The first thing one notices about human rights activist and former Delhi University professor GN Saibaba is the dignified strength in his eyes and his voice as he speaks.

Saibaba was released from Nagpur Central Jail on March 7 after seven years of incarceration for allegedly having links to the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).

He waged an arduous legal struggle for the better part of the last decade, ever since being first arrested in May 2014.

After being convicted in 2017, Saibaba, who is differently abled and uses a wheelchair, underwent a torrid time in prison, denied adequate medical care and dignified living conditions that has left him visibly frail and with a host of medical conditions.

He was placed in a high-security “anda cell” meant for solitary confinement and lost his job as assistant professor at the Delhi University’s Ram Lal Anand College.

Most strikingly, even after being discharged by the Bombay High Court in 2022 for the lack of sufficient grounds for criminal proceedings against him, Saibaba’s release was stayed the very next day by the Supreme Court. Ultimately, another bench of the High Court acquitted him earlier this month.

Scroll met Saibaba and his wife Vasantha Kumari at their residence in Delhi.

Edited excerpts from the interview.

How does it feel to be out of incarceration after so many years?
Initially, I never expected to be incarcerated for so long. Before conviction, I was in prison for 17 months out of a total period of three years. After conviction, exactly seven years in prison. That is more than eight and a half years out of the last ten years.

Even if somebody is guilty of a crime, that is a huge punishment. But in our case, without any rhyme or reason, we were incarcerated for such a long time. Perhaps no one outside also expected me to undergo such an ordeal for such a long time. The course of the law has become a punishment itself.

After the first release order came, I had to again spend roughly one and a half years in prison and get a release order again. Perhaps this has never happened before in Indian criminal justice history.

Without crime, this is the punishment for such a long period. And I don’t know of any other person who had to undergo two separate hearings of an appeal against a conviction in a constitutional court. This is unheard of.

One cannot help but think: why is it happening like this in this country at this juncture? That’s a big question.

How is your health right now?
Ten years ago when I was arrested, I only had residual effects of polio. My legs were affected by polio. Otherwise, I was healthy. I was doing everything on my own, even though I was in a wheelchair. I would help Vasantha. I would move around quite freely without much awareness of being a disabled person.

After I was thrown into prison, everything changed in my life.

First, I got a brachial plexus injury. The nerve system that connects the shoulder with the brain was broken due to mishandling by the police while I was kidnapped and arrested. That affected my shoulder completely. I cannot lift my left hand. I cannot do anything with it. I cannot hold a book.

Because of the nerve system that was damaged, the shoulder muscles were also affected. Because of the dragging and the injury, my left side ribs got crowded. The crowded ribs crushed my lungs. That touched my heart, which in turn affected the left side of my heart. And my spine is affected because of the ribs being crushed into a small space.

The whole side of my body is affected. The last ten years, I have been experiencing shooting pain in my left hand and left leg. Because the nerve system and muscles were damaged, my left shoulder is completely frozen.

Due to the left lung being affected, sleep apnea started. From my nose to the lungs, the breathing track got affected. This has caused obstructive sleep apnea. I cannot sleep properly because of that.

I have acquired a heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy which was not detected in any medical test before I was pushed into prison. As a result, the left side of my heart is functioning with only 55% capacity.

High blood pressure started because my heart’s walls couldn’t pump blood properly into my body.

During the course of these ten years, I developed a cyst in my brain. It’s not very serious at present, but it could turn malignant at any time.

They also found stones in my kidneys because of my restricted life and difficulty in movements without the possibility of exercise or any bodily activity in prison. Though the stones dissolved, cysts formed in the right side kidney.

I have developed gall bladder stones because of lack of eating for long periods of time. This led to pancreatitis.

The list is endless. All these diseases have developed in prison. By the time I was out, there was no proper medical treatment in all these ten years. So I’m suffering from multiple illnesses.

I have to take medical treatment now. It all depends on how much now, after such a long time, can be treated and how many organs remain affected and could be treated. This we will have to see.

In the next few days, Ill be in hospitals for screening and getting treatment. We don’t know how long it will take and how much can be treated.

Why were you not able to get adequate medical treatment in prison? Why were you not given medical bail?
Bail on medical grounds was rejected by the High Court twice but it was written in the order rejecting the bail that I should be given regular and proper medical treatment.

