Mumbai: After prolonged illness and a serious delay in medical attention, jailed poet, writer and veteran political activist Varavara Rao tested positive for COVID- 19.
The 79-year-old who has been in jail for close to two years, had been moved to the state-run JJ hospital on July 13 after his condition worsened in the Taloja central prison and after his family led a campaign to draw attention to his health.
A senior doctor at JJ hospital confirmed that his nasal swab was collected on July 14 and that the test report arrived today, July 16. “When he was brought in, his sodium level was down. But he soon stabilised, was coherent and was responding to medication well,” the doctor said. His tests were conducted as a part of hospital protocol, the doctor added.
“He will be moved to St. George hospital tonight; arrangements are being made. He is not showing any symptoms and seems stable,” the doctor at JJ hospital said. At around 8.50 pm, The Wire received confirmation that he had indeed been moved to St. George.
The family, however, says that they were horrified to see the condition in which he was kept at JJ hospital. Anxious about his deteriorating health condition, the family travelled to Mumbai from Hyderabad on July 15 and had tried to meet him at the hospital. His family claims that Rao was kept in the transit ward at the hospital. “His clothes were soiled and he was left there unattended. He was still incoherent and could not recognise his wife or his daughters,” one of his close relatives told The Wire.
The family members had tried to move him to a cleaner spot but was not allowed to do so by the hospital. “Perhaps they knew that he could have been infected already,” the relative said.
Rao, who has been in the jail since his arrest in June 2018, for his alleged role in the Elgar Parishad-Koregaon Bhima case of Maharashtra, was, along with the other accused, moved from Pune’s Yerwada prisons to Taloja central jail in the outskirts of Mumbai earlier this year. This was just a few days before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in India. Since then, the condition, especially in Mumbai, has been worrisome.
Rao is one of the 11 persons — all activists, academics and lawyers — to have been arrested and booked under several serious charges under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The case was handled by the Pune police during the BJP rule in Maharashtra. As soon as the new tri-party government headed by Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress took over, the case was swiftly handed over to the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
In the supplementary chargesheet filed in February last year, the Pune police have alleged that Rao is a senior member of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and had conspired with co-accused Rona Wilson and one Prashanto Bose, secretary of the Eastern Regional Bureau of the banned party, to purchase ammunition from Basanta, a senior member of Nepal’s Maoist organisation.
The police had made these claims on the basis of letters leaked by personnel of Pune Police to the media in 2018, much before any chargesheet was filed.
The police have neither seized any documents or items, nor have they clarified if the “purchased ammunition” could be linked to the violence at Bhima Koregaon.
Rao’s family, lawyers along with large groups of academics, poets and activists, have time and again aired concerns over his deteriorating health. His bail application was twice rejected by the NIA court in Mumbai.
In May, when Rao first fell ill, he was moved to JJ hospital. His lawyers had moved court seeking urgent bail on health grounds. “Just to prove his health was all right, he was abruptly moved out of the hospital and sent back to Taloja jail,” his daughter Pavana had told The Wire.
Ever since, Rao was lodged at the hospital inside Taloja central prison. One of his co-accused and political activist Vernon Gonsalves was deputed to take care of his health in jail. In June and early July, when the family managed to connect with Rao over a phone call, they discovered that his health had significantly worsened.
Another co-accused, academic Anand Teltumbde, was also lodged in the same hospital ward alongside Rao. Teltumbde’s lawyers say that both he and Gonsalves are vulnerable and both need to undergo tests urgently.
Rao’s family, in a press conference on July 12, had urged the Maharashtra state government and the centre to “not kill Rao in jail”.
It is unclear where Rao contracted the coronavirus. There has been an outbreak of the viral infection in most prisons across state, and it could be possible that he was exposed in prison. At Taloja, several inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 and two have died, so far.
Close to 500 people have been infected with the coronavirus and four persons have died across prisons. Rao’s bail application, filed on health grounds, is at present pending before the Bombay high court.
Note: This article has been edited to add the update that Rao has been moved to another hospital.