New Delhi: In a small, dimly lit house in southwest Delhi, filled with books, movie CDs and paintings depicting Adivasi cultures, 55-year-old A S Vasantha Kumari, was packing for a three-day visit to Maharashtra, where she would meet her husband G N Saibaba.
Saibaba, a wheelchair-bound assistant professor of English, was convicted of having links to a banned Maoist group and sentenced to life imprisonment in March 2017 by a sessions court in Gadchiroli, Maharashtra.
Vasantha had made the 14-hour train journey to meet her husband in Nagpur central jail many times, but it felt different this time; she was going a month after the Supreme Court had stayed the discharge granted by the Bombay High Court to Saibaba and five of his co-accused including a journalist and a university student.
Piling shawls, blankets and sweaters on a wooden chair and filling boxes with all medicines, Vasantha spoke of the pain and the shock of being given a glimmer of hope after years of waiting and then having it taken away in less than a day.
On 14 October, all the six men convicted under India’s anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA), were discharged by the Bombay High Court, which found the trial to be “null and void” in the absence of a valid sanction under the UAPA. On 15 October, following an urgent sitting called on a Saturday by Justices M R Shah and Bela M Trivedi, the Supreme Court stayed the High Court’s discharge order.
Lodged in the Nagpur central jail since he was convicted on 7 March 2017, 56-year-old Saibaba is 90% physically disabled and seriously unwell, suffering from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy with left ventricular dysfunction, a cyst in his brain, kidney stones, pancreatic problems, and acute cervical spondylitis, among other ailments.
In the most recent letter Vasantha received from her husband, sent two weeks after the Supreme Court stayed his discharge, Saibaba wrote, “The winter cold has begun in Nagpur already. My muscles in legs, hands, stomach and chest are getting spasms and severe pains. I’m not able to bear the pain as I’ve become much weaker after two attacks of Covid-19 and one of swine flu.”
“No one is interested in providing emergency medical treatment for my cyst in kidneys, cyst in the brain, and rheumatic pains. Though the doctors at GMCH (Government Medical College Hospital) wrote for the immediate requirement to treat these and other fatal ailments,” he wrote.
As a ray of sunshine peeping through a gap in the curtains fell on a stack of letters from him, Vasantha said, “There used to be a time when he would write to me almost every week. A new letter would arrive at my doorstep even before I was halfway through mine.”
Flipping through the pages, Vasantha said, “But they are not all that frequent anymore. Sai takes over a day to write one page now.”
A sessions court convicted Saibaba in Gadchiroli for alleged connections with the banned Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF), an organisation linked with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). He was convicted for being a member of and supporting a terrorist organisation under the UAPA and of criminal conspiracy under the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
Except for Vijay Tikri, who was sentenced to 10 years rigorous imprisonment, Hem Mishra, a student from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, Prashant Rahi, a journalist from Uttarakhand, Mahesh Tikri, Pandu Narote and Saibaba were given life imprisonment.
“The Bombay High Court highlighting the inadequacy of the UAPA trial gave us hope,” said Vasantha. “I felt his discharge would be challenged but not so soon.”
Of the Supreme Court order, Vasantha said, “I felt broken. I felt broken thinking of Saibaba.”
“He has completely lost his immunity and strength. Alongside innumerable ailments, his left hand is also immobile now,” she said. “He needs help, but neither are there any facilities available for men with disabilities in jail, nor are they even trying.”
Discharged & Stayed
Five years after he appealed the decision of the sessions court before the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court, Justices Rohit Deo and Anil Pansare pronounced the trial of Saibaba and his five co-accused “null and void”, and ordered their immediate release.
In an extensive 101-page judgement, they emphasised the need to adhere to the rule of law and due process at every step and the lack of adequate sanction imposed under section 45 (cognisance of offences), UAPA, in this case.
“While the war against terror must be waged by the State with unwavering resolve, and every legitimate weapon in the armoury must be deployed in the fight against terror, civil democratic society can ill afford to sacrifice the procedural safeguards legislatively provided, and which is an integral facet of the due process of law, at the altar of perceived peril to national security,” the judgment said.
Less than 24 hours later, the Supreme Court stayed the discharge order for Saibaba and his co-accused.
Following an appeal by the state of Maharashtra at 4:00 pm on 14 October (Friday), Justice D Y Chandrachud, who would become the Chief Justice of India three days later (17 October), did not stay the High Court order, allowing for the matter to be listed on Monday. “He has got an order of acquittal in his favour. Even if we take it up on Monday, we cannot stay the order,” he said, as reported by Live Law.
Justice Chandrachud, however, allowed the solicitor general of India, Tushar Mehta, to move an application seeking an urgent listing on Saturday.
Following Mehta’s application to the registry, which handles case listings under instructions from the Chief Justice—U U Lalit at the time—a bench of Justices M R Shah and Bela R Trivedi convened on Saturday and stayed their immediate release, noting the charges against them were “very serious”, and the convictions could therefore not be set aside on a technicality.
Rejecting wheelchair-bound Saibaba’s plea for house arrest on medical grounds, the bench said, “as far as terrorist activities are concerned, the brain plays a very important role…A brain for such activities is very dangerous”.
Legal experts and civil society members expressed concern over the haste with which the Supreme Court suspended the Bombay High Court’s discharge order.
Supreme Court lawyer and constitutional law scholar Gautam Bhatia pointed out that these two justices did not normally sit together, and Justice MR Shah did not handle the criminal roster.
