New Delhi: The family members of activists arrested in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case demanded their immediate release, in view of the raging Covid-19 pandemic.
To mark three years since the first arrests in the case, the families and friends of the accused Friday organised a webinar — “Three Years Too Many…” — to highlight the deteriorating health of the prisoners, with many of them testing positive for Covid, and unhygienic conditions in jails.
“This is an indirect penalty as they have just been left to die,” said Meenal Gadling, wife of activist-lawyer Surendra Gadling.
Several activists and academicians were arrested for allegedly making inflammatory speeches at the Elgar Parishad event held at Pune’s Shaniwarwada Fort on 31 December 2017 to mark 200 years of the Bhima Koregaon battle.
So far, 16 people have been arrested in the case as accused — Jyoti Raghoba Jagtap, Sagar Tatyaram Gorkhe, Ramesh Murlidhar Gaichor, Sudhir Dhawale, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Shoma Sen, Rona Wilson, Arun Ferreira, Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves, Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha, Hany Babu and Father Stan Swamy. While five of them were arrested on 6 June 2018, the others were arrested subsequently.
Rao was released on medical bail earlier this year, but others continue to remain in jail. Most of the accused in the case were neither named in the FIR nor were they present at Bhima Koregaon when the violence took place on 31 December 2017.
Poor conditions in jail
At the Friday event, the family and friends of the accused highlighted the poor hygiene in jails. Among the 16 accused, Hany Babu, Stan Swamy, Varavara Rao, Mahesh Raut, Sagar Gorkhe, and Ramesh Gaichor have tested positive for Covid so far.
“Surendra has got only 1 mask in 1.5 years of the pandemic. The toilets in jail are so dirty at a time when hygiene is so important. They only got the toilets cleaned with acid after sustained efforts from our end,” said Meenal.
Speaking to ThePrint, Sunil Ramanand, ADG Maharashtra Prisons, however, denied mismanagement in prisons during the pandemic. “Bombay HC judgment day before yesterday praised management of prisons in Maharashtra during Covid. Please read it and tell me can there be any argument?” he said.
The Bombay HC on 10 June observed that due to its timely intervention, Covid management seems to be improving in Maharashtra prisons.
Family members also spoke about the difficulty in getting Covid tests done. “It was so difficult to get my father tested. The jail authorities kept delaying and saying yes we will do it. It has been so demeaning because we had to beg and plead for a basic thing like a Covid test,” said Vernon Gonsalves’ son Sagar.
Earlier too, family members of the accused have alleged denial of medical treatment. Lawyers for Babu, Navlakha, Stan Swamy, and Anand Teltumbde have also made similar claims in the past. While Babu was allegedly denied treatment for an eye infection, Swamy, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, was allegedly denied a straw sipper, and Navlakha was purportedly denied access to spectacles. Other accused – Bharadwaj and Sen – lodged at Mumbai’s Byculla Women’s Jail, also filed bail application on medical grounds.
The family members alleged that the accused have been denied adequate medical treatment. Harish Tharayil, Hany Babu’s brother, said: “It took a lot of effort to get him to a hospital when he had the eye infection. Then he tested positive for Covid and we were not even allowed to talk to him when he was in the hospital.”
Of the 16, only Rao is currently out on medical bail, but his family too is worried. “My father is recovering now but he will have to go back to jail where there are no facilities and that really worries us,” said Pawana, Rao’s daughter.
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‘No room for despair’
Family members and friends said that while the activists continue to live in deplorable conditions in jail, they haven’t lost hope.
“During this period anxiety levels are high due to the pandemic and every day we face a new challenge to cope with it but we have to remain hopeful and build public opinion as there is no room for despair,” said Sahba Hussain, Navlakha’s partner.
Stan Swamy’s friend Joe Xavier said that even though the 83-year-old suffers from various ailments including Covid, he has never complained. “Despite being behind bars he never complained and even in prison he was giving hope to others despite age-related ailments,” Xavier said.
A book by Women Against State Violence and State Repression (WSS) Salaankhon Mein Kaid Awaaz was also released at the event. The book includes a short profile of the 16 accused, short pieces by five of the accused written from jail, and also chronicles the case briefly.
Also read: UK MPs, Nobel laureates urge India to free jailed Bhima Koregaon activists ‘in grave danger’