GN Saibaba, a wheelchair- bound English professor from Delhi University with 90 percent disability, has been lodged in the Nagpur Central Jail in Maharashtra since 10 May. The Maharashtra Police had arrested him a day earlier in New Delhi under various sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). To the police, Saibaba, 47, is the “urban face of the Maoist movement”.
Saibaba’s arrest has been criticised by human rights activists, who see in it portents of what awaits those who oppose the government’s anti-Maoist offensive.
The arrest comes almost eight months after a police team from Gadchiroli district of eastern Maharashtra raided Saibaba’s residence in Delhi University’s North Campus and seized hard drives, reading material and even his daughter’s cell phone. The raid had followed the arrests of rights activist Prashant Rahi and JNU student Hem Mishra last September from the Chhattisgarh capital Raipur and Balharshah railway station in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district, respectively.
The chargesheet against Rahi and Mishra was filed on 17 February. Saibaba was named as a co-accused in the case with a note: “yet to be arrested”. Questions are being raised over why the police waited until May, when the General Election was underway, before arresting him. Besides Rahi, Mishra and Saibaba, the chargesheet names three others from Maharashtra — Pandu Narote, Mahesh Tirki and Vijay Tirka.
On being contacted, Gadchiroli Superintendent of Police Suvez Haque asked TEHELKA to speak with Inspector General (Nagpur range) Ravindra Kadam. Kadam, however, was unavailable for comment.
Recalling the day of Saibaba’s arrest, his wife Vasantha says he had called her at 1 pm and said he would come home for lunch. “He didn’t turn up and by 2.30 pm, his phone was switched off,” says Vasantha. “Later, I got a call from an official claiming to be from the Maharashtra Police, who told me that my husband had been arrested.”
Then she went to the Maurice Nagar Police Station, where she learnt that the Maharashtra Police had been waiting with a non-bailable warrant since 9.30 am. “They picked him up a few hours later while he was on his way home. Clearly, they didn’t want him to get in touch with his lawyers,” she alleges.
Saibaba had been actively campaigning against the government’s anti-Maoist offensive, better known as ‘Operation Green Hunt’. Several New Delhi-based human rights activists have alleged that his arrest is an attempt to “stifle the voices that speak for civil liberties”.
“The UAPA enables you to ban an organisation and then criminalise anybody who stands up for a cause by claiming, for instance, that the person possesses literature linked to the banned organisation,” says Gautam Navlakha, a prominent human rights activist in New Delhi. “Anybody who speaks out against landgrab by corporates for mining could be on the list of those the State wants to silence through the UAPA.”
Speaking to TEHELKA last September, Saibaba had expressed apprehension over the police’s intentions. “They want to silence me as the home ministry has received thousands of protest letters against Operation Green Hunt, thanks to our efforts in the international arena,” he had said. “Even as Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh consults me on village development, his government sends the police, who lock me up in my own house for four hours.”
The Maharashtra Police had first written to Saibaba, asking him to come to Maharashtra for interrogation. But he had refused to do so, citing his disability. His friends say the arrest was expected.
On 15 May, Saibaba was suspended from his teaching job by the Delhi University authorities.
Saibaba, who had lost his legs to polio as a child and has a cardiac problem, has threatened to sit on a hunger strike if the jail authorities don’t provide for his special medical needs. He has also alleged that he is being kept in solitary confinement in a cell where he is unable to use the Indian-style toilet because of his disability.