A number of human rights organizations have written to the chief minister of the Indian State of Maharashtra, Uddhav Thackeray, seeking interim bail for all prisoners above the age of 60, including political prisoners. This follows reports of the appalling conditions in the quarantine facility in which activist Gautam Navlakha is currently lodged in. Navlakha and 10 other political prisoners named in the infamous Elgar Parishad case are under arrest in the State of Maharashtra, which has the highest number of COVID-19 infections in the country.
The details of Navlakha’s detention came out recently in a letter written by his partner Sahba Husain to filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, which the latter posted on Facebook. Navlakha is among the 350 inmates who are crowded into six classrooms of a school, his partner wrote. The school is currently serving as a quarantine facility for those who are to be shifted to the Taloja prison.
“There are only 3 toilets, 7 urinals and a common bathing space without a bucket or a mug,” Sahba Husain wrote. Her letter says that Navlakha is sharing a room with 35 other inmates with many more sleeping in corridors and passages.
According to the letter, 68-year-old Navlakha told her in a telephonic conversation that due to the extreme congestion, apart from the fear of COVID-19, inmates are also prone to skin infections. Navlakha has reportedly lost 2 kg during his detention in the facility.
Another prominent activist charged in the case, poet Varavara Rao (81), is also reportedly very ill. The poet, who was also lodged in Taloja prison, was admitted to a hospital at the end of May after he fainted. A bail application has been moved seeking his release on grounds of poor health. Varavara Rao has been in police custody since November 2018. Lawyer and activist Sudha Bharadwaj, who is also named in the case, has meanwhile moved for bail. She too has been in prison since November 2018.
According to the appeal by the rights organizations, at least two inmates have died of COVID-19 in the Taloja prison where Navlakha and Varavara Rao are lodged. Prison officials have tested positive for the disease in Byculla Jail where Sudha Bharadwaj is under arrest. The State of Maharashtra has released many prisoners under various parole conditions in the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak. However, this has not been extended to those named in the Elgar Parishad case despite their advanced age and medical complications.
The letter also says that due to the overcrowding in prisons, “Three of the accused.. – Surendra Gadling, Arun Fereirra and Vernon Gonsalves have been struggling to find space just to keep a copy of their 5000-page chargesheet.”
Elgar Parishad case
The Elgar Parishad case has to do with violence that broke out in January 2018 during and after the commemoration of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon. Sections of India’s Dalit community (the former untouchable castes), whose ancestors defeated the armies of the dominant castes in that battle, mark the occasion every year. In 2018, on the occasion, violence was unleashed by right-wing groups leading to the death of at least two members of the Dalit community. However, the police investigation focused on left-wing intellectuals and activists, many of whom are critics of the government. Soon, the case acquired a new angle – a conspiracy by the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) to assassinate prime minister Narendra Modi.
On June 6, 2018, writer and Dalit rights activist Sudhir Dhawale, lawyer Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut who works among tribals facing displacement in rural Maharashtra, Shoma Sen, professor of English and activist Rona Wilson were arrested. In August, Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha, lawyer Arun Pereira and academic Vernon Gonsalves were also targeted. The activists, except for Gautam Navlakha, were imprisoned in October-November 2018. After a long legal battle, Navlakha and academic and writer Anand Teltumbde were forced to surrender in April 2019.
(For detailed timeline of the Elgar Parishad case, read this article)
The 11 activists have been charged under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act which severely restricts the possibilities of obtaining bail and gives the police wide-ranging powers. The case was initially investigated by the Maharashtra State police. However, when the far-right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost the State elections in late 2019, the case was suddenly shifted to the National Investigation Agency, which is under the Central government. The BJP is in power at the center.
The very basis of the case and the treatment meted out to the activists has been severely criticized both in India and abroad.