Ex-prof GN Saibaba heads back to jail. Here's what activists have to say about political prisoners  

GN Saibaba, who was recently acquitted in the March 2017 case for alleged Maoist links, had his acquittal suspended recently by the SC  
Pic: EdexLive
Pic: EdexLive

After the Bombay High Court acquitted the ex-professor of Delhi University, GN Saibaba, from the 2017 case linking him to Maoists, the Maharashtra Government challenged the validity of the Bombay HC order and moved the Supreme Court. Following the suspension of the order by the Supreme Court, Devendra Fadnavis, the Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra, took to social media to tweet, “I thank Hon Supreme Court for suspending yesterday's order by Hon High Court to acquit #GNSaibaba who is involved in anti-national and anti-social activities. Hon SC ensures justice for the families of martyrs by today's decision.”

Protests in solidarity with GN Saibaba
As per reports, the 55-year-old, wheelchair-bound professor is 90% disabled and suffers from life-threatening ailments. Last year, Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist Father Stan Swamy died in jail as a political prisoner and well-wishers fear the same fate for Saibaba. Delhi University students staged protests on campus. AISA Delhi organised a public meeting at the Arts Faculty on October 15, to show solidarity with the former English professor, however, many students from the protest were later detained by the police. “What danger can an ailing professor pose to the citizens of this country?” asked Apeksha Priyadarshini, a PhD scholar at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, a Councillor of the Student Union and a prominent student activist against "draconian laws" like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).

Why are academicians a threat? 
Which brings us to the vital question, why are we seeing an increase in the number of academicians, students and scholars being taken as political prisoners? What is the role of an academician or a student in the politics of a country? EdexLive asked Safoora Zargar, a former MPhil student of Jamia Millia Islamia who was arrested for her involvement in the anti-CAA protests, and she had this to say, “The role of intellectuals and academicians in a democratic society is to promote critical thinking and therefore universities become a space of critical discussions where students can explore and engage with new and competing ideas and produce new knowledge. Academia is ineffective if it fails to produce public intellectuals, although it is not the only way to do so, and there is a need for critical debate and discussion in this process in which students also engage at all times — be it in the social, economic or the political sphere. The suppression of dissent and criticism of all kinds is a death knell to the production of knowledge and no country can grow without this. Historically, students and universities have been the first line of defence of democratic values and will continue to be so.”

Apeksha also spoke along the same lines, “When you come into higher education, you find yourself weaponed with one essential instrument and that is critical thinking. All political prisoners have always been professors, scholars or students even before 2014 because they have always been very ruthlessly critical against the operations of the government.” She further added, “A wheelchair-bound Saibaba is dangerous for the government today because of his mind. It threatens the very system that the government feeds off of.”

Is UAPA a necessary evil or necessarily an evil? 
As per The Wire reports, there has been a 72% rise in UAPA arrests from 2015; however, the conviction percentage only happens to be 2.2%. Safoora was pregnant when she was a political prisoner in Tihar Jail and was later granted bail on humanitarian grounds. “The only purpose of laws like UAPA, The Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act (PSA) and the National Security Act (NSA) is to bypass the due process of law to give unbridled power to the State," said Safoora, adding, "This is reflected in the meagre conviction rate in such trials. Increasing use of such laws only points to the growing authoritarianism of the State and the depreciation of democratic values.” The place of laws like UAPA in a modern democracy is debated over and over again.

“Colonial forces brought these laws with them and stopped using them in their own country but the colonised countries keep using it as a legacy of their colonial masters. They only play with the fundamental rights of individuals. We already have a system of criminal procedure to take action against individuals who are considered a threat,” said Apeksha.

Minorities and political imprisonment 
While most of these political prisoners are from academia, a large group of them also happen to be from the minority community. Apeksha finds that causal and not a happening in isolation at all. She said, “Only 0.1% of the population reach higher education and the marginalised among them have to cross far more series of discrimination to reach it. So, when they come here and finally get a platform to talk about the stigmas and issues they have faced, they can successfully engage the privileged kind to unlearn and check on their privileges. This creates a dynamic space that disrupts the segregation created by society which is dangerous for the government. This space of intervention becomes a threat for the government and hence these minorities become a larger threat for them.”

As GN Saibaba heads back to serve a longer time in jail, the country waits to see what fate awaits other political prisoners, especially Umar Khalid who will have his bail hearing on October 18. 

List of intellectuals and academicians who are still serving jail time 
Umar Khalid: A former student of Jawaharlal Nehru University, was booked under the UAPA for provocative speeches and inciting the violence of the 2020 Delhi Riots. Arrested in September 2020, Khalid is still in jail.

Meeran Haider: PhD student of Jamia Millia Islamia was arrested on April 1, 2020, for allegedly facilitating the Delhi Riots of 2020. 

GN Saibaba: This ex-professor of Delhi University’s English department was sentenced to life imprisonment in March 2017 for his alleged Maoist links and connections with banned political organisations. 

Sharjeel Imam: Arrested on January 28, 2020, for allegedly delivering inflammatory speeches and had five states ( Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Delhi) charge him with sedition. His speeches were mainly against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) of 2019 and the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

Gulfisha Fatima: Arrested on April 9, 2020, she was also charged with inciting the violence of the Delhi Riots under the disguise of peaceful protests. 

Shifa Ur Rehman: Arrested on April 26, 2020, he was the president of the Jamia Millia Alumni Association and was another individual booked for inciting the violence in the 2020 Delhi Riots. 

Varavara Rao: The ailing poet was arrested in August 2018 for the Bhima Koregaon violence.

Hany Babu: The Delhi University English Professor was arrested on July 28, 2020, by the National Investigation Agency for fuelling caste-based violence through inflammatory speeches.

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