“You’ll understand when you grow up. These talks are for elders.”
Around twenty years ago, I had attended dinner at my uncle’s house. My uncle, who was a civil servant, sat on his couch and shared his views on the public policies of the country. His eyes sparkling with a sadistic glow, he cherished telling us stories of custodial brutalities committed upon those who defy the state.
Everyone in the room listened to him with a sense of servitude. My uncle, after all, was a very influential man. When I tried to debate him, I was met with a lot of hostility from those gathered there. I had been conditioned to believe that questioning the powerful was a sin and that children are not supposed to ask too many questions. The answers appear magically on growing up.
On March 7, 2017, Dr GN Saibaba, Professor of English at Delhi University, was convicted by the Gadchiroli sessions court, under sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, read with Section 120 B of the Indian Penal Code. Dr Saibaba is 90% disabled. Yet, the court found no grounds to show him any compassion. In the court’s opinion, Saibaba deserved harsher punishment and a life term was, in fact, a lesser sentence.
There are certain minds that do not wait for society’s approval to express their ideas, choosing instead, to follow their conscience. However, in an increasingly conformist world, such audacity can have dangerous consequences. Therefore, Dr Saibaba and his intellect needed to be muzzled soon. Yet, this incident raises several questions. What does it really mean to be faithful to one’s country? What does a country stand for? What is the value of a country without its own citizens?
Once upon a time, mankind lived according to the principle of ‘survival of the fittest’ and each moment was a fight to assert one’s right to exist. There was very little time for creative thinking. And yet, we started painting instinctively on cave walls thus creating culture. As we evolved, we created institutions like the judiciary which could, in theory at least, ensure that the same rights were guaranteed to everyone, regardless of social position.
The case of Dr Saibaba is not just another unfair judgment. Instead, it exemplifies how dissent is treated in India. Sadly, a country that was once founded upon a promise of freedom has been corrupted with prejudice. The court, while hearing the case, refused to retract confessions from two accused, even after they alleged that the statement was extracted from them under torture and intimidation. The Evidence Act, in Section 24, clearly makes any confession under fear of torture, inadmissible in court.
Instead, the court decided to reject a crucial witness testifying the illegal search of Dr Saibaba’s house. Mr Jagat Bhole had testified that when the search took place, both, he and Saibaba were made to stand outside the house. Mr Bhole’s testimony, however, was rejected because the judge believed him to be illiterate and frightened by the court’s atmosphere to speak the truth.
The primary evidence leading to the judgment were certain files and articles which may have been accessed by Dr Saibaba from his computer and the copy of a newspaper that provides a tenuous link to Maoists. Even mere slogans about political prisoners were counted as evidence for his Maoist affiliations.
Dr Saibaba, a disabled man with body paralysis, is under tremendous pain for speaking his mind. The court and prison authorities denied him proper medical care.
The attitude of the court is mirrored by our present society. Trying to discuss Dr Saibaba with some students, I faced comments like, “Oh! That naxal guy? Why are you supporting him?” and “How can we demand medical help for a Maoist?” Others shied away from sharing their views on the topic. “We must not talk about certain things. Why should I get into trouble for someone who is in jail?” In our reluctance to speak of certain things, justice itself is denied a voice.
What do people like Saibaba do to enrage our society so much?
The National Human Rights Commission Report of 2017 declares that in October 2015, the police had raped over 16 women and committed many other human rights violations in Chattisgarh. One such incident was the torture and rape of Soni Sori, allegedly done by Police Superintendent Ankit Garg. Soni Sori was brutalized and stones were inserted inside her genitals. Instead of being punished, Ankit Garg was honoured with a medal for gallantry on the Republic Day parade of 2012.
Soni Sori never made it to the headlines of our media. Neither did Madkam Hidme, who died under suspicious circumstances in Sukma village of Bastar. She too was allegedly kidnapped and killed by the security forces and as observed from the photographs of her ‘naxal cadre’ uniform, post-encounter, was perfectly ironed without any bullet holes that might have resulted from a possible gunfight. She too awaits justice. The police usually do not allow lawyers, writers or activists to visit these areas of conflict. We seldom find out what’s happening there. Journalists and Lawyers, trying to make an effort, often end up in jail under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Chhattisgarh Public Securities Act. None of these acts comply with the international standard of Human Rights.
