Gurpreet Singh: On World Book Day, give yourself a collection of poems and letters by a jailed Indian scholar
Former Delhi University professor G.N. Saibaba keeps his spirits up by continuing to write as he's being persecuted by the state
The recently published Why Do You Fear My Way So Much? is a must-read for anyone who still believes in the myths of the world’s so-called largest democracy.
It's a compilation of poems and letters from prison by G.N. Saibaba, a physically challenged former Delhi University professor who is being incarcerated under inhuman conditions. The book reveals how someone can be thrown in jail in India for merely questioning power.
Saibaba was first arrested in 2014 under trumped-up charges for his advocacy for the rights of the Adivasis (Indigenous peoples). They're being evicted from their traditional lands by the extraction industry with the backing of the Indian state. He has also been vocal against growing persecution of religious minorities under the current right-wing Hindu nationalist government.
Saibaba was accused of being a Maoist sympathizer, mainly because communist insurgents, who are fighting a class war, are active in the tribal areas.
In 2017, he was sentenced to life in prison and has been repeatedly denied bail during the pandemic—even to visit his ailing mother, who later died without seeing her son for one last time. He was not even given permission to attend her last rites. This was all despite his being disabled below the waist and suffering multiple health issues.
Why Do You Fear My Way So Much (published by Speaking Tiger) offers insights on his jail conditions and his sorrow over the continued separation from his wife, Vasantha, as well as his profession of teaching. A letter he wrote to his fellow teachers and students shows how much he misses his classroom.
The most painful part is that the jail authorities often denied him and his wife permission to exchange letters in their mother language of Telugu because of censorship issues. This is despite Telugu being an Indian and not a foreign language.
Being a teacher of English literature, he never gives up on his creative writing and keeps himself aware of the political situation outside jail. For instance, he wrote one letter to Anjum, a central character in world-renowned author Arundhati Roy’s latest novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Roy has been raising her voice for Saibaba through her writings and public speeches.
He also penned poems for some activist friends who passed away during his jail time. One is dedicated to the Adivasis who have been resisting the power and hegemony of the dominant Hindu society for centuries.
The powerful introduction by Vasantha gives an idea of what shaped his ideology and how passionate he has been for teaching and working as a human rights defender. It tells the story of the beginning of their relationship and how it has matured over the years of struggle for change and a just society. It goes into the details of how Saibaba became a person with a disability because of polio during his childhood and how he worked hard against all odds to finish his education, eventually becoming a voice of the voiceless. Vasantha also sheds light on how his wheelchair was broken during his arrest.
Apart from being a narrative about the plight of a political prisoner, his poems give hope to those who have endured so much state violence and high-handedness in their fight for social justice. That Saibaba remains in high spirits in the face of such brutality should encourage the able-bodied and those living a good life to remain optimistic and carry forward his mission by using their freedom and privilege.
On April 23, which is World Book Day, consider gifting yourself with Saibaba’s book. Show your solidarity with him and other political prisoners whose rights are being trampled by the tyrants in New Delhi.