On May 15th, several family members of the 15 prisoners accused in the Bhima Koregaon-Elgaar Parishad case addressed the press via an online press conference. Some of the arrestees have spent three years behind bars and continue to await trial. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic rages with greater intensity, several among those incarcerated have contracted the virus. Most of the arrestees are over the age of 60 and most suffer severe comorbidities.
Despite the rapidly deteriorating health of the incarcerated, particularly most recently in the case of Prof. Hany Babu basic medical attention has been denied to them. Demanding that those imprisoned be released on bail in light of the looming threat of the pandemic, Prof. Babu’s wife Jenny Rowena, Adv. Surendra Gadling’s wife Minal Gadling, Fr. Stan Swamy’s friend Fr. Joseph Xavier, Mahesh Raut’s sister Monali, activist Harshali Potdar of Republican Panthers Jatiya Antachi Chalwal and friend of Sudhir Dhawale, Adv. Sudha Bharadwaj’s friend Smita Gupta addressed the press.
Harshali told us of conditions within Taloja Jail from Sudhir Dhawale who informed her that majority of the staff including cleaners and cooks inside prison have tested positive for COVID-19. The hospital inside Taloja is currently treating 60-65 people for the virus. No testing facilities are available inside jail. Instead, the jail is testing people who are fit in order to show that there are no cases. Eight persons inside Sudhir Dhawale and Vernon Gonsalves’ barrack have tested positive. Yet the prison staff have refused to test them. Sudhir Dhawale despite being over the age of 45 has been denied the vaccine as he does not have an Aadhaar card. Despite the fact that his documents have been confiscated by the police, being denied the right to be vaccinated while in the custody of the state raises the question, “whose responsibility is it now?” The letters being sent by them are reaching the family with a delay of over a month and video calls are not available. Despite the Prison Act 1894 that ensures that prisoners are entitled to basic medical facilities. However, in Taloja, there are no doctors, nurses, lab technicians, etc. but only three ayurvedic practitioners. Right to proper food and water, right to intermingle with other prisoners, communication with family members and lawyers through letters and calls, speedy trials, etc. – all of these rights are being violated.
Speaking of her husband Prof. Hany Babu currently under treatment in JJ Hospital after testing positive for COVID-19 and suffering a grave infection in his left eye, Jenny Rowena spoke of the dangerous situation inside jail. Despite a 22-year-old undertrial prisoner dying of COVID-19 inside jail after complaining of sore throat and still being denied medical attention, the prisoners are expected to take care of others who are patients in the jail hospital which is in fact a series of rooms with no facilities. After developing a severe eye infection on May 3rd, Prof. Babu was not hospitalized. While Jenny Rowena and Babu’s lawyers made several desperate calls to the prison authorities and informed them to address the eye infection which had spread to his cheeks and forehead pushing his eye outward, the jail authorities did not provide him medical care.
After May 7th, his vision started being affected and he was unable to coordinate both eyes. Hearing this the family has been in sheer panic. After repeated efforts to reach the jail superintendent to provide updates of Babu’s medical condition, Babu was taken to a small hospital where he was prescribed arbitrary antibiotics. Even though a follow-up appointment was scheduled, Babu was not permitted to visit the hospital. Jenny and the legal team intervened with the Chief Minister to intervene and eventually Babu was taken to the hospital on May 12th. With limited water supply, unable to wash clothes and maintain hygiene, Prof. Babu struggled to wipe his pus-filled eyes. Having to use the same cloth again and again without assistance to administer eye drops given to him by the doctors in the small hospital.
While the prisoners are tested for COVID-19 with the Rapid Antigen Test and then test negative, when taken to the hospital after their situation worsens, the RTPCR test reveals that they are positive for the virus. Jenny emphasized that every arrested person is a human being but instead they are being left to die in prison. When all over the world people are demanding decongestion of prisons, this is not happening in India. While Babu has been arrested on the basis of documents found on a computer which has repeatedly been found to be a malicious plant, this should be noted and all of them should be released. Despite this, even the medical reports of Babu have not been provided to the family. The state should be responsible for addressing the medical conditions of the prisoners. In this extraordinary situation, extraordinary steps must be taken to release these persons who are all eminent persons who have worked for the betterment of society. Fr. Joseph Xavier spoke of how Fr. Stan Swamy has never complained about his health in 7 months.
But on May 14th, for the first time Fr. Stan spoke of his deteriorating health. Furthermore, he is disturbed by what he is seeing inside prison. The Jesuits and the family members are deeply concerned about his health. While Ayurvedic medicine is available inside prison, it is not good enough to address the precarious health conditions and spread of COVID-19 in Taloja prison. Being an 84-year-old suffering from Parkinson, loss of hearing and now suffering fever, cough and troubles in his stomach, it is necessary that he be provided allopathic medicine and a doctor for diagnosis and treatment. He has to be vaccinated for COVID-19 urgently. He cannot be denied vaccination just because he does not have an Aadhar card. While Fr. Stan has a hearing problem, phone calls are not adequate to communicate with him.
