minutes,” he said. “We have to provide the facility to everyone, and we have decided to do it in a way that everybody gets time.” We emailed Ramanand, the additional director general of police (prison), regarding the allegations of inadequate facilities at the jail. This article will be updated if and when we get more responses.

Desai told me, “The medical facilities at prisons are quite inadequate, even under normal circumstances. During the time of COVID, it is even worse.” According to him, the facilities, frequency of doctors’ visits, equipment and infrastructure are insufficient. “So, from time to time, people will have to be taken out for treatment, even for non-COVID treatment. Even that is not happening now.” In end-May, the state government had also admitted in an affidavit before the high court that several positions in the prisons’ health departments were lying vacant. 

According to Desai, patients are taken out for treatment only when it becomes very serious, like in the case of Rao. “But there are cases where people need to go for treatment regularly. For instance, GN Saibaba”—an incarcerated professor who Desai represents—“was being taken to Nagpur General Hospital, but that has stopped now.” Saibaba—a severely disabled professor who used to teach at the University of Delhi who uses a wheelchair—is serving a life sentence at Nagpur Central Jail for alleged links to Maoists. 

Desai said that the prison authorities have been increasing the tests for COVID-19 only due to the pressure put from the courts. “Initially they said we will not test anybody,” he said. “Four people died and were tested positive after dying. Then they said they will test people who have come in contact. They are saying that they are carrying out daily screening of every person. How much of this is happening, we don’t know.” On 3 July, the high court ordered the prisons to follow the guidelines of Indian Council of Medical Research to contain COVID-19. As on 9 July, 596 inmates and 167 jail staff in Maharashtra’s prisons had tested positive for COVID-19. Of the inmates who contracted the virus, 281 were cured and died. Ninety-three jail staffers also recovered.

As orders of the Supreme Court and the high-powered committee are not being followed, Desai said, overcrowding remains a major problem in prisons. The Maharashtra government, in its affidavit filed on 15 June, said that there were 36,000 prisoners in the state when the capacity of jails was 24,000. “If we consider the need to maintain social distancing, the prisons in Maharashtra should not have more than 16,000 prisoners. But even today, three months after filing this and subsequent court directions, there are 29,000 prisoners,” Desai said. Kurlekar admitted that Taloja was overcrowded too—he said there are 2,600 inmates in the jail against the capacity of 2,124. 

Despite clear violations of social distancing norms and safety measures, while opposing a bail plea filed for Sudha Bharadwaj, the NIA argued in court that “under the garb of current situation on the account global pandemic COVID-19,” she is “trying to take an undue benefit … on the grounds mentioned in her application.” According to a bail application filed before the court, her lawyers said that Bharadwaj was suffering from diabetes which makes her more vulnerable to COVID-19. “Confirmed news reports 2 from two weeks ago have stated that a 54-year-old inmate as well as the jail doctor in Byculla jail has tested positive for Covid-19,” they wrote. It is possible that “this infection has spread to more inmates / prison officials since then.” 

International and national human rights organisations and human rights activists have been protesting against the ill treatment of prisoners, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. On 25 June, 14 human-rights organisations including Alternative Law Forum, Amnesty International, India and National Alliance for People’s Movement wrote to Thackeray about the “deplorable and abysmal condition of jails and quarantine facilities in Maharashtra.” The letter called for the interim bail or emergency parole for undertrials or convicts who are above 60 years of age and medically vulnerable, irrespective of the offences they are booked under. The human-rights organisations also called for immediate implementation of social-distancing norms in prisons and affiliated quarantine facilities. The third major issue was to ensure regular and effective contact between inmates and their families and lawyers. 

The letter by human-rights organisation criticised a recent decision of the government to declare 36 locations as temporary prisons or quarantine centres under section 7 of the Prisons Act, 1894, instead of releasing inmates. “The constitutional mandate of the prison authorities to ensure the safe custody of all prisoners is being blatantly violated,” the letter said. “Additionally, with rules and notifications about these centres not being available in the public domain, and with no regular communication facilities, these temporary jails have become a blackhole where undertrials are being detained indefinitely.” 

The same day, five academicians including Romila Thapar, Prabhat Patnaik and Satish Deshpande, wrote to Thackeray seeking house arrest of the accused and undertrial prisoners in the Bhima Koregaon case in view of the pandemic. Over six hundred civil-society members including activists, lawyers and academicians had also written to the high-powered committee in Maharashtra to allow temporary release of Bharadwaj and Sen, on account of rampant COVID-19 spread in prisons.  

Venugopal said all the eleven undertrial prisoners have been facing unfair treatment from the Narendra Modi-led government. “We are more worried about their health,” he said. “If they were outside, we could have provided them the best treatment. The jail is not doing that, the government is not doing that. The government is either deliberately or negligently killing them. We are confident of facing the case in the court, but this kind of treatment should stop immediately.”

Editor’s Note: In a paragraph beginning with Pavana said, 'By the time ... a quote has been removed.