Mumbai: Observing that aged prisoners could not be forced to live a subhuman life in jail just because they were accused of serious offences, Bombay High Court granted six months' medical bail to Telugu poet-activist Varavara Rao on Monday. The HC said it could not abdicate its duty to protect human rights.
"With all humility at our command, keeping in view human consideration, the well-recognised fundamental rights of the undertrial to have quality medical aid for serious ailments suffered by him, advanced age, inadequate facilities in the hospital attached to the Taloja Central Prison, we are of the opinion that this is a genuine and fit case to grant relief; or else, we will be abdicating our constitutional duty and function as a protector of human rights and right to health covered under right to life guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution of India," said a division bench of Justices Sambhaji Shinde and Manish Pitale.
The bench has allowed Rao's relief on a surety of Rs 50,000 and a slew of conditions, especially one that doesn't permit the octogenarian activist to leave Mumbai. This means that he will have to stay in Mumbai and cannot fly back to his hometown in Hyderabad. He is also ordered to report to his nearest police station via WhatsApp video calling every week, to mark his attendance.
In their 92-page judgment, the bench refused to accept the contention of the NIA that since Rao is accused of serious charges, he should not get any leniency even on humanitarian grounds.
Rao was first sent to JJ hospital owing to his illness. He was then shifted to Nanavati Hospital after he contracted Covid-19 and was again sent back to jail afterwards. Later, he was again sent to Nanavati Hospital after his family highlighted serious lapses on the part of the Taloja Jail authorities.
Taking note of this sequence of events, the judges said they could not be "mute spectators".
"A prisoner is not deprived or denuded of his fundamental right guaranteed under Article 21, when he is confined within the four walls of a prison but in special circumstances, the walls of the prison can be breached to allow release of an accused from custody, subject to his being put to conditions which would act as a safety net to take care of the apprehensions of the state or prosecuting agency with regard to the availability of such a prisoner to face trial," the judges said.
"Taking any other view in the matter would amount to diluting rights available to prisoners to claim relief on health grounds, particularly when material available on record indicates that the continued incarceration of such persons would amount to endangering their life," the judges added.
Further, considering Rao's old age, sickness and infirmity, the judges said it indicated that "his continued custody would be incompatible with his health conditions and sending him back to Taloja Jail would amount to endangering his life, thereby violating his fundamental right to life."
The judges also noted that the Taloja prison was ill-equipped and lacked the infrastructure to monitor Rao's health.
"Prisoners of advanced age, like the undertrial who is about 82 years old, and such other prisoners suffering from various health ailments induced by old age when put beyond bars, certainly face the danger of their health conditions worsening and accelerating their journey towards the end of their life. This is an aspect which cannot be ignored," the bench said.
"Even if such aged prisoners with various health conditions are accused of serious offences, the question is whether they can be forced to live a subhuman existence behind bars only because they stand accused of serious offences? The answer has to be in the negative," the judges held, while noting the fact that the NIA is likely to examine around 200 witnesses in the case and is yet to frame charges against Rao and others.