The condition of an 80-year-old prominent poet in India who has contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, while in prison has sparked public outrage with calls for public authorities to release him immediately.
Varavara Rao, a renowned Indian poet, critic and political activist, often regarded as a Marxist in Telegu literature, was arrested in 2018 for alleged links to Maoist fighters and violence between Dalits and Hindu nationalists in January that year.
Rao denied the accusations while the case has not been formally brought to the courts.
Held in Navi Mumbai’s Taloja prison, the writer was reported to be suffering from health complications in May.
In July, he was transferred to a private facility for treatment after his family issued a statement titled Don’t kill Varavara Rao in jail, in which they expressed grave concern for his failing health.
According to the statement, the poet was suffering from hallucinations while he was not able “to walk, go to the toilet or brush his teeth on his own”.
— meena kandasamy || இளவேனில் (@meenakandasamy) July 12, 2020
On a visit by his wife and his three daughters to the hospital, he was found lying on a bed soaked in urine.
“The ward was stinking, and he was unattended,” one of his daughters said.
He tested positive for coronavirus the next day.
“During the pandemic, the jailing of India’s most committed and public-spirited writers, academics, doctors and activists amounts to an attempt to kill them in custody,” Kavita Krishnan, a member of the Communist Party, wrote on Twitter.
“Govt of India is weaponising the pandemic to turn jails into death camps for political undertrials,” she added.
Rao is currently held under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), anti-terrorism legislation under which the accused can be jailed for years without bail.
During the pandemic, the jailing of India’s most committed and public-spirited writers, academics, doctors and activists amounts to an attempt to kill them in custody.
— Kavita Krishnan (@kavita_krishnan) July 17, 2020
Human Right Watch (HRW) recently questioned the detention of activists and has demanded the government drop all charges under the counterterrorism law.
“Indian authorities are using draconian counterterrorism laws against activists simply for criticising the government or raising their voices against injustice,” said HRW’s South Asia director, Meenakshi Ganguly, in April.
The organisation has also questioned the government for not “pursu[ing] investigations in cases that implicated Hindu nationalist leaders for inciting the violence”.