Neither his academic achievements nor the health status of Prof. Saibaba had persuaded the lower court into taking a lenient view
In a welcome judgment, the Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court has finally set aside a 2017 judgment, which awarded life sentences to ailing, wheelchair-bound academic Prof. G.N. Saibaba of the Delhi University, and a few others, for alleged links with banned Maoists.
A high court division bench, comprising Justices Rohit Deo and Anil Pansare, allowed the appeal filed by G.N. Saibaba, challenging a 2017 order of the trial court in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district, convicting him of activities under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and charges of criminal conspiracy under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and sentencing him to life imprisonment, and acquitted him.
Of the five people sentenced along with Prof. Saibaba and acquitted on Friday, Vijay Tikri was already released on bail but he was not serving a life sentence, being a first-time offender, and Pandu Narote died in jail recently, due to strongly alleged negligence. The remaining, Mahesh Tirki, Hem Mishra and Prashant Rahi, have now been ordered to be released from the central jail in Nagpur.
While, neither his academic achievements nor the health status of Prof. Saibaba had persuaded the lower court into taking a lenient view, the present judgment came after multiple unsuccessful moves by his family members to get his life sentence commuted.
It brings to light worrying trends of increasing trivialisation of the rights to freedom of speech and expression as well as to life and liberty in India. It also shows how, all too frequently, political dissent and opposition to the ruling party will get people targeted by law enforcement and other agencies. The government of the day can then use draconian sections of the law to either frame dissidents, or make examples of others, even if they are old, disabled or ill.
The process leading up to exoneration then becomes a punishment in itself that the dissident must suffer even if he is released in the end. Saibaba was arrested in May 2014. The total time he has spent in jail is well over eight years.