(Human rights activist and Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy, jailed in connection with the Elgar Parishad case, passed away as a pretrial prisoner after suffering a cardiac arrest on 5 July. This story was first published on 18 May, and has been republished from The Quint's archives to recall the struggles faced by Swamy and the other accused in the case as well as the fears of their well-wishers.)
“It looks like once you are a prisoner, there is no value for your life,” said Dr Jenny Rowena, a Delhi University professor and wife of Dr Hany Babu, an undertrial prisoner, at a press conference, organised by friends and family of the 16 accused in the Bhima Koregaon case.
Dr Babu is currently COVID-positive and admitted in Mumbai’s JJ Hospital with an acute eye infection that has affected his vision. Spreading to his cheeks and forehead, the infection has caused his eyes to bulge out.
But his hospitalisation did not come easy. Even though Dr Babu’s troubles with his eyes began in Taloja jail on 3 May, he was not hospitalised till 12 May, said his wife.
What ensued in the meantime was a series of unanswered phone calls by Dr Babu’s lawyer to the jail superintendent, desperate and tremendous efforts on part of the kin to get him specialist care, one inadequate trip to a government hospital, and a lack of access for his family to information about Dr Babu’s health.
During this period, his eye condition is believed to have deteriorated alarmingly, while he used cloth washed in the jail’s allegedly soiled water to wipe his eyes and struggled to apply medicine owing to an affected vision and an alleged lack of attendants in the jail’s hospital.
“Doctors are not able to understand what is causing this vision issue in Dr Babu’s case. They are saying his muscles have been affected, his nerves have been affected, it can be because of different things. He is also complaining of body aches.”Dr Jenny Rowena
“So he needs proper treatment, he needs proper care, he needs proper food,” Rowena said at the press conference, urging the court and the state to grant temporary bail to Babu on medical grounds and amid the raging pandemic.
Similar pleas have been made by other well-wishers for the 16 accused, who have talked about the purportedly dangerous living conditions in the Taloja and Byculla jails (where the accused are incarcerated) – the overcrowding, the lack of medical care, paucity of clean water, and flimsy access to basic human rights.
‘Please Allow Us to Take Care of Them’
“Let the trial take place as soon as possible. But we also appeal to the state authorities, the prison authorities, the NIA and the high court: Please be considerate, these are human beings. Treat them as human beings for what they have contributed to the society and look at their age and health condition,” pleaded Father Joseph Xavier, friend of 84-year-old undertrial Father Stan Swamy.
Swamy suffers from Parkinson’s disease. He has to struggle to carry out the most fundamental chores owing to his health condition and also has difficulty in hearing. However, Xavier said that the octogenarian hardly ever complains and has “enormous ability to bear pain,” adding:
“You know Stan has been in prison since October 2020. But he has never told me any complain. (He says) I am managing. Though, I find it difficult physically, but I am managing.”
“Except the last time,” Xavier added, informing that on his last phone call (made on Friday evening), Swamy finally broke his silence and shared:
“Now I have to tell you, I am not feeling ok. I have cough, I have fever, I don’t know what it is. Only an Ayurvedic doctor is treating me, and some antibiotics are given. I have a running stomach. I am highly fragile now. I don’t know whether they will do something. I am not sure whether my health situation will improve or not.”
“Please allow us to take care of them,” beseeched Father Joseph Xavier, worried that if Stan Swamy is feeling weak and helpless, he may have reached a breaking point.
No Aadhaar, No Vaccine?
Even though Stan Swamy’s symptoms are concerning, as per the Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha’s tweet from Sunday, he is yet to be tested for COVID-19. He has also not yet been vaccinated against the disease. He does not have an Aadhaar card and Xavier is worried if he will be denied vaccination due to that reason.
Activist Harshali Potdar has pointed out that Sudhir Dahvle – another accused in the case – has been told that he will not be vaccinated as he does not have an Aadhaar card on him, even though it was the police who had confiscated his documents in his first arrest and never returned them.
Potdar also shared that Sudhir Dahvle, along with co-accused Vernon Gonsalves, has been placed in a barrack where eight people have tested positive but no one is willing to test the two of them for the disease.
Meanwhile, Minal Gadling, wife of undertrial Surendra Gadling, said that when her husband’s spectacles broke and he was complaining of an eye issue, his checkup was delayed and his spectacles were denied to him. He was told it is owing to the lockdown, even as the other inmates got their requested glasses, informed Minal.
She also shared that her husband’s complaints are met with threats that include a forced stop on his meetings with family.
Crowded Jails and a Cocktail of Co-morbidities
Further, Minal said that her husband suffers from hypertension and diabetes – both co-morbidities in case of a COVID-19 infection.
Sudha Bharadwaj, who is lodged in the Byculla jail, also suffers from diabetes and hypertension.
As per her friend Smita Gupta, Bharadwaj has also developed a host of new problems since her incarceration: “Skin infections, rheumatoid arthritis, she has suffered from a series of urinary infections, her teeth are such a mess that she tells her daughter she can barely manage to eat, she has lost a lot of weight, her hair is falling off, and last year, most disturbingly, we learnt that she has actually developed an ischemic disease.”
Byculla jail, like the Taloja jail, is reported to be densely populated, even amid the pandemic, and Smita Gupta says:
“Given the virulence of this strain and the fact that Byculla jail is so overcrowded and poorly ventilated, it is actually a very, very dangerous place, especially for a woman like Sudha with so many co-morbidities.”
But What About the Right to Life?
Many in India’s overcrowded prisons, inmates and staff alike, have tested positive, and many have not been tested at all.
In a letter to Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, the kin of the Bhima Koregaon accused had written:
“The Supreme Court has empowered the state governments to form high-powered committees, which could then decide upon the release of prisoners in each state. We urge you to recommend to the committee to release the undertrials on interim bail at least.”
They had also pointed out that one of them, Jyoti Jagtap, has already tested positive for COVID-19.
In February, granting bail to co-accused Varavara Rao, 81, on medical grounds, the Bombay High Court had noted that “sending him back to prison is fraught with risk.” Rao 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.
While applying stringent conditions on Rao’s bail, the court had also observed:
“The question is as to whether they (undertrials) can be forced to live a subhuman existence behind bars only because they stand accused of serious offences.”
On 7 May, a 22-year-old undertrial lodged in Mumbai’s Taloja jail passed away from a COVID-19 infection in a Mumbai hospital. His family members have reportedly alleged that negligence by prison authorities led to his death.
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.
Citing the deplorable conditions of the prisons amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and the precipitating threat to lives of the 16 undertrial in the Bhima Koregaon case – many of whom find themselves struggling with fragile health conditions – their family and friends have sought their release on interim bail.
“…According to the Constitution, and according to all the international rules and regulations, a prisoner continues to be a human being. And they continue to have all their rights. They are not being sent to these prisons to die.”Jenny Rowena