The story so far: In the 24 hours between October 14 and 15, former Delhi University professor G.N. Saibaba, was first acquitted by the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court citing a procedural lapse in the Maoist-links case followed by the suspension of his acquittal the next afternoon by a special Bench of the Supreme Court, which stated that the High Court did not consider “the merits of the case including the gravity of the offence”. The acquittal of five other accused persons along with the academic was also suspended.
Who is G.N. Saibaba?
Gokalkonda Naga Saibaba, 55, is a former professor at Delhi University’s Ram Lal Anand College and was terminated from service by the college in March 2021. The college had suspended him in 2014 when the activist-academic was arrested in Delhi for having alleged Maoist links.
Mr. Saibaba was born in Amalapuram, Andhra Pradesh, in 1967. He completed his Masters in Arts from Hyderabad and joined the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages to pursue a postgraduate diploma in teaching English in 1991. Mr. Saibaba has been wheelchair-bound since 2008, has been crawling since the age of five because of polio and suffers from medical ailments. According to his family and lawyers, his left hand is presently on the verge of failure,with acute pain spreading to both hands. He suffers from pancreatitis, high blood pressure, cardiomyopathy, chronic back pain, immobility and sleeplessness.
In an interview with The Hindu during a brief three-month period in 2015when he was out on bail for medical treatment, the former professor said that in the 1990s, he started off as a pro-reservation activist against attempts to scrap the reservation policy for lower-caste Indians. He then began campaigning against the Andhra Pradesh Police for what he called “encounter killings” of innocents and Naxalites. He also campaigned against Chattisgarh’s Salwa Judum militia of tribal youths that was mobilised by authorities as a part of the counterinsurgency mission against Naxalites and was declared illegal and unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2011.
After teaching in a college in the State for a decade, he moved to Delhi in the early 2000s and began teaching English Literature at Delhi University in 2003. It was also around this time that he began campaigning against the military offensives in tribal areas. He later campaigned in central India’s tribal belt against the Congress government’s Operation Green Hunt, a military offensive aimed at flushing out Maoist rebels.
On May 9, 2014, when Mr. Saibaba was on his way home from the University, he was arrested by a joint team comprised of the Maharashtra police, Andhra Pradesh police, and the Intelligence Bureau in a case pertaining to ties with Maoist organisations. The morning after his arrest, Professor Saibaba was flown to Nagpur, where the District Magistrate remanded him to custody in prison. Besides being out on bail on medical grounds for brief periods, the academic has been lodged in the Nagpur Central Jail since 2014, being moved to the jail’s ‘anda cell’ (solitary confinement) since his conviction on March 7, 2017.
What was G.N Saibaba convicted for in 2017?
In February 2017, a sessions court in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district convicted Mr. Saibaba and five others for having connections with and being “active members” of the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist) and the Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF), described by the police and the court order as a front for CPI(M). While the Mr. Saibaba and four others were sentenced to life imprisonment, the sixth accused was given a 10-year term.
The allegations against Mr. Saibaba were that he was “arranging” meetings of two other accused- former Jawaharlal Nehru University student Hem Mishra and former journalist Prashant Rahi with “underground members” of CPI(M) and RDF. Two residents of Maharashtra- Mahesh Tirki and Pandu Narote, described as agriculturalists in the order, were allegedly told to help Mr. Mishra and Mr. Rahi reach Maoist leaders inside the forests of Gadchiroli and the Abujhmad division of Dandakaranya.
Before his arrest in 2014, the police conducted a search at Mr. Saibaba’s Delhi residence; the sessions court order noted that Mr. Saibaba possessed “hard disks, laptops, pen drives, CDs, DVDs, booklets, memory cards containing Maoist literature” and “promotional literature of terrorist organisation” CPI(M) in the form of “booklets, pamphlets, correspondence, writings, reports of meetings, letters, speeches in audio, video, and text formats” in the mentioned electronic devices. The police said that Mr. Saibaba and Mr. Mishra were using the promotional literature to circulate among CPI(M) and RDF members and other people for “creating violence and causing public disorder”. The police also said that two of the accused had given confessional statements about Mr. Saibaba.
The police alleged that all six accused had “hatched a criminal conspiracy to wage war against the Government of India” and the Gadchiroli court stated in its 2017 judgement that the prosecution had established that all six accused belonged to CPI(M) and RDF.
All six accused persons, including professor Saibaba, were convicted under Sections 13, 18, 20, 38 and 39 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and Section 120B of the Indian Penal Code for engaging in unlawful activities, conspiracy, being members of terrorist gang or organisation and supporting a terrorist organisation.
