Justice Jagdish Singh Kehar threw Shylock at the lawyer representing the State of Maharashtra on Monday as he tried to convince the Supreme Court against granting bail to wheelchair-bound Delhi University professor Gokarakonda Naga Saibaba. The academic had been arrested in May 2014 under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act after the Gadchiroli police claimed that he had links with Maoists and was “likely to indulge himself in the anti-national activities”. But the bench was sceptical. “Do you want to extract a pound of flesh?” the judge asked.
The bench held the counsel’s submission to be “extremely unfair”. Keeping in mind the medical condition of Saibaba, who now suffers from 90% disability after being struck with polio as a child, and the fact that all material witnesses in the trial had been examined, the government ought not to have even opposed the bail, the bench said.
As news about Saibaba’s bail trickled out, among the first to celebrate on Facebook was Jawaharlal Nehru University student Umar Khalid, who had himself been arrested on sedition charges on February 23 after allegedly anti-national slogans were chanted at an event on campus about Kashmiri autonomy that he had helped organise. Khalid’s jubilation wasn’t surprising. After all, his 12-year-old sister, Sarah Fatima, in a short speech on March 18 when her brother and his co-accused Anirban Bhattacharya were released on bail, had expressed the hope before hundreds of students that Saibaba – an inspirational figure for many progressives – would come out of prison soon.
Saibaba’s long record as a fighter on various rights issues makes him a person to be watched from both sides of today’s polarised ideological and political battle lines. The administration has already made it clear that they expect him to participate in more “anti-national” activities. Human rights activists, however, will count his departure from Nagpur Central Jail as an important addition to the struggles in universities across the country and in the forests of the mineral-rich belt of Central and Eastern India.
Saibaba is today a frail man in precarious health. His long incarceration in the confines of the high-security Anda barrack of the Nagpur prison has taken a considerable toll. This makes many worry whether he will be able to do as much as he has done before. I have no doubts on that score.
I had the opportunity to meet Saibaba during his six-month period of interim bail from June to December 2015. The Saibaba I met then was a pale shadow of the person I had met in April 2014, just before his arrest. Fourteen months of harsh prison life and denial of basic medical care had forced him to seek intensive treatment at the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre in Delhi. This was where I met him. He was in continuous pain. But just a few minutes into our interaction it became clear to me that Saibaba was nowhere near giving up.
He was then out on an interim bail for medical treatment. It was given first for three months and then extended for another three months. I told him that, considering his health, his interim bail would definitely be made permanent. He refused to comfort himself with such expectations. So when on December 23, 2015, the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court unexpectedly ordered Saibaba to go back to jail within 48 hours, he was well prepared. He did not want any frantic appeals before Supreme Court vacation benches. He opted for the dignified path of returning to jail while applying for bail in the normal course. This meant an uncertain length of time again in the Anda barrack. He has been granted bail after three and half months but he had mentally prepared himself for more.
During the hearings on bail before the Supreme Court, the bench had offered Saibaba the option of taking an exemption from appearing physically at each hearing, which could have saved him the excruciating pain of the 340 km journey to and fro in a police vehicle for each court session. Saibaba, however, would have none of it. His trial lawyer, SP Gadling said that he insisted on being present on every court date. The trial was his fight and he was not one to run away from it.
As soon as Saibaba reaches home in Delhi, he will most likely have another stint in hospital to continue his treatment, which had been cruelly cut short by his December return to jail. But I do not expect that even hospital will stop him from entering the fray of the many issues demanding to be addressed.
One crucial issue is the crushing of democratic space in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district. It is widely believed that Saibaba was targeted and implicated on the farcical charges of the present case because of his extensive campaigning against the Salwa Judum militia and the human rights violations that accompanied the Operation Green Hunt operation against Maoists that was launched under the previous United Progressive Alliance government.
The last few months since October 2015 have had reports of a sharp rise in human rights violations by security forces against Bastar tribals. Journalists have reported about gang rapes and sexual assaults, fake encounters, false and forced surrenders. New vigilante groups with state backing have been launched, which have been in the forefront of evicting journalists and lawyers who have been providing much needed legal aid. Journalists who have insisted on doing their job of reporting have been even put in jail.
All this requires determined campaigns to call for the truth about these blatant rights violations. Saibaba, even a Saibaba who is physically much weaker, can be expected to be a strong voice in such campaigns. He has done it before and he can be expected to do it again. His will be a voice that will deepen and further embolden the cry for azadi. This will have its consequences – more attention from the state, more hardship, more pain. But Saibaba has never backed off from the good fight.