But the prison authorities neglected it and violated the order. Though they sent me to Nagpur medical college several times, it was just customary and cursory. You just go and come back. It shows that they are trying to give treatment but there was no treatment.

If you look at my medical records, you’ll see how medical treatment is being dodged and no medical treatment is provided. At the end of the day, just before I’m being released, every department wrote that [a particular treatment or medication] is not available, we cannot do this, it’s available somewhere else. Why is it that the doctors are writing this at the end of ten years that they could not treat? They should have mentioned this ten years ago.

They did not do anything except giving me painkillers and putting me to sleep. If the treatment was not available with them at the beginning of ten years, they should have written so and should have asked to shift me to a particular hospital where the treatment was available.

What were the biggest challenges you faced in prison? How did the prison staff and inmates behave with you?
Prison inmates were very helpful to me. They were very kind. They wanted to be with me all the time, though I was in anda cell where only very few – less than 10 – could interact with me when I was not locked up.

The kind of image the prison authorities and the state machinery were trying to give was that I was some kind of dreaded terrorist – an international Maoist mastermind. All kinds of epithets were used to terrorise the prisoners and prison officials and jail jawans. They wanted to keep me isolated.

They didn’t say all these things in front of me. But if a jawan was coming for duty to the anda cell, he would be told in advance – you don’t talk to this person. You keep away. Don’t spend time with him. We have instructions from above that this man is very dangerous. He will change your brain and you won’t even know.

The prisoners were also told behind my back to not go to me or spend time. Higher officials spread these things and instructed people accordingly.

However, none of this was believed by jail jawans or by prisoners. They were always with me. They always wanted to learn from me and spend time with me. That is why whatever the efforts made from above by prison authorities, they were never realised. The prisoners and jail staff understood what kind of person I am. They loved talking to me.

There was a lot of gap between what the authorities wanted to do to me and what actually happened there.

But because the prison is a 19th century British-made structure, there was no accessibility or comfort or minimum facilities to live like a human being. Everyone had to live in subhuman conditions. And I had to live with much more restrictions – less than subhuman – because my wheelchair doesn’t move, people had to carry me to the toilet, people had to take me to the bathroom in their arms lifting me.

I felt that my dignity was violated. My humanity was attacked. It was a disgrace to humanity itself the way they have created conditions and the way they forced me to live. You have to struggle to continue life.

How did you spend time in prison? How did you keep abreast with developments in the outside world?
Vasantha sent me books. I used to buy at my own cost English newspapers. Apart from that, Vasantha sent me printouts from digital media portals and she used to write me letters informing me what is happening outside. That is the only way out.

There’s a mulaqat [meeting with visitors] but it’s very short. You can just wish each other formalities, by which time it is over. The only way was letters by Vasantha and all the material that she sent – perhaps a thousand books she carried over the years all the way, every time from Delhi to Nagpur. After reading, she carried the books back. She always strove her best to feed me with information, knowledge, books, and magazines. That was the only way I could know the happenings outside the four walls.

One book I liked very much was Prayaag Akbar’s Leila. And then, among the latest ones – KR Meera’s Assassin, I liked among fiction.

I read philosophy too. I liked the economic philosopher Thomas Piketty. I read his recent books Capital and Ideology and A Brief History of Equality.

Among the historians, I read from DD Kosambi to the latest historians – Upinder Singh and Nayanjot Lahiri. Romila Thapar as well.

I read a wide variety of books – from science to science fiction. The Song of the Cell is a recent book I read.

GN Saibaba and Vasantha Kumari at their residence in Delhi. | Vineet Bhalla

How did you keep your spirits up during such trying times?
Every day I used to read, write and teach the prisoners around me. I filled every day with activity and would keep busy from morning till evening doing all this.

In the prison, all the prisoners require petitions to courts. From the Supreme Court to the High Court to sessions court to magistrate’s court. But only a handful of people could write. Anyone who could write in English was in high demand. I spent most of the time also preparing these petitions.

There were so many people who didn’t get bail for a long time and didn’t have a lawyer. You had to write petitions for them and then they would send it and get some relief. This was another activity that took a lot of time.

