Delhi University professor and rights activist GN Saibaba was released on “temporary bail” after 18 months of incarceration in solitary confinement in Nagpur Central Jail, Maharashtra. In an interview he says that his arrest and harassment throw up larger questions over the means and ends of counterinsurgency and the nature of the Indian State that uses the Maoist label to silence dissent.
by Deepti Sreeram
In 14 months of imprisonment, you have been denied bail four times. Now that you have got temporary bail, what do you see ahead of you?
Health is my priority right now. I am extremely weak now. Apart from a heart condition, I have several other ailments that have become worse during the period of captivity. A few of my organs are failing and if I don’t take treatment for it, I might not survive. I had never experienced anything like this and the government is to be blamed for it.
How did your family and friends cope with your absence?
When I was arrested, my mother, wife and daughter were given immense support and care, thanks to the friends I made in Delhi. The college where I teach also took care of the financial needs of my family. Many staged campaigns for my release and I see this as a great gesture on their part. So, in many ways, when I sat in my cell, I was at peace when I thought about my family.
How did the Delhi University administration respond to your arrest?
According to the rules of the Central University Act, when a professor is suspended, he is entitled to 50 percent of the salary for the first three months. Then it must be hiked to 75 percent. But, the DU administration, bypassing the rule, only paid me half the salary over 14 months. This affected me badly, especially when I have several loans. They would have also thrown my family out of the staff quarters if it wasn’t for the court order.
While you were in jail did your wife face any harassment?
You could have asked this question to my wife, but I can answer this, since I was a part of the ordeal that she went through. My house was raided for the first time on 12 September 2013. There were many police personnel on my premises. It was extremely difficult for my daughter, wife and mother to move around because they kept following them day in and day out. Noticing these intimidating tactics, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) chairman had told the police commissioner of Delhi, “No one should be planted before their house.” But, soon after my arrest, plainclothesmen began appearing before my house. My wife was followed and she received threatening calls. Whenever she carried books or stationary for me, the jail authorities wouldn’t allow her to give it to me. She would also try to come over to talk to me which they would stall as much as they could. Worse still, I never got the medicines that my wife brought for me. Both of us would remain unaware of this until her next visit. As a result of this, my wife also spent sleepless nights. In a way, my wife, along with me, suffered the same kind of torture and harassment.
There was news of your hunger strike in jail. Why did you choose such a course?
While I was in the prison, I had to write letters to the trial court seeking small facilities such as a toilet, a table, fruits and a cot. Considering my physical condition, I couldn’t sleep on the floor. Each time that I wrote a letter to the court, it always ruled in my favour. But none of the court rulings were implemented. Usually, inmates speak through the gap in their cell door. I couldn’t do that because of my wheelchair. So, the court passed an order allowing me to interact with visitors outside of my cell but within the jail premises. This was also not followed by the jail authorities. The only time they did anything in my favour was when there was a hearing over my bail application. Then, they used to provide me with whatever they can and take those things back as soon as the application got rejected. This happened to me over four times in a circular loop. In the month of April, my wife was not allowed to visit me. That is when I went on a hunger strike. In a week, I fell unconscious because I wasn’t having foods or medicines that I was supposed to have. Soon, I was admitted in a government hospital. Subsequently, the court passed another order to transfer me to a private hospital and even that wasn’t implemented. By the month of May, my condition worsened. It was then that the doctor, who treated me, trained adivasi boys (prisoners) at the anda cell to take care of me. These boys hailing from Chhattisgarh and Gadchiroli (Maharashtra) were taught first-aid techniques and they kept me awake every time I lost consciousness. This was also the time when the court passed an order asking the authorities to provide me with five helpers and an air-conditioner or a cooler. These ,too, did not happen. By then, my condition worsened. It was during this time that The Hindu published a report on my state of health and an activist, Poonam Upadhyay, whom I had never met or known, had emailed the chief justice, throwing light upon my sad plight.
This is by no means a comparison. But before you were abducted by the intelligence officials, a physically challenged jnu student, Hem Mishra, was also taken by the authorities due to his alleged Maoist activities. While you have had tremendous support and were even featured on the cover of a magazine, Hem Mishra was largely forgotten. Can one say that there are many such Hem Mishras in prison?
Hem is a brave boy. He was subjected to third degree torture in the jail for 28 days because he was asked to follow a script. They told him to confess that ‘Saibaba had Maoist links and was going to give them (Maoists) information.’ Even after being tortured to such lengths, I never thought someone would show such strength and bravery. I fully agree with what you say. I was in the cell for 14 months and given a temporary bail. Hem, who is 60 percent physically challenged, is in the cell for the past two years and he has not been given a bail at all. But, then again, if Hem went through 28 days of torture, imagine those neglected adivasi boys who were tortured continuously for 400 days! Which court allows the police to keep a prisoner in custody for so long? Nobody cares about these things.
In a 2013 affidavit filed at the Delhi High Court, the erstwhile UPA government had stated the following: “The ideologues and supporters of the CPI (Maoist) in cities and towns have taken a concerted and systematic propaganda against the state to project it in poor light. It is these ideologues who have kept the Maoist movement alive and are in many ways more dangerous than cadres of People’s Liberation Guerilla Army (PLGA).” Do you think that the State identifies you as someone who was trying to push forth the politics of the Maoist movement in urban spaces?
My protest against Operation Green Hunt had nothing to do with the Maoist movement. It was about fighting against genocide. I feel it is foolish to think of me as the ‘urban face’ of the Maoist movement. I think this idea of projecting me or Arundhati Roy as ‘urban faces’ is part of a larger conspiracy. All of us occupy autonomous places as intellectuals, writers and so on. In these spaces, we attempt to engage with whatever that comes our way. My study as a researcher and teacher tells me to engage with literature and read about various types of struggles. I think, as intellectuals, all of us must take part in people’s movements and study it. So by saying that we are ‘urban faces’ of the movement, the state is only trying to pull us down.
So then why did states such as Odisha and Andhra Pradesh ban the Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF)?
The RDF wasn’t talking about armed struggle in these two states. In Odisha, the conditions of the people were worsening day by day. At that time, the RDF had proposed people’s alternative model of development. For instance, we proposed small changes over the large ones of the government. For instance, we called for the construction of small dams instead of large, so that they do not displace people and create environmental disasters. Soon, people starting taking to us seriously and the miffed Odisha government banned us. In Andhra Pradesh, too, a similar story happened. Despite the imposition of such a ban, no RDF member was arrested over any activity in either of these states. But, in Delhi, a state where there was no ban on RDF, I, a member of the RDF, was arrested over my alleged Maoist activities. I was also transferred to the Nagpur Central Jail in Maharashtra, another state that had no ban on the RDF. So, in this case, the reasons that led to my arrest are obviously different.
You were under suspicion during the previous UPA regime. A week before the Modi government came to power, you were arrested. How do you draw a line between the two regimes?
(Laughs) I think you can tell me more about it as you were staying outside. I was kept in a cell for 14 months, so I don’t think I can analyse the present government. I wasn’t given newspapers to do that.