Ailing Telugu poet and activist P Varavara Rao, arrested in August 2018 in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case and consistently denied bail, may get better medical case with a division bench of the Bombay high court on Thursday directing Maharashtra and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to arrange for an immediate video medical consultation for him with doctors at Nanavati Hospital. If the doctors believe a visit is necessary, they should visit Taloja jail, where Rao is housed, the court ordered, asking that a report be submitted by November 16.
The bench, comprising justices AK Menon and SP Tavade, also acceded to the request for a hearing after the report was submitted and posted the hearing of the petition of Rao’s wife P Hemlatha on November 17 at 3pm. The bench was hearing a writ petition seeking bail for Rao on health grounds.
The HC proceedings on Thursday came a day after the Supreme Court asked high courts to “exercise their jurisdiction” and ensure that people’s liberty is protected. Justice DY Chandrachud said this while hearing a plea filed by Republic TV editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami, seeking interim bail. The bench granted him bail and he was released from Taloja jail the same day.
Senior advocate Indira Jaising, appearing for Rao, informed the court there is an urgency to hear the petition because a fellow inmate talked to Hemlatha on Wednesday and informed her that Rao’s health was deteriorating. NIA admitted in its affidavit that Rao’s health is not good but added that doctors at Taloja jail were regularly checking his condition and providing necessary treatment.
“There is a legitimate apprehension that Rao will lose his life if he continues to be kept in Taloja jail. The court was not informed about Rao being shifted out of Nanavati Hospital to Taloja jail. No medical report has been submitted after July 30,” argued Jaising. “Condition of detention cannot be cruel, inhuman and degrading. But it is in the case of Rao. It is violating his rights under Article 21 and 32 of the Constitution. If he dies in jail it will be a case of custodial death.”
Jaising then sought an interim order to have Rao sent to Nanavati Hospital and to also constitute an independent board of doctors to assess his condition.
Additional solicitor general Anil Singh, appearing for NIA, and chief public prosecutor Deepak Thakare claimed doctors at Taloja jail were regularly checking Rao’s health. Thakare also submitted a medical report of November 12, claiming a check-up was conducted in consultation with doctors from Nanavati hospital. He added that when Rao’s condition worsened he was moved to Nanavati, and that his family was allowed to have video calls with him.
Rao was first taken to JJ Hospital on May 28 after he fell unconscious, but was discharged on June 1. The family alleged that Rao was discharged in a hurried manner to obstruct his bail plea. “June 2 was the date of hearing on his bail application on health grounds in the NIA Special Sessions Court and police argued against his bail showing a normal report from the hospital,” his family had said. His bail was denied by an NIA court on June 26.
Rao continued to show signs of delirium, though, and after voices were raised from various quarters, Rao was admitted to JJ Hospital again on July 13. Later he was shifted to St George’s Hospital after he tested positive for Covid-19.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) also intervened and issued notice on July 13 to the Maharashtra government, asking it to ensure Rao was taken care of. It also sought a report on Rao’s health. Maharashtra chief secretary responded on July 22, saying adequate care was provided.
The commission observed that the right to life and medical care is one of the basic human rights and the state is duty bound to provide the same to a prisoner as well. Rao was then moved to Nanavati hospital for treatment. He was shifted back to Taloja jail on August 28.
In October, Hemlatha moved the Supreme Court seeking bail but a three-judge bench that heard the case on October 29, while pointing out that the Bombay HC had not heard the case since September 17, declined to act on it. The bench asked the Bombay court to hear his plea at the earliest.
Rao is accused of participating and making an inflammatory speech at the Elgar Parishad conference in Pune on December 31, 2017.
The police have claimed that activists including Rao, Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferriera, Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde planned the Elgar Parishad conclave, which was intended to incite violence at Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 2018. Many of them have been arrested, and most charged under the draconian UAPA law.