Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took the reigns of power in New Delhi in 2014, assaults on public intellectuals, humanists, rationalists and secular forces have reached a feverish pitch. By the time the BJP completed its fourth year in office, prominent public figures such as scholar Govind Pansare, academic MM Kalburgi and journalist Gauri Lankesh were murdered by “unidentified assailants”.
As we write, Maharashtra Police made five fresh arrests of rights activists, including the veteran Telugu poet Varavara Rao, and raided the homes of journalists and scholars across India.
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In June 2018 alone, five Dalit rights activists, including a lawyer and a professor were arrested for allegedly inciting violence against the very Dalit community (“untouchable” castes) they represent. These arrests were made under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which enables the prosecution of Indian citizens merely on the basis of their ideology and thoughts, not necessarily for any actual crimes they might have committed.
In addition to this legalised persecution, dozens of Muslims and Dalits were subject to live burnings and public lynching by the so-called “cow protection” vigilante groups, most notably in the BJP-ruled states of Maharashtra, Haryana and Gujarat.
But perhaps the most astonishing case of all would be the arrest and life imprisonment of the wheelchair-bound professor, GN Saibaba, for his alleged connections with Maoist revolutionaries.
The 827-page verdict delivered by the Gadchiroli District and Sessions judge reads more like an extension of Franz Kafka’s epic novel, The Trial, riddled with senseless details about how five hard disks, 30 CDs and DVDs, and three pen drives recovered from Saibaba’s home were labelled, stored and transported by various investigative authorities, with barely a legible sentence on the actual crime committed by the accused.
The only passage that holds some credible meaning is the judge’s own lack of faith in his judgment: “The imprisonment for life is not a sufficient punishment to the accused, but the hands of court are closed with the mandate of Section 18 and 20 of UAPA”.
And the only crime committed by GN Saibaba is the possession of the above-mentioned “digital devices”, which consisted of some “Maoist literature and documents” and, by association, were adequate enough to prove his “digital” links to the Maoist revolutionaries operating in the remote jungles of East and Central India.
Yet, on the basis of this “literary” evidence alone, the Sessions judge came to the unmistakable conclusion that Saibaba is a “member” of the Community Party of India (Maoist).
Not only do these charges have little or no factual basis, but they render themselves impossible to any logical or rational substance given that Maoists are banned revolutionaries who operate discretely and anonymously, often using aliases and longhand notes to communicate internally.
They rarely use mobile phones or other “digital devices” and it is highly doubtful that they have equipped themselves with a printing facility in the jungle to produce membership cards and go about distributing them like marketing vouchers.
A “membership” with such a closed organisation, especially for an outsider, is a highly subjective, self-pronounced association based on one’s political views and ideological proclivities. But even if we assume that Saibaba is a “member” of the Maoist party, as the Kerala High Court has reasserted in an erstwhile case in 2015, it is not a crime in itself, unless the activities of the “member” in question are unlawful.
The Supreme Court of India went even further to censure the law enforcement authorities for randomly arresting people for possessing Maoist material, issuing a directive that owning Maoist literature does not make one a Maoist, no more than owning a copy of Gandhi’s autobiography makes one a Gandhian!
Be that as it may, if Saibaba’s crime is worth life imprisonment in solitary confinement, then we need to go no further than the fraternity of Bollywood stars and Indian politicians to get a glimpse into the Janus-faced justice system in India.
Maya Kodnani, a cabinet minister of Gujarat in 2004, was convicted in 2012 for orchestrating the massacre of 97 Muslims, including 36 women and 35 children in Naroda Gam and Naroda Patiya in February 2002.
Ironically, Kodnani was the Minister for Women and Child Development at the time of these killings, and was seen by the witnesses at the crime scene distributing swords to the Hindu mobs. For the brutal killing of 97 people, some of whom were butchered, mutilated, and even burned alive, she received a generous 28 years of imprisonment by a lower court. In April 2018, the Gujarat high court overturned the sentence. Kodnani walks free.
