“Our loved ones were being forced to live in inhuman conditions during pandemic,” family & friends of BK-16

Jenny Rowena, the wife of Dr Hany Babu; Fr Joe Xavier, the friend of Fr Stan Swamy; Maaysha, the daughter of lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj and Minal Gadling, the wife of advocate Surendra Gadling, addressed the media.

Only three Ayurvedic practitioners tend to the medical needs of inmates in Taloja as Covid-19 looms over their heads.

Family members and comrades of the accused in Bhima Koregaon-Elgar Parishad case, serving as under-trial prisoners in Mumbai’s Taloja and Byculla jails, demanded the release of all political prisoners at a virtual press conference on Saturday. Their exhortation comes due to a lack of healthcare workers to treat the inmates during the pandemic.

Harshali Potdar, appearing on the behalf of Sudhir Dhawale, one of the BK-16 and leader of the Republican Panthers Jaatiya Antachi Chalwal (Republican Panthers Caste Annihilation Movement) vehemently asserted the rights of undertrial prisoners in Taloja and Byculla jails. “We got calls from Sudhir in the last few weeks informing that majority of the staff members in Taloja are COVID-19 positive and this has worsened the conditions of the inmates,” she said.

She stated that a sense of normalcy was maintained by the authorities by testing the healthy and fit and neglecting the symptomatic, cases with comorbidities and senior citizens. “In the barrack where Sudhir stays, eight people have tested positive,” she added.

“The prison authorities have said that Sudhir Dhawale would not get vaccinated because he could not produce his Aadhar. These documents were seized by the police on his first arrest,” she said. Even though he was acquitted in the first case, the documents were not returned.  

During Vara Vara Rao’s case in the Bombay High Court, it had observed the appalling conditions of Taloja jail. According to Maharashtra Prison (Prison Hospital) Rules, 2015  framed under the Prisons Act 1984, there should be adequate medical facilities in the prison. In Taloja, there are no staff nurses, pharmacists, compounders, nursing assistants, lab technicians or medical specialists. It currently has three Ayurvedic doctors, none of them can be deemed qualified as per the Maharashtra Prison Rules, Potdar said.

“Fundamental rights like Right to medical treatment, access to proper food, water, and medical treatment, to meet family members, speedy trial are not met in the prison,” she asserted.

Hany Babu, Delhi University Associate Professor in linguistics, lodged in Taloja jail has not only tested positive for the Coronavirus but also has a serious eye infection, deteriorating by the day.

Dr. Jenny Rowena, Dr. Babu’s wife hinting at the indifference of the jail authorities, said that the jail hospital had nothing but empty rooms. She said that her husband started having an eye infection on May 3 and till May 12 and he was not admitted to any hospitals. After 7 May, his vision started getting affected and currently he cannot see properly. “He has double vision in one eye,” she added.

Dr. Rowena said that Dr. Babu was taken to a small hospital where he was administered anti-biotics without any eye check-up and was sent back to the jail. As his vision worsened, he called his lawyer, who made 10-20 phone calls to the jail superintendent before getting him to agree on taking Babu to hospital. “But it did not happen, he was not taken to the hospital even after the people who had checked him earlier asked him to return,” Dr.Rowena said.

“Our family had to conduct a press meet and write to our State’s Chief Minister [Pinarayi Vijayan] to get him admitted to J.J hospital,” she claims.

For more than one month there was a shortage of water. Babu informed his lawyer that he had to wash the cloth used for cleaning the eyes with soiled water. “No one helped him, he was not able to get medication because he could not see and was left with no attendant in the jail hospital. This hospital housed all the COVID-19 patients with no proper care,” she reiterated.

Currently, Babu is in G.T hospital and has tested positive for COVID-19. He had tested negative while in the prison. “Babu told me on call that people getting tested in the jail tested negative and once they were taken outside and tested, they turned positive,” Dr. Rowena said. “It looks like once you are a prisoner, there is no value for your life, despite having rights guaranteed by the Constitution and internationally,” she said. “The BK-16 have worked for the society, so the society should come together as a unit to release all the political prisoners,” she added. 

