There was excitement and anticipation as former Delhi University Professor G. N. Saibaba entered the room in his wheelchair. Accompanied by his wife Vasantha Kumari, daughter, Communist Party of India (CPI) leader D. Raja amongst others, Prof. Saibaba smiled and waved at a few friends he recognised in the audience.

“Dear friends,” he spoke the first words calmly and took a pause. “I am not able to understand. I still feel I am there in the dystopian anda cell. I am not able to come to terms with the reality that is in front of me even now after 24 hours of release,” Saibaba said while addressing the media in Delhi.

After getting released from Nagpur Central Jail, Saibaba landed in Delhi on Thursday and addressed the media on Friday.

On March 5 2024, the Bombay High Court acquitted former Delhi University professor G. N. Saibaba and ordered his release. In their order they noted that there was no evidence found that could tie Saibaba to the terrorism charges he had formerly been convicted for.

“No evidence has been led by the prosecution by any witness to any incident, attack, act of violence or even evidence collected from some earlier scene of offence where a terrorist act has taken place, in order to connect the accused to such act...,” the Bombay High Court observed.

After almost 10 years of struggle, Saibaba sat down as a free man but the reality, he said, was yet to sink in.

“I am not able to adjust to the surroundings. I only looked at closed walls for all the seven years. And earlier I was in the same cell for 17 months. Altogether for eight years, since the case was instituted 10 years ago, I was in the same cell,” he said.

Prof. Saibaba was arrested in 2014, and subsequently convicted for terror-related offences, under the stringent UAPA (which makes grant of bail virtually impossible) in an alleged Maoist-links case.

One of the major points that all the people accused in the case averred was that the case was fabricated. For 10 years, with no concrete evidence and case still under trial, Prof. Saibaba, who is 90 percent disabled, languished behind the bars far away from home. He also lost his job as a DU professor.

“Perhaps the entire world knew that the case was fabricated even 10 years ago. But there was no relief even after the higher judiciary acquitted me. It was like an agni Pariksha, Sita phase. We had to go through Sita’s ‘agni pariksha’ twice,” he said.

Continuing with the same metaphor, Saibaba said that he passed the ‘agni pariksha’ or trial by fire, twice and is now in front of his family and loved ones.

In October 2022, the Bombay High Court cited an absence of adequate, legal sanction and ordered his discharge and immediate release. However, before the former professor could even take a step out of jail, the Supreme Court sat, that too on a Saturday, and suspended the High Court order.

“One judgement of the higher judiciary acquitting us was not enough. The higher judiciary itself is tested and we came out successfully. The higher judiciary also came out successfully though justice was delayed,” Prof. Saibaba added.

Calling out the judiciary for delayed justice and the whole trial as the process of punishment, he said that he is happy to be out.

“The only institution that was left out to test for democracy was the judiciary. I am not in a position to speak or even sit. I am sitting before you with shooting pains in my body,” he added.

Prof. Saibaba went on to thank the press averring that while the mainstream media went on with the propaganda, daily newspapers and the alternative media supported his family.

“I thank the press who supported us. There were some who supported us. This could be felt inside the cell as well. I could feel hope because of the press. Truth and facts were supported by a large section of the media. My family survived with hope because of you. This is precisely the reason instead of going to the doctor, I came here first,” he said.

With tears pooling in his eyes, Prof. Saibaba talked about how he was tagged as a terrorist due to which his whole family suffered.

“I want to thank you for not leaving my family alone when it was stigmatised when they were calling me a terrorist. Not only me behind the prison but my entire family was stigmatised. My family could sustain and stand up because of your support.

“This has become the biggest political case in the country where the persecution wanted to suppress by using all kinds of illegal and immoral means. It was a long struggle for the lawyers,” he said.

Speaking about one his lawyers, Surendra Gadling, who himself is in jail for another case related to Elgar Parishad, Prof. Saibaba said that it was because of him that his case became stronger and it breaks his heart to see him behind bars.

