Pandu Narote's Death: A Reminder of Stan Swamy's Demise, GN Saibaba's Struggles

When Pandu Narote died on 25 August, once again questions arose regarding the treatment of ailing inmates.
Mekhala Saran

When Pandu Narote breathed his last at 5:30 pm on 25 August, once again questions arose regarding the health facilities in Maharashtra prisons, and the treatment of ailing inmates.


(Image altered by The Quint)

<div class="paragraphs"><p>When Pandu Narote breathed his last at 5:30 pm on 25 August, once again questions arose regarding the health facilities in Maharashtra prisons, and the treatment of ailing inmates.</p></div>

In February 2020, granting bail to Bhima Koregaon accused Varavara Rao, on medical grounds, the Bombay High Court had noted that “sending him back to prison is fraught with risk.”

Rao, whose health had deteriorated drastically during his period of incarceration, had submitted to a court that there were only three Ayurvedic practitioners and no staff nurses, pharmacists or medical specialists to attend to the prisoners at the prison hospital in Taloja.

Rao's co-accused, Jessuit priest Stan Swamy was eighty-four when he passed away as an incarcerated under-trial on 5 July 2021, a day before his bail hearing.

His friend Fr Joseph Xavier had shared in May that Swamy had told him on a phone call that he had cough, fever, a running stomach and was highly fragile, and yet “only an Ayurvedic doctor is treating me, and some antibiotics are given.”

When Pandu Narote breathed his last at 5:30 pm on 25 August, once again questions arose regarding the health facilities in Maharashtra prisons, and the treatment of ailing inmates.

He was admitted at a government hospital in Nagpur when he died, a stone's throw from Nagpur Central Jail where he was incarcerated after conviction in a UAPA case. But he had reportedly been sick for several days before he was shifted there.

Without commenting on the facts of this specific case, Human Rights Lawyer Mihir Desai told The Quint:

“Ordinarily, what I have seen and heard suggests that the health facilities and hygiene conditions in jails in Maharashtra is very poor.”

So who is Pandu Narote? How did he die? What are the allegations surrounding his tragic death?

Pandu Narote: An Agricultural Worker Who Was Convicted Under UAPA

Pandu Narote was arrested from Aheri in Gadchiroli in August 2013. He, along with GN Saibaba and four others, was convicted by a sessions court in 2017, under various sections of the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act dealing with conspiracy, being a member of a terrorist gang or organisation, and for support to a terrorist organisation.

Prior to his arrest, his lawyer Akash Sorde told The Quint, Narote was an agricultural worker. His wife continues to do agricultural work. Since his conviction, Pandu had not met either his wife, or his daughter who is now in Class 10.

File photo of Pandu Narote.

The oldest of four brothers, Narote belongs to a scheduled tribe and hails from a deep forested area of Maharashtra (in Gadchiroli district). As per his lawyer, his father knows neither Hindi nor Marathi, and only communicates in a local tribal dialect.

But how did Narote, at just 33, pass away?


When Did Pandu's Kin Learn He Was Sick?

While his lawyer has not yet received Pandu's autopsy report, and has no document confirming the cause of death, some media reports say Narote had contracted the highly contagious swine flu.

According to Vasantha Saibaba, whose husband GN Saibaba was incarcerated alongside Narote in the Anda Cell of the Nagpur Central Jail, other inmates there are also experiencing symptoms such as cold, cough, continuous headaches and joint pains. She told The Quint that her husband, who too was experiencing the same symptoms, wrote to her about it a few days after Narote's death.

Narote's lawyer Sorde also told The Quint that it had been several days since he fell sick before Sorde himself – who was informed by an external source – or Narote's family, got wind of his illness.

"The prison authorities are expected to intimate the family of the prisoner immediately if the latter falls sick," Sorde said.

Commenting on condition of anonymity, a figure of authority in the prison however claimed that they did follow proper procedure and informed Narote's family immediately on his admission at GMC.

So when should a prisoner’s family be informed in such circumstances?

The Quint reached out to Human Rights lawyer Mihir Desai, who said:

“The prison authorities should ideally inform the family as soon as a person falls sicks. You don’t have to wait till a person is admitted in a hospital to inform the family. Because the family should know.”

According to criminal law expert Shrey Sherawat, jail manuals make it obligatory for jail authorities to inform family members of an inmate in case the latter is suffering from a serious ailment.

And how serious was Narote’s ailment?

'Pandu Was Only Shifted to GMC After He Started Vomiting Blood': Lawyer

Sorde told The Quint that when he finally learned of Narote's ailment and returned to Nagpur to visit him, Narote had already been admitted at a government hospital in the city.

"Pandu told me on 23 August that he had been suffering for about two weeks by then. It was only after many requests by him that he was first treated at the prison hospital. He had then also requested to be sent outside for further treatment, but they only shifted him to GMC when he started exuding blood in his vomit and urine."

