The Bombay high court on Wednesday ordered Maharashtra to shift octogenarian Telugu poet P Varavara Rao from Mumbai’s Taloja prison to Nanavati Hospital for 15 days to undergo medical treatment, with the state underlining that this was a special case that could not be treated as a precedent.
The order by a two-judge bench, comprising justices SS Shinde and Madhav Jamdar, came on a petition by Rao’s wife Hemlata who alleged that the poet’s health had drastically deteriorated and that his continued detention — for two years now — was a breach of his fundamental rights.
The state and the National Investigation Agency (NIA), which is probing the case, first opposed any transfer, then said the poet — who is facing charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for his alleged role in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon riots — could be moved to a government facility and finally that he should pay for his treatment.
But the court rejected all contentions, and asked that Rao not be discharged from hospital without its assent.
“Ultimately, there is a man on death bed. He is 80 years old and has serious disease. He will come to court. Can the state say, no we will treat him in Taloja?” the court said.
Rao’s lawyer Indira Jaising told the court that his family feared he could die if he was not shifted to a hospital and also sought bail. The court said it will hear the bail plea on December 3 and sought Rao’s medical report after treatment at Nanavati Hospital.
Jaising told the court that Rao was bedridden, was frequently delirious and had lost comprehension of reality. She also submitted that Rao earlier tested positive for Covid-19 and that his family was worried that he may suffer complications in the form of organ failure given his age.
Additional solicitor general Anil Singh, who appeared for the NIA, opposed the plea and said that Rao could be shifted to JJ Hospital as all the tests could be conducted there.
The court observed that government hospitals were overburdened due to Covid-19 and asked Singh whether he will admit his relatives to JJ or St George’s hospitals. He said it was not as if people were not being admitted and treated in these places. He also said that shifting Rao to Nanavati Hospital would set a wrong precedent.
Jaising objected and said Rao’s family found him lying in a pool of urine in JJ hospital and that if Rao died for the want of proper medical treatment, it would amount to custodial death. “Death is inevitable but there should be some dignity,” she said.
The court directed that the cost of Rao’s treatment at Nanavati Hospital, a private facility, will be borne by the state government. Public prosecutor Deepak Thakre, representing the state government, initially suggested Rao should bear the cost of treatment at Nanavati Hospital.
But Jaising argued that the Supreme Court held a state could not cite lack of money as a reason to not look after a citizen’s fundamental rights. The bench accepted the submission and reminded the state that even at the Nanavati Hospital, Rao would continue to remain in judicial custody.
“He (Rao) is in your (state) custody. Even in the hospital he will remain in your custody, so you pay for the treatment,” the bench said.
Thakre then spoke to Maharashtra home minister Anil Deshmukh and told the court that the state had no objection to the plea. He said Rao being shifted to a private multispeciality hospital would be treated as a “special case” and not a precedent for other cases.
Rao is among over a dozen scholars and activists arrested for their alleged links to Maoists and for allegedly instigating violence at Bhima Koregaon near Pune on January 1, 2018. The activists are accused of making provocative speeches at an event called the Elgar Parishad in Pune on December 31, 2017, and conspiring to foment the riots that killed one person and left many injured.
Hemlatha moved the court last week after learning about Rao’s deteriorating health at the prison hospital.
Jaising submitted that when Rao was arrested two years ago, he was healthy. She said his condition deteriorated inside jail and added that co-accused Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira took care of Rao but they were not medically trained. Jaising blamed the state’s negligence for a head injury Rao suffered while arguing for the need to shift her client to the Nanavati Hospital. Jaising said Rao’s mental health was failing and his ability to eat was also compromised.
Rao was arrested in August 2018. He 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. His bail was denied by an NIA court on June 26.
Rao continued to show signs of delirium and 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.
On July 13, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued notice to Maharashtra government, asking it to ensure Rao was taken care of. Maharashtra chief secretary responded on July 22, saying adequate care was provided.
In October, Hemlatha moved the Supreme Court seeking bail but a three-judge bench on October 29 asked the Bombay high court to hear his plea at the earliest.
Last week, a division bench of the Bombay high court directed the state government and NIA to arrange for an immediate video medical consultation for Rao with doctors at Nanavati Hospital.
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