The Supreme Court Thursday asked the Bombay High Court to expedite the hearing of the bail application filed by noted poet Dr. Varavara Rao on medical grounds.
It also expressed concern at the delay in hearing Rao’s bail application which was last heard by the High Court on September 17 when one of the judges in a two-judge bench recused himself from the case. The Court also directed the High Court to examine whether Dr. Rao would be required to be treated in a speciality hospital.
A bench of Justices U U Lalit, Vineet Saran and Ravindra Bhat was hearing a plea filed by Dr Rao’s wife seeking the release of her husband on the ground of inhumane and degrading treatment meted out him in the prison amounting to the violation of his Right to Life which includes Right to Health and Right to Dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution.
During the hearing, the bench put three points across to Senior Advocate Indira Jaising who appeared for the petitioner. Firstly, a competent court i.e Bombay High Court had taken cognizance of the case. Secondly, the High Court was already seized with the matter of his bail. Finally, the High Court was looking into whether bail should be granted either on merit or on medical grounds. “Then how can we hear the case now?”, asked Justice Lalit.
Though the bench eventually did not order the release of Dr. Rao, it granted liberty to the petitioner to approach the Bombay High Court highlighting the violation of Dr. Rao’s Fundamental Rights to Life on account of the inhumane conditions of his detention.
Senior Advocate Indira Jaising, for the petitioner, submitted that Dr. Rao was completely bedridden and being attended to by his co-accused, who are not medically trained persons. Jaising highlighted that Dr. Rao was on a urine bag that needed to be changed every 24 hours and hadn’t been changed for 40 days. This had caused him to suffer from further urinary infection and added to his medical woes.
“His soul is not being kept intact with his body”, Jaising argued.
She pointed out to the bench that the present petition raised issues of violation of the Fundamental Rights of the prisoner which was distinct from seeking medical bail.
Referring to the decision of the Rajasthan High Court in Vaman Narayan Ghiya v. State of Rajasthan(authored by the then Chief Justice of High Court Justice Arun Mishra), Jaising submitted that prisoners did have the right to obtain medical treatment. The Rajasthan High Court in the said judgment had held:
“When State imprisons someone, it has liability for looking after health, necessary medical care or treatment. The necessary medical care, if not better, has to be of reasonably same standard which is expected by a person outside jail. The right as to medical treatment during illness is available to a prisoner. It is State’s obligation to look after the mental health of prisoners. Prisoners cannot be deprived of health services as that would be violative of protection conferred under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. In case of such a facility is illegally deprived of, it can be enforced by judicial intervention”.
Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta appearing on behalf of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) argued that “I don’t see why other prisoners will not pray for similar relief.” At this Justice Ravindra Bhat retorted, “But that should not deter us. Every prisoner’s health is important and the state should take a liberal view in this regard.”
Earlier this year, the poet-activist’s deteriorating health condition had caused national and international outrage after his family pleaded to save him from dying in jail. The poet is lodged in Taloja jail’s hospital which according to his wife, lacks medical facilities and is grossly ill-equipped to provide him with the care that he needs.
Dr. Varavara Rao was arrested in 2018 for his alleged involvement in the Bhima Koregaon case.
On May 30, after news of the state’s neglect of his health condition hit national headlines, he was quickly transferred to J J Hospital and quickly discharged two days later without any further information. Within a few days, his condition deteriorated further and he was readmitted to J J Hospital on July 13. Reportedly, when the family visited him at the hospital, he was found lying in a pool of urine without any nurse or attendant.
Later Dr. Rao tested positive for COVID-19 on July 16. He was shifted to St George Hospital and then finally to Nanavati Hospital on July 30. The Nanavati hospital, in its report, inter-alia noted that “considering the comorbid factors of age, persistent hyponatremia in the COVID 19 case, the patient will require close monitoring.”
On August 28, without informing the Bombay High Court or his family, the state discharged the poet and sent him back to Taloja Jail. He has been in the jail hospital ever since.