On March 7, 2017, the Indian government installed metal detectors at the entrances of the district courthouse in Gadchiroli, Maharashtra, and stationed about 1,000 police officers outside. The increased security presence signaled the gravity of the case being adjudicated. The Maharashtra government was accusing GN Saibaba, a wheelchair-bound English professor at Delhi University—as well as an undergraduate student, a journalist, and three members of India’s Adivasi (indigenous) communities—of conspiring to wage war against India. The prosecution alleged that Saibaba, operating under various aliases, was a notorious kingpin of the Naxal rebels, a group of Maoist insurgents that emerged in East Bengal in the 1960s and that the government has called India’s “most serious threat to internal security.”
Saibaba’s defenders say the arrests were meant to send a chilling message to anyone who might criticize the government. Growing up the polio-stricken son of a rural South Indian farmer, Saibaba experienced prejudice firsthand, and so decided to devote his life to fighting for the rights of the most marginalized groups in India. Having delivered lectures across India and at universities in the United States and Brazil, Saibaba had become an internationally renowned activist against discrimination and caste-based oppression and for progressive causes including women’s rights.
While the previous ruling party, the Indian National Congress, was no ally of the country’s indigenous groups, the current Bharatiya Janata Party government has engaged in McCarthy-esque attacks against activists, especially those supporting the Adivasi. As Saibaba’s defense committee put it, “the present government has adopted a Terminator-like role in accelerating [the] annihilation of voices of resistance.”
Saibaba had been a leading critic of the military’s most recent anti-Naxal campaign, known as Operation Green Hunt, which has resulted in more than 2,000 civilian deaths since the crackdown began in 2009. Watchdog groups like Human Rights Watch have decried the extrajudicial killings, rapes, and desecration of civilian corpses committed by Indian soldiers and paramilitary forces. Saibaba—as well as Hem Mishra, the student; and Prashant Rahi, the journalist—spoke out against the campaign.
In 1967, indigenous tribes allied with the Naxals in an effort to protect their lands from government-backed corporate mining initiatives. For more than five decades, the Naxals have posed an impediment to various governments’ development agendas. The Indian National Congress violated Adivasi land rights and launched Operation Green Hunt, but, according to Surendra Gadling, Saibaba’s lawyer and a veteran defender of Adivasis, the Bharatiya Janata Party is much worse: “where the Congress was throwing rocks, the BJP is throwing bricks.”
Despite a decline in violence, by April 2017 the BJP had deployed more than 100,000 troops to India’s tribal belt—about the same number the United States had in Afghanistan at the height of the conflict in 2010.
In the early days of Operation Green Hunt, Saibaba created the Forum Against War on People, which attempted to shame the government and corporations for human-rights abuses in indigenous territories. And it was proving successful: One multinational corporation, POSCO—which signed a $12 billion iron-ore mining deal with the eastern state of Odisha in 2005—declined to renew its contract in 2010, citing the advocacy surrounding the fight to protect tribal lands.
The government says it has taken a “zero tolerance policy towards LWE [Left Wing Extremism]” and expanded its efforts against what it calls “Urban Naxalites,” a derogatory term used by India’s military establishment to refer to academics, journalists, and students critical of the government’s anti-Naxal operations.
As PK Vijayan, a professor at Delhi University, told me, “Saibaba’s ‘crime’ was that he was becoming really successful at making a noise around these issues, and forcing people to take notice of the incredible violence being perpetrated on people’s lives and property in the name of ‘development.’ ”
In the summer of 2017, in a small redbrick duplex off of South Delhi’s Nelson Mandela Road, I met AS Vasantha, Saibaba’s partner of 15 years. The couple had lived in the apartment since being evicted from Delhi University’s faculty housing in May 2014. Modest for the neighborhood and sparsely decorated, the house was overflowing with the couple’s books—many of them in their native language of Telugu. Atop their highest shelf sat a copy of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy, a fierce defender of Saibaba who was charged with contempt of court in 2015 for writing in support of the professor.
Vasantha told me of how their ordeal began on a mid-September afternoon in 2013. Saibaba had just returned home after a day of lecturing when a joint task force of local police and the country’s anti-terrorism unit raided their home.
More than 40 officers surrounded the building while seven rushed into the house, seizing the professor’s cell phone and blocking the entrances. “They were looking for all our books with red bindings,” Vasantha said, referring to the left-wing magazines and pamphlets strewn across the couple’s dining and coffee tables.