“As many, many people have pointed out, the Supreme Court sitting on a Saturday morning to “suspend” an order of discharge/acquittal and keep people in jail was historically unprecedented,” wrote Bhatia, also member of Article 14’s editorial board. “But even more troubling is the manner in which this ‘special’ bench trashed the vital procedural safeguards under the UAPA as mere technicalities.”
Speaking with Scroll, Mumbai-based criminal lawyer Yug Mohit Chaudhry said, “A judgement of acquittal is entitled to the greatest respect, and the liberty of an acquitted person cannot be stayed except in the most compelling circumstances, which in this case are completely absent.”
Speaking with NDTV on Sunday, Lalit, who retired on 17 October, said there was “nothing unusual” about how the matter came to be listed on Saturday.
Lalit said that he was not aware of Justice Chandrachud’s objection to an urgent hearing, contesting there was such an objection, and adding that he had first approached Chandrachud to be part of the bench, but he had prior commitments.
The retired chief justice said comments about the Supreme Court acting in a politically motivated manner were “absolutely unfair”.
Husband, Father, Professor
Hailing from Amalapuram in Andhra Pradesh, Vasantha and Saibaba met at a tuition class when they were about 15. Vasantha helped Saibaba with mathematics, and Saibaba helped Vasantha with English grammar.
“As mushy as it is, we have indeed been partners since we were very young,” said Vasantha, pulling out a drawing of a butterfly gifted to them by a common friend. Their childhood photographs were pasted on its wings.
Married in 1991, they are parents to a 25-year-old daughter, Manjeera, a literature student in Delhi.
“Sai was generally the cook in the house,” said Vasantha as she walked across the hall filled with books and CDs, glancing over at their favourite Telugu movie, Ankuram. “No one made fish curry as he did.”
Suffering from permanent post-polio paralysis since he was a child, Saibaba wore slippers in his hands and crawled for mobility till 2003, when they came to Delhi and bought a wheelchair.
His physical disability was never an impediment for him, said Vasantha, calling him the brightest in his class, an avid reader, and someone who believed in equality.
Saibaba joined the Ram Anand Lal College, Delhi University, in 2003 and worked as an assistant professor in the English language department for a decade. In 2014, he was suspended following his arrest by the Maharashtra police in the Maoist link case. His family received only half his salary until 31 March 2021, when he was terminated.
“The final decision in the case is yet to come out considering the appeal. Therefore, the college and university administration should not have taken this decision,” said Rajib Ray, president of the Delhi university’s teachers association, following the termination.
A Medical Ordeal
Over the years, social activists, academics and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) have expressed concerns about Saibaba’s incarceration without proper medical treatment.
On 28 June 2018, the OCHCR said, “We are concerned about reports that Dr Saibaba is suffering from more than 15 different health problems, some of which have potentially fatal consequences.”
“We would like to remind India that any denial of reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities in detention is not only discriminatory but may well amount to ill-treatment or even torture. In particular, solitary confinement should be prohibited when the conditions of prisoners with disabilities would be made worse by this measure,” the panel of human rights experts said.
On 30 April 2019, the panel of human rights experts urged the Indian government to release Saibaba due to his “seriously deteriorating health”.
On 28 July 2020, the Bombay High Court rejected his plea for a 45-day medical bail because his weak health made him extremely vulnerable to Covid-19 in jail.
Saibaba was infected twice with Covid-19, the first time in January 2021 and the second in February 2022.
On 5 July 2021, Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest, who was also alleged to be a ‘Maoist sympathiser’ and charged under the UAPA in the Bhima Koregaon case, died in custody at Taloja jail in Mumbai. Suffering from Parkinson’s disease and other age-related health ailments, his plea for bail on medical grounds was rejected several times before he took his last breath at the Holy Family Hospital in Mumbai.
The OHCHR said it was “devastating” and “a stain on India’s human rights record”.
Swine flu infected Saibaba in August 2022.
His co-accused, who was lodged at the Nagpur central jail, 33-year-old Pandu Narote, died of Swine Flu, breathing his last at the government medical college hospital on 25 August 2022.
Vasantha said that Saibaba had lost his mobility and upper body strength, unable to lift himself from the wheelchair to the bed or the toilet. She said that he was in solitary confinement, with no state assistance and only two fellow inmates who helped him move and, sometimes, even eat.
In May 2021, Saibaba’s brother, G Ramadevudu, and Vasantha wrote a letter to the Maharashtra Home Minister requesting two attendants to help Saibaba in jail.
In May 2022, Saibaba mounted a three-week-long protest, including a four-day hunger strike to get a plastic water bottle. He also protested against a wide-angle CCTV camera capturing the toilet and bathing area.
In a letter written to the Maharashtra Home Minister, Ramadevudu and Vasantha said, “His right to privacy, life and liberty is at risk because he cannot use the toilet, or take a bath, or change clothes in front of a camera that’s not only running 24 hours but also recording everything and [is] constantly watched in the office of the jail superintendent.”
An Indefinite Struggle
Explaining how cash-strapped she was without any earning member in the family, Vasantha said she is supported by family members, friends and civil society organisations.
Noting that travel by train was also a significant expense, Vasantha said that she had seen her husband twice in the past year—once in November 2021 and then in July 2022.
This trip became necessary in light of her husband’s first reaction when he heard of the Bombay High Court’s discharge order; Vasantha said, “He was so relieved. He distributed all his winter clothes to the other inmates.”
While she felt confident about packing everything her husband would need, Vasantha said she hoped to find the time to go to the market and buy him a white lungi before leaving.
“Sai would really like it,” she said.
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(Oishika Neogi is an independent journalist.)