The so-called largest democracy of the world—whose leader once saluted the persons with disabilities—continues persecuting a paralyzed social justice activist for standing up for the rights of oppressed communities.
On the International Day of Persons with Disabilities back in 2015, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi tweeted that there is lot to learn from the courage and spirit of people with disabilities.
He followed this up in 2016 with another tweet saluting people in this situation.
Yet under his government, wheelchair-using Delhi University professor G.N. Saibaba—who is 90 percent disabled below the waist—has been facing constant harassment.
Saibaba was recently slapped with life sentence for raising his voice against repression of indigenous peoples.
A court in the western state of Maharashtra convicted Saibaba on March 7 of helping the Communist Party of India (Maoist), a banned group that is locked in a class struggle with the Indian government. He is among six people found guilty under the controversial Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which many feel is a draconian law being excessively used to suppress a Maoist insurgency and any voice of dissent.
Saibaba had been in the eyes of storm for the past several years. As a social justice activist associated with the Revolutionary Democratic Forum, he has opposed attacks on indigenous peoples whose lands are being taken away by the extraction industry with the backing of the central government in India.
These are the same areas that fall into the “red corridor”, where Maoists are fighting an armed struggle with Indian forces. In the name of crushing the insurgency, Indian forces have been harassing indigenous peoples who face eviction from traditional lands that sit over rich minerals.
Saibaba was instrumental in mobilizing public opinion in urban areas against this repression, as well as against structural violence against Dalits [so-called "untouchables"] and religious minorities across India.
As a result of his actions, Saibaba was first arrested in May 2014 under the then Congress government led by former prime minister Manmohan Singh. Singh has described the Maoist movement as India's “biggest internal security threat”.
Back in 1991 as finance minister, Singh initiated the process of economic liberalization in India, an exercise that was in direct confrontation to the sustainable model of survival of indigenous communities.
In May 2014, Modi became prime minister as his right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party replaced the Congress regime. Since then Saibaba’s problems have only increased.
Following protests in his support across the world, including Canada, Saibaba was released on interim bail on medical grounds in July 2015. He has multiple health issues and had to live through inhuman conditions in the jail.
After his release, he was shifted to a hospital in New Delhi. Though his condition began improving, his bail was cancelled in December, 2015 and he was sent back to jail once more. Though he was released once again early this year, he has now been convicted.
In the meantime, he was not allowed to restart his work at Delhi University, partly under pressure from the BJP supporters who saw him as “antinational” and a “terrorist sympathizer”.
Once out of prison, he was forced to live in an open prison. Then he was ostracized by those blinded by patriotism. Even internationally acclaimed author Arundhatti Roy was hounded by the courts for writing in support of him.
Saibaba’s wife, Vasantha, fears there is a conspiracy to kill her husband through the legal system. She has insisted that her husband always worked within the constitutional framework of India based on the principles of democracy and free speech.
On March 12, Metro Vancouver-based Radical Desi organized a rally in his support at Holland Park in Surrey. About a dozen social justice activists showed up to protest against Saibaba's continued persecution and draconian laws being used against people like him.
Notably, Saibaba’s conviction came almost at the same time as another court acquitted Swami Aseemanand, a Hindu extremist preacher accused in connection with a series of bomb blasts targeting Muslims, including the Ajmer Sharif explosion.
Ajmer Sharif is a Muslim shrine targeted in 2007. The incident left three people dead and 15 injured.
Aseemanand allegedly wanted to avenge Islamic extremists by attacking Muslim shrines in retaliation for the bombings of Hindu temples. He is part of the movement that wants to turn India into a Hindu theocracy and has been active in the state of Gujarat, where he was accused of provoking violence against Christian missionaries.
Critics feel that his acquittal is a result of the growing pressure on the prosecution and judiciary to go slow against Hindu extremists. These critics have been anticipating acquittals of Hindu extremists in these cases ever since Modi became prime minister. For the record, Modi was chief minister of Gujarat when there was an anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002. Modi was widely seen in a picture with Aseemanand at the latter’s event.
The conviction of a disabled social justice activist—who always stood against the power and acquittal of a bigot who enjoys the backing of the state—clearly reveals the selective justice of the Indian court system.
Not surprisingly, police and the prosecution have always been ruthless in dealing with the Maoists' alleged supporters and members of the minority extremist groups, whereas leniency has been repeatedly shown toward Hindu nationalist groups that have been terrorizing minority communities.
If Aseemanand were a Muslim or a Sikh or even a Dalit or a tribal, in all probability he would have been killed in a staged shootout by the police. This is one of the extra-judicial methods used to crush violent movements.
Under Modi, the brutality of majoritarian democracy has intensified.
The suffering of Saibaba needs to be situated in the broader context of injustice being meted out to those who question the status quo and stand up for the underdog. Its a shame that men like Saibaba who should be rewarded for raising questions for the sake of the oppressed—and in spite of his disability—are being punished.
On the other hand, Hindu extremists who continue to divide people, kill innocents, and attack free expression in clear violation of the Indian constitution are not being seen as anti nationals.
It is actually figures like Aseemanand and Modi supporters, and not men like Saibaba, who are the real enemies of India.