As the nation approaches yet another birthday, its seventieth, to be precise, this Independence Day, I am reminded of the letter that a dear friend of mine sent to his wife on her birthday (which also happened to be recently). She was kind enough to share that letter with many of us well-wishers – indeed, with the world, by posting it on various social media platforms (available at https://www.facebook.com/asvasantha/posts/10154865477967939).
It is a moving document, filled with (and filling its readers with) a deep, poignant sadness, and yet, suffused with a vision – a hope, a dream – that rings clearly, indomitably, through all the notes of sorrow, and weariness, and even despair. It is a testament as much to the sheer grit, endurance, faith, compassion, and generosity of heart of its writer, as to that of the people he refers to in his letter – in fact, the overwhelming majority of the people of India – the poor, the socially and economically excluded and oppressed, the marginalized and downtrodden, the abused, threatened and persecuted minorities…. And yet it is a letter that above all, reaffirms the writer’s commitment to his beloved, his love for her, his deep appreciation of her love and care, his pain at their being torn apart, his gratitude for their years together, and his conviction in their future together – it is, in short, a love-letter, greeting his wife with the only thing he can give her on her birthday – his own redoubled commitment to their love.
Who is this person, a puzzled reader might ask, and why is he so torn away from his wife that he cannot greet her on her birthday? And perhaps, above all, what is he doing writing about the poor and downtrodden of the nation, in his birthday greetings to his wife? Who does that??
An unjustly incarcerated man, serving a sentence of life imprisonment because of his commitment to those very poor and downtrodden – such a man does that. A man who has understood that the forces invested in keeping him in jail have suppressed public support for him substantially; a man whose consequent sense of loneliness has intensified to the point that he can share it only with his wife, whom he calls the ‘lone fighter fighting for [his] freedom’; and a man who nevertheless is so committed to the causes that have led to his incarceration, that he urges his wife to never give them up, whatever the consequences, and despite what has happened to him, so that their shared vision of a more just, humane, truly democratic society can be realized. For such a man, love cannot mean anything without this shared commitment, this shared vision, this indomitable refusal to give up – for such a man, his love for his wife is indistinguishable from his love for the people, and his commitment to her is no different from his commitment to his cause. And then, how can he write to his wife about their love and comradeship, without speaking of the very state that had violated those, when it separated the two of them so brutally?
Much has already come out in the news about Prof G N Saibaba, who was sensationally abducted from Delhi by the Maharashtra police in 2014, on charges of being a Naxalite, and subsequently found guilty and jailed for life. Much has also been written in the national press about the fact that Saibaba is 90% disabled, suffers from various chronic ailments including a heart condition, and that his health has been steadily deteriorating since his incarceration. His supporters have repeatedly pointed out, in the mainstream media, that even a cursory perusal of his charge-sheet, as well as of the adjudication, will reveal the absurdity of the charges against him; the gaping legal and procedural holes in the case; the baselessness of the judgement; and the complete injustice of the sentence. Nevertheless this alleged Maoist, apparently so dreaded that he will not even be moved to a hospital for medical care, continues to die a slowly accelerating death in Nagpur Central Jail.
I do not know if I will see my friend alive again, as a free man. The judicial process of review, going up to the Supreme Court, is a glacially paced, slow-grinding one. I fear that by the time the case reaches the Supreme Court, and a decision is made, the “anda cell” in Nagpur Central Jail will have claimed another victim. It adds to my sadness when I read his letter, and think of how he may never live to fight as a free man again, for the world he wants so passionately. It saddens me to think of the world as we know it without his grit and determination, his fierce commitment, his thoughtful decisiveness, his vision. I know it will be a vastly poorer world.
Saibaba had fought long and hard against the coming of that world – indeed, he had been gaining a reputation as one of the strongest voices in Indian civil society, especially against state repression and social injustice. been expecting knew his arrest was a possibility, before, that it. His very effectiveness in this fight was, as many of us – Saibaba included – began to apprehend, bound to provoke a strong reaction. When the Maharashtra police team came to interrogate him at his residence, we realized that our apprehensions were turning real; and when Saibaba was told by them that nothing would happen to him if he ceased all his political activity, our realization was confirmed. After that, we knew it was a matter of time before he was picked up by the state. We used to discuss the coming of this world, in which dissenting and protesting voices would be silenced, even through the extreme step of incarceration.
Saibaba is in prison now; unlike all we who sleep tonight though, secure in the belief that we aren’t, he knows he is in one. But the sad fact, with an irony far beyond the tragic, is that today, the terrorism of ‘national security’ has spread so much that people are slowly, voluntarily, allowing themselves to be imprisoned, in the belief that they need to be ‘secured’. And those who are not willingly walking towards their incarceration by ‘national security’, are being ‘imprisoned’ in various other ways, in ‘virtual’ prisons that they may not even be aware of. It is true that, unlike the ‘virtual’ prisons we occupy, Saibaba’s prison is real, its pain and isolation an everyday hell from which he may not be saved in time. But our ‘virtual’ prisons are far more insidious, as dangerous as Saibaba’s real one, and are being put in place systematically, incrementally, inexorably.
This ‘virtual’ prison system is taking shape as a complex, layered, integrated system of conditionalities, stipulations, pre-requisites, limitations and other such measures, that will monitor, regulate, control and sanction all social and economic relations, across the country. It is a system designed to enforce dependencies, especially financial and administrative, through which to thereby subjugate the populace. At the core of this, is the process of relentless privatization, through which the financial indebtedness of the populace will gradually become widespread and irreversible. This in turn will be facilitated and enforced by the state, through acquiring extensive and intimate information about each person, so that they are already always under continuous, perpetual surveillance. And this in turn is allowing the belief to spread that, ‘surveillance achcha hain’. (After all, in these achche din, if a daag can be achche, why not surveillance?!) This is the world that is tightening its glittering chains around the very people Saibaba fought so hard for. So, yes, of course, these ‘virtual’ prisons remain a far cry from the agonizing and life-threatening conditions that Saibaba himself is suffering in his “anda cell”, everyday. But what makes them as poisonous and lethal is the fact that we ourselves, its inmates, are being led to want it, and to want to perpetuate it, because its fetters – in the unforgettable words of William Blake – are ‘mind-forg’d manacles’.
I do not think his love for these people, his people, would lessen in any way, just because they too, are slowly succumbing to this world, where human voices will never wake them, and they will drown. Rather, I believe his sorrow will only increase, at the way in which a cynical, ruthless, unscrupulous, government can manipulate, deceive, and intimidate its own people into such a situation, where surveillance is a default setting, and in which being watched all the time is the only aadhar on which they can claim to be a part of this nation.
That is why today, as I read that letter again, I think of it not so much as a love-letter to his wife, on her birthday; but as a love-letter to the people of this country, on the eve of the birthday of the nation.
Prem Kumar Vijayan, Assistant Professor, Hindu College, Delhi