Indian Academic Suspected of Ties to Maoist Rebels Out of Jail – For Now

By Rohit Wadhwaney
150709-IN-saibaba-620 G.N. Saibaba (right) receives his doctoral degree from Indian President Pranab Mukherjee (left) at Delhi University, March 19, 2013.
Courtesy of G.N. Saibaba

Locked up for more than a year in a dingy prison cell without proper medical care, a wheelchair-bound university professor accused of links to India’s Maoist guerrillas is struggling to come to terms with his temporary release from incarceration.

On July 3, G.N. Saibaba was released from Maharashtra state’s Nagpur Central Prison after the Bombay High Court granted him a three-month bail on medical grounds.

His 14-month imprisonment has taken a heavy toll on Saibaba, a professor of English literature at Delhi University who has been suspended. He suffers from post-polio residual paralysis, a disease that has left him mostly disabled since childhood.

Temporarily freed from the notorious prison that exclusively houses hardened terrorists and Maoist guerrillas, Saibaba says he is having a hard time readjusting to life at his home on the university’s campus, knowing he’ll be back behind bars soon.

“My imprisonment has changed everything,” the 48-year-old told BenarNews. “The laughter in the family is gone, probably for good. My wife and daughter are happy I’m out of jail, but there is this constant tension that I will be picked up again.”

Saibaba’s release followed a petition lodged with the court by human rights activists, who had criticized his incarceration as unconstitutional.

“I’m aware of the charges he (Saibaba) is facing. But he is just an accused. And every prisoner, either accused or convicted, has rights. Especially in this case, where the accused is severely ill,”

Purnima Upadhyay, the activist who wrote a letter petitioning the court on the professor’s behalf, told BenarNews.

On June 30, the Bombay High Court granted Saibaba temporary bail and set his bond at 50,000 rupees ($789).

“We are satisfied that if Saibaba is not released on temporary bail for medical treatment, then there is a chance his life will be at risk,” the court noted in its ruling.

‘I had to crawl like an insect’

Before his arrest in May 2014, Saibaba could operate his wheelchair on his own.

But after his 14 months in prison – “more often than not in isolation” – the muscles in both his hands have degenerated, the professor said.

“Now, I cannot move without help,” he added, his voice quivering.

During the first month in prison, Saibaba was kept in complete isolation in cell that lacked a fan and a bed, by his account.

“There was no attendant to help me move around. I had to crawl like an insect to use the toilet, which was an Indian-style commode set against a wall,” Saibaba said.

After repeated protests and a brief hunger strike, prison authorities eventually put an iron bed in the cell, but it wasn’t disabled-friendly.

“A few days later they lodged a couple of tribal inmates in my cell who would help me move about,” Saibaba said.

Prison authorities ignored the court’s order to move Saibaba to a cooler room because of his fragile health.

Yogesh Desai, the superintendent of Nagpur Central Prison, gave “lack of a proper room for him in jail and security concerns” as reasons for not shifting Saibaba out of the cell, according to The Hindu newspaper.

“During the first 72 hours of my detention in Nagpur jail, I sat in my wheelchair without food. I wasn’t even told why I was being held,” he said.

‘Thick links with terrorists’: prosecutor

Saibaba was arrested by Maharashtra state police in New Delhi on May 9, 2014, Indian media reported.

According to the charges filed against him under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, Saibaba worked as an over-ground worker for the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist), providing logistics and help in recruiting cadres for the organization.

The Maoists, who have been fighting India’s central government for three decades, are active in the eastern part of the country. The Maoists – also known as Naxalites – say they are fighting to uphold the rights of poor farmers, tribes people and landless laborers.

Police said that at least four Maoist guerrillas in custody named Saibaba as their contact in the Indian capital.

One of the captured Maoists reportedly told police interrogators that he was a liaison between the professor and the guerrillas, The Hindu reported in May 2014.

“Mr. Saibaba, a part of the CPI (Maoist), entered into a criminal conspiracy with alleged Naxal leaders and helped them organised meetings. He was also in touch with arrested Naxals Hem

Mishra and Prashant Rahi, who were arrested in 2013,” Ravi  Kadam, the deputy inspector-general for anti-Maoist operations, told The Hindu then.

Last month, public prosecutor Sandeep Shinde tried to persuade the court not to grant Saibaba bail, arguing that the defendant could tamper with evidence and witnesses, and could be a flight risk.

"Data seized from the hard disk of his laptop and memory cards from two suspects who he gave are the same. He has thick links with terrorists," the Times of India quoted Shinde as saying.

The professor rubbishes the so-called “incriminatory evidence” against him, saying his arrest was an attempt by India’s previous government to stifle his voice against what he described as state-sponsored atrocities in India’s tribal belt.

Saibaba claimed he still wasn’t aware of the evidence police claim to have linking him with Maoists.

“Police said they had found press statements of Maoist leaders from my pen drive. They also claimed to have a letter I had written to a top Maoist leader. I’ve never been shown any of this evidence,” he said.

A champion for the poor

Nevertheless, Saibaba is an activist and outspoken critic of India’s ruling class.

His activism against the ruling class began in 2009, when the Congress party-led government launched Operation Green Hunt, a military offensive aimed at eradicating Maoists across the tribal belt that is known as the “Red Corridor.”

“Between 2009 and 2012, I had collected enough evidence to prove Operation Green Hunt wasn’t a mission against Maoist rebels, but an operation to kill or dislodge the tribal population togain access to the rich natural resources in these areas,” Saibaba said.

“I mobilized a group of public intellectuals under the name of Forum Against War on People, which turned into a national campaign against the military offensive.”

“We exposed the government’s real motive behind the operation in the local as well as the international press. Foreign firms began pulling out their investments from the tribal belt. That hurt the government badly,” he added.

On the afternoon of May 9, 2014, a group of plain-clothed policemen intercepted him as he was returning home for lunch.

“They dragged my driver out of the vehicle. They took away my computer and drove me to a police station. All this while, they told me nothing. The next morning, I was flown to Nagpur and presented before a judge, who sent me to prison,” Saibaba recalled.

He admitted that his experience over the past 14 months had left him “somewhat disoriented.”

Yet, he says, he remains a staunch believer in democracy and hopes that the “truth will prevail.”

“I’ve the support of my wife, my daughter and my colleagues and a good team of lawyers. I will fight through this,” he said.


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