For many recent graduates of Delhi University, seeing the letters “Free GN Saibaba” painted in red on North Campus walls was a quite common phenomenon (one that civic authorities have tried covering up as of late). Gokarakonda Naga "GN" Saibaba has himself had a DU connection given that he was an Assistant Professor of English for several years at the university’s Ram Lal Anand College until his 2014 arrest for Maoist links and a life imprisonment sentence in 2017 following which his professorship was also suspended from the college.
Now he is back in the news again as the Nagpur bench of Bombay High Court decided to acquit him last Friday (October 14) but with a special sitting of Supreme Court (to hear a petition filed by Maharashtra government) on Saturday (October 15), the decision of his acquittal has been turned down and GN Saibaba’s legal condition still remains uncertain.
A brief history of Saibaba’s political activities: An outspoken human rights activist and writer, Prof GN Saibaba has had political ties in movements and collectives, mostly against the oppression of workers and other causes. Even back in his years of pursuing MA-MPhil, he had been an active part of the Radical Students Union (RSU) fighting for reservation in the years of the Mandal Commission.
All Indian People’s Resistance Forum (AIPRF) has been another crucial organisation for Saibaba’s early years with the then-student speaking in solidarity with the Kashmiri liberation movement, adivasi and Dalit struggles, and against the military violence in northeast. He himself had founded AIRPF and had been its secretary between 1994 and 1996, a period marked by several arrests by the Andhra Pradesh Police for his protest activities.
Then, in 2005, the AIPRF evolved into the Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF), an organisation that would be banned in 2012 by the Andhra government on allegations of being a “Maoist front”. At that time, Saibaba had explicitly told mainstream media outlets that his collective does function according to a particular ideology but they have no linkages with any particular Maoist organisations.
RDF was one of the most active proponents against Operation Green Hunt, the unofficial name given to an offensive campaign against Naxal movements by paramilitary and other state forces. Saibaba was of the belief that this ongoing “Operation” (going on for 13 years since 2009) would allow unjust military violence against civilians inhabiting the “Red Corridor” (regions where the Maoist-Naxalite insurgency is the highest).
By 2014, Saibaba was not only a reputed Professor at Ram Lal Anand, he had also become the deputy secretary of the RDF. As mentioned earlier, he had his fair share of run-ins with the law from the 90s itself but it was in 2014 when national media began covering him for his arrest in connection with Maoist links.
In June 2015, the Bombay HC granted him bail and an eventual release in July 2015 came soon after. However, in December 2015, he was jailed again only to be released after a SC-sanctioned bail in April 2016.
The constant in-and-out jail tenure continued after he was sentenced to life imprisonment in March 2017. The sentence was sanctioned under Sections 13, 18, 20, 38 and 39 of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and Section 120 B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for connections with the banned RDF, an organisation linked with the banned political outfit Communist Party of India (Maoist). Saibaba reportedly denied all charges of having connections with CPI(Maoist), a view that he has held on till this date.
The 2017 sentence was protested by several Maoist and Communist organisations with even a “Bharath Bandh” being called for on 29 March 2017, especially across Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh.
Deteriorating health in prison, a fast unto death, and repeated appeals: Wheelchair-bound since the age of five, GN Saibaba suffered from polio and during his prison years after 2017, the activist has been 90% physically handicapped.
Even before the life imprisonment sentence, the SC allowed a bail on medical grounds in 2016 with the court’s order to Maharashtra government reading, “You have been extremely unfair to him …especially knowing his medical conditions. Why do you want him in jail if key witnesses have been examined? You are unnecessarily harassing the petitioner,”
Denial of basic health requirements for him have been a major cause of concern for outside forces asking for his release from Nagpur Central Jail. In April 2020, even experts associated with the United Nations Office Of The High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) asked for Indian authorities to release him for his “seriously deteriorating health”.
