Professor G.N. Saibaba and the Revolutionary Movement in India
G.N. Saibaba, a progressive intellectual and political activist in India, was arrested on trumped-up charges in 2014 and given a life sentence in 2017. Since then his health has declined rapidly in jail, where he has languished for years without any medical care. Meanwhile, the Indian government has deepened its attacks on progressive and revolutionary voices across India, arresting several comrades and friends of G.N. Saibaba. His life story helps to expose the wider Indian social situation, and his history of activism shows the rich and inspiring history of people’s resistance in India. An international movement for the release of G.N. Saibaba has developed, demanding an end to attacks on democratic rights and freedoms in India, and the release of all political prisoners.
Professor Saibaba (center, in wheelchair) being arrested by nine Indian police and Army officials.
On May 9th, 2014 the police in Dehli, India abducted a wheelchair-bound professor of English literature by the name of G.N. Saibaba. He was taken by the police as he went about his day, and his abduction was so sudden that his wife did not know what happened. She even went to the police station to register a missing persons report when he didn’t turn up. Saibaba was brought before a court, and was charged with several violations of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), a draconian law which the Indian government has been using to frame activists, human rights lawyers, poets, and progressive intellectuals like Saibaba as terrorists.
Saibaba’s arrest has come as part of a broader crackdown by the Indian state on progressive people who speak out against the government. In the years since his arrest many more people have been arrested and charged under the same law, the UAPA. That this law itself exists clarifies how far the Indian government will go to silence progressive voices and lock up those who organize for the people. The law essentially allows the police to arrest anyone and hold them for up to 90 days without charging them with any crime. It also specifies ridiculously small burdens of proof for showing that someone is a member of an illegal organization or group, and mandates harsh jail terms for it.
Often all that is needed to lock someone away for life is the testimony of a few well-coached police officers. In India, where the police are deep in the pockets of mining corporations, big manufacturing firms, and local landlords in the countryside, UAPA has routinely been used to “deal with” anyone who speaks out against brutal, anti-people development projects and terrible working conditions. Activists who work to unify the people in resistance to their oppressors, or who support the people’s struggle through writing and advocacy are frequently targeted. In this context, Saibaba’s arrest wasn’t in connection with any particular crime or violation of the UAPA, but was instead a form of retaliation for his lifetime of work standing with the people against their oppressors.
Members of the Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF) protest for Saibaba’s release from prison. Saibaba was the joint-secretary of the RDF before his imprisonment.
As in the U.S. and in countless other countries around the world, the Indian government reserves some of its very worst treatment for imprisoned progressive activists and revolutionaries. Saibaba’s time in prison has been marked by exceptional cruelty on the part of his jailers. Right after his arrest his wheelchair was taken from him and broken by the police, who then housed him on the first floor of a two-story jail. The only bathroom for the whole cell block was on the second floor, and there was no elevator, so he was forced to rely on the help of other inmates to use the bathroom.
Inside his cell, he was forced to crawl around. He has also been denied necessary medical attention for years now. In a particularly sick and twisted episode, a judge finally granted Saibaba bail to seek medical treatment, following a long campaign by his friends and comrades to get him out. Saibaba was finally able to visit a doctor, and scheduled an emergency surgery he needed for his gallbladder. Just before he was to get the surgery, the court declared him guilty and sentenced him to life in prison, yanking away the chance to get the medical care he had been fighting for three years to access.
Saibaba suffers from a variety of medical issues which are currently life-threatening. When he was a child he contracted Polio which left him paralyzed from the waist down, and he has used a wheelchair to get around for his entire adult life. Complications from polio have caused many other health problems for him, including gall bladder and kidney stones, high blood pressure, and a heart condition. Many of these issues have gotten much worse while he has been in prison. In 2017, Saibaba’s wife, Vasantha, said that he was also suffering from acute pancreatitis, and that prison authorities were refusing to allow him to have surgery and denying him access to medicines. He has also lost most of the use of his left arm since being locked up.