Confused and frustrated by the intrusion, Vasantha recalled, the couple yelled at the officers, “Why are you going after us?”—only to be met with stony silence. “They wouldn’t even tell us their names,” Vasantha said. Under Indian criminal law, searches and seizures must happen in the presence of a civilian witness; knowing this, the professor asked the investigating officer to allow his university colleagues or his lawyer to witness the search. The officers denied him on both counts. Instead, according to Vasantha, two illiterate barbers were stationed outside the residence and made to sign off on a seizure list they could not read.
The police confiscated laptops, hard drives, USB sticks containing the professor’s PhD work, three books he was writing, family photos, and even Saibaba and Vasantha’s 15-year-old daughter’s homework assignments. Speaking to the press after the raid, Saibaba was nonchalant. He told a local paper, “I’ve said I’m willing to cooperate and asked them to let me know the timing so my teaching is not disrupted.”
In the days after the raid, the Hindustan Times dubbed the campus “Protest Central” for the rallies organized by Saibaba’s colleagues and students to denounce the professor’s mistreatment. But while the university’s teachers’ union wrote to the Ministry of Home Affairs to condemn the investigation of their colleague, national attention was soon eclipsed by another event that month: Narendra Modi—a politician linked to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu-nationalist organization known for its protofascist sectarian ideology—was chosen as the BJP’s candidate for prime minister.
At the same time, Saibaba was beginning to grasp the extent of the charges against him. A few weeks prior, Mishra, a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, was arrested alongside two members of India’s indigenous community at a Maharashtra railway station. The investigating officer accused Mishra of being a Naxal courier carrying a letter intended for a guerrilla leader named Narmadakka, an infamous figure whom newspapers had reported killed in action nearly a year earlier.
According to the police, Mishra named Rahi, who was arrested a few weeks after him, as his accomplice, and Saibaba as the writer of the missive intended for Narmadakka. Mishra, for his part, would later deny carrying letters or implicating Saibaba and Rahi, telling reporters he was held in illegal detention for three days while police tortured him and demanded that he “confess [to] whatever I was being told, or else they would adopt ‘other means.’ ”
Then, in May 2014, as Saibaba was being driven home from proctoring an exam, a van knifed in front of his car, forcing the professor’s vehicle to an abrupt stop. A man dressed in civilian garb yanked the driver from his seat while two others flanked Saibaba in back; the car drove off.
Saibaba had told his wife he would be home by lunch; after 1 PM, Vasantha said, she tried calling him, “but the phone was giving me the switch-off dial tone.” It was possible, she thought, that he got caught up grading papers and his phone had run out of battery. But when she tried calling the driver, she heard the same busy signal.
A few hours later, Vasantha received a phone call. “Your husband has been arrested”—it was a man’s voice on the line. “What? Who are you?” Vasantha said she asked. The man refused to identify himself, telling her only that Saibaba was presently in the custody of the Maharashtra State Police. Before she could ask any more questions, he hung up.
Then, from the bathroom of New Delhi’s airport, Saibaba called home. Speaking with his daughter, he informed her that he had been arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, an anti-terrorism law that allows the government to curb peaceful assembly in the name of national security.
The police took him to Nagpur Central Prison in Maharashtra, where he would spend nearly two years as an undertrial, a kind of legal purgatory in which the accused remains imprisoned until the resolution of the case. Saibaba was held in the notorious anda cells. Reserved for the most notorious of criminals and terrorists, the anda is an egg-shaped barracks comprising several solitary-confinement units 10 feet in length and width. Anda cells have no windows, but their gates consist of iron bars, and therefore offer “no protection from the sun or the severe winter,” Arun Ferreira, an activist who spent five years as an undertrial in an anda cell, told me. In a city where winter temperatures can drop to nearly freezing and rise to well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, the anda cell is designed to crush its captives’ psyches.
Saibaba’s detention in May 2014 marked the start of a nearly three-year trial that would lay bare the fragility of Indian democracy. That month, Modi swept to a landslide victory. Once internationally denounced for his role as chief minister during the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, in which more than a thousand people were killed, Modi was now being heralded as India’s Ronald Reagan. “It’s Morning in India,” sang Business Insider, echoing the slogan that precipitated years of deregulation in the United States.
Meanwhile, in prison, Saibaba’s health was deteriorating rapidly. One day, when Vasantha and the couple’s daughter went to visit him, separated by a fiberglass window, Vasantha noticed Saibaba was too weak to lift the handset of the prison’s intercom. Solitary confinement and medical neglect in prison had apparently caused additional muscular damage to his arms.
