"Saibaba ko phaasi do" was the slogan that greeted members of human rights organisations from across India assembled at Nagpur on April 8, 2017, for a meeting on "Repression on Social Movements and the Judiciary". It was a demonstration outside the meeting venue by a clutch of self-styled anti-Naxalite organisations, led by the recently formed Bhumkaal Sanghatan.
The demand of death sentence was for 90 per cent disabled Delhi University professor Dr GN Saibaba who, along with four others, had just a month earlier been sentenced to life imprisonment by the Court of Sessions of Gadchiroli, Maharashtra, for membership and support of the Maoist party.
The demonstrators told the press that their demand was justified, as Saibaba was the "mastermind" of Naxalite violence.
It may seem ridiculous that anyone could think it possible that somebody who is wheel-chair bound, with full-time teaching responsibilities at Delhi, over a 1,000km away, could be the mastermind of the Naxalite movement in central India. But think again before writing this off as the fevered rants of fringe elements.
In fact, these demonstrators were only echoing the outpourings of the ANO (anti-Naxalite operations) police cell. It is the ANO that had, through a press statement within a week of the Saibaba judgment, indirectly criticised the Supreme Court for ordering the release of Saibaba, by claiming that he was the mastermind of 72 violent offences that had been registered while he was out on bail.
This mastermind storyline was widely publicised in the media. Saibaba was in hospital for most of his bail period, but no one asked the ANO how he could direct violent operations over such a distance from his hospital bed. More importantly, no one thought fit to question the police why none of the 72 FIRs registered had even named this so-called mastermind.
A fraudulent development narrative
This casual distortion of logic and truth has been a hallmark of much of what such agencies have spouted in recent years. Such stories aim at shoring up a fraudulent narrative that development - a nasty euphemism for big industry projects that displace and destroy local lives – is being held up by violent resistance devised and even directed by "white collar Naxalites" in far-off metros.
Organisations that are closely linked to security agencies would naturally be expected to remain faithful to this official "development" theme. Journalists are supposed to be more discerning, however, but even that is too much to ask of large sections of today's mainstream media.
The problem however acquires disquieting dimensions when trial court judges start buying deep into this narrative. This can be seen in the judgment of Judge Shinde, the principal district and sessions judge of the Gadchiroli court.
The judgment seems to be gripped with a desire to see a particular type of "development" in Gadchiroli. Opposition to an iron and steel project at Surjagad is considered proof of being anti-development, and possession of a pamphlet against it is considering incriminating. Such is the judge's fascination with this project that Surjagad is mentioned no less than 11 times in the judgment.
This despite the project itself being of dubious legality. Seventy gram sabhas in the area have voted against the project and without their approval, the project itself is rendered illegal as per the provisions of PESA (Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act).
Life sentence not sufficient
This however does not stop the judge from giving his understanding of development (or lack of it) a central place in his judgment. Even at the stage of pronouncing punishment, he says, at Para 1013 “...the situation of Gadchiroli district from 1982 till today is in a paralysed condition and no industrial and other developments are taking place because of fear of Naxalite and their violent activities. Hence, in my opinion, the imprisonment for life is also not a sufficient punishment to the accused (emphasis added by us) but the hands of the court are closed (sic)...”
He is so enthralled by the development narrative that he feels that the only appropriate punishment for those standing in its way is a death sentence - the only sentence harsher than life imprisonment. Since there is nothing in the charges, chargesheet or judgment that even alleges (leave aside proves) that any of the accused have engaged in violent activities, it seems that even non-violent opposition to big project "development" is a capital crime.
This bias is amply evident throughout the judgment. It ensured an undeserved conviction and an unjust sentence.
Maruti Suzuki: where unionisation becomes a criminal act
Another case decided around the same time was the Maruti Workers Union judgment decided by the Gurgaon (Gurugram) Sessions Court, Haryana. The case was vastly different and the socio-economic conditions of the two places too are vastly different - Gadchiroli is a forested, unindustrialised district, while Gurgaon is one of the most modern enclaves of the country.
However, here too the same development narrative, albeit another version, was being played out before the courts during the course of the trial.
In this case, an astonishing 148 workers had been implicated in the death of a manager who had been burnt in an unexplained fire during a protest at the Maruti Suzuki plant at Manesar, Gurgaon, in July 2012. They had all been kept in prison for long periods, many throughout the trial, which lasted four years and eight months.
Finally, 13 workers got a life sentence, 18 got imprisonment for various terms and 117 were acquitted. The workers' actual crime was that they had formed a union of their choice and had demanded the regularisation of the contract workers in the plant.
This "crime" of fighting for their rights resulted in them being denied bail for years despite none having any previous criminal record and there being no substantial reason for keeping them behind bars. Courts at various levels who refused bail seemed to be bending backwards to satisfy big Indian and foreign corporates who wanted to crush the labour movement.
Clearing the way for foreign investors
The development narrative here was one of attracting foreign investment. It was voiced most articulately by Justice Puri of the Punjab and Haryana High Court who, while rejecting bail observed: "The incident is a most unfortunate occurrence which has lowered the reputation of India in the estimation of the world. Foreign investors are not likely to invest money in India out of fear of labour unrest."
He thus apparently felt that it was the duty of the court to teach the workers a lesson and satisfy foreign investors so that they would be attracted to put their money in India.
Even at the time of sentencing of the workers, the special prosecutor demanded a death sentence by invoking these same words of the high court. He too, like the Gadchiroli sessions court, felt that standing in the way of "development", here foreign investment, deserved death by hanging. Fortunately, here the court did not accede to this demand.
Nevertheless, the earnestness of the government to somehow bolster their "development" narrative by obtaining a conviction and stiff sentence was a constant pressure on the court throughout the trial. A special public prosecutor was specially appointed for this case who was assisted by a battery of lawyers, including a designated senior counsel.
The case was based on the false evidence of labour contractors, who were interested parties, interested in preserving the contract system that the union sought to abolish. The investigating police officers were in constant attendance to ensure that the witnesses were tutored to parrot before the court the stories that had been cooked up.
NIA shields Aseemanand
Contrast this with the approach of the investigating authorities in the Ajmer bomb blast case that was decided in the same week as the above two cases. Here, the prime investigating agency of the country, the National Investigating Agency (NIA), had worked to ensure that the acquittal of the prime accused and former RSS member Swami Aseemanand was a foregone conclusion.
|The Hyderabad NIA officers who wanted to appeal against grant of bail to Aseemanand have been refused permission by their top brass in Delhi.|
The Swami had voluntarily confessed before magistrates to being behind a number of bomb blasts throughout the country, but the NIA did not make use of this confession at the trial stage.
The prosecutor, Ashwini Sharma, complained that the IO [investigating officer] did not come once for the hearing, even when he was called and said the witnesses are turning hostile. This attitude of the NIA seems to be their policy in bomb blast cases involving Hindutva accused, as can be seen in the disclosures in 2015 by Rohini Salian, prosecutor in the Malegaon bomb blasts case, that she had been told by the NIA to go soft on the accused.
Now the Hyderabad NIA officers who wanted to appeal against grant of bail to Aseemanand have been refused permission by their top brass in Delhi.
Thanks to the NIA, Swami Aseemanand, a self-confessed bomb blast mastermind, now roams free. Other Hindutva-inspired terror accused like Sadhvi Pragya Thakur are soon expected to follow suit.
Unlike Prof Saibaba, who opposed the displacement of the poor by big projects and the Maruti trade unionists, who stood against the contract system that foreign investors love, their terror acts pose no threat to the dominant "development" narrative of the ruling classes.