Professor Saibaba contracted Polio when he was five years old. Saibaba grew up in a poor peasant family in the countryside in a neighborhood mainly inhabited by manual scavengers. Manual scavengers clean up other people’s excrement, usually with their bare hands, for a living. This is a relatively common occupation in India, where the government’s official statistics recorded over a hundred thousand households engaged in the work for a living in 2011.
The government statistics are most likely a massive underestimate, since the inadequate and poorly maintained sewer systems in several Indian cities are kept running by thousands of manual scavengers. They work in brutal and dangerous conditions, sometimes climbing into sewers to unclog them or removing human excrement from latrines by hand. The work is also dangerous because of the potential for the transmission of disease. Many diseases, including Polio, are transmitted via contact with the feces of infected people. Manual scavengers often work without any protective equipment, and so they risk infecting themselves as well as their friends and family.
Manual scavenging, like several other dangerous and undesirable jobs in India, is not a job most people choose to work. Manual scavenging is a hereditary job, which is enforced by the caste system in India. In large parts of the country the caste system dictates who people can marry, where they can live, what jobs they can hold, and even things like which side of the street they can walk on. Children inherit the caste of their parents, and intermarriage between people of different castes is violently opposed. Although caste and caste-based discrimination is outlawed in India, it persists to this day, and murders or assaults committed against those who break the rigid confining rules of the caste system are common.
In most places in India the caste system is divided into four tiers called Varnas which are arranged in a hierarchy. The highest Varna is the Brahmin caste which traditionally occupies the role of priests. Next is Kshatriyas, the warrior caste, followed by Vaishyas, the merchant class, and finally Shudras, the servant/peasant class.
There are also people who are not part of the four Varnas, who are called Dalits. Dalits occupy the lowest rung in society and inherit the worst position in the division of labor dictated by the caste system, such as manual scavenging or performing cremations. Discrimination based on these divisions is officially outlawed in India, and a program similar to affirmative action, called reservation, was created in 1950 to provide jobs and educational opportunities for lower-caste people. However, reservation has never truly addressed the roots causes of caste oppression, and much like the half-hearted affirmative action initiatives here in the U.S., it has been continually attacked and weakened since its inception.
The caste system in India assigns people their profession based on the caste of their parents and is used to justify segregation and the horrendous oppression of Dalits.
For centuries Brahmins and others at the top of the caste pyramid have enjoyed massive privileges because of their position, and they have defended their caste-privileges with a reign of terror whenever lower-caste people have stood up and demanded equal treatment. It is common for those who marry into another caste, whether higher or lower, to be attacked and even killed. Dalits are commonly lynched all across India for offenses as trivial as walking on a path designated for Brahmin use only or drinking from a Brahmin-only well.
This violence is often carried out by mobs of right-wing supporters of several Hindu-fascist organizations in India which are commonly referred to as Hindutva groups.
The current ruling party in India is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It is the electoral party of a larger Hindu-fascist organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which was founded in the 1920’s and explicitly modeled itself on the Nazi party. M.S. Golwalker was a leading member of the RSS for many years. He once said that the genocide carried out by the Nazis in Europe during World War II was “a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by,” and he supported violently expelling or exterminating all Muslims and non-Hindus from India. The BJP has a long history of inciting mob violence against Dalits and Muslims as a part of bolstering its fascist narrative that outside “invaders” are the cause of all problems in contemporary India.
During the 2002 Gujarat Massacre, the BJP sponsored Hindu-fascist groups who attacked Muslims and Dalits thoroughout the Indian state of Gujarat.
Narendra Modi, the current Prime Minister of India, is a member of the BJP. He was the chief minister of the state of Gujarat in 2002 when a huge brutal anti-Muslim pogrom took place across the state. More than 2,000 people were killed by mobs of right-wing Hindutva thugs. Many women were raped, Muslim homes and businesses were torched, and more than 150,000 people were displaced. In several cases women were gang raped by dozens of men before being cut into pieces and burned beyond recognition. Narendra Modi encouraged and helped to spark the violence, and the police in many areas helped the Hindutva forces by providing them with names and addresses of Muslims. After the pogrom was over, Modi, the police, and the courts in Gujarat worked to keep the people responsible for the violence from being convicted.
