July 10, 2021
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
If you were to believe the Indian government, then an 84-year-old Jesuit priest who suffered from such advanced Parkinson’s Disease that he couldn’t even hold a cup was a terrorist. Father Stan Swamy was India’s oldest political prisoner, the oldest person accused of terrorism and on July 5, 2021, he died in a hospital after repeatedly being denied bail. The fact is Father Stan was jailed on charges that are nowhere near being proved, ones he denied repeatedly saying he was targeted for his work around the caste and land struggles of tribals in Jharkhand. Father Stan was a human rights activist who spent five decades fighting for tribal rights and was arrested in October 2020 under draconian laws. His death led to an outpouring of grief and anger. What does his incarceration, the brutal treatment he was subjected to in jail and ultimately his death tell us about our government, country and society?
So, who was Father Stan?
He was born to a farmer and a homemaker in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruchirapalli town on April 26, 1937. He joined the Jamshedpur Province of the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, to become a priest and work in the tribal regions of what is now Jharkhand. He was ordained a priest on April 14, 1970, and chose to dedicate the rest of his life to tribals.
Father Stan studied theology, obtaining a Masters in Sociology from the University of Manila and he later studied in Brussels too. There, he became friends with Archbishop Holder Camara whose work among Brazil’s poor influenced him greatly.
From 1975 till 1986, Father Stan served as the director of the Jesuit-run Indian Social Institute at Bangalore but Jharkhand kept calling and he returned to it to work with Adivasis. He took up their battle after their lands were taken over for dams, mines and infrastructure, often against their will.
For more than 20 years, he shunned the comfort of the church and its institutions to fight for the rights of tribals. Basing himself in Ranchi, he was as much a researcher and writer as he was a grassroots worker. He questioned the non-implementation of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, which mandates the setting up of a Tribes Advisory Council with only Adivasis as members to ensure tribals’ protection.
Father Stan would walk to remote villages to inform tribals of their rights and the pillaging of their forests for their natural and mineral wealth. He spoke about how forest dwellers had been deprived of their land, often without compensation.
When Adivasis protested, the state branded them Maoists and arrested them. So, Father Stan moved the high court in Jharkhand seeking the release of 3,000 men and women who had been imprisoned after being charged as insurgents.
He also wrote newspaper articles on how mega corporations were taking over tribal lands to generate wealth for themselves.
Naturally, all of this didn’t go down well with powerful business and political interests.
Father Stan was eventually arrested in connection with bloody caste-based violence in Maharashtra in what is now known as the Bhima Koregaon case.
What is the Bhima Koregaon case?
In January 2018, in Bhima Koregaon village, hundreds of thousands of Dalits gathered for the 200th anniversary of a battle in which they defeated an upper-caste ruler alongside British forces. This show of strength sparked caste-based rioting that left one dead. Authorities claim that the violence was incited by activists at a meeting the previous day, a charge the activists deny. In fact, many of them were not even present at the commemoration.
Father Stan was accused along with 15 others – including poets, lawyers, activists and writers, many of whom were outspoken against the Bharatiya Janata Party. They were charged with orchestrating the violence, having links to violent Maoist groups and, incredibly, of plotting to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The accused denied all charges.
Making up the foundation of the case filed by the National Investigation Agency, or the NIA, were letters found on the laptop of activist Rona Wilson. However, a digital forensics firm from the US named Arsenal Consulting showed that a hacker had broken into the laptop and deposited at least 10 letters on it.
Despite that, the NIA persisted with the case against the accused, several of whom remain in custody and are over the age of 60 and suffer from chronic ailments. So far, only the 81-year-old poet Varavara Rao has been granted temporary bail on medical grounds.
It’s been well over two years after the first arrests, but the trial has gone nowhere. It’s no wonder this case is being seen as a symbol of the crackdown on dissent and persecution of activists by the BJP government.
Father Stan’s precarious condition due to Parkinson’s was further complicated when he contracted COVID-19 in prison. Finally, a court ordered that he be shifted to a hospital, where he was put on a ventilator.
In jail, Father Stan was denied basic facilities, including a water sipper. He needed that because his trembling hands could not hold a cup. This was the man the NIA said was too dangerous to release.
Fellow activist John Dayal wrote in Mid Day that one of Father Stan’s last messages from jail was: “What is happening to me is not something unique, happening to me alone. It is a broader process that is taking place all over the country. We are all aware how prominent intellectuals, lawyers, writers, poets, activists, student leaders — they are all put in jail just because they have expressed their dissent… I am ready to pay the price whatever may it be.”
Author Sonia Faleiro said: “Father Stan Swamy didn’t die, he was killed. The regime killed him, he would be alive if it wasn’t for them.” The Jesuit Provincial of India released a statement, saying: “The Society of Jesus, at this moment, recommits itself to take forward the legacy of Father Stan in its mission of justice and reconciliation.”
Lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan said it was “nothing less than murder by the state of one of the gentlest and kindest men I have known. Unfortunately, our judicial system is also complicit in this”.
Poet Meena Kandasamy said: “Let us not talk about this as mere death. This is a judicial murder and everyone is complicit.”
Father Stan’s death holds up a mirror to the country, particularly its judicial system. We may sing its praises but it works badly, fails the poor and the weak too often and it certainly did nothing to ensure Father Stan and his fellow accused were dealt with justly.
This needs to change. Here are the people accused in the Bhima Koregaon case and who must be freed on bail immediately: Hany Babu, Sudha Bharadwaj, Sudhir Dhawale, Arun Ferreira, Surendra Gadling, Ramesh Gaichor, Vernon Gonsalves, Sagar Gorkhe, Jyoti Jagtap, Gautam Navlakha, Mahesh Raut, Shoma Sen, Anand Teltumbde and Rona Wilson.
They are not terrorists. They are not Maoists. They are not a threat to the state. They are activists opposed to the exploitation of the defenceless in favour of the rich. You could have ideological differences with them, you could disagree with their socio-economic view of the world and what the country should be. But to call them Maoists, terrorists and would-be assassins is an assault not just on common sense but the Constitution and the very idea of justice.
Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at email@example.com. Catch you again soon.