You were arrested for supposedly having extremist views. What exactly is your worldview and your ideology, and has it changed in any way over the last ten years?
My ideas and my belief system is the same as when I was a student and is the same today. There is absolutely nothing to change.

Those who are calling these ideas extreme are extremists themselves. Who are these people calling someone a terrorist? We have to see why are they doing it and why they are calling me a terrorist.

I am in public life. I spoke extensively. I wrote extensively. I conducted my life as a public figure. Everyone knows what I am. To believe in humanity and in social progress, is that an extremist view?

Do you in any way regret advocating for marginalised communities or associating with certain people or certain organisations? Now that you are free after such a long time, will you resume your advocacy work that you were engaged in earlier?
I am basically a teacher. After that, along with it, I am a human rights defender. I believe that anyone who gets an opportunity to understand the world and the surroundings around them and grasp the marginalisation processes and the marginalised sections have the responsibility to speak for them and stand by them. If we are not doing that as responsible citizens, we are perhaps not doing what we should do in our lives.

It’s not only that I believe I should do this work. I believe that everyone who has any kind of opportunity and advantage over those people who are marginalised and kept marginalised should do this work. This is something which cannot be branded as this or that and cannot be stopped.

My work was and is legitimate. I work in the public sphere. Despite my disability, I have carved out a space for my work for people. I have no regrets.

I was not arrested or branded as a terrorist because my work was wrong. The powers that be are afraid that I may bring out the truth of how some people are marginalised and how marginalisation is continuing. They don’t want this work to be continued. This is why I was put behind bars for such a long time.

You are a teacher. What about your career now? Have you applied to the Delhi University to reappoint you? Are you looking at teaching positions elsewhere?
My lawyers are handling this. I would like to wait and see what the lawyers and university administration can do.

Since I have been a teacher all my life, I would like to continue as a teacher till my last breath. The lawyers and my colleagues are working to see what should be done in this regard.

You were arrested by the Maharashtra police when the Maharashtra government was run by the United Progressive Alliance led by the Indian National Congress. Two years back, when you were discharged by the Bombay High Court, an immediate appeal was filed by the Maharashtra government, run by the National Democratic Alliance comprising of the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Even now, the Maharashtra government, run by the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party, has appealed against your acquittal. It seems that both the largest national political parties are against you.

Do you have any faith in any political party? While you were incarcerated, did any political leader reach out to you to help you?
Within the prison, no. But outside, there are many individual MPs. Communist Party of India General Secretary D Raja, Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, Annie Raja of the CPI. Many MPs from the South, Bihar and Bengal spoke against this from across all parties, perhaps except the ruling party in a state or at the Centre at that time. Most of them have spoken and written publicly in my support. They wrote petitions within and outside the Parliament.

It is not that all political parties branded me in one particular way. I was arrested a few days before the last phase of the Lok Sabha elections in 2014. I am being released now that before another Lok Sabha election. A full ten year circle has been completed.

I don’t know which political parties have which views. But individual MPs, individual MLAs, certain parties completely spoke against the arrest and they know what kind of injustice was done to me and what were the reasons for which this kind of case I was booked and implicated in.

The scenario is complex and not black and white. There are grey shades, there are bright colours, there is a spectrum of colours. We cannot say that all political parties ganged up against me and other co-accused in the case.

When you were discharged in 2022, the very next day the Supreme Court stayed your release in a special hearing. How did you feel when all of this happened, when you got to know that you were to be discharged before that was taken away? Are you afraid that the Supreme Court might cancel your acquittal?
I already told you that this process of being released twice is a rare process. I asked senior lawyers also if something like this has happened before. Nobody could cite a similar case.

I never lost hope that I would get justice. Though justice was delayed and justice is denied by delay, I was hopeful that one day one can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I don’t have any fear or any suspicion that the higher judiciary would ultimately stand on the side of injustice. So I have no apprehensions about being jailed again.

I know that these things happened due to particular historical developments that happened in India in the last decade and the kind of pressure the judiciary is going through. That is why I describe this as a test.

When the Supreme Court ordered a stay on my release in 2022, I was sure that this stay would not sustain because legally it was not viable. The stay itself was unprecedented in legal history. But that particular judgment discharging us was legally valid and sound.

