The Case For Professor Saibaba: Understanding The Effect Of State Of Exception Rules In India

Liam-Elio Colabuono-McDonagh and Busola Ajayi

Scholars at Risk is a network of universities aiming to protect academic freedom and freedom of expression from intimidation and/or authoritarian measures. Protecting freedom of expression is integral to a peaceful and democratically sophisticated society. SAR has been working for 20 years towards this mission, building a large network of universities and scholars. 

Professor Gokarakonda Naga Saibaba is both a Professor of English Literature at Delhi University and an activist. He engages in human rights activism on behalf of vulnerable groups including those affected by the ongoing conflict between the Indian government and the Communist Party of India (CPI) which is deemed a Maoist separatist movement.

Professor Saibaba has been wrongfully convicted under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). UAPA has been invoked against Saibaba and five other suspects, with all but one receiving life sentences. Saibaba and the others have been accused of working with or acting as part of a terrorist movement.

The implementation of states of exception alongside abstraction of threat is dangerous

The UAPA established in 1967 allows the government to enforce “reasonable restrictions” on human right articles 18, 19 and 20 from the UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Articles 18, 19 and 20 are concerned with freedom of thought and expression, freedom of opinion and freedom of public assembly. These “reasonable restrictions” are often referred to as states of exception often being invoked to defend national security or other more abstract concepts.

The implementation of states of exception alongside abstraction of threat is dangerous as it offers pseudo-justification for unjust arrests. Under the UN Human Rights system India ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights (ICCPR) on 10th April 1979. This is a legal agreement and once ratified the parties confirm they wish to be bound by it.

This speaks to India’s legal responsibility to comply with the human rights standards set out in the treaty such as the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion in Article 18. Yet, the expectations as laid down in domestic law such as UAPA can be arbitrarily used to work against these fundamental human rights standards.

Professor Saibaba was arrested on 9th May 2014 as he left campus and the police reported that they had found documents which suggested to prove his connection with the separatist movement. Despite a lack of credible evidence Saibaba was charged under UAPA of “being a member of a terrorist gang or organization.” The professor denied this charge.

He is denied medication, wheelchair accessibility and is mistreated

Despite severe health conditions such as post-polio syndrome, Saibaba remains in solitary confinement. Reports indicate that he is denied medication, wheelchair accessibility and is mistreated. The matter is made more drastic by the professor’s resort to instigate a hunger strike in protest. Recently professor Saibaba has also contracted Covid-19 which is a further concern.

Many human rights groups nationally and internationally have been pushing leverage on the Indian government for the release and eventual fair trial of Professor Saibaba, including Amnesty International. The inherent danger of both loss of academic freedom and abstract justifications for the state of exception are too severe to go unopposed. We as the global community have an obligation to push back against this tide of injustice.

It is imperative that the Indian government is held accountable for the destructive implications of the UAPA and the detention of Professor Saibaba as to not embolden those who use prevention acts and states of exception to void the human rights society has worked so hard to achieve.

Ideas can be dangerous, but shutting down ideas and academic thought can lead to paths infinitely worse. Academic thought and freedom of expression are the bedrock on which democracy stands.

Liam-Elio Colabuono-McDonagh and Busola Ajayi

Featured image courtesy of Cole Keister via Unsplash. Image license found hereNo changes were made to this image. 

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