The professor tried to assure her that he was fine, shifting the conversation to their daughter’s schooling and to a translation he was secretly working on: that of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Dreams in a Time of War into Telugu. In his anda cell, Saibaba would write on reams of paper hidden from the prison guards—much like the Kenyan author himself, who secretly wrote on toilet paper while incarcerated for his outspoken political beliefs.
While Saibaba languished, the Modi government began reforming the country’s intellectual and cultural establishment to suit the Hindu-supremacist vision of the RSS. While the BJP appointed several RSS-affiliated members to high positions in India’s cultural and educational institutions, its student wing—the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP)—began to muzzle dissent on campus. “There is an ideological cleansing being attempted in Delhi’s universities,” Nandita Narain, a math professor at Delhi University and the former head of the Delhi University Teachers’ Union, told me.
In April 2016, after he was granted bail, Saibaba returned to visit his students and appeal for his reinstatement, but he faced the sorts of slurs that are now a familiar part of Indian public life. ABVP members shouted insults, labeling Saibaba a “desh-drohi,” or traitor, as others tried to physically attack him. Students who supported him formed a human chain around the disabled professor to protect him, but during the scuffle he was burned by a cup of scalding tea. Administrators chastised Saibaba for returning to campus, and the professor’s appeal for reinstatement was denied.
Even though Saibaba wanted to resume teaching, his health was too precarious. Prison had degenerated his spinal cord, and his left arm had all but stopped functioning. Doctors warned that he was also developing a heart condition. Much of Saibaba’s time outside of prison was spent in the hospital. Unable to teach and receiving only half his salary under suspension, Saibaba began racking up debt.
On March 6, 2017, the day before his sentencing, Saibaba was receiving treatment for gallstones. According to the professor’s colleagues, doctors urged Saibaba to skip the sentencing and have surgery. But Saibaba was confident that going to court was only a formality.
The prosecution’s case was crumbling. While they claimed Saibaba had written various letters, they provided no evidence that he had ever used any of the names that had been signed on those documents; the confessions used to implicate the professor had been retracted as the accused claimed they were the results of torture; and the defense argued the police had tampered with the evidence collected from the professor’s home, as they hadn’t even brought evidence bags to seal the material, relying on plastic bags from the couple’s kitchen to carry the material away.
Most controversially, the prosecution claimed the Revolutionary Democratic Front, an organization dedicated to various progressive causes, in which Saibaba held the position of joint secretary, was actually a Maoist front. While admitting it shares similar concerns for Adivasi rights, the RDF has denied any association with the banned Maoist Party. For his part, Saibaba has also condemned Naxal violence, having written a piece in 2010, titled “Revolutionaries Do Not Kill Policemen,” that denounced the murder of a police officer by Maoists.
During the trial, Saibaba told his Delhi University colleagues that the judge seemed sympathetic to his predicament, even friendly. During recesses, Saibaba said, they would converse about matters of law and justice, and the judge would tell him, reassuringly, “I’m the best judge you can have.”
Saibaba told the doctor he would have the surgery at the end of the week.
On the day of the verdict, the once friendly judge entered the courtroom and made no eye contact with the professor or the other defendants. It took just five minutes for the judge to read his decision—all six defendants were guilty. Five of them, including Saibaba, were sentenced to life in prison. The professor was shocked. No one who knows Saibaba says they can believe that he had plotted “many arsons, murders, and abductions.” Writing to me from prison, Saibaba told me, “Even the senior police officers who attended the trial…couldn’t control themselves but to laugh at the kind of evidence that came up before the court.”
Saibaba was once again condemned to an anda cell—this time indefinitely.
One paper, the Financial Chronicle, quoting the case’s lead prosecutor, called the judgment “historic…a legal strike on white-collar naxalism.” In a local news outlet, Maharashtra’s chief minister, RSS member Devendra Fadnavis, can be seen handing Saibaba’s arresting officer a bouquet of roses, thanking him for his “painstaking investigation.”
Saibaba’s lawyer, Gadling, told me, “The word ‘acquittal’—it doesn’t even show up in the judgment. In all sections, 100 percent convictions.”
Gadling, like Saibaba, said he was expecting the case to be thrown out. But when the sentencing was read, he was even more surprised. Despite the lack of evidence of violence or any connection to the Naxal movement, all of the defendants were convicted on all of the counts. When I asked Gadling whether he thinks an upcoming bail hearing for one of Saibaba’s co-accused, the journalist Rahi, would be successful, he interrupted me, answering with optimism—“100 percent.”
Achieving bail for Rahi would create a precedent for Saibaba’s release. But after several delays, when the hearing finally happened last January, Rahi’s bail was denied, making Gadling’s case for Saibaba even more difficult. “What to do?” Gadling would write to me—a refrain I heard him repeat often when he knew the path ahead was daunting.
