You don’t have to agree with GN Saibaba’s politics to uphold his right to medical help and nutrition as a wheelchair-bound prisoner with 90% disability. After all, we are not called on to judge whether the English teacher, arrested on May 9 last year for allegedly being associated with Maoist groups, is guilty or innocent. That is to be decided at a trial and Saibaba has not opposed the legal process, just as he did not oppose the search of his premises at Delhi University and the seizure of his personal photographs and data, and his interrogation last year in the presence of colleagues and students, all of which yielded no incriminating evidence.

I first heard of Saibaba from a former colleague at the Department of English at Delhi University, who spoke of his promising PhD on Indian Writing in English. I would meet Saibaba off and on in the corridor as his class sometimes preceded or followed mine, with an assistant to manage his wheelchair through the disability-unfriendly architecture of the campus. Occasionally a meeting or class had to be shifted since he could not access higher floors with his wheelchair. That did not stop him from being present at various political meetings in the University and beyond, or publishing articles in prominent national journals or supervising exams as he did at this time last May, before being abducted by plainclothes people who dragged him into a car as he was on his way home from lunch, on the streets of Delhi University. His arrest by the Maharashtra Police was made official retrospectively. He managed to call his daughter to tell her of his abduction by using a phone borrowed from a worker at the airport, as the police bundled him off to Nagpur.

Saibaba’s life in the last year is a chronicle of rights denied. Within the span of a year, this well-respected figure of the English Department, a lecturer in Ramlal Anand College, has been reduced to appealing for months for a toilet that he can use in the small confines of the infamous "anda cell" in Nagpur jail, for his wheelchair to be repaired, basic medication to manage his increasingly severe health problems, and sufficient nutrition to withstand his intake of the most basic painkillers. On being denied what is his legally his right as a prisoner, Saibaba went on a hunger strike, fell unconscious, and was hospitalised. Colleagues are calling for his release on bail, increasingly horrified by his illegal abduction and his diminishment into a being struggling for his life, with damage to his spine and vertebrae, and a heart condition that has brought him perilously close to a crisis.

Support for Salman Khan

Meanwhile, a celebrated film star, charged with mowing to death pavement dwellers while driving drunk, has politicians and prominent personalities paying him sympathy calls, and a wave of support from fans. Saibaba does not occupy that symbolic place in the public imagination. But something has been revealed about the nature of the middle-class political space that has been formed around us that these small guarantees and safeguards stand suspended for most, save for those who can call on some form of influence, and those whom we protect with our public outcry.  Guaranteeing the rights of the wheelchair bound, even wheelchair bound prisoners, or the medically ill, is not usually, after all, branded as revolutionary or very radical politics. In fact it falls well within the purview of middle class reform, a political impulse that is neither sufficiently explored nor exploited.

One would have thought Saibaba would be a much-emulated figure, having made an active and immensely productive life for himself and those around him, voicing his support for various progressive causes. Supporters, in fact, suggest that it was his opposition to the discredited Operation Greenhunt against Maoists in 2009 in the five states that form that so-called Red Corridor that may have made him a convenient target. Prior to his arrest, he had to fight against eviction from his accommodation in the University. The predatory nature of institutions that we expect to be vaguely liberal and protective alerts us to the fact that the most basic rights are being withdrawn on a daily basis even from those groups that until now could have counted on them as their entitlement.

Geelani case

The case of SAR Geelani, another Delhi University professor who was arrested for allegedly playing a role in the 2001 attack on Parliaent, tortured and then acquitted of all charges proves that being a university professor is no guarantee of protection. Once a label is successfully attached to you (supporter of militants, or of Naxalites), you can be stripped of the most basic rights before any legal process is underway, and in the case of Geelani, persecuted even after acquittal.

The physical torment to which Saibaba is being subjected suggests that the attempt is to exterminate him prior to any trial. An MRI scan done under a court order, shows a bent spine, degeneration of vertebrae, which has paralysed his left hand and his crowded ribs are pushing on his lungs. In addition, he has a heart condition that has led doctors to prescribe an angiography. Saibaba’s former students must wonder what it is about their teacher that he must be reduced to such physical desperation and what it is about Delhi University that life proceeds there without any formal acknowledgment of his situation, save for the support of the teachers’ union and a committee of colleagues and students.

It is time perhaps for another reminder that it is often by upholding the rights of those we may not agree with politically that we safeguard our own.  As the prospect of Salman Khan in jail or out on bail elicits expressions of support or disgust, the diminishing life of the teacher may go down as another singular heroic sacrifice that we demand over and over again – a heavy price for raising society's consciousness.