After being moved from Taloja jail to Mumbai's JJ Hospital, 81-year-old poet, and Elgar Parishad-Maoist links case, revolutionary Telugu poet and activist Varavara Rao has tested positive for coronavirus.
Rao had been moved to the hospital earlier in the week after his family went public with details about his ill health in prison. On Monday, Rao had approached the Bombay High Court seeking temporary bail owing to his deteriorating medical condition and the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic.
Rao's family had also released a press release in which they outlined the poet's ailing condition, asking authorities to not "kill Varvara Rao in jail".
Concerns regarding the Telugu "Rebel Poet" grew following the two cases of coronavirus that had been reported from Taloja jail in Navi Mumbai.
Rao, another activist Anand Teltumbde and eight other activists were arrested in the Elgar Parishad-Maoist link case, which was initially probed by the Pune police and later transferred to the National Investigation Agency in January. The case relates to alleged inflammatory speeches made at the Elgar Parishad conclave held in Pune on December 31, 2017, which, the police claimed, triggered violence the next day near the Koregaon-Bhima war memorial located on the outskirts of the western Maharashtra city.
Rao has been in prison for 22 months and has repeatedly been denied bail despite his deteriorating health.
The news was met with dismay on social media. Many wondered why the elderly and revered poet and activist had not been given timely bail despite several efforts, especially amid an unprecedented health pandemic.
This is the thing we all most feared. 81-year-old poet #VaravaraRao tests positive for Covid-19. Please move him to a super speciality and ensure his speedy and complete recovery. All tears and prayers at this point. https://t.co/A2hJX7MYtr
— meena kandasamy || இளவேனில் மீனா கந்தசாமி (@meenakandasamy) July 16, 2020
— Sucharitaa (@Sucharitaseng) July 16, 2020
#Varvararao tests COVID-19!#Fascism is murdering people & opposition voices, through unemployment & starvation, forcing farmers & youths to suicide, fake encounters, state sponsored violence & mob lynching, imprisonment & no medical facilities, political use of UAPA/NSA/ESMA!
— K K (@kk0000000000) July 16, 2020
— Syed Mohammad Murtaza (@syedmohdmurtaza) July 16, 2020
Why this brutality with an old man. Release #VarvaraRao immediately.#releasevaravararao @cpimlliberation @kavita_krishnan @Dipankar_cpiml @salimdotcomrade @cpimspeak @AISA_tweets https://t.co/74Nrb5kSmn
— Marx (@SDey83) July 16, 2020
An open letter written by the rights group Human Rights Defender - India (founded by activist Henri Tiphagne) that surfaced on social media claims that Rao was found in a "pool of urine" by his family which consists of his wife and three daughters. He had not been given any medical attention and was found in a deplorable state by his family.
Rao has now been shifted to St George Hospital in Mumbai, as per a report in The News Minute, for further treatment. However, as per a report in Scroll, those familiar with the situation are concerned about the quality of treatment Rao may receive in the state-run St George's.
Who is Vervara Rao?
Rao is a revered Telugu poet, scholar and activist who is also the leader of the Revolutionary Writers Association (RWA). He is one of the most renowned names in Telugu poetry and has written nearly 15 collections of poems. Rao and 10 other activists were arrested in the Elgar Parishad-Maoist link case which, authorities believe, led to the Bhima Koregaon massacre. Rao, who was arrested along with ten others in the Elgar Parishad case, was first put under house arrest from August 2019 to November 2018. After that, he was lodged in the Pune's Yarwada jail till February 2019. He has been in the Taloja prison along with the other male accused in the case including Gonsalves, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira and others after the case was transferred to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) by the Centre in January this year.
Why is he in prison?
On December 31, 2017, Rao and all the others co-accused in the case were present in Bhima Koregaon, a small village in Pune, Maharashtra, to speak at Elgar Parishad conclave. The conclave came at a time when the area, which has a deep history of Dalit nationalist pride and rivalry with upper-caste Pehswas, was simmering after the statue of remains of a Maratha leader were found to be desecrated.
On January 1, on the 200th-anniversary celebration marking the Bhima Koregaon battle in which British troops consisting of Dalit soldiers emerged victorious over the upper-caste Peshwa troops, violence broke out between the largely Dalit crowds that had gathered to celebrate the victory and alleged saffron groups allegedly disrupted the event. At least one person was killed in the violence and several others injured. In the course of the year, Maharashtra police launched a nation-wide crackdown on activists and professors who spoke at the conclave, claiming that inflammatory speeches made at the conclave caused violence.