Despite pleas by Mr. Saibaba’s lawyer for relief on medical grounds, the Gadchiroli Sessions Judge S. S. Shinde said: “Merely because accused no.6 Saibaba is 90% disabled is no ground to show him leniency and though he is physically handicapped but he is mentally fit and he is a think tank and high-profile leader.”
The court said that because of the “violent activities” of the accused and the Maoist organisations, Gadchiroli district was in a “paralyzed condition” till date and “no industrial and other developments” were taking place due to “fear of Naxals and their violent activities”.
What has the former DU professor said about the charges against him?
S.P Gading, Mr. Saibaba’s lawyer in the sessions court proceedings, argued that the evidence submitted by the police could not be relied upon as the panchnama made while collecting items from the professor’s house in 2013 was not sealed and the police had taken an illiterate person as a panch witness. The lawyer had thus argued that the material and devices seizedfrom Mr. Saibaba’s Delhi residence were not the same as those submitted as evidence. Notably, he added that the hash value of the files in the devices was not taken during the seizure, making them vulnerable to tampering.
After the 2017 sessions court verdict, A.S. Vasantha Kumari, Mr. Saibaba’s wife said: “This judgement is shocking. No evidence has been proved by the prosecution; electronic evidence is not sealed. It seems that the State and Central governments have put a lot of pressure on the judiciary to implement anti-people and undemocratic policies at the behest of corporates and MNCs. The governments have selectively suppressed the voices of people to plunder the resources of this country.”
In his 2015 conversation with The Hindu while out on bail for three months,, Mr. Saibaba said that his nationwide campaign in tribal areas against the government’s Operation Green Hunt started to bite the government, with several international investors withdrawing investments from the tribal belt. He said that he had enough evidence suggesting that the ruling class wanted access to the resources of tribals no matter what and that the authorities decided that “the best way to stop me was to throw me in jail.”
“The evidence was that the police had found some press statements [of Maoist leaders] from my pen drive,” he said. “Another piece of evidence was that I had written a letter to some top Maoist leader. To this day, the police never showed me that letter.”
In 2019, when Mr. Saibaba’s medical bail plea was rejected by the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court, citing that his “offences are serious in nature”, Ms. Vasantha said: “I know why Saibaba is suffering, because he stood for the rights of Dalits and Adivasis and other minorities. There is no democracy left. He is in prison for his ideology.”
What happened in the High Court and Supreme Court proceedings since 2014?
Before the 2017 conviction, Mr. Saibaba was granted bail on medical grounds twice- first by the Bombay High Court in 2015 and then by the Supreme Court in 2016. After his conviction, his lawyers filed multiple bail and suspension of sentence pleas with the Nagpur Bench of the High Court, which rejected the requests in 2019 and 2020. Mr. Saibaba’s ailing mother passed away last year while he was in prison. Professor Saibaba also contracted COVID-19.
As for last week, Mr. Saibaba’s acquittal by the Bombay High Court was short-lived as the Maharashtra government rushed to the Supreme Court within hours of the High Court order on Friday, October 14.
The High Court found that sanction for Mr. Saibaba’s prosecution under UAPA was non-existent at the time the Gadchiroli court took cognisance of the case and when charges were framed against him. Owing to this procedural lapse, the division Bench of justices Rohit Deo and Anil Pansare deemed the sessions court order convicting Mr. Saibaba null and void.
"Empirical evidence suggests that departure from the due process of law fosters an ecosystem in which terrorism burgeons and provides fodder to vested interests whose singular agenda is to propagate false narrative," the High Court judgement said.
The next day, however, the special bench of Supreme Court Justices M.R. Shah and Bela Trivedi assembled on a non-working day and suspended the High Court order, citing that the High Court had found a “shortcut” by discharging the accused on the basis of invalid sanction and not going into the merits of the case.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta argued for the Maharashtra government that going by Section 465 of the CrPC, any error, omission or irregularity in the matter of sanction would not vitiate the trial. He said that the reason for the provision sanction is that the accused should not undergo a vexatious trial, but in this case “a full-fledged trial” had found the person guilty.
The High Court on Friday had concluded, however, that while dealing with special laws such as the UAPA, every safeguard provided by the legislature, however small, must be protected zealously.
The Supreme Court Bench also rejected a request by Mr. Saibaba’s lawyer to transfer him to house arrest on health grounds.