After that Narote was kept in the hospital's ICU for one day, and for the remaining four days that he lived, he was placed on a ventilator with an oxygen cylinder, but in the general ward.

Sorde moved yet another petition to shift Narote to a different hospital, but sadly, Narote died before any action was taken.

While sharing these details, Sorde alleged that not only did the jail authorities not inform the family earlier, they also showed negligence "as till the end they did not take him to a hospital outside."

But the anonymous prison authority that The Quint spoke to, once again dismissed the allegations, saying:

"This is all wrong. He was immediately sent to the hospital. He was also sent for regular check ups."

Meanwhile, The Quint has reached out via phone calls and Whatsapp to the Superintendent of Nagpur Central Jail for an official comment. This story will be updated to reflect his view if and when we get a response.

Standard Operation Procedure in Such Circumstances?

On being asked what the standing operating procedure under the given circumstances would be Sharawat said:

"Any Under Trial Prisoner or convict who is suffering from any ailment is required to be treated at the jail medical facility. Senior Medical Officer (SMO) is obligated to treat the inmate immediately and maintain his or her medical records. If in the opinion of SMO, the concerned jail does not have adequate or specialised facilities to treat a particular ailment, the inmate should immediately be shifted to the nearest government hospital having adequate facilities to treat the inmate."

"In case of any negligence on part of any of the stakeholders in treating the inmate, a civil, criminal and departmental action can be initiated against them," Sharawat added.

Health Conditions and Hygiene Facilities in Prison

Article 21 of the Constitution of India provides that “no person shall be deprived of his life and personal liberty, except by procedure established by law.” This is a fundamental right granted to all, including prisoners. It is a provision of part III of the Constitution of India, and the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that such provisions should be given widest possible interpretation.

And yet, reports of abysmal living conditions (including health and hygiene facilities) in prisons are not uncommon.

According to a report published by Outlook (which was last updated on 22 August), Mumbai’s Arthur Road Prison has four doctors for over 3800 inmates.

In May, 2021, while the second wave of COVID-19 wreaked devastation across the country, the family and friends of the accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, who have been lodged in Mumbai’s Taloja and Byculla jail, held a press conference drawing attention to the purportedly dangerous living conditions there. These included overcrowding, the lack of medical care, paucity of clean water, and flimsy access to basic human rights.

On 5 July 2022, the death anniversary of Father Stan Swamy, all his co-accused reportedly observed hunger strike for a day, in lament of his death amid inadequate facilities and in protest against the lack of proper medical treatment that allegedly continues in the jail.

The Especially Flimsy Access to Relief for a UAPA Convict/Accused

GN Saibaba, a former Delhi University professor and Narote's co-accused (as mentioned above) is wheelchair-bound and suffers from ailments due to which 90% of his body is disabled. Currently confined to the ‘Anda Cell’ in Nagpur, he has, according to media reports, complained several times about not getting adequate medical treatment, despite his condition.

GN Saibaba. Image used for representation.

Several civil society organisations had written to (then) Chief Justice of India NV Ramana, in June, expressing “grave concern” over his health.

“Professor GN Saibaba was in an intensive care unit receiving treatment, but without any consideration of his health condition, he was shifted to solitary confinement in an Anda Cell. Since then Prof GN Saibaba has been losing his remaining bodily abilities because of neglect and lack of proper care and so his “life sentence” is turning into a “death sentence.”

The signatories of the letter sought for him to be shifted from the Anda Cell “to a wheelchair-accessible barrack, then release him on medical bail and admit him to a multi-specialty hospital for treatment.”

The letter also pointed out that Saibaba’s parole request was rejected thrice and his medical bail was denied twice, despite him being on the “edge of death.”

It also won't be entirely illogical to conclude that if Saibaba does contract an infectious disease in the prison, it may be exacerbated by his existing ailments.

Thus, despite the frequency of reports indicating dismal health facilities and living conditions in prisons, relief is evidently not easy to come by – especially for those convicted, or even booked under the stringent UAPA.

Human rights activist Atikur Rahman, a co-accused of Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan, was allowed to undergo an open-heart surgery at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi in November 2021 after his family filed a writ petition at the Allahabad High Court. However, his health condition has continued to deteriorate in jail.

Atikur Rahman was allowed to undergo an open-heart surgery at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi in November 2021 after his family filed a writ petition at the Allahabad High Court. However, his health condition has continued to deteriorate in jail.

Seeking his immediate release, Amnesty International has pointed out that since March 2022, Rahman has been hospitalised multiple times. His medical documents state that in addition to an existing heart ailment, he has now developed a neurological disease. The left side of his body has been paralysed and he also suffers from memory loss.

While Varavara Rao somehow managed to get medical bail, several other Bhima Koregaon accused were rejected the same, despite being inflicted by a cocktail of co-morbidities while the pandemic raged around them.

(With inputs from The Wire and LiveLaw.)

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