Similarly, Father Stan Swamy’s health is also waning. Father Joseph Xavier, a fellow Jesuit priest, underlined the various diseases suffered by the octogenarian, currently in Taloja jail.

“The last six months he had not made any complaints on his health. He called me yesterday [May 14] morning and said that he was not feeling well,” Father Xavier said. He said that Father Stan Swamy said that he had a fever, running stomach, and cough and he was given antibiotics. “He will be denied vaccination because he does not have an Aadhar card,” he said. 

The State has been asked to present Father Stan Swamy’s health status on 15 May. “My request to the State and the prison authorities is to present facts,” Father Xavier said. “I want to appeal to the prison authorities, the State, the NIA, and the high court to be considerate to these human beings by allowing us to take care of them and releasing them,” he added.

Sudha Bhardwaj has been in jail for three years now. She has severe comorbidities, endangering her more in a situation with paltry healthcare access.

“She was diabetic and had hypertension before going to jail. She has a history of pulmonary tuberculosis. In this case of severe overcrowding, a host of new problems like skin infections, rheumatoid arthritis, a series of urinary tract infections have surfaced. She told her daughter that her teeth have fallen off and can barely manage to eat. Her hair is falling off and last year, we were informed that she has developed an ischemic disease,” said Smita Gupta, a close friend of the accused lawyer.

“This cocktail of illnesses, those that preceded her incarceration and those that are direct results of incarceration combined with this new illness make her extremely vulnerable,” said Ms. Gupta. In rapid antigen tests, 40 people in Byculla tested positive. The virulence of the disease makes the overcrowded prison a very dangerous place for a woman like Sudha with so many comorbidities, Gupta said.

“She had told her daughter in a phone call that she was seriously unwell after getting vaccinated on 7 April. She dismissed them as side effects of vaccination. However, it went on for three weeks, with diarrhea, body fatigue, tastelessness, many of them being symptoms of Covid,” she said. The jail doctors gave her antibiotics despite the fact that she was not responding to it. 

After the news appeared on social media, the jail superintendent said that Sudha Bhardwaj is a habitual and big complainant. “This remark was about a person who dedicated her life to human rights and public service,” Gupta said. “They claimed many tests were done. However, we have no information on what the tests are, their results, diagnosis, and what is the treatment.”

Smita Gupta reiterated that this combination of wilful neglect, complete lack of transparency of information of her condition, her own comorbidities, overcrowding, awful living conditions makes it very distressing for all of us. It is a case with no credible evidence, no trial in sight, a case in which they are bent upon making this process the punishment and denying the very basic right to life. 

Surendra Gadling, the Dalit rights activist from Nagpur arrested in 2018 had informed the jail authorities of covid symptoms in July 2020, but to no avail.

His wife, Minal Gadling doubts his safety in the prison where even water is hard to come by, she said. “Surendra Gadling has various comorbidities. He had problems with eyesight and after his spectacles were broken, they were not replaced, while many others were granted the favour,” Minal Gadling said.

“No doctors were available to check BP or sugar level. Similarly, In July 2020 during the first wave he developed many symptoms but he was neither tested nor was given medicines or treatment,” she said.

Talking about the dismal conditions of the jail and the apathy of the authorities, she said, “Even now there is water shortage and they give very little water. All the chores are done with this limited supply. How can one maintain hygiene like this.” The incompetence of the authorities does not end there. “We get less than 5 minutes to talk to them,” she said. 

This is contrary to the Bombay High Court’s verdict where it allowed videoconferencing. “Now we get hardly five minutes to talk to them, half of which will be lost through disturbances and disruptions,” Hrashali Potdar added.

Aiswarya Raj is a student journalist at Asian College of Journalism with a penchant for politics.