India: Varavara Rao Tests Positive for COVID-19 as Health Deteriorates in Jail

By Jakob Stein

On July 12, the family of Varavara Rao, revolutionary poet, president of the Revolutionary Democratic Front, and political prisoner of the Indian state, released a letter detailing the serious deterioration of his mental and physical health as well as demanding the government take immediate action to provide the necessary medical care to save his life. Since the letter was published, Rao was transferred to a hospital where the 81-year-old tested positive for COVID-19.

In the letter, the family mentions that “his health condition has been scary for over six weeks now,” and even though he had been hospitalized for three days, his condition had not improved since his discharge. Rao’s family also note that over the course of recent telephone calls, his speech was “incoherent” and that he would abruptly switch between Telugu (his native language) and Hindi, both of which are uncharacteristic and worrisome for a professional literary scholar and public speaker.

Additionally, Rao has suffered memory loss, hallucinations, and deluded thinking, and his physical state is so bad that he cannot even walk or use the bathroom on his own. Rao’s family closes out the letter by demanding that the Indian government relocate him to a hospital where he can receive adequate medical care or allow the family to provide him with it. These issues, coupled with the recent revelation that he has contracted the coronavirus, make the demand for his release all the more necessary and dire.

Rao’s family also note that his reason for imprisonment, alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate the fascist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is a fabrication. In fact, the only ‘evidence’ the reactionary Old State has against him is an email supposedly recovered from a police raid on progressive lawyer Rona Wilson’s home, which was signed by a Central Committee member of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), linking Rao to a plot to assassinate Modi. To those familiar with the methods of CPI (Maoist) the ‘evidence’ is clearly a forgery, as they communicate by much more clandestine means.

Rao’s nearly two year imprisonment while awaiting trial is meant as punishment in and of itself rather than a procedural measure, however this is nothing new for him. He has been targeted with arrest at least five other times, exclusively for his revolutionary democratic writings. One of his trials went on for 17 years before he was finally acquitted, and it should be noted that he has never been found guilty of a crime.

Based on the evidence available, it is unlikely that Rao will be found guilty of his current charges, and knowing this, the Modi government seeks to annihilate him while he is behind bars, denying him proper medical attention for weeks as well as denying appeals for bail in light of his health issues and the ongoing pandemic. The persecution he has faced throughout his life shows the weakness of reaction in the face of revolutionary ideas; because the reactionary old state cannot kill his ideas they seek to kill the man himself.

Below we reproduce the full letter written by the family of Varavara Rao:

“We, the family members of Varavara Rao, world-renowned Telugu revolutionary poet and public intellectual, who is incarcerated in Navi Mumbai’s Taloja Jail, are very much worried about his deteriorating health. His health condition has been scary for over six weeks now, ever since he was shifted in an unconscious state to JJ Hospital from Taloja Jail on May 28, 2020. Even as he was discharged from the hospital and sent back to jail three days later, there has been no improvement in his health and he is still in need of emergency healthcare.

The immediate cause of concern now is that we are very much perturbed at the routine phone call we received from him on Saturday evening. Though the earlier two calls on June 24 and July 2 were also worrying with his weak and muffled voice, incoherent speech and abruptly jumping into Hindi. As an eloquent and articulate public speaker and writer in Telugu for over five decades, a Telugu teacher for four decades and known for his meticulous memory, this fumbling, incoherence and loss of memory were in themselves strange and frightening.

But the latest call, on July 11 is much more worrisome as he did not answer straight questions on his health and went into a kind of delirious and hallucinated talk about the funeral of his father and mother, the events that happened seven decades and four decades ago respectively. Then his co-accused companion took the phone from him and informed us that he is not able to walk, go to toilet and brush his teeth on his own. We were also told that he is always hallucinating that we, family members, were waiting at the jail gate to receive him as he was getting released. His co-prisoner also said he needs immediate medical care for not only physical but also neurological issues. The confusion, loss of memory and incoherence are the results of electrolyte imbalance and fall of Sodium and Potassium levels leading to brain damage. This electrolyte imbalance may be fatal also. Taloja Jail Hospital is not at all equipped to handle this kind of serious ailment either in medical expertise or equipment. Thus it is highly required that he be shifted to a fully equipped super specialty hospital to save his life and prevent possible brain damage and risk to life due to electrolyte imbalance.

At the present juncture we are leaving aside all the pertinent facts like, that the case against him is fabricated; he had to spend 22 months in jail as an undertrial with the process turned into punishment; his bail petitions got rejected at least five times now and even the bail petitions with his age, ill-health and Covid vulnerability as grounds were ignored. His life is the top most concern for us right now. Our present demand is to save his life. We demand the government to shift him to a better hospital or allow us to provide required medical care.  We want to remind the government that it has no right to deny the right to life of any person, much less an undertrial prisoner.”