As citizens of India, we need to know what is happening to other Indians. We have the right to know what is happening to them. Why were these eleven Indians arrested? They are lawyers, academics, writers, poets – all supporters of the rights of Indian citizens; of freedom of expression as a fundamental right, as recorded in our Constitution. Nine of them have been in jail for almost two years. All eleven are now undertrials, still awaiting the charges against them in court.
One of them, Varavara Rao, 80 years old, became seriously ill. His illness was aggravated by the terrible living conditions in Indian prisons, not to mention the rank over-crowding in jails. Many national and international appeals were required, as well as his testing positive for Covid 19, before he was grudgingly given some medical attention; grudgingly, because he was accused of using the pandemic to get bail. Such a comment is unacceptable when applied to any senior citizen who has serious comorbidities and is infected with Covid 19 as well. We hear so much about the special medical care that has to be given to such senior citizens in hospitals, but obviously this is not applied where it needs to be.
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I am most upset by the way in which Varavara Rao has been treated. How can we condone such an attitude? Some are wondering, with much cynicism, whether this is now a version of a death sentence. Keep a senior citizen as an under-trial in jail, even if the jail is infected with coronavirus. Even if he is seriously ill, don’t allow him house arrest or release on bail. So, if he catches the infection, as Varavara Rao has done, there is a good chance that at his age the outcome may be predictable. We have been consistently warned that senior citizens are the most susceptible to the virus. We are constantly told that when they test positive for coronavirus they need to be treated with the utmost care and concern. Instead, a senior citizen is being accused of pretending to be ill, despite the medical tests that prove the seriousness of his illness.
We speak often enough of Indian society in the past being a civilized society. One has reason to believe that there was an ethic that may not have been applied universally, but such an application was widely discussed and, on occasion, practiced. Civilization was meant to nurture the idea that those in authority were people who were humane, and were sensitive to the human condition. Where are people like that now among those in authority?
Romila Thapar is an eminent Indian historian whose principal area of study is ancient India. She is the author of several books including the popular volume A History of India, Vol. 1. She is currently Professor Emerita at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.