Why is Saibaba such a threat? Why do the songs of Kabir Kala Manch need to be silenced? It is because ideas have power 

Manisha Sethi Delhi 

Today, teachers from universities across the city of Delhi are sitting on hunger strike in solidarity with their colleague from Delhi University, Dr G.N. Saibaba. It will mark precisely one year since Saibaba was abducted by the Maharashtra police, literally plucked from his car, blindfolded, bundled and taken away, first to the Civil Lines Police Station, and thence to Aheri, and then Nagpur. A non-stop 72 hours ordeal. While it may come as no surprise to those familiar with detention practices of our police – D.K. Basu guidelines issued by the Supreme Court notwithstanding – what makes this even more perverse than usual is that Saibaba is 90 per cent disabled and wheel chair bound. He suffers from heart ailment and high blood pressure.  He was hauled through out the journey, from Delhi to the Aheri lock up, to the magistrate’s court to the solitary anda cell in Nagpur jail like a sack of potatoes, forced to spend the three days on his wheel chair. By the time he reached Nagpur, deprived of sleep, food, medicines, and even access to the toilet, Saibaba fell unconscious, his ears, nose bleeding.

What heinous crimes had Saibaba committed that necessitated this dramatic arrest and assault on his dignity and life? Saibaba has been charged under various sections of the anti-terror law, Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). To be sure, none of the sections (13, 18, 20, 38, 39) relate to any allegation of violence; instead they pertain to membership of a terrorist organization and support provided to such an organization.  Saibaba has been a bold and vocal critic of Operation Green Hunt, and a well-regarded figure on the question of democratic rights.

Under the UAPA, ‘intention’ of the suspect becomes central in condemning him/ her as a terrorist (“whoever does any act with intent to threaten or likely to threaten the unity, integrity, security or sovereignty of India…).   Moreover, the sweeping definition of ‘unlawful activity’ as “any action taken by individual or association (whether by committing an act or by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representation or otherwise)”, practically hands over to the government the power to criminalize any idea, thought, art or writing that challenges the dominant narratives of development, governance, and social inequality. Commission of violence thus has become peripheral to the charge of terrorism.  It is what you say, write, sing.

Citing judgments from across the world that maintain a distinction between active and passive membership of banned organizations – between sympathy for a cause and participation in an act of violence to realize that objective – the Supreme Court in State of Kerala Vs.Raneef, (2011), remarked“We are living in a democracy, and the above observations apply to all democracies”.

The Supreme Court may have been overly optimistic. Because routinely, before magistrates and judges, the state counsels argue how the recovery of books, magazines, computers, posters, songs and CDs illustrate the guilt of those accused of terrorism. The accused’s commitment to justice and equality are offered as incriminating evidence. And routinely, these magistrates and judges accept this fraudulent argument and deny bail to the accused. Is there any reason why Saibaba’s bail should be denied thrice, twice by the Gadhchiroli sessions court and once by the Nagpur Bench of the High Court, both on grounds of merit and health? Can one imagine a reasonable ground to deny bail to the Kabir Kala Manch singer Sheetal Sathe, eight months pregnant, who had voluntarily offered herself for arrest? Our courts can.

In what has become a revolving door of justice, one sees a set of accused entering the criminal justice system, charged under a readymade package of sections of UAPA (with some sections of IPC thrown in for variety), denied bail, suffering long periods of incarceration, finally acquitted to make way for another group of accused. In 2011, Sudhir Dhawale, editor of Vidrohi, and founder of Republican Panthers who had played a key role in organizing Dalits in the aftermath of the Khairlanji massacre, was arrested, again for Maoist sympathies. Dhawale was acquitted of all charges just days after Saibaba was abducted.

Arun Ferreira was arrested as a “dreaded Naxalite” in 2007. A total of eleven cases were filed against Ferreira: variously for blasting a police vehicle, arson, for assault, murder and firing on police party in Nagpur, Gondia and Gadchiroli – one of which was said to have occurred while Ferreira was in jail.  In fact Colours of the Cage, Ferreira’s memoir of the time spent in Nagpur jail would have disabused the magistrate who denied Saibaba bail on health grounds of any illusion that Saibaba would be looked after well in that jail.

Over the years successive governments have spawned the theory of over-ground Maoists, who are even more dangerous than guerrillas because they can invoke the promise of the Constitution and rule of law. Why is it that the day a new avatar of the Salwa Judum was inaugurated in Chhattisgarh (bear in mind that Salwa Judum had been declared both “illegal and unconstitutional” by the Supreme Court) and just days before PM Modi was to unveil steel and rail projects in the state, Inspector General Kalluri issued an ominous threat to ‘NGOs‘ offering legal aid to those accused of Naxalism. Lawyers appearing for poor adivasis rotting in jail are being criminalized.

Why is Saibaba such a threat? Why do the songs of Kabir Kala Manch need to be silenced? Why must Sudhir Dhawale be sent to jail? Or Arun Ferreira slapped with close to a dozen cases? It is because ideas have power. As George Orwell once said, in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

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