The death of Father Stan Swamy in custody is a reminder of how India’s criminal justice system has collapsed and is being used by the party in power to criminalise the activists, writers, dissenters and political opponents. One need not to look far, but the sequence of events since 2014, after the Narendra Modi government took power. Right from NGOs, civil society organisations, human rights organisations and activists were targeted in the ‘first phase’ which perhaps went unnoticed as most of the people were fighting for the rights of the most marginalised, such as Dalits and Adivasis. Issues of Dalits and Adivasis never get cover stories or front-page new items followed for several days, unless and until you project the ruling party as the ‘champion’ of their cause and the policies initiated by the government useful for them.
Look at the silence of the media today. No one is questioning the unaccountability of these agencies who can make and unmake people criminals, according to their convenience.
Father Stan Swamy was a pious man, working for the rights of Adivasis in Jharkhand. A man who was born and raised in Trichy, Tamil Nadu and later worked in Bangalore, but his heart was always with the Adivasis. He loved them and stood for their rights. Imagine a person who hailed from an entirely different region with a different language and cultural background, and became one of the most respected social activists of the area. He was director of Indian Social Institute, Banglore between 1975-1986, and would have enjoyed his retired life anywhere in the South but his convictions brought him to Ranchi where he created an institution named as ‘Bagaicha’ or garden. A visit to Bagaicha will show you why the Adivasis loved and respected him so much. At the place, you will find beautiful statues of Adivasi heroes such as Birsa Munda and others. There is a martyr memorial upon which names of all Adivasis who were killed protecting their rights, are inscripted. Perhaps, the ‘power’ is always afraid of people on the margin, knowing their history and power.
Father Stan Swamy hailed from Trichy where he was born on April 26, 1937. He was a Jesuit priest and hence could never think of even preaching violence to his followers. I do not claim to know him personally, though I interviewed him and knew him through his work. Whenever, we wanted any one from Jharkhand to speak on the issues of Adivasis, Father Stan Swamy would be the first choice. He had such a gentle and soft voice that nobody can ever think that he would be supporting ‘insurgency’. Why should Adivasis be seen as ‘insurgent’ in their own land? The Pathalgarhi movement was Adivasis’ quest to protect their land. It is ironic that thugs and mercenaries who are just looking at the Adivasi spaces through their greedy eyes, are terming the issue of rights of Adivasis as unconstitutional. The historical struggle launched by the legendary Birsa Munda, Tilaka Majhi, Siddho-Kanho brothers in the entire Jharkhand region was about nothing but protecting their land and forests from the ‘dikkus’ i.e. outsiders. Rather than introspecting, the previous government in Jharkhand was on a marketing spree, capturing Adivasi land and making them homeless in their own land.
When I spoke to Father Stan Swamy a few years ago, he was absolutely confident that nothing would happen to him as he was only fighting his battle non-violently and democratically. The biggest irony is that a man dedicated to peace and non violence was charged for ‘spreading’ violence at a place which has nothing to do with him. Bhima Koregaon is the place Dalits have been visiting for years to celebrate the victory day of the Mahar forces over the Peshwas. The incident of January 1, 2018 violence in Bhima Koregaon was actually the game of those who have been afraid of the Dalits and their assertion. The massive mobilisation of Dalits at Bhima Koregaon happened spontaneously, but the state of Maharashtra under a Brahmanical Devendra Fadnavis realised that an increasingly assertive Ambedkarite would be a threat to their unquestioned apparatus, and hence violence was unleashed by those who were afraid of the rising Ambedkarite assertion. But what happened later, was the typical modus operandi of the Sangh Parivar led administration. The goons who unleashed violence in Bhima Koregaon and other places got protection from Maharashtra Police which filed a case against activists for organising the Elgar Parishad, claiming that the meeting was sponsored by Maoists. This was a deliberate attempt to discourage people from coming to Bhima Koregaon. Slowly, Maharashtra police filed cases against numerous intellectuals and activists and arrested them. Later, this case was transferred to the National Investigation Agency (NIA). All those who have been arrested under fabricated charges or cooked up stories are well known activists, authors and intellectuals. They have been working on the ground and most of them are above 65 years of age.
Father Stan Swamy was arrested on October 8, 2020, by NIA and slapped with UAPA charges. His office was raided several times but nothing incriminating was found against him. He was 84 years of age, suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and Maharashtra Police wanted him to come to Mumbai for investigation, which he requested to be done at his place. Everything was rejected, Father Stan Swamy was arrested at Ranchi and brought to Mumbai and lodged in Taloja jail. At the time when Covid-19 cases were on the rise, the government should have been careful enough to think of not filling the jails with political prisoners, but it did not bother. Attempts were made by his lawyers to convince the courts to grant him bail at least on health grounds, but shockingly the courts were not ready to ‘ignore’ NIA lawyers who were vehemently opposing the bail. It is surprising that Varavara Rao was granted bail after many hearings, and attempts were made to convince him too that he would be provided medical care, but he was ultimately released on bail after many days. It is surprising that those ‘laws’ which granted bail to Varavara Rao were not made ‘applicable’ on Father Stan Swamy.
