May 9, 2015, marks one year since Dr G.N. Saibaba, lecturer of English at Ramlal Anand College, Delhi University, was abducted by unknown men on his way home from work. When her husband went missing and his cellphone did not respond, Vasantha, Dr Saibaba’s wife, filed a missing person’s complaint in the local police station. Subsequently the unknown men identified themselves as the Maharashtra Police and described the abduction as an arrest.
Why did they abduct him in this way when they could easily have arrested him formally, this professor who happens to be wheelchair-bound and paralysed from his waist downwards since he was five years old? There were two reasons: First, because they knew from their previous visits to his house that if they picked him up from his home on the Delhi University campus they would have to deal with a crowd of angry people—professors, activists and students who loved and admired Professor Saibaba not just because he was a dedicated teacher but also because of his fearless political worldview. Second, because abducting him made it look as though they, armed only with their wit and daring, had tracked down and captured a dangerous terrorist.
The truth is more prosaic. Many of us had known for a long time that Professor Saibaba was likely to be arrested. It had been the subject of open discussion for months. Never in all those months, right up to the day of his abduction, did it ever occur to him or to anybody else that he should do anything else but face up to it fair and square. In fact, during that period, he put in extra hours and finished his PhD on the Politics of the Discipline of Indian English Writing. Why did we think he would be arrested? What was his crime?
In September 2009, the then home minister P. Chidambaram announced a war called Operation Green Hunt in what is known as India’s Red Corridor. It was advertised as a clean-up operation by paramilitary forces against Maoist ‘terrorists’ in the jungles of Central India. In reality it was the official name for what had so far been a scorched-earth battle being waged by state-sponsored vigilante militias (the Salwa Judum in Bastar and unnamed militias in other states). The mandate was to clear the forests of its troublesome residents so that mining and infrastructure-building corporations could move ahead with their stalled projects. The fact that signing over Adivasi homelands to private corporations is illegal and unconstitutional did not bother the UPA government of the time. (The present government’s new Land Acquisition Act proposes to exalt that lawlessness into law.)
Thousands of paramilitary troops accompanied by vigilante militias invaded the forests, burning villages, murdering villagers and raping women. Tens of thousands of Adivasis were forced to flee from their homes and hide in the jungle for months under the open sky. The backlash against this brutality was that hundreds of local people signed up to join the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) raised by the CPI (Maoist) who former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh famously described as India’s “single-largest internal security threat”. Even now, the whole region remains convulsed by what can only be called a civil war.
As is the case with any protracted war, the situation has become far from simple. While some in the resistance continue to fight the good fight, others have become opportunists, extortionists and ordinary criminals. It is not always easy to tell one group from another, and that makes it easy to tar them all with the same brush. Horrible atrocities have taken place. One set of atrocities is called Terrorism and the other, Progress.
In 2010 and 2011, when Operation Green Hunt was at its most brutal, a campaign against it began to gather speed. Public meetings and rallies took place in several cities. As word of what was happening in the forest spread, the international media began to pay attention. One of the main mobilisers of this public and entirely un-secret campaign against Operation Green Hunt was Dr Saibaba. The campaign was, at least temporarily, successful. The government was shamed into pretending that there was no such thing as Operation Green Hunt, that it was merely a media creation. (Of course, the assault on the Adivasi homelands continues, largely unreported, because now it is an Operation Without a Name. This week, on May 5, 2015, Chhavindra Karma, son of Salwa Judum founder Mahendra Karma, who was killed in a Maoist ambush, announced the inauguration of Salwa Judum-II. This despite the Supreme Court judgement declaring Salwa Judum-I illegal and unconstitutional and ordering that it be disbanded.)
In Operation No-Name, anybody who criticises or impedes the implementation of state policy is called a Maoist. Thousands of Dalits and Adivasis, thus labelled, are in jail absurdly charged with crimes like sedition and waging war against the state under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA)—a law which would make any intelligent human being bust a gut laughing if only the uses to which it is being put were not so tragic. While villagers languish for years in prison, with no legal help and no hope of justice, often not even sure what crime they have been accused of, the state has turned its attention to what it calls ‘OGWs’—Overground Workers—in the cities.
