In December 1990, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution titled “Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners”. Among the 10 principles that the UN said should be enforced “impartially” is this: “Prisoners shall have access to the health services available in the country without discrimination on the grounds of their legal situation.”
Over the last week, this cardinal principle has been shredded to pieces in Maharashtra. Disturbingly, the judiciary, the last resort of the citizens seeking protection for their fundamental rights, looked away.
This week, the family of jailed poet and activist P Varavara Rao detailed a wrenching scene they witnessed at Mumbai’s JJ Hospital, where the 81-year-old was admitted on July 13. This followed days of public outrage at Rao being denied medical care at Mumbai’s Tajola prison. He had been hallucinating in jail and was in no position to even brush his teeth, his family said.
But when his relatives visited him in hospital on Wednesday, they said they had found him in a pool of his own urine, with no one caring to even change the sheets.
On Thursday, news emerged that Rao has tested positive for Covid-19.
As the Supreme Court has often said, bail is the norm and jail should be the exception. But in the case of Rao and other activists arrested for their alleged role in the violence in Bhima Koregaon in December 2017, jail has become the norm thanks to the invocation of the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
However, while UAPA has been used to keep Rao in jail for close to 22 months, even the imposition of this anti-terror law does not explain the lack of medical care for the elderly activist. On display is the vengeance of a vindictive state, which has identified Rao as a dissenter who should be punished for opposing the government.
It is not as though the government was unaware of Rao’s condition or that his health deteriorated suddenly. As early as June 19, several members of Parliament wrote to the Maharashtra government asking it to shift Rao to hospital because of his failing health. The government did not budge.
The judiciary has not handled this case much better. Rao has been denied bail five times over the last 22 months. The last time was on June 26, at the peak of a pandemic when the overcrowded conditions in India’s prisons was causing alarm. Even though the Supreme Court in March had asked state governments to release undertrial prisoners to decongest jails, political prisoners such as Rao had no respite.
On the contrary, the National Investigation Agency inquiring into the Bhima Koregaon case has continued to act with great negligence. In May, it moved detained activist Gautam Navlakha from Delhi to a crowded jail in Mumbai in haste. Earlier this week, it issued a Delhi University professor summons to travel to Mumbai to appear before it, despite the lack of proper cause. This at a time when governments across India have asked people not to undertake any unnecessary travel.
Earlier this month, the death of a father and son in custody in Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu outraged the conscience of the public, leading to the High Court recommending that a case of murder be registered against the police officers. But custodial torture is not just about brutal assaults in police stations. The violence of custodial mistreatment can take several shades, including denying medical help to someone visibly deteriorating.
By keeping Rao in jail despite knowledge of his precarious health, the state is imposing capital punishment on an octogenarian whose crimes are still only allegations and who has not been convicted by any court.