While COVID-19 patients across India are struggling to find hospital beds and ventilators in an escalating COVID-19 crisis, a notorious gangster secured a spot in India’s best government-run hospital.
62-year-old Rajendra Nikalje, known as Chhota Rajan, is serving a life sentence for murdering a journalist and faces nearly 70 criminal charges, including extortion and murder.
He was serving in India’s high-security prison Tihar Jail when he tested positive for COVID-19 on April 26 and was immediately transferred to the All India Institute of Medical Services, or AIIMS, in New Delhi.
The move has enraged many Indians who question the fairness of giving a convicted murderer immediate treatment in one of the country’s best hospitals while their loved ones, some in critical conditions, fail to find a hospital bed or oxygen.
The country has 255,168 oxygen-supported beds, according to India’s health ministry. But as at least 2 million Indians get infected with COVID-19 every week, patients have reported widespread shortage of both beds and oxygen supply at hospitals. India’s total reported infections have reached a staggering 18 million.
COVID-19-related deaths are climbing every day in India. According to the government’s COVID-19 tracker, 3,286 people died from COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing India’s total fatalities from the virus to more than 201,000. But experts say that the real death count far exceeds official figures.
Chhota Rajan’s transfer to a hospital came to public attention after Tihar Jail authorities told a court that the man could not attend a video conference hearing.
Prison officials confirmed his hospitalisation to the Hindustan Times, saying that Chhota Rajan had co-morbid conditions but declined to give any more information.
Chhota Rajan was in solitary confinement at Tihar, and prison officials suspect he may have contracted the virus from an asymptomatic guard. Sixty guards or prison officers have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last four weeks at Tihar. At least 170 of the prison’s 20,500 inmates have also been infected.
Known as one of India’s most dangerous underworld leaders, Chhota Rajan was arrested in 2015 after being deported from Bali, Indonesia. The gangster’s meteoric rise from a middle-class family to a top leader of India’s underworld is the subject of many Bollywood films.
His life sentence in 2018 followed a seven-year trial over the 2011 murder of journalist Jyotirmoy Dey. Chhota Rajan continues to face more criminal investigations. Last week he was acquitted of charges in connection with the murder of a man accused of instigating a series of bombings in India’s financial capital Mumbai in 1993.
The immediate medical attention given to Chhota Rajan contrasts with the treatment that most ordinary citizens in India are facing.
Twitter and Instagram are flooded with requests for hospital beds and oxygen ventilators. A teenager took to Twitter to seek medical help for her parents, who both tested positive for coronavirus but were unable to find a hospital bed despite life-threatening symptoms.
India’s apocalyptic second wave of COVID-19 has highlighted the extreme inequalities in healthcare access in the country.
Influential politicians and actors, including Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar, have been criticized for hogging precious resources by admitting themselves to private hospitals when they had only mild symptoms.
Some Indians have expressed concern about the security at the hospital where Chhota Rajan is being treated. Earlier this month, a gangster serving a life sentence in the eastern Indian state of Odisha escaped from a hospital after policeman who was guarding him was drugged.