Determined not to allow a repeat of the situation it found itself in earlier, the Union ministry of home affairs spelled out its intentions clearly in its 2013 affidavit filed in the Supreme Court. It said: “The ideologues and supporters of the CPI (Maoist) in cities and towns have undertaken a concerted and systematic propaganda against the state to project it in a poor light...it is these ideologues who have kept the Maoist movement alive and are in many ways more dangerous than the cadres of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army.”
Enter Dr Saibaba.
We knew he was a marked man when several clearly planted, hyperbolic stories about him began to appear in the papers. (When they don’t have real evidence, their next best option—tried and tested—is to create a climate of suspicion around their quarry.)
On September 12, 2013, his home was raided by 50 policemen armed with a search warrant for stolen property from a magistrate in Aheri, a small town in Maharashtra. They did not find any stolen property. Instead they took away (stole?) his property. His personal laptop, hard disks and pen drives. Two weeks later, Suhas Bawache, the investigating officer for the case, rang Dr Saibaba and asked him for the passwords to access the hard disks. He gave it to them. On January 9, 2014, a team of policemen interrogated him at his home for several hours. And on May 9, they abducted him. That same night they flew him to Nagpur and from there drove him to Aheri and then back to Nagpur with hundreds of policemen escorting the convoy of jeeps and mine-proof vehicles. He was incarcerated in the Nagpur central jail in its notorious ‘Anda Cell’, adding his name to the three hundred thousand undertrials who crowd our country’s prisons. In the midst of all the high theatre, his wheelchair was damaged. Dr Saibaba is what is known as “90 per cent disabled”. In order to prevent his physical condition from further deteriorating, he needs constant care, physiotherapy and medication. Despite this, he was thrown into a bare cell (where he still remains) with nobody to assist him even to use the bathroom. He had to crawl around on all fours. None of this would fall under the definition of torture. Of course not. The great advantage the state has over this particular prisoner is that he is not equal among prisoners. He can be cruelly tortured, perhaps even killed, without anybody having to so much as lay a finger on him.
The next morning’s papers in Nagpur had front-page pictures of the heavily armed team of Maharashtra Police proudly posing with their trophy—the dreaded terrorist, Professor pow, in his damaged wheelchair.
He has been charged under the UAPA, Sections 13 (taking part in/advocating/abetting/inciting the commission of unlawful activity), Section 18 (conspiring/attempting to commit a terrorist act), Section 20 (being a member of a terrorist gang or organisation), Section 38 (associating with a terrorist organisation with intention to further its activities) and Section 39 (inviting support and addressing meetings for the purpose of encouraging support for a terrorist organisation.) He has been accused of giving a computer chip to Hem Mishra, a JNU student, to deliver to Comrade Narmada of the CPI (Maoist). Hem Mishra was arrested at the Ballarshah railway station in August 2013 and is in Nagpur jail along with Dr Saibaba. The three others accused with them in this ‘conspiracy’ are out on bail.
Another of the serious offences listed in the chargesheet is that Dr Saibaba is the joint secretary of the Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF), an organisation that is banned in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh where it is suspected to be a Maoist ‘front’ organisation. It is not banned in Delhi. Or Maharashtra. The president of RDF is the well-known poet Varavara Rao who lives in Hyderabad.
Dr Saibaba’s trial has not begun. When it does, it is likely to take months, if not years. The question is, can a person with a 90 per cent disability survive in those abysmal prison conditions for so long?
In the year he’s been in prison, his physical condition has deteriorated alarmingly. He is in constant, excruciating pain. (The jail authorities have helpfully described this as “quite normal” for polio victims.) His spinal cord has degenerated. It has buckled and is pushing up against his lungs. His left arm has stopped functioning. The cardiologist at the local hospital where the jail authorities took him for a test has asked that he be given an angioplasty urgently. If he does undergo an angioplasty, given his condition and the conditions in prison, the prognosis is dire. If he does not, and remains incarcerated, it is dire too. Time and again the jail authorities have disallowed him medication that is vital not just to his well-being, but to his survival. When they do allow the medicines, they disallow the special diet that is meant to go with it.