“Surendra Gadling is languishing behind the bars only for one reason, he stood for me and he argued most effectively in the sessions court during the trial. A human rights lawyer with 35 years of experience, he presented before the court in such a way that there was nothing in the case,” he said.

Surendra Gadling is a Nagpur-based human rights lawyer and general secretary of the Indian Association of People’s Lawyers. Gadling was known to handle cases of illegal killings, police brutality, and atrocities against Dalits and Adivasis.

On June 6, 2018, Gadling was arrested and charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967, for distributing controversial pamphlets and delivering hate speeches that allegedly instigated the Bhima Koregaon violence.

“During the trial certain police officers appeared and threatened Gadling saying after Saibaba we will see you. While I was convicted and within a few months Gadling was arrested in another fabricated case. And he is languishing in jail for more than five years now,” Prof. Saibaba said, adding that Gadling has developed a heart condition, despite which medicines were denied to him.

Taking the case of Gadling Saibaba said that “same thing happened with me. I wanted to share my story of 10 years of suffering, he added.

He spoke about the time when he used to fall unconscious in jail and to not let that happen the jail authorities only gave him one medicine. Saibaba said that before he went to prison, despite having polio, he had no prior health conditions.

“There was no accessibility within that anda cell. The wheelchair could not go to the toilet and there was no facility for disabled people. Two Adivasi boys used to carry me to the toilet every time. They lifted me to take me to the toilet and to give me a bath,” he said.

Speaking about the inhuman conditions, Prof. Saibaba said that there were no ramps and he had to be lifted even when someone came to visit him, including online visits.

“I could not even go and fetch a glass of water. The wheelchair does not move within the cell. A person who was forced into the jail without any health problems, except my childhood polio and today even though alive, each and every organ is failing me,” Prof. Saibaba said.

He further talked about how he developed heart, kidney and other conditions. He said that his left hand has also stopped working as the police who had come to arrest him at the time, “had dragged” him, due to which the nerves of his arm were affected.

“I survived, but I don’t know how I survived. Perhaps, (it was) only hope that I can come back one day and work for the same people that I have been working for, including my friends and comrades, who have been standing with me even after 10 years of suffering,” he said, his voice choking.

Prof. Saibaba also spoke about Pandu Narote, a young activist arrested under the same draconian UAPA, who died on August 22, 2022 at the government-run medical college in Nagpur allegedly due to swine flu. He was 33.

“Narote died in custody due to a simple fever. How could he die of a mere fever in this modern world of medicine,” Saibaba asked.

He further said that Narote did not even know the meaning of judgement and came from a very humble Adivasi family. “He never went outside his village. He died in front of my eyes.

“Despite many reminders, he was not taken to the hospital till the last moment, where he was bleeding profusely from his eyes and there was blood in his urine as well… This is state murder, you can’t just say he died of swine flu,” Prof. Saibaba said, trying to hold back tears.

But it was the death of his mother that broke Prof. Saibaba as he narrated his ordeal of how he was even denied permission to perform the last rites of his dead mother.

“My mother passed away in 2020 when I was still in jail. Being a disabled child, my mother brought me up with great care. She took me in her arms to the school. She said my child should get an education.

“When she died, I was not allowed to see her one last time. I was denied parole. After her death I was denied [permission] to attend her funeral. I was denied parole at every level by prison authorities, government and courts,” Prof. Saibaba said as tears filled his eyes.

Speaking about human rights, he said that no human being should be denied that. “My mother was an illiterate poor woman and I was a professor at DU only because of her. She died because I was implicated in this case and incarcerated without any facts. Till her last breath she said, she wanted to see me but was even denied that,” he added.

Prof. Saibaba went on to further say that in the country a poor Adivasi and Dalit woman only wants one thing and that is the dream of educating her child.

“The state is there to serve the people. The state should not be there to punish the people and crush humanity,” he added.

