INTERVIEW

'Why is the government afraid of me? I am 90% disabled... But I think, I write': GN Saibaba

'The State is filled with systemic violence which all of us have to resist,' says the DU academic, out on bail after 14 months in jail for suspected links with Maoists.

Dr GN Saibaba, an English professor at the Delhi University accused of being a part of the banned CPI (Maoist) is back home after 14 months of imprisonment in Nagpur central jail. The police first raided the wheelchair-bound academic's house on the university campus in September 2013 with the objective of recovering property allegedly stolen from Aheri in Maharashtra. They arrested him nine months later while he was returning from an examination centre in the university on May 9, 2014 accusing him under several sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

On July 3, the Bombay High Court granted him three months bail following reports of his deteriorating health condition in Nagpur jail. His trial is yet to begin.

Back at his home surrounded by his family members and his books, Dr Saibaba, who happens to be paralysed from his waist downwards due to polio since he was five years old, spoke fearlessly against what he described as the continuing repression of the state.

What has changed for you in the last 14 months while you were in prison?
Last 14 months, I saw even more clearly that the State has become security-centric. The State should work for the people, but instead it is only concerned about the security of the powerful. I was dealt with as a security threat because the government felt my ideas about natural resources, people's rights, are not conducive to the State, and thus I should be silenced. I am a teacher. I debate, I write, and because of this, the State feels threatened.

In prison, I wondered: Why is the government afraid of me? I am 90% disabled. The State knows that I cannot do much even with the Maoists. It is impossible for me. But I think, I write. This State thinks a person who has the courage to approach, see and describe the reality is a threat.

What are your views on insurgency, and on violence as a means to justice?
People do sometimes respond to situations with violence but you cannot categorise them only as violent or non-violent, it is not a helpful categorisation. Violence is present in the society, in its structure. For instance, the debate on rape fails to understand or question why is there violence on women's bodies, how to prevent this violence. We are not just a class society, we are a caste society, a patriarchal society. The State supports caste violence, communal violence.

In the Nehruvian era, the emphasis was on a liberal, welfare state. In a liberal state, violence levels would go down, people's welfare would be priority, but this is not happening. Instead, the State is filled with systemic violence which all of us have to resist.

What were the conditions in which you were kept in prison?
I was made to sit in my wheelchair and put on vehicles on a journey without a break for more than 72 hours from Delhi to Aheri till I was hurled into Nagpur central jail on May 11, 2014 at 2 30 am. At that hour, no jail officer was on duty. I was asked by the guards to sit in my wheelchair, which had broken by then, till the morning when the jail officer would come in. I was not able to go to the toilet, not able to eat. Later, I was placed in the “anda cell”, in solitary confinement.

From my cell, and during my visits to the prison hospital, I witnessed the torture of prisoners. Several inmates have developed mental illnesses over time, yet the autorities would handcuff them. They would try to fall to the floor, to resist being handcuffed with all the strength in their bodies. I protested at this treatment, refusing to take my life-saving drugs. When I did this, officials would pause for 30 minutes or so and resume again. I asked my lawyer to bring me copies of the Supreme Court judgements on treatment of inmates which I presented to the Inspector General, Home Secretary level officials when they visited the prison. When I pointed them to this torture of prisoners, undertrials, the officials would say torture is permitted in prisons. Then, what kind of a State have we created, I asked them.

I saw jail authorities routinely beat the inmates, fracturing their bones, dragging them on the floors. But the hospital officials treating them would not record it. If a villager or a tribal prisoner was found with a mobile phone, the jail authorities would hit him, tonsure his head, and parade him naked and make him sit in the open, handcuffed, without his clothes, the entire day. But the more experienced criminals operated 20 to 30 mobile phones each with the authorities' complicity.

Your supporters described your arrest as an abduction by the government. How and from where were you arrested?
On May 9, I was posted as the chief examiner at the university evaluation centre at Daulat Ram College. I was headed home in the car during lunch break. As the car approached a turn near the university stadium, suddenly about 45-50 persons came in front of the car, forcing it to a stop. Within seconds, a man had dragged my driver out and sat inside the car. I thought to myself, this is a road robbery. But they drove the car to the Civil Lines police station and ordered me to remain in the car as they snatched my mobile phone, the exam question papers. I then realised the 50 men were officials from the Maharashtra police, Andhra police, the Intelligence Bureau, the Special Branch dressed in plainclothes. I demanded a copy of the arrest warrant and wished to inform my family as per the law. They refused. Then one of them showed me the warrant. They were still keeping me outside the police station in the car. I said you must produce me before a magistrate. They said they were taking me to Nagpur. I repeated that they should produce me before a magistrate and take me into transit remand. I repeatedly asked to speak to my family as was my right. I take five life-saving drugs for my heart condition, I needed to go home to at least get my drugs, I told them, I could not have run away anyway in my condition. But they refused. In 45 minutes, I was taken to the airport.

At the airport, I managed to make a call home using the mobile phone of the attendant who was helping wheel me in to use a toilet for the disabled. My daughter picked up the landline and I quickly informed her that I was being taken to Nagpur. When we came out, the police officials found out since my daughter was trying to call back on the attendant's phone. Policemen beat up the attendant. They gagged me in my wheelchair.

You are out on bail for three months. What do you plan to do now?
The doctors have recommended immediate neuro-physical management of my muscles as my muscles are degenerating. I have not been able to lift my left arm since the last seven months. On the way to Nagpur, my wheelchair broke, and police constables would lift me like a sack of sand. In the Nagpur jail, I had no access to a western-style toilet. Guards would hold me by the shoulder and grip my arm for me to be able to use the toilet. This damaged my ligaments, my nerves have got damaged and a degenerative process set in. Since seven months, I have not been able to lift or use my left arm (he pointed to his left hand resting in his lap). My right arm is the only limb I have left functional now. My spinal cord has degenerated and my ribs have begin to push into my lungs. I am in pain right now, but I feel I must speak.

In the next three months, my priority is medical treatment. My second priority is to revise my manuscript on literary theory and Indian writing in English and get it published.

In the prison, my wife got me over 40 books to read in five visits. I taught myself Urdu and for the first time I read Ghalib and Faiz in the original script. I read several popular books I had wanted to read but hadn't so far – Grapes of Wrath, Gone With The Wind, on the American Civil War. I read Marx, Engels, Lenin again. The only books I did not read were by Mao (he smiles).

I managed to translate one of my favourtite books by my favourite writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Dreams In The Time of War set in rural Kenya, into Telugu. But in the prison, you are suspect if you write in your language, which others cannot read. I translated it but there's no way I could have brought the translation out.

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