Salman Khan, a popular Bollywood star, was acquitted in a 2002 hit-and-run case after the testimony of his bodyguard, who stated that the actor was driving under the influence of alcohol when his car rolled over five homeless men sleeping on the pavement, was mysteriously deemed unreliable in an appeal 13 years later.
Sanjay Dutt, another chest-thumping star, who was charged for the possession of illegal arms that were used in the Mumbai blasts in 1993 – killing some 300 civilians – received a mere five-year sentence, and was released on “good behaviour” after serving only three and half years, excluding numerous paroles, special family visits and a month-long furlough to look after his ailing wife.
While these three cases were dragged on for years, Saibaba’s case was wrapped up in a record time of three years. And luckily, these important personalities were not in possession of objects as lethal as “Maoist literature”, but just swords, AK-56s, explosives, and SUVs that roll themselves over innocent bystanders.
But for a man whose sole crime was to own “digital devices”, even if he is 90 percent disabled, suffering from some nineteen other diagnosed illnesses, the same justice system shows little compassion to grant a bail.
Reiterating these concerns, the United Nations Human Rights Office of the Commissioner issued an unequivocal statement: “We would like to remind India that any denial of reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities in detention is not only discriminatory but may well amount to ill-treatment or even torture”.
Efforts to put Saibaba behind bars started in 2013 when the Maharashtra police approached the Aheri Judicial Magistrate to obtain a “search warrant” to see whether some “stolen property” from their state could be found in Saibaba’s house in another state in New Delhi.
The alleged property theft had occurred some 760 miles away from where Saibaba lived. On September 12, 2013, 50 police personnel and intelligence officials raided Saibaba’s house on the University of Delhi campus.
Under the pretext of recovering “stolen property”, they confiscated Saibaba’s laptop, hard disks, pen drives, CDs and mobile phones. During his interrogation, Saibaba fully cooperated with the police authorities, even providing them passwords to all his personal electronic devices.
But little did the professor know that his research material, teaching notes and political writings would be used as evidence for his alleged links with the Maoists.
On May 9, 2014, when Saibaba was returning home from his office, policemen in civilian clothes obstructed his car just 200 metres away from his house and detained him.
Since then, the state agencies have launched a systemic media campaign against Saibaba, painting him as the face of the so-called “urban Maoists” – an utterly senseless label given that there is no such thing as “rural Maoists”, even if the latter appear to be the state’s preferred enemy, to say nothing of the “jungle Maoists”, “slum Maoists” or “suburban Maoists”.
If that is not enough, referring to the five Dalit Rights activists arrested on June 6, 2018, India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley came up with an even more creative label, “half-Maoists“:
Willingly or otherwise, they become the over-ground face of the underground. They are a part of the democratic system. They masquerade as activist; they speak the language of democracy; they have captured the human rights movement in several parts of the country but always lend support to the Maoist cause.
If speaking the language of democracy or “capturing” human rights movements automatically translates into lending support to the Maoist cause, then the authors of this opinion piece should be called “quarter-Maoists”, “non-resident Maoists”, if not “cosmopolitan Maoists”.
But such endless streaming of prefixes to Indian Maoism by the state-sponsored Indian media has all but a single-minded, foregone agenda: to cast out anyone who questions state atrocities against Adivasis (India’s tribal people) – be they academics, environmentalists or Dalit activists – as “urban Maoists”.
Like the “polluted” Dalits who were ostracised from the village proper to preserve the “purity” of the Brahminical castes, Maoists have become the new untouchables of India, whose very ideological proximity to one’s pedestrian views or private thoughts is enough to label him/her as their card-carrying member.
In Chattisgarh alone, this ostracising campaign has reached such contagious proportions that when 10 tribal men, alleged sympathisers of Naxals – a vernacular term for Maoists – were killed by the state police in 2010, a bench of Supreme Court judges went on record to say that: “First, you say that operations are conducted against Naxals, then Naxal sympathisers and then sympathisers of such sympathisers. What is all this?”
