Vasantha Kumari, wife of Prof GN Saibaba, on their shared life and struggle for an idea of India in which myriad political beliefs can coexist
At a south Delhi housing complex, Vasantha Kumari, wife of Prof GN Saibaba, waters the plants in her backyard in quiet reflection. Some of them, large tubs of month-old flower saplings, shoot up defiantly under the hot April sun. Gardening was something they loved doing together. The tubs hold vivid memories — him exerting himself on the wheelchair, insisting on sowing all the seeds, and her chiding him to rest instead. Days later, on March 7, he would be locked away inside the Nagpur Central Jail, to serve life imprisonment, after being convicted by the Gadchiroli sessions court under sections 13, 18, 20, 38 and 39 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and section 120B of the Indian Penal Code for connections with the banned Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF), an organisation allegedly affiliated to the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist).
A professor of English at Delhi University’s Ramlal Anand College, Saibaba became an icon of resistance, batting for the rights of adivasis. In some ways, his entire life can be seen as one long battle, course correcting a flawed system — whether fighting for reservation quotas, dignity for adivasis, against the State’s displacement policies , Operation Greenhunt — launched in 2009 — the all-out offensive in the Maoist strongholds of Chhattisgarh or for the release of those, like himself, who were falsely implicated under the draconian UAPA for affiliations with the Maoist party. What he fought for most, however, was an idea of India where myriad political beliefs could coexist, nipping imperialism in the bud.
On March 3, this year, 49-year-old Kumari and 48-year-old Saibaba completed 26 years of marriage. The professor is currently locked up in Kanpur Prison’s notorious anda cell (an egg-shaped enclosure typically used for dreaded criminals) for the third time since his first arrest in May 2014. In an interview to BLink, Kumari speaks of the fear and the trauma the couple has endured in the recent past and how the biggest fight for her is her husband’s immediate survival.
Tell me a bit about Prof Saibaba’s life and how you two met.
From when he was a little boy, he was interested in literature. That’s also how we met. Although we were in different schools in Amalapuram, Andhra Pradesh, we met during tuition class when we were in Std X. Saibaba belonged to a very poor family. Both our parents were farmers, but Sai’s family struggled even for three square meals a day. He suffered a severe attack of polio as a five-year-old and became 90 per cent disabled. Back then there weren’t any crutches or wheelchairs. He would wear slippers on his hands and crawl on all fours. His brother used to mount him on his bicycle and drop him at school.
He was always fond of Sarat Chandra, Tagore, Premchand, Sri Sri (Srirangam Srinivasa Rao) and other authors. We connected over our love for books.
Perhaps the interest in social issues began in St Johns Missionary School, where he studied till Std X. He was ranked district first in Std X and went on to get a scholarship. We both went to SKBR College in Amalapuram town. He studied BA honours in English literature.
When we were in college, the Mandal Commission report came out. We knew so little, but we instinctively felt the need to support reservation. It was only after moving to Hyderabad to study MA English that both our worlds expanded in every way. It was the first time he set foot outside Amalapuram. We met Prof Haragopal and Varavara Rao and through their gatherings and speeches, learnt about the State’s imperialist policies and people’s issues. We married in 1991.
Did he sympathise with the Maoist cause?
Whom can we label a Maoist sympathiser? If a State is hurting its people, we should defy the injustice of the rule. Even back in British times it was dissent that earned us freedom. In several parts of India, freedom is yet to be earned. The State continues to impose the same draconian rules in its jails and courts, veiling them under a blanket of daily injustice.
The British had the courtesy to listen to us. The Indian State coerces us to accept its narrow fascist leadership, wanting us all to hold the same anti-people beliefs. We have no right to speak or question its motives.
All the adivasi areas are rich in mining. The government displaces poor tribals in the name of development. Has the State ever asked them what sort of development they want? Is it development to burn their homes, kill their domestic pets, burn their grains, molest their women, chop the fingers of the children and kill them in false encounters? NHRC (National Human Rights Commission) testimonies show how molestation and rape terrorise Adivasi women. People live in fear of the police. If we don’t dissent such fascist rule, how will our nation’s freedom thrive?
Tell me about the relationship of Prof Saibaba with adivasis.
My husband is alive today because of adivasis. When they kept him in the anda cell, it was the imprisoned adivasis in the same barrack who took care of him. The prison authorities had initially left my husband alone in the barrack in a wheelchair. He was helpless, unable to get down or climb back up, bend and get his food or water, or go to the toilet. It was the adivasis who noticed all this and demanded that he be given help. They saw that his wheelchair was broken and his cot damaged. They arranged a bed for him, violating the rules. It was their passionate protests that compelled the prison authorities to assign two people to his cell.
Despite his disability he has been to Ranchi, Adilabad in Telangana, and a few other district headquarters, as part of the Campaign Against War on People, a support group of intellectuals, to listen to people from anti-displacement forums. He has never visited Bastar or Dantewada in his life.