Episodes of extreme fascist violence like this are disturbingly common in India. Ruling parties like the BJP have been very successful at promoting fascist ideas among a section of the disaffected urban petty-bourgeoisie, whose career and economic realities have often not lived up to their expectations. The reasons for this are complicated, but a big part of it is that a huge section of the profits made in India are owned by foreign corporations, and so they leave the country and are deposited in the bank accounts of British and American capitalists.
This reduces the share of the profits which would go to the ruling class in India, and to petty-bourgeois functionaries, engineers, doctors, and so on. The BJP is actually actively working to exacerbate this situation by making it easier for foreign capital to enter the country. They have also undermined Indian industries and agriculture in order to make way for foreign imports from countries like the U.S. and Canada.
However, to maintain their electoral power they have blamed India’s economic problems on Muslims and stoked up right-wing Hindu-chauvinist tendencies. They hope that doing so will convince a large section of the Indian population that their enemies are the Muslims, Dalits, revolutionaries, and progressive intellectuals. This is part of their larger effort to keep the Indian people from realizing that their true enemies are the Indian ruling class and foreign imperialists.
Members of the BJP hold up daggers during a rally.
For the ruling class in India, any form of criticism is a liability if it clearly states the causes of poverty and misery in the country. If the masses of people have clarity about the real roots of their problems they will rise up and destroy the ruling class which chains them down under the twin oppressive forces of feudalism and imperialist domination. Because of this danger, the government in India has maintained a strict intolerance for criticism and dissent for decades. Laws like the previously-mentioned UAPA have been used for decades to stifle dissent and criticism and to ban organizations and publications which speak out about the need for the people to come together and rebel against their oppressors.
Although suppression of democratic rights and dissent has always been a feature of the Indian state, the BJP government has broadened and deepened its attacks on democratic rights even further than previous regimes. Recent waves of arrests have even included poets, professors, and human rights lawyers.
Arundhati Roy (left) meets with Maoist revolutionaries in India to discuss their movement. Her travels with them were published in her book “Walking With the Comrades.” Most of the Maoists are advisasis.
The author and political figure Arundhati Roy faced a contempt of court case for simply publishing an article calling for bail for G.N. Saibaba before he was convicted. Many progressive and revolutionary publications are outright banned in India, and police have brutally attacked people who publish information that speaks favorably of the revolutionary movement. Although India bills itself as the “world’s largest democracy,” it is in fact a very repressive country and has been since its “independence” from the British in 1947.
In this kind of environment, Saibaba spoke out frequently, published articles, gave speeches, and traveled internationally to raise support for people’s struggles in India. In a repressive and undemocratic country like India, Saibaba and many others have taken on this work knowing full well that they will likely face time in prison, or worse, for their activism. In her article about Saibaba, Professor P.O.W., Arundhati Roy said that it was a matter of common knowledge in their circle that Saibaba would be arrested in the months leading up to his arrest. For Saibaba, the struggle of the Indian people for democracy, for an end to subjugation to the interests of foreign capitalists, and against oppression was more important than his own personal safety. So, although he had a chance to try to flee the country he stayed put and kept working for the people.
The cover of a 2015 edition of Outlook India with a photo depicting Saibaba’s arrest.
Saibaba ended up in the cross-hairs of the Indian government because the work he was doing sought to bring the most oppressed and exploited people in the country together to struggle in common. He was a joint-secretary of the Revolutionary Democratic Front (RDF), an all-India organization which aims to unify the people in the struggle against all forms of oppression and exploitation in India. This means Dalit struggles against upper-caste oppressors, workers struggles in the cities of India, peasant struggles against oppressive landlords, struggles for democratic rights and freedoms, and more.
