Stan Swamy, in life and in martyrdom
Our hearts had foretold his death. It was clear that the State had, in cold blood, decided to wreak on him and others the full might of its vengeance for daring to speak for the poor and the deprived
We mourn Jesuit Fr. Stan Swamy today. Tomorrow we will start celebrating his life.
It is a moot question which of these two the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be more apprehensive about.
Will it wonder why an 84-year-old Catholic priest’s death of COVID and other complications in a Mumbai hospital has triggered such a tsunami of grief across the country and globe, much more than if it were that of a political leader or a sports icon?
Or how this sorrow has turned into a wave of disgust against the senior political leadership and the many institutions of law, order and justice that it has not only emasculated, but robbed of humaneness and respect they were to have for the Constitution and the rights of the people?
The celebration of the life of this frail man, his limbs quivering with the impact of Parkinson’s Disease, will hold up a mirror to the government, its policies towards its people, especially the tribals and the poor, and how in violation of the statutes, it is stealing the nation’s resources, which are also the very life of the tribals, and gifting it away to crony capitalists.
In the process, it is also bartering away the future, with its robbery of forests, water and minerals impacting the environment and the climate.
For that is why Stan Swamy had to die. And the State used all its might to ensure that he would die a prisoner of the State.
That he died after a few days in hospital, while on ventilator, was because the Mumbai High Court took mercy. But he was not out on bail.
As his bail application came up for an early hearing this afternoon, the hospital told the bench that Fr Stan Swamy had passed away. His lungs were impacted by COVID he had contracted in jail. His brave heart seized at last.
The judges expressed their shock. They said they had no words. His lawyers have demanded a judicial enquiry. It will be surprising if the government orders it.
One of Fr. Stan Swamy’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.”
But even from jail, Fr Stan would not allow his spirit to be arrested by his inhumane treatment and a vengeful State. Even in jail, the free bird sings, he told Jesuit colleagues.
Fr Stanislaus Swamy, 84, arrested in October 2020, faced inhuman treatment while in jail together with others arrested in the so-called Bhima Koregaon conspiracy to ‘murder political leaders’. Stan Swamy and the others denied the charges, even as human rights movements accused the State of using the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act to crush dissent and the rights of India’s Dalits and tribal communities.
Our hearts had foretold his death. It was clear that the State had, in cold blood, decided to wreak on him and others the full might of its vengeance for daring to speak for the poor and the deprived.
Fr Stan, the legendary worker for the rights of tribal and the indigenous people in India and elsewhere in the world, lived in Ranchi, Jharkhand. He was in his small room when he was arrested, his computer and other belongings seized, and put into jail. He told his interrogators from the police and the National Investigation Agency then and later that he was totally innocent of the charges put on him.
In jail, with his health failing with advanced stages of Parkinson’s Disease, he was denied basic human dignity and facilities including a simple water sipper, as he could no longer hold a cup in his trembling hands.
A man who could hardly move was systematically denied bail by various courts. The course of the various stages of his bail application, the manner in which the investigating agencies and the prosecution insisted he was too dangerous to be released, are ample evidence that the State wanted to make an example out of him, and the others arrested with him.
The Tamil Nadu-born Jesuit priest had shifted out of the citadel of the church and its institutions to work with the tribals of central India, basing himself in Ranchi in Jharkhand for the last four decades of his life. As much a researcher and writer as he was a grassroots worker, he focussed on many issues of the Adivasi communities, and in particular, land, forest and labour rights.
He questioned the non-implementation of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, which stipulates setting up of a Tribes Advisory Council with members solely of the Adivasi community for their protection, well-being and development in the state.
Just a few days before he was arrested by the National Investigation Agency, Stan had said that he had challenged the “indiscriminate” arrest of thousands of young Adivasis and Moolvasis, with investigating agencies labelling them as ‘Naxals’.
In life and in his martyrdom, Fr Stan Swamy has become a beacon for all who struggle for human rights, especially the rights of the tribals and other marginalised people, and a role model for young men and women across the nation.
(The writer is a human rights activist and author. Views expressed are personal)