Imprisonment of GN Saibaba Is Tantamount to Torture

by    /  March 11, 2021  / Comments Off on Imprisonment of GN Saibaba Is Tantamount to Torture

From his solitary confinement in Nagpur Central Prison, Professor GN Saibaba’s pain is not only physical but psychological. No windows. No ventilation. No natural light. His allies in the Free Saibaba Coalition have likened his treatment to torture. 

And this was before he contracted Covid-19 in late February. 

The Scholars At Risk Network and the Free Saibaba Coalition are advocating for the release of Saibaba and immediate medical intervention, maintaining that his life sentence is unjust and politically motivated. Throughout his career, the professor of English in the Ram Lal Anand College of Delhi University was known for his activism on behalf of vulnerable populations in India, including tribal groups who suffer from poverty and human rights violations due to the prolonged suppression and neglect of the Indian state. 

In 2014, Saibaba was arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for alleged “anti-national” activities and having alleged links to Maoists — charges that Saibaba vehemently denies. In 2017, he was sentenced to life and moved to solitary confinement in a high security cell in Nagpur prison, where he continues to be incarcerated.

In a telephone conversation, advocates from the Free Saibaba coalition described his health as both urgent and precarious, saying that the government’s negligence of his extensive medical issues underscores an unsettling degree of inhumanity. Prior to his initial detainment in 2014, Saibaba was already coping with a disability, having been diagnosed with permanent post-polio paralysis of the legs, a result of contracting Polio at age five. As of today, Saibaba’s allies are left guessing about the state of his delicate health due to his isolation from the outside world.

In addition to his disability, Saibaba suffers from more than a dozen other health issues, including life-threatening acute pancreatitis and impacted gallbladder stones, which both require surgery immediately. According to a recent letter, he has experienced symptoms of hypertension and cardiac complications. He described frequent fevers, bouts of unconsciousness, severe urinary pain, and an inability to sleep due to shooting pains in his left hand and left leg.

In a statement given to the Scholars at Risk, his wife Vasantha Kumari said that during her last phone call with Saibaba, he “could speak with great difficulty. We could make out he was breathless, his throat was sore.” With each passing day, it grows increasingly troubling that, even after a positive test for Covid-19, the Indian government and the government of Maharashtra State will continue their practice of denying basic medical care to Saibaba.

During his time as a professor at the University of Delhi, Saibaba advocated for the rights of India’s Adivasi people — indigenous peoples who live in the central states of India — and had long been outspoken against India’s paramilitary operation, Operation Green Hunt, which seeks to root out and destroy or displace Adivasis by conflating them with violent Maoist revolutionaries who operate in the rural areas of the same states. This “counter-insurgency strategy” was initiated by the Congress Party but the current ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has intensified it. The Congress Party attempted to construct a discourse of inevitable urbanization to free up mineral-rich land to sell to corporations and decentralize the farming communities firmly rooted in rural Indian culture. Saibaba’s outspokenness against Green Hunt has put him at odds with the ruling class. Based on unsubstantiated claims that Saibaba is a participant in the Maoists’ illegal operations, the state labeled him a terrorist much like they have the people he has fought tooth-and-nail for.

Saibaba’s political organizing and activism brings the state’s mistreatment of indigenous people to the world stage, and this activism would culminate in his 2014 arrest. The government arbitrarily linked Saibaba to an unrelated theft in order to obtain a search warrant for his home, where they discovered Maoist literature. Over the course of his trial, the state built up a false case against Saibaba tying him directly to Maoist revolutionaries and sentenced him to life in prison for these false links. 

A representative* of the Free Saibaba Coalition and friend of the professor who has been studying the case for years scoffs at the state’s accusations: “He was teaching social movement literature. Reading Maoist literature doesn’t make you a revolutionary, and even then, holding a particular ideological position is not a crime.”

Saibaba’s medical conditions are exacerbated by his imprisonment in Nagpur Central Prison. A group of civil rights activists successfully petitioned the Indian Supreme Court for his medical bail in 2016, and he immediately went into intensive care to tend to his acute pancreatitis, kidney disease, and the 17 other conditions doctors discovered via thorough medical screening. Indian authorities, at this point led by Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, removed Saibaba from hospital care and placed him into solitary confinement following his sentencing the following year.

This negligence, advocates say, is tantamount to torture. Until late 2020, Saibaba — who is paralyzed in 90% of his body — was left without his wheelchair and forced to crawl along the floor. The medical care that he so desperately needs as a result of his myriad of illnesses has been denied. A spokesperson from Free Saibaba Coalition says, “Forget about treatment, they aren’t even giving him basic medicines.” 

As of print time, the ongoing effects of Saibaba’s COVID diagnosis remains uncertain.  But the outlook is grim. “They gave him a life sentence,” said his friend. “But it’s really a death penalty.” In order to quell Saibaba’s further activism “they want him to be seen dying in prison.” 

Protestors who confront the government’s mistreatment of the scholar face much adversity in their hopes to free him. Students of Saibaba’s, like Hem Mishra, face arrest and interrogation by the Indian government. Dozens of fellow scholars, civil rights activists, and friends of Saibaba have been incarcerated since the protests broke out in 2013, but the movement carries on. 

You can visit the Scholars at Risk website to sign a petition demanding medical assistance for Professor Saibaba and are encouraged to contact the Indian Embassy to advocate for Professor Saibaba directly.

* To maintain their safety, we’ve provided anonymity to the spokespeople of the Free Saibaba Coalition.

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