Prof Saibaba has now been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment by the Gadchiroli sessions court after he was granted unconditional bail by the SC last April. What evidence did they find?
The one thing they have held him accountable for is belonging to the RDF, which challenges the anti-people policies of the government. The RDF believes that government policies are imperialistic and injustice must be stopped.
The court believes that RDF is affiliated to the Maoist party and, therefore, my husband has Maoist links.
My husband is a full-time professor, teaching in a government college, working on setting question papers, correcting answer sheets, giving lectures… and then you call him a Maoist mastermind opposed to Operation Greenhunt and sentence him to a life in prison?
The court charges say my husband stopped development in Chhattisgarh since 1982! Can you believe it?
The law is being misused. Bombay High Court took suo motu action and released him in July 2015. But suo motu action is supposedly valid only for six months. His bail was cancelled and he was back in prison by December 2015 until SC granted him unconditional bail in April 2016.
What have been the judicial loopholes so far?
At 2 pm on September 12, 2013, a 60-member joint police team from Maharashtra and Delhi police raided our house in North Campus. They had a search warrant from Aheri in Maharashtra. Prof Saibaba was suspected to have committed a theft in Aheri! We were hearing of Aheri for the first time in our lives. We don’t know, till date, what the robbed item was. The police kept us locked in a room. Then they ransacked the entire house without showing us the items they confiscated. They didn’t seal the items in a bag, nor did they take a witness signature. They denied us access to our lawyer or use of the phone. Laptop, hard disk and pen drives — they took them all without a seal.
They call this electronic evidence. How can this be evidence without a seal on the seized items or a witness signature? All 22 witnesses were police officers. As per law, police officers cannot be witnesses. Even when there was talk of electronic evidence being used for the first time, the trial court judge had said that the case was lodged in Gadchiroli, so any evidence should have been gathered in Gadchiroli for the case to hold.
As per international rules, a 90 per cent disabled person cannot be arrested. After those 14 months in Nagpur’s anda cell, his health deteriorated severely and 19 new health problems have emerged — hypertension, cardiac problems, thickening of heart valves, gall bladder stones and kidney stones… His hands used to be strong. Now, with all the strain and lack of medical treatment, his left arm muscles have been damaged and is now paralysed. There was unbearable pain and they denied him access to a jail doctor. Four weeks after discharge from Hyderabad’s CARE hospital on February 28, he was due for a kidney stone surgery. They have repeatedly denied him permission.
When did you know the State was closing in? Were you ever scared for him?
We were never scared because we never felt we were doing anything wrong. We lived by the Constitution, dissenting within the Constitution’s democratic rights. It is the State which is violating it, and that is when we questioned the its motive.
BD Sharma was always our inspiration. We both learnt a lot and protested alongside him for the rights of Adivasis. We have read all his books and learnt about all the ways the State is violating its own Constitution.
When Operation Greenhunt was underway, we were part of a campaign against it, along with Bela Bhatia, Soni Sori, Malini Subramaniam and several others. P Chidambaram (then home minister) had issued a threat in 2011, saying he wouldn’t spare even Delhi university professors who revolted against the State.
About fear, if you face this much repression, it is natural that you lose faith in humanity. His main worry is our well-being.
How are you managing financially?
We are facing harassment on all fronts. According to the rules, if a Central government employee is not released 72 hours after arrest, he is automatically suspended. Under suspension, he is paid 50 per cent of the salary for the first six months and 75 per cent thereafter, until conviction. Since May 2014, when he was first arrested, he has been paid only 50 per cent of his salary. It was never raised as per the law. With all the deductions it is hardly a fourth of his salary that we have to manage with. Our daughter is still completing her final-year English honours in the same college as her father. It’s been rough for all of us.
How are you two communicating? How is he coping in prison?
I met him on Wednesday (April 5) through jaali mulakat at Nagpur Central Jail. His health is very precarious. His blood pressure is abnormally high, but in his medical records the parameters are dubiously reported as normal. Sentences concerning his health, in letters written by him were struck out by Jail authorities. Previous health problems like stones, chest pain and breathlessness have aggravated in addition to pancreatic pain. Medicines are not given to him. He is unable to consume jail food. Letters written by my daughter and me were not handed to him, alleging they are coded. Newspapers he is allowed to read are cut and censored. The State’s repression has put Saibaba’s life at stake.
How did you celebrate your wedding anniversary ?
He asked me what I wanted for our anniversary (laughs). He wanted to buy me something. His health was so poor. Even financially we are struggling. He had to go to Nagpur by flight because of his health and I, by train. We didn’t expect his arrest a third time. All his bail time was spent going from hospital to hospital. His organs are slowly failing. Then, and even now, we were unable to think of anything beyond his immediate survival.