A medical bail of 45 days was petitioned by Saibaba’s family only to be rejected by the Bombay HC in July 2020. More petitions were denied for visiting his 74-year-old mother (who died of cancer later) and for participating in her last rites. Contracting Covid in 2021 worsened his health conditions.
In May 2022, Saibaba even went on an indefinite hunger strike to protest against the ignorance of the jail authorities in fulfilling his demands such as the removal of a wide-angle CCTV camera that offered him no privacy even while bathing and using the toilet, a transfer to a cell that would offer the wheelchair-bound professor more mobility, better medical treatment, and a parole that had been rejected despite multiple applications.
Finally, after four days and after being hospitalised in the prison hospital, Saibaba called off his strike and the Nagpur Central Jail agreed to only remove the camera.
The surprise verdict by Bombay HC in Saibaba's favour: The Bombay High Court’s decision to acquit Saibaba on October 14 (Friday) came as a positive surprise for many demanding his release. The court’s Nagpur bench concluded that the proceedings before the sessions court were "null and void" in the absence of a valid sanction under Section 45(1) UAPA.
The UAPA which is commonly known as the “Anti-Terror Law” intends to arrest people who threaten the national security under different threats detailed in the Act’s 7 chapters. Section 45 (1) states that no court can acknowledge any offence under Chapter III without the sanction of the central government or any officer associated with it. For some more context, Chapter III is related to membership of unlawful associations and their funding.
The aforementioned Section also deals with crimes under Chapter IV and V (terrorist activities and connection with terrorist organisations). In these chapters, the court must have the sanction of either the central or the state Government of the state where such a crime has been committed.
According to Bombay HC, these sanctions have not been respected in Saibaba’s case acquiting him along with four others arrested at the same time for being members and sympathisers of the banned CPI(Maoist).
Between 2013 and 2014, materials such as documents, pen drives, and a hard disk were seized from Saibaba’s residence but the lawyers defending Saibaba claimed that this so-called evidence for his Maoist links was intentionally tampered (contrary to Maharashtra Police’s claim of sealing the evidence before sending to forensics).
However, as of now, this matter has not been discussed and more details are awaited to understand the Bombay HC’s rationale.
So, why and how did the Supreme Court overturn the decision?
The celebration among Saibaba’s supporters was short-lived as on October 16 (Saturday), the Supreme Court rejected the Bombay High Court’s plea for his release. It all started when the Maharashtra government filed a petition to the SC against Saibaba’s discharge which was followed by a special sitting by the apex court on Saturday.
Breaking: Supreme Court Suspends Bombay High Court Judgement Discharging Professor GN. Saibaba— Live Law (@LiveLawIndia) October 15, 2022
The legal community finds such a quick and surprise sitting on a non-working day to be “uncommon” and “extraordinary” for the SC. In fact, Saibaba himself had appealed for house arrest but even this has been rejected with Saturday’s decision. A major proponent in the court supporting his continuing term in jail is Solicitor General (SG) Tushar Mehta who stated that Saibaba can still be a dangerous “grey cell” in plotting terrorist activities.
I thank Hon Supreme Court for suspending yesterday's order by Hon High Court to acquit #GNSaibaba who is involved in anti-national and anti-social activities.— Devendra Fadnavis (@Dev_Fadnavis) October 15, 2022
Hon SC ensures justice for the families of martyrs by today's decision. pic.twitter.com/eudg98MCpv
On the other hand, a major voice supporting Saibaba’s demands and health concerns is Senior Advocate R Basant who appealed to the SC bench to not overturn the HC order.
How are people responding? While lawyers are questioning why exactly Saibaba’s case is so important that the SC held such a quick session (a phenomenon that we have seen in cases involving Nirbhaya, Yakub Memon, Arnab Goswami), students and professors in solidarity with him have been quick to protest in the streets.
Over 40 DU students and professors (some reports suggest more than 60) were reportedly protesting at the DU’s Arts Faculty and detained at Maurice Nagar Police Station and Burari Police Station on Saturday.