What does the GN Saibaba case say about the state of India?

Ashraf Engineer

March 16, 2024


Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.


I still stubbornly refuse to die

The sad thing is that

They don’t know how to kill me

because I love so much

The sound of growing grass


These were the words Gokarakonda Naga Saibaba, better known as GN Saibaba, wrote on the wall of his cell in Nagpur Central Jail. The severely disabled professor of English – or at least he was until he was removed from his post – and human rights activist was released recently from his agonising stay in jail that spanned several years and solitary confinement. A few days ago, the Supreme Court put the final seal of approval on GN Saibaba’s acquittal in an Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, case over his so-called Maoist links by refusing to stay a Bombay High Court judgment acquitting him. Earlier, in 2017, a trial court had convicted and sentenced to life the former Delhi University professor in the case. The high court had ruled that the prosecution had failed to prove its case.

So, who is GN Saibaba and why is his case emblematic of the crushing of rights and the brutal crackdown on dissent in India? How did he get through his ordeal? And what does his case say about the state of freedom in India?


May 9, 2014. GN Saibaba was returning home for lunch from classes when a van hurled itself in front of his car. Tyres screeched and rubber burned as Saibaba’s driver hit the brakes hard. The driver was yanked out of the car and in his place sat a man in civilian clothing. Two others got into the back, one on each side of Saibaba, and they drove straight to the airport. There was no warrant produced and his family was not informed. He was pushed on to a plane, flown to Nagpur and, on landing, whisked away in an anti-landmine vehicle, escorted by a convoy of commandos.

The entire operation was styled to make it seem as if a hardcore militant had been apprehended. Keep in mind this was a wheelchair-bound man with near-total disability. And his greatest crime was sympathy for tribals and lower castes – Saibaba was an activist who had been fighting for years against oppression of the lower castes and the displacement of tribals from their forest homelands.

Saibaba grew up in a rural community in Amalapuram in Andhra Pradesh. Although he was polio-afflicted, he did well academically and eventually got involved in student politics in university. Later, he became a professor but his activism did not cease.

He was particularly vocal against what was known as ‘Operation Green Hunt’, carried out by the armed forces against Naxals in Central India. The armed movement in Central India arose from the opposition to the forceful occupation of Adivasi forest land and the rape of forests for their mineral resources. The campaign that Saibaba opposed had involved several human rights violations against the Adivasis.

The well documented atrocities included extrajudicial killings, rapes and even the desecration of corpses. It was estimated that more than 2,000 people have lost their lives since 2009 when Operation Green Hunt began.

As Saibaba’s voice grew louder, it could no longer be ignored and he was arrested in 2014 by the Maharashtra police. He was immediately suspended by Ram Lal Anand College, which is part of Delhi University and where he had been a lecturer since 2003. In 2021, he was sacked while he was in jail.

Shockingly, in March 2017, a sessions court in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district pronounced him and others guilty of activities amounting to waging war against the country. The documents listed as evidence included a letter to his daughter’s school headmaster, one to his college, and another to a Hyderabad institute. The prosecution claimed that the letters written under the name ‘Prakash’ included communication to Maoist bosses.

The order was appealed in the Bombay High Court.

The crushing treatment meted out to Saibaba in jail is enough to churn anyone’s stomach.

He has suffered from permanent post-polio paralysis since age five. He used to get around by crawling on the ground and wearing slippers on his hands until he moved from Hyderabad to New Delhi in 2003 to teach. That job finally gave him enough money to buy a wheelchair.

During his imprisonment, he contracted COVID-19 twice, once along with swine flu. He was diagnosed with severe conditions like hypertrophic cardiomyopathy with left ventricular dysfunction, a brain cyst, kidney stones and acute cervical spondylitis.

He claims he never got treatment in jail. His wife Kumari said he would faint frequently and that he required physiotherapy and cardiac monitoring but it was never made available.

In 2022, Saibaba went on a four-day hunger strike to get a plastic water bottle in his cell. He also demanded an end to the CCTV recording of the toilet and bathing area. Eventually, he was allowed a water bottle and the camera angle was changed.

Perhaps what hurt him most was the denial of permission to attend his mother’s funeral in 2020. This at a time when rapists and other criminals are frequently granted parole. However, he claimed, when it came to him, the state ensured he was never let out.

