Concerned citizens from all walks of life have written to the High Powered Committee comprising Justice AA Sayed,Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Sanjay Chahande, Director General of Prisons SN Pandey, Maharasthra urging them to temporarily release Advocate Sudha Bharadwaj and Professor Shoma Sen from Byculla Jail, Mumbai, due to rampant COVID-19 spread within the prison.

The letter reads:

Respected Sirs,

We would like to extend our appreciation of the directions made by you on 12.05.2020, liberalizing the conditions for the release of undertrial prisoners in Maharashtra jails, and also clarifying that those undertrials who are otherwise excluded from this category (including those who are charged under Special Acts such as UAPA, NDPS etc) are eligible to apply for interim bail, if they are over 60 years of age and/or suffer from other co-morbidities, and their cases will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

While this clearly benefits a large number of prisoners, it must be pointed out that the principles of natural justice do not permit discrimination between various categories of undertrial prisoners, who present the same vulnerabilities from the point of view of health and age. All undertrial prisoners are presumed to be innocent, even those booked under Special Acts, and hence, they must be given the same benefits of relief as those who are booked under other sections of the Indian Penal Code.

In view of the news of the spread of COVID-19 in Byculla Jail we request you to pass directions for the release of Advocate Sudha Bharadwaj and Professor Shoma Sen. They are inmates of Byculla Jail, falsely implicated for the Bhima Koregaon conspiracy. Ms. Sen was arrested on 6 June 2018 and Ms. Bharadwaj on 28 August 2018. (FIR. No.4/2018 at Vishrambagh PS, Pune in connection with Bhima Koregaon clashes).

The National Commission of Women’s recommendations for women prisoners dated 22nd April, 2020, include the urgent need to decongest the women’s prisons. The Commission asked for prison inmates to be released out on bail, as well as for the administration to ensure that hygiene standards are maintained. It is noted that “Any slackness on the part of the Prison authorities may result in the situation of prisons getting out of hand, posing a serious threat to the life of women inmates.” As per the news reports, the Byculla Jail doctor himself tested positive for COVID-19. Subsequently, a 54 year old woman inmate was taken to the hospital, at a time when her oxygen level had fallen below 90 percent, which is a major risk. This suggests that the prison authorities are not conforming to the rules laid down in the SC order Suo Moto Writ Petition (Civil) no 1/2020, and also may be neglecting the right to life of hundreds of inmates.

Ms. Bharadwaj is 58 years old, and has a history of hypertension, diabetes, asthma and tuberculosis. Since Coronavirus is a pulmonary disease, her history of asthma and tuberculosis makes her very vulnerable to COVID-19. Ms Sen, is 62 years old, suffers from high blood pressure, severe arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome and glaucoma. As courier services have not been working, her family has been unable to send her the regular medication she is on, causing her further distress and possible medical complications. Upon speaking to other inmates of the Byculla jail who were released on bail, we were told that there are over 50-60 people in one barrack, and no means to practice safe distancing. Hygiene is hard to maintain as there is not enough water supply to the prison.

Neither of the women is a flight risk, as they have both continuously complied with all the restrictions imposed upon them. Advocate Bharadwaj spent two months under house arrest before she was put in prison. A similar respect for due procedure was evident at her end when she was granted interim bail in order to visit Bangalore for 3 days for the last rites of her deceased father. Adv. Bharadwaj was a High Court Advocate and a visiting faculty at National Law University, Delhi. Prof. Sen was close to retirement as the Head of Department of English Department at the Nagpur University. Professor Sen is yet to be released on bail since the beginning of her judicial custody.

Ever since their arrest and subsequent incarceration, there has never been a complaint from the administration of the prison against them. It shall be a travesty of justice to push them into ill health, and endanger their lives. Prisons all over the world are relaxing the norms to ease out prisoners to maintain the population and hygiene standards in the prison. We urge you to uphold this humane example and protect the health and lives of undertrials. In these times of crisis, it is doubly important that the court provides due justice to these women.

We also take this opportunity to appeal to the HPC of Maharashtra, that they must consider the applications of all prisoners including all other political prisoners, within a perspective of a public health crisis as per the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court and their own orders. All cases must be examined adhering to the principle of equality before the law and equal protection before the law.

We would like to make another small request that till their temporary release can be secured, they should be at least allowed to make telephone calls as per rules and inform their families of their well-being. Advocate Bharadwaj has not been allowed to make even a single phone call in the last two months, despite a court order, while Prof. Sen was allowed only a 2- minute phone call to her daughter in the same period.

Please consider both our requests.

We are a total of 660 concerned citizens of India. We are