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

Stan, now part of the Adivasi folklore of resistance - Judicial and Jail systems guilty in ’death by default’ | John Dayal

Friday 9 July 2021, by John Dayal


Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Stan Swamy died a prisoner in a Mumbai hospital, was cremated after a funeral Mass, and his ashes taken to his beloved people of Jharkhand to dispersed amidst the forests and the fields. Fr Stan Swamy, the Jesuit, has now become part of the Adivasi folklore of resistance. He is also a martyr to their cause of protecting their heritage, the ‘Jal, Jangal, Zameen’ [Water, Forest, Land] from the lusting eyes of the men in political power and their crony corporate friends.

For posterity, the intrepid law news agency reported from the Bombay High court on 5th June 2021 that the Bench which was to hear Fr Stan Swamy’s application for bail on medical grounds was informed by the director of the Holy Family hospital that the 84-year-old patient had passed away. The doctor said that Fr Stan, who had been brought to the hospital some days ago and was recovering from covid he had contracted in jail, and several co-morbidities including progressive Parkinson’s disease, had suffered a cardiac arrest, and despite being put on a ventilator for several hours, could not be revived. He was declared dead.

His bail application remained unheard. The judges said they were speechless.

Stan, is now part of the Adivasi folklore of resistance, as much as the Judicial and Jail systems are guilty in his “death by default’ or worse.

Father Stan Swamy, a Tamil born in Trichy in the then Madras province, who worked much of his life in what is now Jharkhand, was bid farewell at a funeral Mass at the St Peters Church, Bandra. Just 20 of his brother priests were in the church obeying the covid distancing guidelines. The cremation was away from the glare of the Media.

Millions followed the Mass on various internet platforms.

Stan’s death was covered by the world media, with stinging editorials on the policies of the Indian government. The media also covered the pained remarks of United Nations Human rights officials, as well as many western governments. For the record, it must be said that major TV and print journals continued their support to the government whose spokespersons in turn held on to their argument that all 16 were guilty as charged, and posed a threat to Mr Modi and the national fabric.

Stan’s death evoked a tsunami swell of shock, injury and revulsion in the people across the globe, ranging from Human rights points-men of the United Nations, political leaders, civil society, and the common people cutting across religious beliefs or ideological positions.

Scores of Mumbai residents gathered across the road from the church as the Mass was in progress to express their solidarity and registered their protest at the circumstances of Fr Stan’s incarceration under the heinous Unlawful activities Prevention Act, UAPA. Similar protests continued to bet held in various towns in India, and indeed even in the US and elsewhere.

The spontaneous expression of shock globally ended the final chapter in the fascinating and inspiring life of the lanky old scholar-researcher-activist who was arrested in October 2020 from his Bagaicha home on the outskirts of Ranchi, Jharkhand. He was the last of 16 men and women National Investigating Agency and the Maharashtra police had arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, for conspiring to assassinate the Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi.

Arrested before him were 14 men and woman, among them poets, writers, lawyers, activists and academics, all accused by the National Investigating Agency, NIA, of being involved with a banned terrorist organization and for being co-conspirators in the 2018 violence in Maharashtra’s Bhima Koregaon village. There, a right wing upper caste group had clashed with the Dalits who had gathered at the historic war memorial to mark the 200th anniversary of the battle in which they defeated the forces of the Peshwa ruler of the region. The NIA also accused Swamy and the others of having ties with the ultra left wing Maoist armed groups. And the, as a trump card, the NIA ‘discovered’ a letter on the laptop of an accused purportedly pointing to a conspiracy to assassinate the head of the government.

In a video recorded days before his arrest, Swamy denied all involvement and said he had never visited the location where the violence took place. I, Harsh Mander and members of the Karwane Mohabbat had met him before the Covid lockdowns, some time after his Bagaicha home and office were first raided, and he had reiterated he had nothing to do with the matter at all.

But there is no doubt that the government at its highest political echelons had decided to make this case a matter of prestige over which it would hang several political objectives, ranging from the smaller one of the politics of Maharashtra, to issues of ending popular resistance to opening up infrastructure and resource exploitation in central India.

Tagging the Prime minister’s security ensured it becoming what has over the years come to be variously called the “national consciousness”, “national conscience” and “collective interest of the community”, suitable to the regime and its loyal supporters.