GN Saibaba is a glaring victim of this systemic campaign to outcast Maoism from the civic and public spheres of debate, discussion and dissent. How else could we explain his incredible transformation from a child of illiterate peasants to a force so fearful and lethal that a small-scale army of “2000 police persons, 100 vehicles, and 20 land-mining clearance machines” was mobilised just to escort him from police station to court? What was his crime? What are the weapons of his choice?
The mineral wealth upon which some 20 million Adivasis have settled from time immemorial is the major bone of contention. Their capital worth, as speculated by the Indian corporate elite, is $1 trillion. The easiest way to acquire this treasure trove is by bulldozing the Adivasis.
GN Saibaba came into the media limelight in early 2010 when he began to speak against the notorious military offensive Operation Green Hunt launched by the Indian state in November 2009. Its aim was to crush the Maoists, but the prize of it would have been the 55,000 hectares of mineral-rich Adivasi land, known variedly in the paramilitary’s shorthand as “Pakistan” or “Red Corridor”.
But it is not that GN Saibaba became an overnight sensation. He had a long history of championing issues of social justice and civil coalition movements. In 1997, he became the General Secretary of the All India People’s Resistance Forum. In 2004, he co-organised the Mumbai Resistance, which showcased alternative forms of civil society resistance to the World Social Forum.
But why was Saibaba drawn to issues of civil and social justice in the first place? Is it so inconceivable that someone born into a “backward caste” family, who lost every inch of their three acres of farmland to the moneylenders, added with the burden of physical impairment, is drawn to the struggles and suffering of Dalits and Adivasis?
Is it so intolerable that Saibaba, a professor at a publicly funded university, chose to teach, speak and research on civil rights movements, tribal resistance and Maoist revolution?
Spare a thought for his colleagues at Delhi University, who risked their own careers to launch a sustained campaign against Saibaba’s imprisonment, some of whom indeed became the targets of repeated harassment, various disciplinary actions and suspensions by the university administration. And the process of outcasting many members of Saibaba’s Defence Committee as “urban Maoists” is already under way.
Not because these members sympathise with Maoism, but simply because they sympathise with someone who is allegedly sympathetic to Maoist views. The Brahminical logic triumphs yet again: one becomes “polluted” not only because one comes in direct contact with an “untouchable” person, but also because one touches someone who has allegedly touched an “untouchable” Dalit!
When the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen spoke in support of Binayak Sen – a physician and a civil rights activist, who is currently facing life imprisonment under the same sedition law which was used to silence Saibaba -, the Indian intellectuals in the West applauded his courage for questioning the shirking democratic values in India.
But the same intellectuals who offered the world various intellectual optics of postcolonial theory and subaltern studies, built on the histories and struggles of peasants, tribals and Dalits, have remained eerily silent about the persecution of a disabled public intellectual who literally crawled his way from a remote south Indian village to the elite educational institutions in India because he couldn’t even afford a wheelchair.
The figure of Saibaba is indeed one of a crawling creature whose dignity is being incrementally stripped away by the prison authorities who refuse him access to a special-needs toilet, medical treatment and spousal visits and haul him in and out of police vehicles like a piece of baggage.
Saibaba now sits in Nagpur Central Jail, in the solitary confinement of the notorious Anda (egg-shaped) cell with 360-degree surveillance, disabled from below the waist, enabled by his only functioning hand, and doing what he knows best – putting his pen to work:
The closure of my voice within me exploded my crippled body from each of my organs. One after the other, my organs started bursting. The silence within me explodes into shooting pain. My vocal cords acquired lesion making my voice a thin and inaudible shrill. My heart broke with Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy. My brain has started having blackouts with a condition called syncope. My kidneys are silted with pebbles; gallbladder gathered stones and pancreas grew a tail of pain called pancreatitis. Nerve lines in my left shoulder broke under the conditions of my arrest, named as brachial plexopathy. More and more organs of silence replaced the original. I have been living with explosive and shooting pain day in and day out. I am living on the margins of life.
A 10 percent able body. A “half Maoist”. Full life sentence. A slow and screaming death, organ by organ.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.