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Defending the imprisoned Delhi University professor, G. N. Saibaba on Ethical Grounds

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Message Prakash Kona
Dr Saibaba
Dr Saibaba
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I wish to restrict my defense of the DU professor G. N. Saibaba whose bail was cancelled sending him back to prison for alleged links with extreme left groups warring the Indian state, to grounds that are neither personal nor political. Therefore, the ethical defense! Personally I have known Saibaba since 1987 when we did our MA in English together at the University of Hyderabad.

I was there at his wedding too which had full of speeches by leftist intellectuals, mostly or all of them men, and a plainclothes policeman working for the Intelligence in the back of the hall making "harmless" queries that amused me. I remember being bored to tears by the speeches but I assumed that that's how communist weddings are supposed to be: no song or dance and endless speeches on the revolutionary transformation of society. Saibaba and me were always on friendly terms even if we did not have a chance to cultivate the friendship as such owing to time and distance.

Just to give an idea of Saibaba's temperament, it is hard for me to imagine him losing his cool over a discussion on either politics or literature. In other words, a very approachable person with perhaps some hardened notions of the world around him. I won't stress on the personal part and I'll go into the reasons later on as to why I not only disagree with his politics, but also why I don't think they are "political" positions.

From an ethical point of view, Saibaba's incarceration not only violates his human dignity as prisons are meant to do but also gives him no real opportunity to defend his innocence. Putting someone in jail on alleged links to extreme groups gives enough time to the police and other law agencies to collect information that incriminates the person. In other words, Saibaba's guilt is already established and there is no scope left for him to prove otherwise. Of course, it is also no secret that political prisoners get treated with a particular kind of violence that hardcore murderers and rapists are exempted from.

Saibaba's disability is another issue in question. I am not vaguely suggesting that his disability plays a role in the formation of his political views. I am not ignoring either that part of Saibaba's resentment at an unequal society could at least partially be rooted in his 90% disability. Either way, imprisonment means destruction of the will through gradual destruction of the body's autonomy. Torture and imprisonment are weapons any state has at its disposal to deal with the possibility of social and political insurrection.

Therefore, whatever little autonomy Saibaba has in his possession, despite the disability, and which he has earned through great personal struggles, is taken away from him reducing him to a condition of complete dependence which in any case his deteriorating health will not be able to support for long. To keep Saibaba in prison knowing full well his physical condition which can only get worse owing to the psychological condition as prisoner is a completely unethical thing to do. I am sure there are more humane ways of dealing with a man in Saibaba's condition than what is presently being done and the courts of justice in this country should bear that in mind.

Since I am an academic I can't deny that my intellectualism is academic as well. I work to strengthen the ideological arm of the state as a university professor because I am convinced that though the idea of a "state" is rooted in inequality, it is possible that the resources of a system can be exhausted to explore avenues for creating equality. This can be done through dialogue and encouragement of different positions provided this can be accomplished on a nonviolent platform where an individual or group is not marginalized or left voiceless because of a political position.

Though Saibaba and myself, both are employees of the state in our capacity as teachers at government universities, I have very little or no sympathy for the anti-state politics that he espouses. In a third world country like India the state is the most important channel through which one can reach out to the masses. We are talking about a population of more than a billion which is supposed to surpass China in the not long future. We need an honest, functioning, strong state that is able to deliver goods to those who live at the bottom, if for no other reason, in order to prevent a perpetual state of civil war. We cannot afford to have a weak state with a lot of internal disturbance leading to endemic violence because it leaves the already vulnerable poor in a worse position.

In a situation where the state is a tool in the hands of powerful groups who refuse to respond to social demands except through repression, there is only one response: revolutionary socialism. In a slightly varying situation where there is a possibility that the state could function differently depending on who is in the seat of power, politics is the answer. This only means that instead of an armed revolution, one tries to acquire power not to alter the framework, but to use the system to include and accommodate as many of those at the bottom as is possible. Revolutionary socialism can still be a goal. That doesn't prevent one from using politics to fight it out wherever possible and acquire social benefits in the process.

Not everyone who is downtrodden becomes a communist and not everyone who is communist comes from the downtrodden sections. Most downtrodden people, especially women, are happy with being able to send their children to school, a decent meal and basic healthcare. I have seen poor women, whose husbands are not victims of alcoholism, being particularly satisfied with their lives. Anti-state politics at the end of the day is the luxury of bourgeois intellectuals and not those living in grinding poverty.

The injustice meted out to the tribals and the Dalits in the forests and the villages in the name of development is also happening because of a hegemony that has the consent of the oppressed. If the oppressed have to stop giving their consent to the "development" politics they must be convinced of it, which ought to be the job of the intellectuals instead of blindly supporting extreme left groups such as the Maoists who are as misogynist and classist as their right-wing counterparts, and who want power for themselves. The latter is obvious when you see how ruthlessly they deal with the poor and how incapable they are when it comes to accepting voices of dissent.

Revolutionary violence is important when all means towards justice are exhausted. Where there is space for educating the masses through persuasion and argument in order to form strong social bonds while laying claim to the fruits of development, it is a space that must be intelligently used for the good of one and all. Mere rhetoric or dedication to meaningless goals such as the destruction of the state -- I don't think that the majority of the poor are willing to consider this as an option.

If there is one litmus test that could be strictly applied as to what kind of a social order we ultimately need, one ought to take the views of the poorest of the poor women to find out what they want because they are the real victims of state and every other violence. In the absence of a voice from the women at the very bottom, we can settle for a state that must be pressurized through collective will into doing what it can to alleviate the misery of the downtrodden masses.

All this however, is only to argue against Saibaba's politics, at least as I understand his position. It however in no way is meant to reject the ethical part I raised earlier as far as Saibaba's imprisonment is concerned. In fact, a seriously concerned government ought to realize that the issues Saibaba talks about in relation to the rights of the tribals and the Dalits are not unfounded and it is morally indefensible for a government to prevent someone from talking about them.

There is indeed a terrible lapse of justice that needs to be rectified if the system must make claims to legitimacy. It can make a beginning by releasing Saibaba, even if with certain conditions that prevent him from a public life until the allegations are cleared, while allowing him to continue his life as a university teacher so that he can fend for himself and his family which needs him as much as he needs them at this critical juncture.

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Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is currently Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

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