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SC leaves gov't in fix over jailing severely disabled Prof Saibaba facing 'Maoist' charge, when he requires constant medical attention

Looks like Nagpur jail will need better medical facilities...
Looks like Nagpur jail will need better medical facilities...

The Maharashtra government may well regret its decision to seek custody of alleged Maoist activist, Prof GN Saibaba – who is suffering from 90 per cent disability and moves in a wheel chair due to post polio paralysis - at the Nagpur Central Jail during the trial against him.

On 22 February, the Supreme Court bench comprising justices JS Khehar and C Nagappan heard his appeal against the Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court’s refusal to grant him bail and told the state government that it would be its responsibility to provide him all the facilities with comfort at a guest house – which is not a jail – if it wants his presence in Nagpur during the trial.

The state Government, which first expressed its apprehension that he might go underground, if freed and that his freedom would further delay the trial, which it hoped to complete in two months, appeared unprepared to answer the strange request from the Apex Court to spend for his health and comfort, if it wanted his presence during the trial.

The state Government, in the face of persistent queries from the bench and his counsel, senior advocate, RS Cheema, had no answers why he had to be in custody, when all his co-accused are out on bail, and how, with 90 per cent disability, he could pose a threat to the security of the state.

In the case of Arundhati Roy, who is also on an appeal before the Supreme Court against the contempt of court proceedings slapped against her by the high court for writing article in Outlook magazine criticising the denial of bail to Prof Saibaba, the SC bench had no difficulty, when told by her counsel that the Bombay high court did not want to proceed against her as long as her appeal is pending in the Supreme Court. That was signal enough for the Supreme Court to take it easy.

It was the other case, the appeal against the denial of bail to Prof Saibaba, with which the bench was very concerned.

Going underground?

When justice Khehar asked Maharashtra Government’s counsel what was happening, he said that the trial in his case has commenced, and his health condition is stable. He also denied that the accused was in solitary confinement, as alleged by his counsel.

“Why do you need him?” was Khehar’s next query. “He is likely to go underground, if freed”, was the state Government counsel’s retort.

This was objected to by Prof Saibaba’s counsel, who said there was no such allegation against him when he was granted bail earlier.

The Bombay high court, had on 30 June last year, granted Saibaba bail on humanitarian grounds, on the basis of an email from Purnima Upadhyay, a social worker, working in the tribal area of Melghat in Amravati District.

Prof Saibaba was arrested on 9 May 2014 on the allegation that he is an active member of Republican Democratic Front (RDF), which is a front of Communist Party of India (Maoist) and is helping them in their cause.

He was charged with offences punishable under sections 13, 18, 20, 38 and 39 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.

Prof Saibaba is a professor in English in a college affiliated to Delhi University, and he needed specialized physiotherapy treatment even before his arrest. He was regularly taking treatment in AIIMS, St. Stephen’s Hospital and Arya Vidhya Shala at New Delhi.

As his family comprising his old mother, wife and daughter resides at Delhi, his plea was that he could get the necessary care and supportive treatment only at Delhi.

Why not house arrest?

Justice Khehar was sympathetic to this plea and wanted to know whether he could be confined to his home in Delhi, with conditions that he should not leave his home (except when his presence is required by the trial court) , and that visitors should not meet him. The court could even ensure compliance with these conditions by posting a guard at his home, Justice Khehar said. But the state Government did not readily agree to this.

Besides, it was not clear whether there was some disagreement between justices Khehar and Nagappan on the question of grant of bail to Saibaba, as both the judges were seen discussing among themselves the available options, and the risks associated with each of them.

The state government’s counsel said the trial at Gadchiroli will be over within two months, and that he is not in solitary confinement, as alleged. “He is provided wheel chair to move around, and a western toilet; if he is free, trial will be delayed,” the state Government’s counsel said.

Saibaba’s wife, present in court, could be seen nodding in disagreement, and controlling her emotions.

Life threatening condition

Prof Saibaba’s counsel said his medical condition is life-threatening, and he is not in a position to commute to the trial court, which is 170 kms away from the Nagpur jail.

Saibaba’s counsel then asked whether he is a threat to free trial. He then said there are no medical facilities at the Nagpur jail, to take care of his specific ailments.

When the counsel said all his co-accused are out on bail, Justice Khehar said Prof Saibaba probably did not ask exemption from appearance.

Khehar then suggested that he make an application for exemption from personal appearance, to be submitted to the local Judge, and the bench could again hear the case on 29 February.

The Bombay high court, while granting him bail last year, had said that the organization of which Prof Saibaba is accused of being a member has not assigned him any role which could implicate him with any violent activities.

The high court also found that Prof Saibaba is suffering from anterior horn cell disease, which is a progressive disease and can prove to be fatal, if not properly treated.

The high court had recorded the view of Dr. Nitin Chandak, neurophysician at the Central India Institute of Medical Sciences, Nagpur, that Prof Saibaba requires not only physiotherapy but also pain management and supportive care apart from regular clinical follow-up with a neurophysician and reevaluation by a chest physician and cardiologist for his chest and cardiac ailments.

Although the Bombay high court had granted bail only for three months on 30 June 2015, it extended it by three more months, at the end of which Prof Saibaba had to surrender to the jail authorities.

The outcome of the Supreme Court’s hearing on 29 February, therefore, will be of immense interest to those following this case.

Photo by Laurel L Russwurm

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