He said: “My mother passed away when I was in prison in 2020. Being a disabled child, my mother brought me up with great care. She took me in her arms to school… I was not allowed to see her before her death. I was denied parole to go see her. After that, I was denied to attend her funeral. I was denied parole to attend the post-funeral functions or rites. Who is the criminal in this country who is denied these kinds of rites?”

Such was his situation that the United Nations special envoy on human rights Mary Lawlor termed Saibaba’s detention as “inhumane”. She pointed out that he was incarcerated in a tiny, window-less cell that had a framework of iron bars. This exposed him to extreme weather, especially the Nagpur summer.

Saibaba said this was how prisoners were regularly treated. His co-accused Pandu Pora Narote, he said, died before his eyes in August 2022 while in custody. He had been unwell but was not taken to hospital till it was too late. By then, Narote was bleeding profusely from his eyes and passing blood in his urine. No wonder Saibaba said: “He was killed. It was murder.”

He also pointed to Surendra Gadling, a lawyer who defended him and who is himself now jailed in the Elgar Parishad case. Saibaba said Gadling has developed a heart condition. He said life-saving drugs prescribed by doctors were denied to Gadling. When his family sent medicines, the packet went missing.

Upon his release, Saibaba told the press that his nervous system had broken down after he was “manhandled” by the police. He added: “My left hand is still swollen after 10 years as the police dragged me with my left hand. But no treatment was given… So it is still swollen like this. For nine months I suffered… during the trial period. And after nine months, when I was taken to the hospital, it was too late and doctors said they can’t revive the nervous system and muscles now.”

Despite suffering from shooting pain and muscle spasms in his left side, Saibaba said he was never taken to a doctor despite one being available a few metres away. Meanwhile, the food served in prison led Saibaba to develop gallbladder stones and acute chronic pancreatitis.

Doctors prescribed treatments, but Saibaba said jail authorities never implemented them. A doctor prescribed full-time monitoring of the heart but this was never done. Another suggested surgical repair of Saibaba’s nerves and muscles but that too was ignored.

Saibaba said he was allowed medicines sent by his family only after a 10-day hunger strike.

Such treatment of a severely disabled person speaks volumes of the state of human rights and democracy in India. Why was he made to undergo this? Nandita Narain, retired math professor and former president of the Delhi University Teachers’ Association, told Al Jazeera that it was because Saibaba was a powerful voice for Adivasi rights. She said: “The state is particularly bent on silencing voices in support of tribal rights in areas where a corporate plunder is taking place because the land is very mineral rich. He posed a greater challenge to the state and the corporates. That is why they wanted to silence him.”

Activists are now demanding, among other things, that Saibaba be reinstated in his job and given compensation. They’ve also demanded comprehensive action against those who register fake charges against anyone.

The demand for his reinstatement was supported by the Committee for the Defence and Release of Dr GN Saibaba – which includes lawyers, academicians and politicians from the Left.

While Saibaba’s release is a significant victory for human rights and freedom, there are way too many political prisoners in India for anyone to celebrate just yet.

There is deep concern over the government jailing activists and human rights defenders such as Umar Khalid and Sharjeel Imam. There is even greater concern over courts toeing the government line.

All political prisoners must be freed immediately. Without that, complete freedom is elusive. The unjust arrests, the prolonged incarcerations, the denial of bail or parole… these are crimes against humanity and must be treated as such.

They happen because an oppressive state fears the truth coming out. It fears the truth being recognised as the truth and the backlash that will follow. That’s why there is an attempt to drown out voices through the liberal handing out of labels, such as ‘anti-national’, ‘sickular’, ‘libtard’, ‘Khangressi’, ‘urban naxal’…

When the truth is spoken, it is regularly labelled as ‘incitement’ and the courts are often not willing to do anything about it. But is it incitement to point out that tribals, for whom much love is expressed by the government, are murdered, raped and displaced because under their feet lie millions of tons of coal or bauxite? Is it incitement to point out the humiliation and exploitation suffered every day by lower castes? Is it incitement to point to the attempt to convert minorities into second-class citizens and to question their very citizenship?

The ideas of freedom, human rights, democracy have all been termed incitement at some stage or the other through history. So let me end with the words of the renowned Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Every idea is an incitement. It offers itself for belief and if believed it is acted on unless some other belief outweighs it or some failure of energy stifles the movement at its birth.”

The propagation of every idea, then, cannot be anti-national, seditious or a crime.

Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at editor@allindiansmatter.in. Catch you again soon.