The ruling class in India is very afraid of people linking together different struggles, precisely because if people remain divided it is easier for the ruling class to maintain their rule. One struggle in particular which the RDF seeks to unite with and support is the struggle of the Adivasis, indigenous people who live in the jungles of India. They have been struggling for generations to maintain control over their land, their resources, and to resist attempts to exterminate them and their way of life.
Thousands of members of Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh (CMAS) (Association of Peasants, Bonded Labours and the Tribal) protest in Odisha against displacement.
The Adivasis are a large group of tribes and peoples, who speak many different languages. Across all of India there are over a hundred million Adivasis. They live in large numbers in the jungles of eastern India, where for the most part, they live a very meager existence. They are some of the very poorest people in the whole of India, and in some areas they engage in hunter-gatherer type foraging to get most of their food.
The Adivasis often live in small villages and the areas where they live receive little to no investment from the government in terms of schools, roads, or electricity. The lack of investment and the low level of production in the Adivasi communities, means that people do not live very long lives, and health problems are very common. Often people have difficulties getting access to basic medicines, and many sanitary and public health resources—which we take for granted in the U.S.—are absent. But in addition to these serious difficulties, the Adivasi communities have a long tradition of both egalitarian communal living and strong resistance against efforts to conquer and subjugate them.
The Adivasis carried out many revolts and rebellions against British rule, and for that reason some Adivasi areas never fell under the control of the British when they were colonizing India. One of the largest Adivasi rebellions was the Bhumkal (literally “when the earth shook”) rebellion in 1910, which shook the foundations of British rule in the Bastar region of the state of Chhattisgarh.
Adivasis revolted after the British decided to revoke their access to the forest, turning it from the communal property of the tribes into the private property of the British colonial state. This change made the forest produce and timber the exclusive private property of a handful of contractors, thus depriving the Adivasis of their lands and livelihood.
Many Adivasis defend their villages from the police and army raids with bows and arrows and other such weapons.
For the Adivasis, the forest was their source of food, their living area, the location of their community, and their land. They mounted a massive resistance to the British plans to drive them from the forest. A big reason for the success of their rebellion was that they started off by targeting the traitors in their community and other Indian-born officials in the British government. This helped them to unify and oppose those within their community who would have sold the movement out and spied for the British colonists. Eventually, the rebellion was defeated, and many of the leadership were arrested and tortured by the British colonialists. Although the Bhumkal rebellion was defeated, many Adivasis still celebrate its legacy today, as a symbol of their enduring resistance against those who would steal their land and render them homeless beggars.
Today the British have officially left India, but the Adivasis are still under attack. Today the enemy is not primarily after the wood and other resources of the forests, but the rich mineral deposits which lie underneath them. Many of the forests of eastern India have some of the richest untapped mineral reserves in the world, with billions of dollars worth of bauxite, uranium, nickel, and more lying underneath the jungles where the Adivasis live.
The Indian government and big mining corporations desperately want to get access to these minerals, and they will stop at nothing to make it happen. Officially, the Indian constitution specifies that the Adivasis have the sole right to decide what happens on their land, and any mining on Adivasi land would need to be done with their full agreement and on their terms. In reality, the treaties and agreements that the government has made with the Adivasis are almost never respected, except in the most token of gestures.
Operation Green Hunt is the code name of the Indian State’s war on its people, in particular the Adivasis who live on mineral rich land.
In many areas the mineral rights for deposits of bauxite, uranium, and iron are sold to foreign mining conglomerates without even consulting or informing the Adivasi populations who live on the land. The police and the Indian Army then work with the corporations to kick the Adivasis out, so that the company can get to work clear-cutting the jungle and ripping minerals from the ground. In areas where this has happened it has been a complete disaster for the people. The police terrorize the people to force them from the land. People are beaten with sticks, women are raped and harassed, people have their houses burned down, and, frequently, those who dare to resist are “made into an example” and executed.