Communication through letters has become inconsistent as letters take 1 or 2 months to reach family and friends. On behalf of the family members, he placed three requests to the state and the prison authorities –
1. Present a correct and clear picture of the Taloja prison conditions from the point of view of health conditions and protect the lives of the Bhima Koregaon arrestees. He said the family and friends are prepared to address the medical needs of the prisoners.
2. Facilitate access to information through letters and phone calls and to permit video calls to ensure that the prisoners can be provided emotional support.
3. Finally, considering the pandemic situation, facilitate the release of all 15 prisoners immediately on bail. Smita Gupta spoke of Sudha Bharadwaj’s health over the last three years.
Sudha suffers several comorbidities including diabetes with pulmonary tuberculosis amongst other ailments. Having lived in unhygienic and poorly ventilated spaces within prison where access to clean water is difficult, she has developed a whole host of new problems including skin infections, urinary infections, weight loss, hair fall besides others. Her health makes her extremely vulnerable and particularly now when over 40 people in Byculla Jail have tested positive for COVID-19. While the antigen test is less reliable, the number of cases reported is underreported. In a series of phone calls, Sudha has indicated that she has been unwell since April 7th – around the time when she got vaccinated. Although it was first presumed to be due to side effects of the vaccine, it eventually became clear that it was not connected to the vaccine.
She was unwell for 3 weeks with diarrhea, tastelessness and other symptoms indicating the new strain of the virus. The jail doctors keep prescribing basic antibiotics although they have had no effect. Now her health has deteriorated and she is unable to do her own work and needs aid to do her daily chores including washing clothes. She reached out to the jail authorities a number of times but it has all fallen on deaf ears. In fact, when these matters reached the wider public through the press, the jail superintendent called her a habitual complainer. She has been a person who has spent her life in difficult conditions as an activist and the jail superintendent’s attitude reveals the kind of treatment prisoners receive when they raise concerns. The agenda is clear – to not keep the prisoners healthy. Now, her family and friends fear for her life.
After the press reported her condition, she was taken to hospital where a battery of tests was done on her. None of the reports have been made available to the family. The court has asked that these reports be made available by May 21st. There is complete lack of transparency, especially for prisoners with comorbidities living in awful conditions. In this case they are bent upon process as a punishment and all the prisoners are being denied the basic right to health and life. Wife of Adv. Surendra Gadling, Minal Gadling spoke of how her husband suffers from hypertension, diabetes and asthma and requires regular checkups and consultation to ensure that his condition does not regress. Worsening condition of his eye due to refractive error is a matter of concern. He also required a new pair of spectacles and even this request was not considered. She subsequently had to courier a new pair of spectacles recently after a month without glasses.
For the last few months, there has been a severe water shortage in prison which has affected their ability to perform basic chores. When they complain to the jail authorities, they threaten them with changing their barracks or stoppage of calls and letters to the family. The phone calls are brief, not lasting even 5 minutes and at most times the phone connection is poor and they are not audible. It is very difficult to ascertain their health from these calls. No video calls are allowed and even though Adv. Gadling’s mother died a few months ago, he was not able to see her. His bail application to perform the final rites was denied citing that he was using his mother’s death to avail bail, something which is his right. While the pandemic has slowed down court proceedings, the conditions are extremely worrisome and the continued denial of bail is pushing them closer to death. Prof. Babu’s brother Harish MT mentioned that the prison conditions are worrying for the family as the source of infection inside prisons is through the jail staff while family members are denied mulaqats and even basic communication with the outside world. Mahesh Raut’s sister Monali spoke of how Mahesh has been experiencing fever, body aches and cough and he has not been provided medicines, thermometer or oximeter in jail. The medicines she tried to send were not accepted by the jail authorities causing additional worry for the family. She reiterates that she will continue to try to send him essential medicines by visiting the jail again. It is clear that all the family members and friends of all 15 who remain in jail in the Bhima Koregaon-Elgaar Parishad case are extremely worried for their lives and well being who remain in inhuman conditions.
Collectively they demanded that all of them be provided bail and be allowed medical care at home while this pandemic rages on. Friends and family members made an appeal to the press to amplify the contents of their message so that the wider world can learn of what is happening to the Bhima Koregaon prisoners. They called for the release, at least temporarily, on medical grounds of all the BK prisoners and pointed out that under the recent Supreme Court judgment, the Maharashtra High Powered Committee was vested with the power to do so.
Report submitted by : Fr Gerald Ravi D’Souza, SJ, Loyola School-Jamshedpur, Jharkhand