On October 23, 2020, the court rejected his bail plea. On November 6, his lawyers filed a request to provide him with straw and sipper as he was unable to hold a cup or glass on his own. NIA responded to this after 20 days. After much persuasion he was provided the same. Justice Madan B Lokur in his brilliantly articulated piece in the The Wire says, “ This application was dealt with great insensitivity. First, the prosecution sought time to file a reply. Was it necessary? Could a straw and sipper not have been provided to Stan Swamy? Then, even more surprisingly, the learned judge granted 20 days to the prosecution to file a reply! This was simply amazing. Frankly, if the prison system had been compassionate and humane, it would not have been necessary for Stan Swamy to approach the Trial Court for something as simple as a straw. Ultimately, as a great favour, the powers that be supplied Stan Swamy a sipper. Small mercies! A classic case of strumming his pain with their fingers”
Father Stan Swamy is a ‘free’ man now. Indian state can’t do anything. It has exposed itself to the international community that our institutions are not merely collapsing, but also compromised. We used to say that for a stronger and healthier democracy, people need independent media and judiciary as both become the watch dog at the time when ‘powers’ are intoxicated. But unfortunately in India, both have deeply disappointed right-thinking people.
The courts these days are allegedly not questioning the narrative of the probing agencies. Judges are transferred if they take an independent position and the case of Justice Muralidhar is an example. Media is part of the conspiracy, and never has the media become a bigger threat to democracy as it has become today. It legitimised the narrative being built up by the ruling party through the probe agencies. Courts were unable to pull up the agencies for their delay or failure to probe even after two or three years. People are incarcerated in jail, suffering in silence and facing threat to their lives in this age of Covid 19 and yet there are no questions asked.
These are difficult times for all of us. Father Stan Swamy was martyred for a cause. He did not compromise his principles and continued with them. He led a life which we all are proud of. He had a sensible voice. If saner voices who speak of unity of the country, constitutional power and rights of the marginalised, are being made criminals by the government agencies, then the future of the country is bleak. Our Constitution is already torn. Journalists like Siddique Kappan are in jail for reporting a case. Courts are unable to ask serious questions or take the political leadership to task.
The question is whether the judiciary will act on it. Whether there will be an introspection, that enough is enough, and our institutions need to assert their independence and autonomy. Protect the rights of the human rights defenders and allow them to breathe. None of them will speak for violence and hatred. These are critical moments for all. The only thing is whether our courts will now realise that enough is enough, it is time to act and seek accountability from the executive.
Father Stan Swamy will now be part of folklore in Jharkhand. His dedication and conviction will remind us to stand tall on the face of a fascist regime. Speak truth to the power. It is bitter. It can take our life but ultimately it will give life to the lifeless suffering due to despondency of the political leadership in the country.
It is time for our judiciary, our civil services and media to ponder over seriously as to whether such laws should not be scrutinised or whether these laws are violating the constitutional principles or international treaties and covenants that we claim proudly part of. Civil society is speaking but it has been harassed, humiliated and violated to the maximum, as if that was the first task of the government for the country.
One may or may not agree with the political views of any ‘accused’, but nobody would say that they are Naxals or operating against the Constitution of India. For that matter even Naxals or Pakistanis or anti-nationals will have to face the same law. Nobody in any society and country can be prosecuted without being given a fair chance to prove his or her innocence. UAPA law actually violates this basic premise of the law. Now, the accused have to prove themselves innocent. Moreover, the procedures are such, that if you are over 60 years of age or ailing, then it is ‘capital punishment’ without trial or final judgement. In the times of Covid, our authorities, whether judicial or police, should have been more sensitive. Of course, the biggest offender in this is the political leadership which shamelessly builds up the vicious narrative through their ‘propaganda’ machinery.
Father Stan Swamy fell to this insensitive regime because he spoke the truth and stood tall. We don’t know whether those who selectively and in a well planned and calculated manner criminalised the respected intellectuals, authors and activists, will ever do any introspection or show remorse. It never happened when Graham Staines and his two children were burnt in their vehicle. Till date, they defend the goons and thugs who were engaged in the heinous crime, and I am sure they won’t retreat. They ll bring ‘new evidence’ to further justify their criminal act. But we hope people of the country would definitely feel the pain and anguish of an 84-year-old man who was denied basic dignity and human rights in jail.
It happened to Father Stan Swamy and it could happen to anyone who the regime feels is against their political ideology. Yet in all the big democracies, it is the institutions who have to show strength and stand up to the lawlessness of the State. With one judgement, Justice H R Khanna became immortal in the legal parleys, though there have been many chief justices and other judges after him but whenever the country remembers of human rights, civil liberties, Justice Khanna’s name is taken with great reverence.
Let us see how our ‘system’ moves after they have killed an innocent man without trial.
A big salute to Father Stan Swamy.
*Views expressed are the author’s own.
Other pieces by Vidya Bhushan Rawat: