NOTEBOOK

Political Illness at Jail Time

Chhagan Bhujbal at St George’s Hospital in Mumbai where he was admitted for a toothache
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Mysterious ailments strike down politicians in jails

AFTER SPENDING MORE than a month in the relative luxury of two hospitals, Chhagan Bhujbal finally returned to prison late Wednesday night. The Nationalist Congress Party leader who once served as Maharashtra’s Deputy Chief Minister was imprisoned earlier this year on money laundering charges. Bhujbal first checked himself in at JJ Hospital on October 28th, and then five days later, got himself transferred to Bombay Hospital, one of the best private hospitals at the southern end of the city.

Although Bhujbal was admitted to the hospital on the pretext of a medical test, it is said that two luxurious rooms were allotted to him. When asked why two rooms should be set aside for a single patient, the activist Anjali Damania, who has been pursuing the case against Bhujpal, replied, “God only knows.”

It is not just Bhujbal. Mysterious ailments strike down politicians in jails time and again. Blood pressures shoot up, strange fevers afflict, and very often, perhaps unsure of what ailment to suffer from, they begin to simply feel uneasy. Some years ago, the head of the Kerala Congress (B) party, R Balakrishna Pillai found that he was suffering from as many as nine diseases at the end of a parole term. Pillai had been sentenced by the Supreme Court to a year of rigorous imprisonment. But after having spent only 69 days in prison and as many as 75 days out of on various paroles, Pillai got himself admitted to a private hospital. He is alleged to have enjoyed ‘five-star’ facilities here, including a cellphone with which he could connect with his family and ministers. Pillai stayed on in the hospital, showing little signs of recovery for almost three months, until, with a few months left to complete his mandatory year in prison, the state granted him remission on the occasion of Kerala’s formation day. Since then Pillai has been sprightly and back in the thick of things.

Up north, the former Haryana Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala has been in and out of prison, either on bail or getting treatment at hospitals. In 2014, just before the Haryana state elections, he was supposed to be convalescing at a private hospital, but he was instead found campaigning across the state. Chautala, along with his son Ajay Singh Chautala, is serving a term of 10 years for being part of the 2008 teacher recruitment scam in the state. In 2013, when the Supreme Court ruled against one of his bail extension requests, it stated, ‘…the moment big personalities are convicted, they spend more time in hospital than in prison… Right from the beginning you are enjoying the hospitality at the hospital. At the end of the day there is an order of conviction against you.’ Just three months ago, Chautala was admitted once again—this time to Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in Delhi, and later to AIIMS.

This route of getting oneself admitted to a hospital, says Damania, has become a sort of template for imprisoned politicians. “Complain about your health and then move into a nice fancy hospital. It’s become like that,” she says. According to her, action needs to be taken against those colluding with these leaders to keep them in hospitals. “To be honest, it becomes so frustrating [for activists],” she says. “You spend years trying to get these leaders to book. And then, once they are imprisoned, they start faking illnesses. You begin to wonder if all this [pursuing of court cases against leaders] is even worth it. All they seem to need to do is to fake an illness and get out.”

After his arrest in March, Bhujbal spent about a month in prison before being admitted to St George’s Hospital for a toothache. Later some other unspecified health ailments were said to also be afflicting him. He was sent back to prison a week later. A few months on, he was checked into JJ Hospital, this time from September 17th to October 11th, on the alleged suspicion that he was suffering from dengue. Usually, as Damania claims, those who are under trial are treated in a high- security prisoner ward at JJ Hospital. But for Bhujbal, a special room in the medical students’ ward was made available. And during this period, a bevy of top dignitaries from different parties came to visit him, including MPs Supriya Sule and Praful Patel, Sachin Ahir and Pankaja Munde.

He was sent back to prison on October 11th. But just a few weeks later, Arthur Road authorities submitted a report to the PMLA (Prevention of Money Laundering Act) court claiming Bhujbal had been advised to do some medical tests. By October 28th, he was at JJ Hospital for two tests—Holter monitoring and Electrophysiological Study. And on November 2nd, he was at Bombay Hospital for a thallium test. Damania, who is a pathologist by profession, says, “I know for a fact that a thallium test is a simple procedure that can be done in [the Out Patient Department]. And yet Bhujbal was hospitalised.”

Damania filed an intervention application against Bhujbal in the special PMLA court for overstaying at the hospital a few weeks ago. Once Enforcement Directorate officials began to investigate the matter, Bhujbal returned to JJ Hospital a week ago, and now has been sent to prison. “The thing is,” Damania says, “I fear he might fall ill again.”