On Thursday, a special court rejected the interim bail plea of activist-priest Fr. Stan Swamy who was arrested from Ranchi by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on the night of October 8. The 83-year-old tribal rights activist and Jesuit priest had sought bail on health grounds as he suffers from multiple age-relation health conditions. He was brought to Mumbai on October 9, and sent to judicial custody till October 23.
He was arrested despite cooperating with the police and spending hours being questioned in connection with an alleged conspiracy to instigate caste violence in the Bhima Koregaon village near Pune in 2018. Swamy has said he has never even been to Bhima Koregaon in his life!
After his arrest the aged tribal rights activist had sought bail last week and stated that his age and pre-existing medical conditions made him susceptible to Covid-19. He was currently lodged in the quarantine ward at Taloja jail. The special court had remanded him in jail after the NIA did not request his custody, stated the news report. Soon, he moved the court for interim bail. The NIA had filed a supplementary chargesheet against Swamy and 15 other activists arrested in the case on the same day.
According to the news report, NIA had opposed Swamy’s bail plea stating that he was trying to take “undue benefit of the pandemic as a ‘ruse’ to obtain an order of interim relief”. The NIA has reportedly said Swamy’s was “not entitled to bail” and submitted that he had been booked under sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which prescribes a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.
Swamy’s lawyers had submitted that the state government’s high-powered committee had recommended that jails be decongested during the pandemic but the NIA argued that even though the committee had permitted undertrial prisoners above the age of 60 to apply for temporary bail, it could not be granted ‘mechanically’.
The Mirror, and other media had reported that the NIA’s chargesheet against activists including Swamy claimed that the priest was allegedly involved in the activities of the banned CPI (Maoist) outfit and was in touch with other case conspirators. According to the charges, the activists are accused of making speeches at the Elgar Parishad conclave on December 31, 2017, a day before violence erupted near the Bhima-Koregaon war memorial.
Hower, as stated Swamy has never been to the region, and his arrest has come as a shock to activists, and civil society members. Many solidarity meetings, protests, rallies have been organised to seek his release, and the release of all the activists who have been arrested. Most recently, on October 20, People’s Union of Civil Liberties brought together activists and political leaders from Opposition parties who unequivocally condemned the misuse of draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in order to arrest and harass activists accused in the Bhima Koregaon case.
Hemant Soren, chief minister of Jharkhand, the state where Fr. Stan Swamy lived and worked for over 50 years, condemned the regime’s attempts at crushing dissent, democracy and constitutional values. He said: “Today the country is at a crossroads where its unity and democracy as well as its constitution are under attack. The regime is suppressing voices of Dalits and backward classes.”
Advocate Mihir Desai who is fighting the cases of many of the accused in the Bhima Koregaon case said: “I have looked at the chargesheet. The evidence is flimsy. They have a few witnesses, but nobody knows who they are or if they even exist.” He further said that there was no reason to arrest Fr. Stan Swamy given how he had hidden nothing and cooperated fully with the investigation. Advocate Desai the went on to deconstruct the flimsy premise of clubbing all dissenters as co-conspirators sayimg, “If it is a Muslim, they say ‘jihadi’. If it is a Christian, they accuse him of forced conversion. Then they allege links with Maoists. It is well known that Maoists are atheists. To suggest that Maoists are promoting religious conversion is ridiculous!” Echoing the sentiment, CPI (M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said, “The UAPA has been grossly misused. Arrests of octogenarians like Fr. Stan Swamy and Varavara Rao and the subsequent denial of bail is inhuman. They are even other accused who are over the age of sixty are vulnerable to Covid.”
Father Stan Swamy has extensively worked in Jharkhand for the rights of the Adivasis. One of the major campaigns he was associated with was the Jharkhand Organisation Against Uranium Radiation (JOAR), a campaign against Uranium Corporation India Limited in 96. The campaign successfully stopped the construction of a tailing dam in Chaibasa which, if constructed, would lead to the displacement of adivasis in Jadugoda’s Chatikocha area. After vociferously raising these issues, he moved to work with the displaced people of Bukaro, Santhal Parganas and Koderma and has continued to work for them. The complete profile of Fr. Stan Swamy: The Jharkhand Priest who made People his Religion may be read here.