Due to polio, his legs are 90% disabled since he was five. But the authorities find him so dangerous that he has been denied bail by a Nagpur court twice. For over a year, jail authorities have denied him the special care he needs as a disabled prisoner with cardiac problems. As a result, his health is now failing. The jail doctor has ordered an angioplasty. Without the surgery he might suffer a heart attack.
Even with the operation, his life would still be at risk. His crime, as stated in the chargesheet, is a laughable proposition – the professor who had a busy academic life, and can’t move without his wheelchair, hatched a conspiracy with Naxal commanders in the forests of Gadchiroli.
I met Dr Saibaba in January last year as an MA English student at Delhi University. That semester he taught Raja Rao’s novel Kanthapura for an optional paper on Indian literature. For some reason, almost every student in my batch chose Latin and Greek studies over the Indian paper leaving me as the only student in the course. With his driver helping him move his wheelchair inside the disabled unfriendly campus, Saibaba had to come to the university to address a class of exactly one student. He was never late and he never missed a lecture.
Since it was just me and the professor in the class, the lectures were quite interactive. He often digressed from the course and a stipulated one-hour class could last for up to two hours. Saibaba viewed literature through a highly political lens. He had completed his PhD thesis on Indian writing in English, which had been picked up by a major publisher at the time.
Still unpublished, his paper was a damning indictment of most Indian English writers. Highlighting the elite social background of the authors, Saibaba scrutinises the bias in their writings from the perspective of the Indian poor, especially adivasis and lower castes. Born in a poor peasant family in Andhra and brought up in a neighbourhood of manual scavengers, his critique is remarkably original and authentic.
It was exactly this political stance that would put him in the infamous ‘Anda cell’ of Nagpur’s central jail. Without light or ventilation and with no one to assist him, he crawls on all fours to use the toilet. His condition puts immense pressure on his spinal cord, which has started to degenerate. He has lost the use of his right arm.
Last Wednesday, the Bombay high court issued notices to Maharashtra government and police seeking a report on the deteriorating health of Saibaba, taking cognizance of a media report on ailments the professor has acquired during his incarceration. This was followed by the order yesterday, permitting him to be shifted to a private medical facility, but under prison guard.
Saibaba has been charged under sections of Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Arundhati Roy has claimed that the persecution of Saibaba has less to do with the charges against him and is more about his opposition to ‘Operation Greenhunt’ – the military offensive started by the UPA government against Maoists in 2009.
Like many other activists, Saibaba saw the operation as an attempt to kill adivasis who were refusing to give up their land for big corporations. He helped organise protests in several cities and spoke against the operation in the international press. His ordeal started soon after.
Even more disturbing are the similarities between Saibaba’s case and that of Mumbai-based activist and cartoonist Arun Ferreira. Like Saibaba, Ferreira, who was acquitted of all charges last year, was also accused of being a Maoist leader. Not only was he arrested by the same Anti-Naxal Operations Police wing as Saibaba, it was also in the same manner, which could only be described as abduction. The cops appear in plainclothes and forcibly seize the accused, not bothering to produce a warrant.
Ferreira too was thrown in the Anda cell of Nagpur central jail, where he spent five years. After being declared innocent, Ferreira is now suing the Maharashtra government for Rs 25 lakh in damages. But Ferreira made it out alive. Can Saibaba survive five years in jail?
In a 2012 interview he gave to a Swedish publication Saibaba talked about his campaign: “From the year 2009 onwards Operation Green Hunt began, the Indian state’s genocidal war on the poorest of the poor in India … The biggest of the corporate houses from Europe and the US have deep interests in this area. But they know that their interest will not be served unless the people, hundreds of millions of people, are removed from their ancestral land.”
The issue here isn’t if one agrees with Saibaba’s politics. What’s happening to Saibaba is nothing short of an attempt at cold-blooded murder. And it implicates all those who refuse to intervene – the state, the media, the judiciary and you.