The NIA knew the orders came from, and so did the subordinate judiciary which over the years had heard and rejected bail applications from not just Stan, but several others of the arrested 16 who had chronic cardiac and other ailments.

On 22 March this year, rejecting Stan’s plea for a bail on medical grounds, Special National Investigation Agency (NIA) judge Dinesh E. Kothalikar wrote, “If seriousness of the allegations made against the applicant are considered in proper perspective, in that case there will be no hesitation to conclude that the collective interest of the community would outweigh the right of personal liberty of the applicant and as such the old age and or alleged sickness of the applicant would not go in his favour, so that the discretion to release the applicant can be exercised in his favour.”

This was just a bail application. Hearings in the case are yet to begin, and the over 10,000-page charge-sheet to be analysed in court by prosecution and defence lawyers. The men and women are at best suspects, and undertrials, who maintain they are innocent and the case is a politically directed fabrication.

In all, since his first application for bail on medical grounds, moved on 9 October 2020, Stan Swamy through his lawyers, moved the courts a total of 11 times, and each time, the judge found an excuse or merit in the NIA’s staunch opposition to granting bail to the old and sick man. It is to be hoped that someday, the Supreme court will call the records and possibly chassis the judges involved.

Will Stan Swamy, the seed which died, give strength to civil society and to the Adivasis he so dearly loved, and whose staunch demands for control over their natural resources and constitutional rights he espoused as his own, remains to be seen. Will the Christian community which was active on social media demanding his release — the Pope in Rome too had spoken - go beyond a candle light vigil, is also a moot question. It is not known to be a militant group, and its fissiparous leadership would rather sue for peace than anything more.

Stan and his work has also to be seen in the context of his own roots as a Jesuit, and his eventual coming out of the boundaries of classical religious institutions to merge seamlessly with the aspirations of the poorest of the poor. In this case, it was the Adivasis demanding that constitutional guarantees under Schedule 5 as well as subsequent laws be evoked to keep the forests and resources away from government’s crony capitalists who have long had an eye on these.

Though he worked in the civil sphere, outside of church institutions, Stan was loyal to his training and his creed. The 4,000 strong community of men of the Society of Jesus work not only in the iconic schools and colleges we know in metropolitan cities and state capitals. Some of the well-known Jesuit charisms, as they define it, are education of the whole person, men and women for and with others, promotion of justice and leadership, and ‘contemplation in action’. That is what Stan had done all his life after he came back from Brussels with degrees in sociology. The men of the Society are not intimidated way what many said is the institutional murder and ‘vengeance of the state.”

“The death of Fr Stan is not the end, but the beginning of a fresh impetus for justice and freedom. It is a Kairos moment for us to read the signs of the times and to respond to them. It is an opportunity for us to pause, ponder and proceed boldly on our way of proceeding. It is an occasion for us to discern, decide and dedicate ourselves to our mission of reconciliation and justice as Fr Stan did. Let us pray for the grace of discernment and holy boldness. May the courage and fortitude of Fr Stan inspire us to deepen our faith and hope for a new desire, a new purpose and a new future’ wrote Fr Stany D’ Souza, President of the Jesuit conference of South Asia and head of the Jesuit in India.

Stan Swamy had worked with two, perhaps three generations, of men and women Tribals of central India in their many campaigns and movement, from the formation of the Jharkhand state to the more recent Pathalgadi movement protecting the people’s control of what was theirs by right.

The most remarkable work was documenting and protesting the resistance -and often death in police firing – of innocent Adivasi youth and their incarceration for years. He had estimated that the figures of such people maybe anywhere near 3,000 or more.

Nationally, the Indian government is yet to disclose just how many people have been arrested under UAPA, and how many such cases have been brought to trial. The strategy seems to be to just let them rot in jail. This case itself is now more than two years old, and there are no indications when proceedings will start in court so that the 10,000 pages of the charge sheet can be put to the litmus test of cross examination to establish the truth. There is serious evidence from US labs that evidence may have even planted in the computers of Stan Swamy and others by government or non-state agencies using some malware.

In the meanwhile, Fr Stan Swamy SJ, will remain a guiding light for them and for those of us in the country who profess support for the dignity of the poor and seek an end to the exploitation by crony capital. And to that extent, it will have severely dented the regime’s effort to make a lesson out of the women and men arrested in the Elgar Parishad case. And hopefully, it will trigger some soul searching in the judicial system, too, even if they still retain UAPA.

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