Yesterday, the 9th of May, one day after the court granted what must be the fastest bail and suspension of sentence in the history of India to India’s favourite Dabangg, a diminutive woman stood under the blazing Delhi sun and spoke of her husband who had been in jail for the past one year. In May 2014, lecturer in English at Ramlal Anand College, Delhi University, G. N Saibaba was returning home after evaluating answer scripts when he was abducted by unknown men, who later identified themselves as Maharashtra Police.
Saibaba was not produced before a magistrate in Delhi but taken directly to Aheri, a small town in Maharashtra and then to Nagpur, to be put in solitary confinement in the famous anda cell of Nagpur jail. Let’s call this cell famous instead of the usual epithet “notorious” because all over the country, children are probably playing with each other right now saying to each other, “saale main tujhe anda cell mein daal doonga“, while their parents look on indulgently, congratulating themselves on the kid’s excellent G.K.
It’s an abiding shame that we all hear of the anda cell like it’s the product of the particular genius of the Indian criminal justice system, when it is no different from the thousands of cruel and childish schemes drawn up by governments to torture their own populations from time immemorial. In the case of Professor Saibaba, the torture involves simply doing nothing, as Dr. Nandita Narain of the Delhi University Teachers’ Association reminded us yesterday. Sai as he is called by friends is 90% disabled, and has since the age of five required physiotherapy and constant medical attention to be functional. His wife Vasantha told us yesterday that the manner of his transportation to Nagpur a year ago resembled the handling of inert baggage, since that is what Sai becomes without his wheelchair, paralysed from the waist down. He was thrown around, his wheelchair twisted and broken, pushed and hauled until he ended up in the anda cell, to be left to crawl to the toilet not 48 hours after he was squinting at bad answers in the evaluation centre at Delhi University.
Over the past year, without the support of his special wheelchair and physiotherapy, Saibaba’s spine has bent perilously, squeezing his ribcage and lungs and indirectly causing high blood pressure, and the full loss of functioning in his left arm. As a mild sufferer of kyphosis or deformation of the spine, I know from experience the pressure even a small misalignment can put on the heart and lungs. Saibaba has also developed kidney and gall bladder stones during his incarceration. In April this year the jail doctor recommended angioplasty. If the jail authorities do nothing, Saibaba may die of a heart attack. If they perform the surgery, he may still die of post-operative infection in a hospital where large rats roam around brazenly, Dabanng like Sallu bhai. Not to mention the conditions in his cell, where despite the lies (as fat and well-fed as the rats) uttered by the police in front of the magistrate, conditions are near-fatal for somebody in Professor Saibaba’s condition – extreme heat, no assistance for movement, denial of critical medicines and medical attention when needed. Congratulations to the Indian state for meticulously maintaining such “facilities” as to make actual torture of a physically infirm prisoner unnecessary. By the way, there is a law (Section 437 of the CrPC) that stipulates that somebody with even HALF the physical infirmity of Saibaba can be tried at home and never have to be imprisoned. But Ernest Renan told us a hundred years ago that the favourite weapon of a nation is careful forgetting.
But torture? How can you torture a criminal? Actually, you can. The police does it all the time. But G.N Saibaba has not even been convicted. So he is technically an under-trial, not a criminal. No, don’t partially shut your moral and ethical shutters when you hear the word under-trial as you tend to do. Under-trial. The Oxford dictionary retains the hyphen between the words unlike Indian usage, so if you type the words together, it shows up in spellcheck. The separation of the words reminds us that under-trial means exactly what it means. A man who the state thinks is guilty, and is bound by law to prove the crime. Innocent until proven guilty. Under-trial is NOT convicted-of-crime. But let’s go further and discuss the undiscussable – the alleged crime of G.N Saibaba. The actual crime as Arundhati Roy has written so effectively, is of protesting Operation Green Hunt, and of forcing the state to stop violations of its own constitutional rights by holding public meetings investigating murders by illegal “counter-insurgency” outfits like Salwa Judum. The success of human rights campaigners in this effort during UPA II had made Chidambaram look criminal – remember the sudden disavowals of Operation Green Hunt? All that Sai and his colleagues were saying to the government was you must bloody follow the law. Your own law, not mine or my brother-in-law’s.
In the ultimate irony, or perhaps not irony at all, but in the ultimate conclusion of the logic of those events back in 2010-11, Sai has himself become a victim of human rights violations by the state. In September 2013, police raided his house on the basis of an arrest warrant for stolen property in Aheri, Maharashtra. That property was never recovered but the police took away his laptop and hard drive, unsealed. They later asked him for his passwords which he gave, having nothing to hide. On the basis of these events, the police constructed a case that is as always embarrassing in its gratuitous overreach. Saibaba has been charged under the UAPA, Sections 13 (taking part in/advocating/abetting/inciting the commission of unlawful activity), Section 18 (conspiring/attempting to commit a terrorist act), Section 20 (being a member of a terrorist gang or organisation), Section 38 (associating with a terrorist organisation with intention to further its activities) and Section 39 (inviting support and addressing meetings for the purpose of encouraging support for a terrorist organisation.) He has been accused of giving a computer chip to Hem Mishra, a JNU student, to deliver to Comrade Narmada of the CPI (Maoist). Hem Mishra was arrested in August 2013 and is in Nagpur jail while the three others accused with them in this ‘conspiracy’ are out on bail.
If forgetting is routine in the case of under-trials (over 3,00,000 of them in the country’s jails) then it is mandated in the case of under-trials of alleged “Maoists”. The ethical shutters down with a resounding clap when somebody puts “alleged” and “Maoist” together. And the state knows how to allege Maoism like the back of its large and spreading hands. As Roy reminds us, the truth behind this “deadly terrorist professor” is very, very prosaic – Saibaba displayed exemplary courage in pursuing the rights of those Indian citizens caught in the protracted state-Maoist war. He is being punished for that “crime”. In any case, whatever his alleged crime, Saibaba is an Indian citizen and deserves to be tried under the laws appropriate for citizens. The same laws that got Salman Khan, Maya Kodnani, Amit Shah, Babu Bajrangi and Sanjeev Nanda bail, some even after conviction. Follow due process of investigation, arrest, trial, conviction and sentencing on the basis of real evidence, not stories conceived in the police’s fevered imagination. It’s a scandal that this even needs to be said, but then this is a week when so many of the rich and powerful are reacting “emotionally” to Sallu’s impending jail time, now permanently deferred of course. Vasantha broke down just once yesterday speaking of her husband who may not make it out alive, his crime not even having been proved yet, reminding us that emotions too, like hundreds of other necessities, are luxuries that this democracy reserves for its Dabanggs.