How could a wheelchair-bound Delhi professor hatch plots with Maoist leaders deep in the jungle?

Polio patient GN Saibaba could pay for his participation in people’s rights campaigns by languishing in jail for years as the authorities drag out his trial. The author of this piece knows this well. He spent almost six years in jail for his activism.

Vernon Gonsalves
Gokalkonda Naga Saibaba’s shrug, wry smile and measured diction seemed so appropriate in the circumstances. “I have not done anything for which they should arrest me, but if they are hell-bent on doing so, do I have an alternative?” said the man who has been confined to a wheelchair because of polio. “Getting cowed down is hardly an option.”

It was a typically matter-of-fact reaction from a person who has long fought against diverse adversities and is today one of the country’s more prominent activists for people’s rights. Sitting across him, I seemed to see a slight hunching of the shoulders. No, they were not bending in defeat. Rather, it came across as the classical boxer’s stance. Was he mentally squaring off for yet another battle being thrust upon him?

I met with Saibaba, who teaches English at Delhi’s Ram Lal Anand College, almost exactly a month before he was arrested on May 9 from the Delhi University campus by a police team dispatched from Gadchiroli in north eastern Maharashtra. Only a few months earlier, I had myself been released after spending almost six years in Maharashtra jails under UAPA (the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) and had been invited to Delhi to speak of my experiences. It was at one of these meetings that met Saibaba, who was involved, among other causes, in campaigns to secure the rights of political prisoners.

As part of my own work relating to political prisoners, I had seen the chargesheet relating to the case in which his Delhi home had been raided on September 12, 2013, and for which he had been interrogated at length. The chargesheet was in Marathi, a language he did not understand and I agreed to sit with him to outline its contents.

Saibaba had been accused of hatching a criminal conspiracy with two Naxalite commanders, Narmadakka and Ramdhar, who are supposed to be operating deep in the forests of Gadchiroli. For someone like Saibaba, for whom movement without a wheelchair is impossible, the idea of even entering the dense Gadchiroli forests, leave aside sitting and conspiring with the Naxal commanders there, is a laughable proposition. This chargesheet, throughout its supporting statements of around a thousand pages, did not claim to have even a single witness or even any other evidence to suggest that Saibaba and these alleged absconding Naxal commanders had met, or even communicated through any other means.

As any police officer knows only too well, a charge or an accusation need not be proved at the time of detention. Just raising an accusation under a special law like UAPA of ideological opposition to the state is sufficient to obtain a remand. It is sufficient to brand political dissidents as criminals. It can also ensure denial of bail and a long spell in jail, while prosecutors deliberately delay the trial. If the accused are, after many years, acquitted and released, as I was after five years and ten months in jail, no police officer can be held to account for fabricating a charge-sheet which they themselves did not believe in the first place.

The proforma chargesheet provides a separate sheet for each accused and a column that lists the alternatives for “status of the accused” – Forwarded/Bailed by Police/In Police Custody/Bailed by Court/In Judicial Custody/Absconding/Proclaimed Offender. The Gadchiroli police chose not to tick off any of these options on Saibaba’s sheet. They merely stated quite ominously, “atakkarne baaki” – yet to be arrested. It was this statement of police purpose for which Saibaba was preparing himself.

In a statement to the Gadchiroli police on January 9 in Delhi, Saibaba had not shied away from admitting to his work as a joint secretary of the Revolutionary Democratic Front, which as he stated, “takes firm stands on different issues of the people” and “speaks the truth which is uncomfortable for the government”. His statement said he had initiated an International Campaign Against the War on People of India and that RDF also worked for political prisoners. In September, an activist named Prashant Rahi was arrested for his intensive work to secure the release of political prisoners. Saibaba knew that his work had made him a marked man too.

Saibaba was arrested exactly seven years and one day after social activist Arun Ferreira had been picked up in Nagpur under the directions of the same Anti-Naxal Operations Police Wing that arrested the Delhi professor. I couldn’t but help remind myself that it is just three months since Ferreira has managed to finally get himself cleared of all charges after a six-year, nine-month prison ordeal.

I’m well aware of the various methods employed by the police and police prosecuting machinery to delay the progress of cases – non-production of the accused in court, non-production of witnesses, non-appearance of investigating officers, late implication in further cases, until a final acquittal. I know it is only quite likely that Saibaba and the other accused in his case will be forced through a long process to prove their innocence and to reclaim their right to dissent.

As Saibaba and his colleagues take stance, I know I cannot leave them alone.


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