Once they have been kicked off the land, the only option people have is to move and live in the slums of one of India’s huge cities. Around Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Hyderabad there are huge slums with very few jobs available. There is a lot of unemployment, and many people who live in deep poverty, trying to just scrape by through informal work here and there. The Indian government has made it a goal to move as much of the population to the cities as possible, as part of their efforts to remove Adivasis and other rural populations from their land. The former Home Minister of India, P. Chidambaram, once said that “My vision is to get 85% of India into cities.” Currently around 70% of the population lives in the countryside. Given the ongoing efforts to displace people and the desperate conditions of life in India’s cities, this amounts to a genocidal plan.
When the government, the police, and big corporations come to the jungles to attack the Adivasis, the people know exactly what they will have to endure if they are displaced from their land. While they are by no means rich in their current situation—living in poverty off the produce of the jungle and basic agricultural production—their situation would be much worse if they were displaced to the slums. For these and other reasons the Adivasis have mounted strong resistance to efforts by the government and corporations to displace them from the land.
Adviasis of the Kondh people protest against the scheme by the Vedanta company and the Indian governemnt to mine the Niyamgiri hills.
In the state of Odisha, in the Niyamgiri hills, many Adivasis came together to resist a plan by the Indian mining giant Vedanta, who wanted to mine the rich bauxite which lay beneath their land. The state supported the plan initially, and the policemen began to attack and harass the Adivasis to try and get them to accept the plan. But they refused, and they struggled against the plan both in the courts and through protests and demonstrations. The police and other goons of the Vedanta corporation doubled down on their attacks of the people, but because of the strength of the people’s resistance the Indian supreme court was ultimately forced to rule against the mining project. The people of Niyamgiri are still living on their land, and the success of their struggle is celebrated throughout India.
Saibaba, along with other members of the Revolutionary Democratic Front, saw the incredible importance of the Adivasi struggles against displacement and against anti-people, capitalist development projects. He traveled extensively in the Adivasi areas, meeting and talking with the people. He said once in an interview, “I have been to almost every Adivasi district. It wasn’t that difficult for a physically challenged person like me. The Adivasis took me on their shoulders and walked me up to the hilly forests.”
Saibaba and the RDF coordinated work to expose the government’s attacks on Adivasis, and the stop-at-nothing campaign to kick them off of their land and steal their resources. This campaign accelerated in 2009, when the government launched “Operation Green Hunt,” which sent over 100,000 troops into the jungles of Bastar to attack the people’s resistance. Saibaba and the RDF worked tirelessly to oppose this outrageous attack on the people.
Operation Green Hunt began in 2009, and although at times it has been known by other names, it is still ongoing. Today, the government has sent even more soldiers, with over 300,000 troops deployed to the jungles. They use helicopters, drones, high-powered rifles, and sophisticated surveillance equipment to attack the people. The Indian government isn’t just launching these kinds of blatant, brutal attacks on the people because Adivasis are opposed to mining projects. They also want to snuff out the revolutionary movement, which has been growing in strength for decades in the jungles, and which has the possibility of spreading all over the whole of India.
This represents a huge threat for the Indian ruling class, because the reality is that the masses of India are brutally oppressed and have been for generations. If the revolutionary movement spreads across the whole country, it will inspire Dalits, Adivasis, oppressed nationalities, women, Muslims, and all the poor and oppressed people of India to come together. The ruling-class oppressors will be swept away and overcome, and the people of India will decide their destiny instead.
The revolutionary movement has been developing in India, through a series of advances and setbacks, for the past 50 years. It began in 1967, with a revolt in the village of Naxalbari, in the state of West Bengal. Peasants formed armed bands, seized land from a landlord, and began to work the land themselves. The revolt quickly spread to nearby areas, and peasant committees were formed to carry out seizures of grain and land from landlords.
Charu Mazumdar, one of the revolutionaries who led the Naxalbari uprising in 1967. He was killed by the Indian police while in jail in 1972.
From this rebellion a larger movement developed. Several members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPI(M), supported the peasants for their revolutionary actions and heroic struggle against the landlords. That party, however, had long since given up the revolutionary struggle, and resigned itself to just competing in elections. Those who disagreed with this path, and supported the new way forward charted in Naxalbari, were expelled from CPI(M). They went on to carry forward the revolutionary path blazed by the revolt in Naxalbari, and worked to rouse the peasant masses.
