The government must urgently heed the plea of the family of jailed Telugu poet and civil rights activist, Varavara Rao, to shift him to a hospital in view of his medical condition amid the pandemic. Rao, 81, is currently in Taloja jail, Navi Mumbai, facing trial in the Elgar Parishad case with 10 others. Maharashtra minister Jitendra Awhad, on Sunday, confirmed the family’s worries about Rao’s deteriorating health and appealed to the Centre to “urgently shift him to a hospital”.
Courts have repeatedly held that bail is the rule and jail is the exception. However, they have been conspicuously reluctant to apply this principle in Rao’s case — his bail pleas have been rejected several times. The accused in the Elgar Parishad case — public intellectuals with distinguished records as human rights activists — have been booked under the provisions of the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which allow extended detention without trial and bail. The chargesheet filed by the NIA holds that Rao, who has been awaiting trial since August 2018, is a senior member of the banned CPI (Maoist) and that he conspired to organise the Elgar Parishad, but his advanced age and precarious health clearly indicate that he is in no condition to derail the investigation or tamper with evidence. The Supreme Court has ruled in the past that membership of a proscribed organisation is not sufficient reason to deem a person a criminal. Rao — and his co-accused — should be given bail, especially considering the questions that continue to surround their incarceration in the first place.
The Maharashtra police had claimed nearly two years ago that the Elgar Parishad, a public gathering of Dalit and Left-leaning groups in Pune on December 31, 2017, was organised to destabilise the government. The Parishad was also blamed for inciting the violence that rocked a commemoration event by Dalit groups at Bhima Koregaon the next day. Investigators claim to have unearthed a conspiracy and arrested political activists from across the country — most of them had not attended the Parishad. With several questions hanging over the veracity of the police claims, it is necessary to have a speedy trial and closure in the case. Keeping widely respected writers and academicians under a prolonged cloud of suspicion in prison does not behove a liberal democracy that respects free speech and the fundamental right to a fair trial, including bail.
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