Along with Prof. Saibaba five others were acquitted by the court that included Hem Mishra, Mahesh Tirkey, Vijay Tirkey, Narayan Sanglikar, Prashant Rahi and Pandu Narote (deceased).

Mishra, an activist and former student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) also flew into Delhi and addressed the media.

Mishra said that he is not able to still believe that he is out of jail and everything feels unreal. “In the country those who are raising voice against social injustice and a need for an agrarian society, are all being arrested and pushed inside the jail. These seven years were very difficult but when I saw Saibaba and others who were incarcerated in the case and how they were surviving, I got strength,” Mishra said.

Mishra also talked about how many people do not have proper aid and their freedom cannot be fulfilled without them. “While coming here, I was thinking what next? But then I also thought if we don’t stop fighting then how will things change,” he added.

Father Stan Swamy who was also accused in the same case lost his life as an incarcerated under-trial. The Jesuit priest was 84 years old and suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and his health had continued to crumble significantly during his imprisonment.

His pleas for bail were rejected several times. Weeks before his death, Stan Swamy had told the Bombay High Court that all he wanted was to go home. He was also denied a sipper to drink water and has become one of the most inhuman under-trial cases.

Meanwhile, the Bombay High Court said that the accused could be released from prison upon deposit of ₹50,000 each as bail bonds till the Supreme Court decides State's appeal.

In its court order, the Bombay High Court said that the prosecution failed to prove any concrete evident from the electronic devices seized.

“The prosecution case solely rests on the electronic evidence seized from the possession of the accused… This being the case, the prosecution failed to prove beyond any doubt that the computer hard disk or any other devices attached during the search conducted at the residence of G. N. Saibaba were secure electronic record in terms of Section 85-B of the Evidence Act.

“For that reason, we are of the opinion that the evidence/information produced…would not be admissible and could not be relied upon,” the order read.

The court also pointed out that mere possession of literature of certain kind (in this case Maoist philosophy or documents related to certain tribal groups) having a particular political and social philosophy by itself is not contemplated as an offence under the UAPA.

“Though a great deal of electronic evidence is produced in the form of printed/hard copies of the content storied in digital form or in the nature of video footage, no evidence has been led by any witness identifying the various persons in these videos or deposing as to the specific statements made by such persons and quoting them, or how these statements or actions in videos constitute material to make out an offence under the Act.

“Playing several videos or requesting the Court to read through hundreds of pages of literature does not constitute evidence. In our opinion, there should have been specific evidence led through witnesses to connect with the making out of an offence. In the absence of any depositions to this effect, we are afraid we cannot consider all this footage to be evidence,” the HC said in its order.

The court added that the police claims and allegations of conspiracy to wage war against the government or advocated arms struggle, has no material evidence.

Meanwhile, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) told the Supreme Court on Thursday that human rights activist Gautam Navlakha, who has been accused in the Bhima Koregaon case as well, is liable to pay Rs 1.64 crore as the cost of his security during his house arrest.

In response, Navlakha’s counsel Nitya Ramakrishnan accused the central counter-terrorism agency of “extortion”.

“We have contested this amount and the matter needs to be heard,” Ramakrishnan said in court. “They cannot demand one crore [rupees] from citizens for keeping them in custody.”

Additional Solicitor General S. V. Raju responded on the agency’s behalf that Navlakha must first make the payment, claiming that the activist has so far only paid Rs 10 lakh toward the expenses of his house arrest. “Citizens are not entitled to house arrest,” Raju said.

The Supreme Court is considering Navlakha’s plea for shifting the location of his house arrest in Mumbai, along with the agency’s plea challenging Navlakha’s bail order given by the Bombay High Court on December 19.

The Bench said that the dispute over the Rs 1.64 crore that is being claimed by the National Investigation Agency will be adjudicated in a hearing in April, until which time he will remain in the agency’s custody.

All Photographs NIKITA JAIN