Gadling has now also found himself in the crossfire of the ruling party. On April 17, Maharashtra security forces raided his Nagpur home. Gadling told me, “It is intimidation tactics by the RSS-backed police,” adding that he hoped it wouldn’t hurt Saibaba’s case, though he conceded that “it has paralyzed me as an advocate because my computer has been seized containing all material related to my profession.”
But, he said, he’s not giving up. “Such is life of those who fight,” he told me. “I’m going to keep my battle in court.”
Through Gadling and the professor’s family, I started writing letters to Saibaba. In our first exchange, Saibaba confirmed rumors that he wasn’t receiving the medicine necessary for his survival: “When I wrote a complaint letter to jail higher officials…I have gotten threats on my life.”
He told me that he longs to go back to academia: “Because of my disability it took a lot of time for me to establish a base for my studies,” Saibaba wrote, referring to the early discrimination he felt as a wheelchair-bound academic. Before his conviction, the professor was mentoring seven PhD candidates and writing a book about 200 years of Indian literature written in English. Now, he wrote me, “All my dreams and plans have been scuttled. Many a time I feel despaired sitting alone in my solitary cell. The more I think about all this, the more I get despaired.”
If the current regime is to have its way, Saibaba will officially no longer be a professor soon. Last May, he received a letter from the university threatening to end his contract. Narain and Vasantha spoke on the professor’s behalf to the school board in November, reiterating his credentials and their hope that his case would be resolved soon. But on February 2, a university official visited Saibaba in prison and warned of impending termination.
“An inertia has set in on campus,” Narain told me. Teachers are fatigued by the number of threats to campus freedom. She said she fears professors are starting to self-censor: “They’ve thrown out the activist. Nobody knows when someone will turn up at your doorstep and pump you off.”
Meanwhile, professors are asked to attend refresher courses patrolled by the ABVP, in which high-ranking members of the RSS espouse a Hindu-supremacist ideology. On some occasions Narain has also noticed plainclothes officers sitting in on seminars.
“Education has become like the tribal belt,” Narain said, referring to the militarized atmosphere on campus.
In his last letter to me, at the peak of winter in December, Saibaba mused on the weather inside his cell: “I must say it’s a great architecture, when you need the sun there is no sun at all. When you try to protect yourself from the sun, the sun is all over you.” These days Saibaba still writes poetry about his desire to reunite with his family and to return to the classroom.
But when it came time to answer my questions, despite releasing statements on controversial issues from prison in the past, the professor told me he now had to choose his words carefully: “If I want my letter to reach you, I better censor my own words.”
I asked Saibaba about a rumor I’d heard: that during his time as an undertrial, officers had admitted they didn’t have a case against him and would make everything stop if he signed a letter denouncing his activism. In response, the professor wrote, “I can’t say much more than this. I was threatened to cease my activism. If I accepted those terms, I wouldn’t have been here waiting for my miserable end.”
Despite little victories, like the publication of his translation of Ngugi in February, prison has been hard on Saibaba. Since March 2017, he has developed 19 additional ailments, apart from his disability. He can barely read now—fainting from exhaustion when he tries to exert himself either mentally or physically. His gallstone surgery is now more than a year overdue.
“Waiting is a game, a cruel game. Pain and suffering consume [me],” he writes toward the end of our last exchange. “I once again thank you for your letter. Unfortunately I can’t write more than this. My hands heart and mind are under fetters.”
In the months since I first met Vasantha in December 2017, she has grown frailer. “I’m not doing well,” she told me recently. “There was hope. But all the hope has washed away.”
Vasantha, who met Saibaba when they were teenagers, had dedicated the majority of her adult life to his care. “This is the first time we’ve been apart this long,” she said. “It hurts for us—I write to him and he writes to me. In five years this case has tortured us physically and mentally.”
During our first encounter she seemed galvanized by the injustice to her partner; she now seems fearful, wrestling with the thought of losing him forever. Appeals to the country’s home minister and requests to transfer Saibaba to a prison in their home state of Telangana have fallen on deaf ears.
In the couple’s last exchange, Saibaba complained that he was in “extreme pain” in his abdomen and left hand. Urinating had also become extremely painful. Vasantha worries how long he will last. “It won’t be easy—even if he comes out—” she said, swallowing her words, “for him to stay alive.” Her hopes turn to the professor’s poetry and writing. “Our letters and books—that’s some respite,” she told me. “Without his books, he wouldn’t be alive.”