When the process of law goes wrong and it was established by a constitutional court, there was no need for another constitutional court to look into what was put as evidence. When the process itself was wrong, no facts can be admitted and they cannot be correct. That discharge order was based on Supreme Court judgments itself and on criminal jurisprudence developed over decades and decades of the work of the Supreme Court.

How can the Supreme Court negate the development of its own criminal jurisprudence? I wasn’t convinced that the stay would sustain. But I am happy today that the High Court went into the evidence as well as the process of law and declared both as wrong. It clearly spelled out in a landmark judgment which would be useful in further development of criminal jurisprudence in this country.

This is why I say I had to go through trial by fire twice. But this was not a trial by fire only for me and the co-accused. It became a test for the higher judiciary as well. The higher judiciary in this case was suffocating because of pressure from all corners from the powers that be. But it stood the test and its ground and came out successfully to give justice even though it has been very delayed and nothing can compensate for the injustice that happened during the delay.

I along with the higher judiciary had to undergo an agnipariksha and we passed through it. Future generations will evaluate what the results of this agnipariksha are.

Your resilience and optimism are remarkable. Over the last ten years, you must have felt deeply upset and helpless due to the injustice at various points of time. How did you deal with these feelings, and how did you develop resilience?
I was teaching Kabir at Delhi University. I love Kabir. I asked Vasantha to get me Kabir again. She brought many of his books – different versions. So, Kabir gave me hope.

If you look at Adivasis, Dalits, minorities – a huge section in the prison, what they are facing, yet they have hope in life. They are treated completely as subhuman beings. Still, they have the hope to go out. I learnt from there.

Writing poetry and letters, writing many things always gave me hope.

I also went through depressive moments. Particularly during the pandemic period. Those were two very long periods of lockdown within the prison. Imagine how a lockdown within a prison would be, where everything and every life is already locked down. Those days, letters and any communication was stopped. Newspapers and books were stopped.

After some time, only five minute phone calls were allowed. Just to inform whether I have acquired Covid or not, whether any family members have acquired it. How many people died, how many people are going to die, how many are alive – only that kind of information one could find during a short call.

The depression I faced is expressed in one of my poems that I wrote about lakhs of workers who had to walk from cities to villages because of the sudden lockdown announcement. There was no mode for transportation available and they had to walk hundreds of kilometres and many died on the way.

When my wife told me over the phone about this kind of news, it was very hard hitting. I could not sleep.

My neighbour in the prison got news that his mother died from Covid. After some days, he was informed that his father died from Covid. After a few days, his brother died. He remained in prison only.

These were some of the most depressing moments.

Some other developments that happened in the outside world – news of lynchings taking place left me completely depressed. Before being imprisoned, I didn’t hear much about lynchings and killings by mobs without any reason. I had read about lynchings in American history of black people and before that, Native Indians. But this kind of public lynchings in India, I was not directly aware of that much.

That also made me depressed.

A portrait of GN Saibaba and Vasantha Kumari, made by a student of Saibaba, at their residence in Delhi. | Vineet Bhalla

Who do you blame the most for your ordeal? What kind of accountability would you like to see?
See, when the State functions without rule of law and there’s a kind of intention to help the powerful people, this happens. At the moment, I am not blaming any individual. This doesn’t mean that there are not individuals responsible for this illegal, fabricated case intending to incarcerate people for long periods. I’m not the only victim in history. I’m also a victim, but more than that, it’s a political case.

So, in the course of history, one would know who is responsible for this kind of incarceration, injustice and brutal attacks on human rights.

What kind of reforms do you think are needed in our criminal justice and prison administration systems?
This is a big question that would take hours to answer. I will just say one thing: first of all, the laws are not implemented as they are meant to be implemented. Many laws are not made according to the Constitution. They are against the Constitution, particularly the draconian laws. When you do this, the laws are against democracy and the constitution.

It’s simply gullible to say that the laws are misused. The laws are themselves misused against the Constitution so pinpointing a police officer or a politician is missing the point. The entire system is working like that.

You create laws in such a way that they can only be misused. They cannot be used any other way. The entire system has to be changed. What kind of laws do we have, and why is the Constitution there? Why are you passing laws against constitutional provisions? All this has to be changed.