On May 9, 2014, police arrested Gokarakonda Naga Saibaba, an English professor at Delhi University (DU), over alleged links to the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) (CPI-Maoist). Nearly three years later, on March 7, 2017, Professor Saibaba, a DU student, and four others were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment on charges including “being a member of a terrorist gang or organization.”
CPI-Maoist was established in 2004 as a merger of several groups with ideologies aligned with the Chinese leader Mao Zedong, with the goal of promoting the rights of poor and otherwise marginalized communities. Since its founding, the group reportedly began arming itself; its members have been accused of involvement in several major attacks on elected officials and civilians. India’s Ministry of Home Affairs banned the CPI-Maoist party in June 2009, labelling it a terrorist organization.
In August 2013, authorities began investigating the suspected presence of the CPI-Maoist party on the DU campus. Authorities first arrested and confiscated documents and memory sticks from Hem Mishra, a journalism student at DU suspected of being a member. The next month, they reportedly searched Professor Saibaba’s home on suspicion that Mr. Mishra was transmitting messages on his behalf to CPI-Maoist leaders.
Prior to this investigation, Professor Saibaba had publicly denied any connections with or support for the CPI-Maoist party. For years, he had been a member of the Revolutionary Democratic Front and has engaged in human rights activism, including advocacy on behalf of various vulnerable populations in India, protests against extrajudicial killings by police forces, and notably public criticism of Operation Green Hunt, a military operation against CPI-Maoist separatists in Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra, which allegedly resulted in multi-national companies withdrawing investments in the region. Professor Saibaba’s colleagues also claim that he was not working with the the CPI-Maoist party, but was more likely targeted for voicing his support for the rights of tribal groups in the state of Chhattisgarh, one of the poorest states in India, which is rich in minerals and has seen much conflict between the Indian army and the CPI-Maoist separatists.
On May 9, 2014, nearly eight months after searching his home, authorities arrested Professor Saibaba as he left campus. Plain clothes officers reportedly stopped his car, blindfolded his driver, and took Professor Saibaba to a local police station. Following the arrest, police reportedly searched Professor Saibaba’s home once again, and confiscated his computer, later claiming to have found documents and correspondence that support their claim that he was an organizer in the CPI-Maoist party.
In the weeks after his arrest, DU officials announced that Professor Saibaba had been suspended in accordance with India’s Central Civil Services (Classification, Control and Appeal) Rules, 1965, which permits authorities to suspend civil servants under arrest or facing criminal investigations.
Court hearings commenced in December 2016, with the public prosecutor presenting as evidence the documents and correspondence obtained from Professor Saibaba’s home. Professor Saibaba’s attorney questioned the handling of the evidence, suggesting that the name linked to the files could have been altered. On March 7, 2017, the court ruled to convict and sentence Professor Saibaba, Mr. Mishra, and their four co-defendants to life imprisonment under various sections of India’s Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, including “being a member of a terrorist gang or organization.”
As of this report, Professor Saibaba is being held at Nagpur Central Jail. His family reports that he is being denied urgent medical treatment for long-standing and more recent complications, including acute pancreatitis for which medical professionals have advised the removal of his gall bladder. Before his conviction, he had been granted bail twice on medical grounds.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arrest and imprisonment of a scholar and student in apparent retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and association — conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Arrests and imprisonment intended to restrict such conduct undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally. State authorities have an obligation to comply with internationally recognized standards of free expression, free association, due process, and fair trial.