Since Naxalbari, many different groups of revolutionaries have carried on armed struggle in the countryside. Many of these groups were able to make substantial gains, but the revolutionary movement was somewhat limited because it was fragmented into a number of different organizations. These limitations meant that there was not an organization capable of coordinating and organizing revolutionary activity across a large part of the country. However, in 2004 this changed when the two largest Maoist groups merged to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The organization has continued to grow since its founding, and it is now carrying on the revolutionary struggle against the Indian government in a large part of India, sometimes referred to as the “Red Corridor.”
Members of the People’s Liberation Guerilla Army (PLGA) celebrate the 2004 founding of the Communist Party of India (Maoist).
The revolution in India is rural and agrarian, a reflection of the conditions of life for most of the population. In many rural areas the Indian government has relatively little presence or influence. This is especially true in the Adivasi areas, where there is often no development or state presence at all. The weakness of the government in the countryside means that it is possible to set up independent forms of political power, outside of the control of the Indian state.
In many of the Adivasi areas People’s governments, called Janatana Sarkars, have been formed. They set up services for the people, like medical care and education, work to coordinate village militias to defend against attacks by the police and army, and they plan public works projects to increase the people’s standard of living.
In addition to leading the formation of the People’s Governments, the CPI (Maoist) has also led an armed resistance against the reactionary attacks launched by the Indian state. The political activities going on in the jungles of India have put the Adivasis and their supporters in the cross-hairs of the Indian government. The government has launched Operation Green Hunt and similar operations to attempt to destroy the example which shows to the masses all across India that it is possible not only to resist, but to win.
The People’s Liberation Guerilla Army, led by the CPI (Maoist), has not only weathered the onslaught of Operation Green Hunt, but has often won major victories against the reactionary forces. For the ruling class in India this is a very dangerous thing. The revolutionary movement has forcibly stopped some of their plans for mining and other development, which enrages them. But the primary danger for them is not lost profits, but being overthrown and dragged from power. If the masses all over India start to see that they too can come together, struggle against their oppressors, and win, the ruling class in India will be in for a rude wake-up call.
The Naxals hold large-scale celebrations and meetings in which they perform plays, skits, dances, and songs about the revolutionary movement.
The strength and size of the revolutionary movement in India can be difficult for us in the U.S. to appreciate. It has been growing for fifty years, and there is a rich history of revolutionary struggle going back for at least a hundred years before that. The movement is primarily based in the Adivasi areas, among the poorest sections of the Indian population, but the echoes of the revolutionary struggle there are being felt all throughout India. In Dalit struggles against caste-based oppression and prejudice, in Muslim struggles against Hindu-fascism, and in workers’ struggles in the cities of India, the revolutionary movement brewing in the countryside is making itself heard.
The reactionary rulers of India, the capitalists and swindlers, are terrified at the possibility of what is developing under their noses. So they have doubled, and then tripled, their attacks on the people, on basic democratic rights, and on dissent. In this sense, G.N. Saibaba’s arrest for protesting against Operation Green Hunt and Operation Green Hunt itself are part of the same reactionary program.
Here in the U.S. it is our internationalist responsibility to support the revolutionary movement in India, and to oppose the Indian government’s attacks on basic democratic rights and freedoms. This is especially true given the support that the U.S. government provides to the Indian government. The U.S. sells India surveillance drones and other military hardware that the Indian government uses to attack its own people. The U.S. has also provided counterintelligence training to the Indian police and armed forces. Many U.S. corporations also do business in India, and brutally exploit the impoverished Indian masses. The Indian masses are fighting the same fight that we too are fighting: for a world free from exploitation and oppression. Their struggle should also inspire us here to develop ways to resist oppression and exploitation, and to fight back and win. We should extend our solidarity and our support to their struggle, just as they surely would to ours.
Long live the Indian Revolution!
Free G.N. Saibaba!
Stop attacks on democratic rights and political dissent in India!