As Arundhati Roy writes, in these jungles of central India near the Indrāvati River, the areas under the control of Maoists are dubbed as ‘Pakistan’ by the police. Women in lock-ups are raped and the villagers – common civilians – live in constant fear. ‘Operation Green Hunt’, believed to have begun in the year 2009, has emptied villages.
The Adivasis are routinely tortured and are otherwise left to starve with meagre earnings. Meanwhile, multinationals like Vedanta grab their lands and resources. With indigenous rights ignored and promises of the constitution violated, Chhattisgarh like areas, remain conflict zones. As the helpless Adivasis continue to battle against the state on one side and non-state actors on the other, their rights remain crushed. Education, healthcare, sanitation and other basic amenities are denied to them. Yet, the situation of the Adivasis, their plight, remains unheard amidst the glamour of malls and talk of soaring GDP growth.
Every day, our minds are bombarded with slogans that are supposed to appeal to a majority. One wonders then, who constitute this majority in India? In his book The Argumentative Indian, Professor Amartya Sen suggests that it is hard to categorise any one group as a majority in India. This is because, in a country as diverse and plural as ours, it is very hard to define any one uniform majority group.
Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes constitute 25% of the Indian population. Yet, for almost seven years now, no one belonging to a Scheduled Caste background has been appointed as a high court judge. The National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes report that only around 8.4% of the A grade officers belong to the Scheduled Castes, when the figure should be 15%.
The media is largely controlled by private bodies, who are either Brahmins or Baniyas, and who also have access to electricity, education and other amenities. Yet, in spite of controlling most public offices, any kind of positive discrimination or affirmative action in the form of reservation is met with a lot of hostility from the upper caste in India.
Even after sixty-four years since the abolition of untouchabilty by the Constitution, a survey reported that one in every four Indians practice untouchabilty.
The reality of how pervasive caste is could be seen recently when protests broke out in the city of Una in Gujarat. Dalits, under the leadership of Jignesh Mewani, refused to clean the carcasses of dead cattle and suddenly the country found itself with no one left to clean its waste. The reality behind ‘Swachh Bharat’ too, is underpinned by manual scavenging. Dalits constitute the majority of manual scavengers.
The question then persists: Who is the ‘real’ Indian?
Unfortunately, our textbooks never answered that question for us. But Dr Saibaba did. India is defined by her legacy of public debates and a plurality of discourse. Dr Saibaba had given us certain views and we could have disagreed with those views and put forward some better views through debate. All he wanted from us was a consideration of his ideas. Yet, our minds were shackled with taboos.
As Dr Ambedkar had warned us, chained minds are the worst kind of slavery. We are slaves even without chains and our slave mentality is afraid to utter words of freedom. We failed Saibaba.
Tagore once asked for our minds to be without fear but instead, we have distorted our minds with hatred. We have forgotten the struggle for liberty that created this country.
Dr Saibaba feels the pain of those who cry. He knows the agony of not being allowed to dream. Is that so criminal? Does the constitution, not promise the protection of individuality? Was he violating the Social Contract? Or was he the only one remaining true to it?
The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act allows arbitrarily arresting and detaining people without a trial. Ironically, we are the same nation which fought against the Rowlatt Act by the British. And Saibaba has been found guilty under sections of UAPA. He is also accused of Criminal Conspiracy against the nation, under, sections of the IPC, which were created by the British to silence the freedom movement.
Dr Saibaba languishes in jail today, at grave risk to his health. International Organizations, like the Amnesty International, continue to demand medical attention for him. Also, India, being a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and UN convention against torture has an International obligation, alongside her constitutional impositions and prison guidelines, to provide immediate medical attention to Dr Saibaba.
I am 23 years old today. I have still not found the answers that were supposed to magically appear before me. I also lack the courage of Dr Saibaba. Speaking the truth comes at too great a price in our times. Dr Saibaba is paying that price. He had not realized that by appealing to the conscience of the country and its legal system, his mere words could disintegrate the nation. He did not know that the nation and its integrity were so brittle.
But he was perhaps the only one to understand the terms of the social contract as stated through our Constitution, which only wanted to empower human intellect and conscience. Perhaps, Dr Saibaba grew up to be able to gather the courage to ask questions.
Perhaps by growing up, they meant the maturity and the strength of one’s character. Dr Saibaba had found that courage but sadly, our society has none of it. Maybe that is why we need to lock him up as we cannot look into this man’s eyes.