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.