Co-Written by Dr Karen Gabriel and P K Vijayan

Gokarakonda Suryavathi died of grief on the afternoon of 01 August 2020, at 1.40 pm. Of course the medical cause of her death – high-grade Non-Hodgkinson’s Lymphoma – will be cited incontrovertibly in all official documents. But those of us who have known the tale from the teller, and from those who loved her, know that it was her last battle with a merciless and bloodthirsty state that proved deadly.

G Suryavathi, better known as the mother of G N Saibaba, was born in Amalapuram 74 years ago. Her son G N Saibaba was born when she was 21, and became polio ridden when he was just 5 years old. She spent the early part of her life battling the state’s notorious indifference to the poor, trying to provide her son with the treatment for his condition; and the last 7 years of her life unflinchingly braving, with the rest of Saibaba’s family, the unrelenting wrath of the Indian state against her son.

G N Saibaba, known to the state as Prisoner 9556, has been lodged in Central Prison Nagpur since 2014 on spurious and concocted grounds. The 90% disabled wheelchair-bound English teacher, known for his commitment to people’s struggles for justice and equality was arrested for those very things, which were then unsurprisingly and ironically, nested under the broad label, ‘waging war against the state’. This sleight of hand, as we well know, is a common state practice. Those who prove to be inconvenient to the state are, on some grounds or the other, duly lodged in prison – first as undertrials (along with the countless poor who are swept into jails everyday) and then as prisoners, convicted on the flimsiest of grounds by courts that are too enthralled by governmental power to function independently. It is reliably learnt for instance that, in Saibaba’s case, the added ‘incentive’ to convict came from the intimidating courtroom presence of officers of the dreaded National Investigation Agency (NIA) or of the Special Branch. After activists become full-time prisoners, typically, the state machinery orchestrates them into a condition of joblessness, homelessness, financial ruin, and sometimes, even social isolation. One would imagine that this is enough of punishment, but it has become clear over the years that the state’s vindictiveness far exceeds our imagination of it.

Ever since his arrest, Saibaba and his family have been persistently seeking his release on bail on medical grounds, because of the severity of his medical condition. Despite medicines being sent to him on a regular basis by his family, hardly any medication is given to him in jail, worsening his medical conditions. We have been given to understand that the medication for COVID19 that was sent to Saibaba by his family, have also not been given to him yet. In fact, his family has even been denied access to Saibaba’s medical reports and records, since 2018, despite directives to do so from the court.

Now nearly 100% disabled, he continues to be in solitary confinement. There is no one to help him even to use the toilet. His left hand is almost completely non-functional, and his right hand is also steadily deteriorating. He was advised to undergo surgery for the removal of his gall bladder, but has been denied this on the grounds of possible COVID19 infection. Despite the threat of infection, his clothes and bedsheets have not been cleaned for months, as he is unable to wash them himself. He has informed his family that, given the dangers of the COVID19 epidemic in the prison, even the prison authorities have told him (off the record) that he should try his best to get bail or parole, or he will not survive in prison.

The bail application filed to this end, sought Saibaba’s release on medical grounds, as well as on the humanitarian grounds of allowing him to see his mother, whose own condition was fast deteriorating. The application was rejected on 28th July on the absurd grounds that Saibaba’s brother was already looking after his mother, so there was no need to release him. Not only was Saibaba thus denied the right to perform her last rites, on the grounds of the dangers of COVID19, he was even denied a video call, whereby he could have at least seen pictures of her cremation. The irony of course, is that Saibaba is in greater danger of COVID19 in Nagpur Central Prison than outside it.

Suryavathi and her son, Saibaba, have spent years witnessing and contesting the state’s vengeful attempts to return to poverty a family that had risen out of it through sheer talent and grit. She died heartbroken, without a final glimpse of her son.

The psychological costs for the victims of these lawless and callous actions by the state cannot be estimated. The recently arrested Dr Hany Babu’s house was raided yet again by the NIA, early the same Sunday morning, his wife and daughter subjected to further harassment in the process. Apparently, their main interest was in material pertaining to the Committee for the Defence and Release of Dr G N Saibaba, that was in Dr Babu’s possession. It seems that the ground is being laid for targeting the members of this Committee now.

Saibaba and Hany Babu are not the only victims of the inhumanity of the state: Kashmir, the North-East and the tribal territories of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, among many others, have been brutalised for decades by the armed forces of the Indian state. How many more families will be crushed by this state, before its bloodlust is satisfied?

Dr Karen Gabriel, HoD, English, St Stephen’s College, Delhi

Prem Kumar Vijayan, Dept. of English, Hindu College, Delhi University


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