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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 30, New Delhi, July 10, 2021

Jesuit Communist | Basu Acharya

Friday 9 July 2021

by Basu Acharya*

July 7, 2021

The only time I met Father Stan Swamy was nearly four and half years back. On a lazy summer afternoon, I arrived in Ranchi, the state capital of Jharkhand, to attend a two-day seminar commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution. The organisers had asked Comrade Subodh Mitra and me to speak on the subject of communist unity. Delegates from almost all mainstream and communist revolutionary groups were present and, despite patiently listening to a few irksome sectarian speeches, the overall experience was quite satisfying. Every group, except the SUCI, accepted the need for united action against the rising menace of Hindutva fascism and decided to work out an Approach Paper for future course of action. The meeting went on for almost four hours at a stretch and finally concluded at three o’clock.

Lunch was already due and the organisers, obviously, were in great haste. They had arranged our food and lodging at ’Bagaicha’, an establishment put up by a Jesuit priest and liberation theologist, Father Stan Swamy, at Namkom. As we entered the site, I could not trace any so-called religious motifs that are common to all missionary edifice. Spanning across an acre of land, Bagaicha resembled a structure much akin to a fortress-like high school building of yesteryears.

As we set our feet in the dining hall, the volunteers told us that it was a self-service setup where every person has to wash his own plate and katora at the end his/her meal. It was well above three o’clock and we, quite naturally, were much famished. But as there were almost a hundred people around, most of them senior citizens, I did not hurry. Instead, I stood at one side of the long corridor of the huge dining space and enjoyed my cigarette. Subodh-da, Comrade Subodh Mitra, however, came up to me and said, "just throw that piece of fag away and have your lunch. It’s already late and Father Stan too has come."

Instructed by the leader, I went to the adjacent washroom to lather my hands, returned quickly and collected a plate and a katora from one side of the long table and helped myself with the modest foodstuffs in the menu: Rice, daal, fried potato slices and a mixed vegetable item prepared with raw papaya, chickpeas and beans. I was indeed too hungry and the food tasted fabulous.

After lunch I went to the room allotted to me. In last few days, I had to run from one part of central Jharkhand to several other areas for professional reasons, hence, reaching ’Bagaicha’ was pure bliss. I went to bed instantly but could not come in terms with my siesta as Comrade Subodh-da suddenly came to me to share certain important information. We talked for a while and after he was done, while exiting, he told me to meet Father Swamy in the evening. I at once replied in affirmative and pulled my eye-curtains down and fell asleep.

I got up in an hour or so, did my toilet and went out for a stroll. I wandered around the garden, clean and well-maintained, observed every corner of the building, quite minutely, but could not spot any space meant for worship and prayer. As I reached the entry of Father Stan’s office room, he called me in.

He was weedy and lanky, looked extremely frail. Even his voice was trembling—an obvious sign of neurological ailment. His eyes, however, were just the opposite. They were calm and penetrating yet had a diamond-like dazzle. I looked at him in fascinated amazement. That was the first time I was meeting a Liberation Theologist! He asked my whereabouts, responding to which I gave a brief account of my literary and social activities. He looked pleased, and that enabled me to garner courage to propose him an informal interview. He accepted readily and I asked: "Comrade Father, I was wandering your premises and no doubt it’s a huge one. But I couldn’t find any place for worship." Father Stan smiled but did not utter a word. That was how he entertained the question and so I changed the topic: "The way you’ve stood firm by the adivasis and other marginalised people, opened the gates of your institution for helping them and also the revolutionaries is nothing but an impossible feat. There could hardly be any comparison. But Father, I hope you’d agree, there’s a materialistic aspect as well. How did you manage to construct and smoothly run such a huge establishment?" With a quivering voice, he laughed and said, "I did all this from the money I received from the Jesuits. I told them, ’You are rich people, why not allow me to work in my own way? I’d certainly send the bills.’ That’s how things went, I would send bills and they would pay accordingly. And finally ’Bagaicha’ was created. You’re a writer and activist. Have you seen our library?" I said, "The door was locked. I saw it from outside. I would love to explore it tomorrow morning if you please allow me." Father Stan smiled and asked me to reach the library by nine o’clock the next morning.

Tea had arrived (I do not remember whether he was using a sipper). With a sip, I entered another topic: "Well, Father, you are a man from South India and probably you studied abroad (that was a wild guess). Why then all of a sudden in Jharkhand?" Father Stan responded: "I studied Sociology in Manila and worked for a short period at the Social Institute in Bangalore. Later, I came here and settled. I came here to worship, to stand by the oppressed. I wanted them to fight for their rights. I was quite young then." "That’s why people call you a liberation theologist, isn’t it?"—I retorted. Father Stan smiled again. But I was not in a mood to leave. I rephrased the question: "How do you like to identify youself?" The Father stared at me with his calm but penetrating look for one or two seconds and replied: "Communist". Naturally, I was not expecting this answer. How could a Jesuit priest call himself a Communist! Father Stan could sense my question and tried to enunciate his position: "Jesus himself was an early communist. It’s at his call I’ve engaged myself in the service of the oppressed." His words reminded me of Engels’ ’On the History of Early Christianity’, where he suggested that "Christianity was originally a movement of oppressed people... [and] ’socialism’ did in fact, as far as it was possible at the time, exist and even became dominant—in Christianity."

This was enough for me. I concluded the interview with the question I had begun, albeit a bit differently, in the form of a statement: "That means there’s no separate prayer room here, right?" Father Stan laughed. We shook hands and got up. People outside were waiting to meet him.

By then, barring certain corners of the garden with lampstands, ’Bagaicha’ was enveloped in darkness, accompanied by the chorus of crickets.

* (Basu Acharya is a former member of a Maoist Far-Left group)

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