The Supreme Court on Thursday did not order the immediate release from jail of ailing poet-activist Varavara Rao even as it voiced concern over a month-long delay witnessed in the Bombay High Court to hear urgent pleas for his liberty and medical treatment.
Also read: Varavara Rao's health a concern, says family
“The obstacle bothering us is that the matter is not being heard”, Justice U.U. Lalit, heading a three-judge Bench, said.
The last hearing of the case before the High Court was on September 17.
The court requested the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court to list the case for hearing at the earliest.
Justice Lalit said the case had “three dimensions”. One, a competent court had taken cognisance of the case, and thus, Mr. Rao's detention was not per se illegal. Second, the question of bail was, again, under the consideration of the High Court. Finally, the issue of setting Mr. Rao at liberty, either on merits of the case or on medical grounds, was being looked into by the high court.
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“So, how do we [Supreme Court] hear the case now”, Justice Lalit asked.
Mr. Rao, 79, was arrested in August 2018 in the Elgar Parishad case. He has been accused of offences under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the National Investigation Act. His wife, Pendyala Hemalatha, through senior advocate Indira Jaising, has approached the apex court .
“So much time has elapsed. His condition has deteriorated. His life is in danger if he is not given proper treatment. It has been a month since the High Court listed the case... Even under detention, I have my fundamental rights. My right to life includes my right to health and dignity”, Ms. Jaising submitted.
Back to hospital issue
At one point, the Bench considered sending Mr. Rao back to the Nanavati Hospital where his condition was stable. Justice Lalit said Mr. Rao could be medically observed in the hospital till the High Court took a call.
Also read: Bail sought for Varavara Rao
But Solicitor General Tushar Mehta intervened to submit that every prisoner’s health was a concern for the State and such an order in Mr. Rao’s case may lead to other prisoners also seeking the same relief on medical grounds.
“That should not deter us... If the health condition of every prisoner requires that [sending him or her to the hospital for treatment], then every prisoner should be sent. Health is health... Who would want a death in jail?” Justice S. Ravindra Bhat, on the Bench, reacted to Mr. Mehta.
Ms. Hemalatha said her husband needed critical medical care. He had become very feeble in custody. He suffered from neurological problems and the aftereffects of COVID-19 infection, which he got while in custody.
Suffers head injury
Mr. Rao had suffered a fall at St. George Hospital and injured his head. A medical report on July 30 from the Nanavati Hospital, ordered by the High Court, found that the COVID-19 attack and his fall led to neurological problems.
On August 17, the High Court said that “considering the co-morbid factors of age, persistent hyponatremia in COVID-19 case, the patient will require close monitoring”.
Ms. Jaising recounted how Mr. Rao was hurriedly discharged from the Nanavati Hospital just to “avoid judicial determination of his bail on medical grounds”.
Ms. Hemalatha said the continuing custody of her husband was a punishment in itself not permissible in law.
The court advised the family to amend the pending petitions in the High Court to highlight the issues regarding the basic rights of prisoners.