Despite the fact that India is party to international covenants on disability rights, and Indian law expressly forbids the incarceration of a person who is disabled as an undertrial for a prolonged period, Dr Saibaba has been denied bail twice by the sessions court. On the second occasion, bail was denied based on the jail authorities demonstrating to the court that they were giving him the specific, special care a person in his condition required. (They did allow his family to replace his wheelchair.) Dr Saibaba, in a letter from prison, said that the day the order denying him bail came, the special care was withdrawn. Driven to despair, he went on a hunger strike. Within a few days, he was taken to hospital unconscious.
For the sake of argument, let’s leave the decision about whether Dr Saibaba is guilty or innocent of the charges levelled against him to the courts. And let’s, for just a moment, turn our attention solely to the question of bail, because for him that is quite literally a question of life and death.
No matter what the charges against him are, should Professor Saibaba get bail? Here’s a list of a few well-known public figures and government servants who have been given bail.
On April 23, 2015, Babu Bajrangi, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the 2002 Naroda Patiya massacre in which 97 people were murdered in broad daylight, was released on bail by the Gujarat High Court for an “urgent eye operation”. This is Babu Bajrangi in his own words speaking about the crime he committed: “We didn’t spare a single Muslim shop, we set everything on fire, we set them on fire and killed them—hacked, burnt, set on fire.... We believe in setting them on fire because these bastards don’t want to be cremated. They’re afraid of it.”—‘After killing them, I felt like Maharana Pratap’ in Tehelka, September 1, 2007
Eye operation, huh? Well maybe on second thoughts it really is urgent that he replace the murderous lenses he seems to view the world through with something less stupid and less dangerous.
On July 30, 2014, Maya Kodnani, a former minister of the Modi government in Gujarat, convicted and serving a 28-year sentence for being the ‘kingpin’ of that same Naroda Patiya massacre, was granted bail by the Gujarat High Court. Kodnani is a medical doctor and says she suffers from intestinal tuberculosis, a heart condition, clinical depression and a spinal problem. Her sentence has been suspended.
Amit Shah, also a former minister in the Modi government in Gujarat, was arrested in July 2010, accused of ordering the extrajudicial killing of three people—Sohrabuddin Sheikh, his wife Kausar Bi and Tulsiram Prajapati. The CBI produced phone records showing that Shah was in constant touch with the police officials who held the victims in illegal custody before they were murdered, and that the number of phone calls between him and those police officials spiked sharply during those days. Amit Shah was released on bail three months after his arrest. (Subsequently, after a series of disturbing and mysterious events, he has been let off altogether.) He is currently the president of the BJP, and the right hand man of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
On May 22, 1987, 42 Muslim men rounded up in a truck by the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) were shot dead in cold blood on the outskirts of Hashimpura and their bodies were dumped in a canal. Nineteen members of the PAC were accused in the case. All of them were allowed to continue in service, receiving their promotions and bonuses like everybody else. Thirteen years later, in the year 2000, 16 of them surrendered (three had died). They were released on bail immediately. A few weeks ago, in March 2015, all 16 were acquitted for lack of evidence.
Hany Babu, a teacher in Delhi University and a member of the Committee for the Defence and Release of Saibaba, was recently able to meet Dr Saibaba for a few minutes in hospital. At a press conference on April 23, 2015, that went more or less unreported, Hany Babu described the circumstances of the meeting: Dr Saibaba, on a saline drip, sat up in bed and spoke to him. A security guard stood over him with an AK-47 pointed at his head. It was his duty to make sure the prisoner did not run away on his paralysed legs.
Will Dr Saibaba come out of the Nagpur central jail alive? Do they want him to? There is much to suggest they do not.
This is what we put up with, what we vote for, what we agree to.
This is us.