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Saibaba – Interview with Vasantha Kumari by Jyoti Punwani

Why are they so afraid of someone who is 90% disabled?
Delhi University Professor G N Sai Baba was convicted on March 7 to life in prison under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act — UAPA — for being a member of a banned terrorist organisation, the Communist Party of India Maoist. The professor, who has undergone two spells of imprisonment in Nagpur jail as an undertrial, is 90 per cent disabled and wheelchair-bound. After his arrest in May 2014, he was released on interim bail on medical grounds in July 2015, only to be rearrested in December that year, and released again on the Supreme Court’s orders in April 2016.
Immediately after the conviction, the professor’s wife issued a protest statement that summed up her outrage. Two days later, Rediff.com contributor Jyoti Punwani caught up with Vasantha Kumari.
In between tending to a distraught mother-in-law and leaking taps in her Delhi home, Vasantha expressed her shock, bafflement and indignation at what she feels is a terrible injustice done to someone who has only fought for rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
Delhi home, Vasantha expressed her shock, bafflement and indignation at what she feels is a terrible injustice done to someone who has only fought for rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
Did you expect this conviction?
Not at all, I was shocked. There is nothing against him. We have been closely observing the trial. Sai Baba has been attending the trial despite his ill health. The prosecution had no concrete evidence. Whatever they took from our house — his computer hard disk, CDs, literature — was taken in an open bag, it was not sealed as it should have been under the rules. They produced letters signed by someone who they said was Sai Baba. But what’s the proof of that? The prosecution had only one independent witness, the rest were all policemen or officials. Even that witness testified that he had been forced to become one by the police. There were other reasons too, that made us hope he would be acquitted.In similar cases, where people have been convicted of being members of Maoist organisations, the Supreme Court has set aside the convictions, upholding freedom of thought. All this was pointed out by our lawyer. But none of his arguments are reflected in the judgment. The proceedings of the year-long trial find no place in the judgment. We were even bracing ourselves for a ‘guilty’ verdict, given the political climate.
In fact, they had posted so much security outside the court on the judgment day — that itself was an indication. But we thought the sentence would not be more than a few years, because of the lack of evidence. Sai Baba had already spent almost two years in jail. We never expected life.
What is his health like now?
Precarious. In fact, he had been discharged from hospital only on February 28, and advised 10 days’ bed rest. Doctors had ruled out travel. He had been admitted for breathlessness and chest pain, and was in the ICU for a day. They also found stones in his gall bladder caused by his first long spell of imprisonment. He was to have surgery to remove his gall bladder; there was a risk of infection of his pancreas.
We gave these reports to the court. Yet the court insisted that he be present for two hours as judgment was to be pronounced. His health has only deteriorated since he was first released on interim bail. Earlier he was mobile; he could move around on his own in his wheelchair. But his first stint in jail damaged the muscle and nervous system of his left hand and he could no longer operate his wheelchair.
Ever since he came out, he has been in and out of hospitals and physiotherapy centres in Delhi and Hyderabad. He has had breathlessness, lung infections, heart problems. Despite this, the court refused to pass an order directing the jail authorities to immediately provide him health care, medicines and attendants. The court asked our lawyer to make this application to the jail superintendent. But this very superintendent had denied him all this in his second stint in jail, despite court orders. We had to get a high court order to make him comply.
How did you cope with all this on 50% salary (Professor Sai Baba had been suspended from his college after his arrest and received only half his salary all this while)?
I appealed many times to the Ram Lal Anand college and the university that he be given 75% of his salary since we were all dependent on him — his mother, our daughter and I. But they refused.
Why is he being punished so severely? Did he do something while out on bail?
What could he do? He was too ill. Even I can’t understand, what’s his crime? Why are they so afraid of someone who is 90% disabled? Someone who is in front of you 24 hours, in college, teaching. He is not underground. He has not done any harm to anyone. Yet you give him life imprisonment. There are goondas roaming around the university campus, beating up women, you do nothing to them. There’s Aseemanand,  accused of planning bomb blasts and supplying RDX, who is acquitted.
It only means that the State cannot tolerate anyone who speaks up for the rights of the aam aadmi. Along with many others, Sai Baba raised his voice against State violence against Adivasis. It is this ideology they cannot tolerate. But even black laws like UAPA cannot wipe out our fundamental right to freedom of thought and freedom of speech — the Supreme Court has said this. The State cannot impose its ideology on citizens. This is supposed to be a democracy, but the democratic space to express yourself is shrinking.
In Bastar today, the repression is too much. If an Adivasi speak outs, the security forces can just shoot you. If you are a woman, they can sexually assault you, rape you, take away your brother on a false case, burn your village. But they can’t shoot Sai Baba for speaking out, so they have been harassing him for the last five years.
They have seen to it that his health is ruined and finally they have thrown him behind bars for life. What is his power? His capacity is only to write and speak. And his conviction cannot wipe out the thought he expresses. Everyone is speaking up against his conviction. Osmania University students held a press conference, Jamia Milia students are holding a public meeting. When he was on bail, wherever we went, students would come up to him and say, ‘Sir, we are ashamed, we have done nothing but you have fought. You are an inspiration to us.’ After his conviction, his students have been more inconsolable then I am.
How have his mother and your daughter taken the conviction?
His mother cries a lot. She has seen his physical condition since childhood, but was happy he had come such a long way despite it. But now she says she cannot bear seeing him suffer any more. She feels her heart will give way. My daughter is 19, but since the last five years, she has borne too much for such a tender age.
Your husband has paid a heavy price for his beliefs. Did he or you ever feel he could have simply kept quiet, instead of speaking out?
No. from childhood, in school, we have been taught certain values. We learnt that our Constitution says everyone is equal. We were told to respect the Constitution. That is what Sai is doing; he is not doing anything beyond the Constitution. What he learnt in school, that’s what he is implementing. Had he wanted to give up, he could have.
After they first took him away from home, they told him at the airport — ‘sign this paper, we’ll let you go.’ He did not know what was written on that paper, but he refused to sign it. Last year also, after they had denied him medical care and he had applied for bail, they had pressurised him. They had told him, it’s still not too late, you can be free if you just sign. But there is something like values. He teaches literature; that literature embodies certain values.
It is values that keep us alive. Would we able to live if we forsook them? There would be no difference between us and a corpse then.
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