Father Stan Swamy: Portrait of a priest as an Adivasi

Stan Swamy left Tamil Nadu early in life not to preach, but in search of an enduring identity, which he found among the indigenous people he worked with in Jharkhand for close to four decades.

Published : Jul 11, 2021 06:00 IST

1970: Stan Swamy’s priesthood ordination in Manila, the Philippines.

1970: Stan Swamy’s priesthood ordination in Manila, the Philippines.

“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.” Stanislaus Lourduswamy aka Father Stan Swamy loved to quote this immortal line from Khalil Gibran’s “On Death”. He has made liberal use of it in his yet-to-be-published memoir, “Why Truth has become so bitter; Dissent so intolerable; Justice so out of reach?”. In the 57-page memoir, which he calls “an autobiographical fragment, memory and reflection”, Stan Swamy writes: “‘…the river and the sea are one’ means the fresh water of the river when it flows into the sea becomes salty water, but water remains water. The form may change but the substance is the same.”

Elucidating this metaphysical indulgence, he goes on: “There is a strong belief among the indigenous Adivasi societies that when someone dies he/she comes back in spirit to the near and dear ones…. This is the way I wish to be remembered by near and dear colleagues and comrades as well as those who I have tried my best to accompany in their struggle for truth, justice and humanity. But life is still there to live. May we all live our lives to the fullest!” This lucid perception on life and death reflected the very disposition and predilection of the 84-year-old Jesuit priest, who preferred to be called a “trained sociologist”. This is how he identified himself during the interrogation by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). He had been in search of an enduring identity; he found it among the indigenous people he worked with for close to four decades. It was his dream to ensure that the people close to his heart lived in harmony with ‘Mother Nature’ protected from state-aided corporate and mining mafias.

Fruits for the birds

Father Stan Swamy, like a tribal person, loved nature. He said he had learnt a lot from the tribal people about “Mother Nature”. He recalled an incident that gave him an insight into the Adivasi way of life. Once when he was staying at the residence of a tribal student, the boy’s father asked him to pluck mangoes from only certain branches of the tree. The boy did as he was told. Stan Swamy noticed that one branch laden with ripened mangoes was not touched. When he asked the father why he had not asked his son to pluck any fruit from that branch, the father said: “Those are fruits for the birds of the air. Nature has given freely, and so we share freely.”

Stan Swamy was aware that his struggle to ensure the tribal peoples’ rights to land and forest would be challenging. “Can flowers blossom in volcano?” he asked. But he pursued his dream with determination. He once said that “Mother Earth” had taken him into her bosom, “guiding, strengthening, and standing by him in a never-fading solidarity”. He was reluctant to leave Ranchi and its people who had endeared themselves to him, and rarely visited his family at Viragalur village in Tiruchi district in Tamil Nadu.

Also read: How Father Stan Swamy was silenced in death

P.L. Hirudayaswamy, Stan Swamy’s 89-year-old brother, said: “Stan lived his full life among them [tribal people]. He loved them most. He once told me that in the event of his death, he preferred to be buried in the land of his people, the Adivasis.” But Viragalur is waiting to receive at least “a handful of ashes” of Stan Swamy’s mortal remains that were consigned to flames as he was a suspected COVID-19 patient. Benitto Prabhu, Hirudayaswamy’s grandson, said Stan Swamy’s ashes were taken to Ranchi and Jamshedpur.

Secular humanist

Stan Swamy was more a “secular” humanist and sociologist than a theologian. He was inducted into the priesthood in Manila, the Philippines, in 1970 after he completed his studies in theology. But his thoughts remained focussed on the trials and tribulations of the disadvantaged people in India. His mentor, who later became archbishop in the Philippines, stoked his passion to spend his life in the service of the downtrodden.

Benitto said: “I had never seen him in the white robes and other paraphernalia associated with a priest on the podium. He strongly believed in service to poor than in service to God. That is why despite the risks involved he stood by the tribal people. He once told me that Tamil Nadu was well developed socially and economically unlike Jharkhand and his services were needed the most there.”

Stan Swamy was emotionally attached to the tribal people of Jharkhand. Nandini Sundar, professor of sociology, Delhi University, in her foreword to the memoir, calls Jharkhand “his adopted home”. In fact, it had been Stan Swamy’s true home. His family members said Stan Swamy did not bond with the family. He stayed in hostels during his school and college days and, after his ordination as a priest, rarely visited the family. “He did not attend the funeral of his mother and an elder sister, who was a nun,” said Benitto.

But the distance did not diminish their affection for Stan Swamy. The pious Roman Catholic family fully supported Stan Swamy in his endeavour. “We were aware of his commitment to serve the poor. I was overawed by his presence and his will to serve society. We are proud of him,” said Benitto.

Early days

Born on April 26, 1937, Stan Swamy lost his father when he was 12 years old. He was the fifth among six siblings. The family lived on income earned from agriculture after the rice mill owned by it failed. In fact, Hirudayaswamy shouldered the entire responsibility of the family.

Prof. G. Amirthalenin, assistant professor in Loyola College, Chennai, who knows Stan Swamy’s family and hails from a neighbouring village, said: “However, the family saw to it that none of the issues affected Stan’s studies and social commitment. His elder brother, who had completed SSLC [Secondary School Leaving Certificate examination, that is Class XI] then, encouraged Stan to pursue his academic and social interests.” Amirthalenin said both Stan Swamy’s father and elder brother had served as village panchayat presidents.

After completing his schooling at St Joseph’s High School and intermediate and bachelor’s degree at St Joseph’s College, Tiruchi, Stan Swamy joined a Jesuit institution in Dindigul for a pre-course in theology. His “entrance into the Society of Jesus was in 1957”, and in 1965, he began his regency, where trainee priests would spend one or two years taking up works of the Order.

Also read: Sen, Swamy and the ‘evidence’

Stan Swamy went to St Xavier’s High School Lupungutu, Chaibasa in West Singhbhum district of Jharkhand. His experience in the school changed his life and perception about the people of the land and their sufferings. With those haunted memories, he left for Manila where he did his postgraduation in sociology at the Ateneo De Manila University, besides pursuing a course in theology. In 1970, he was anointed as a priest, and he returned to India and stayed at Kodaikkanal in Tamil Nadu as a trainee for some time. In 1971, he was made director of the Catholic Relief Services charity for the Jamshedpur province, where he spent two years.

Social work

Henri Tiphagne, executive director of People’s Watch, Madurai, who has been closely associated with Stan Swamy and his family since the early 1970s, told Frontline that during his time in Jamshedpur and with the support of Bill Tome, head of the Jamshedpur Jesuit Province, Stan Swamy moved to Badaibir village, where he taught the local tribal youths to think critically. “He was soon joined by his former students and volunteers from the All-India Catholic University Federation,” Henri Tiphagne recalled. In the meantime, Stan Swamy got a scholarship to study at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium for a year (1974-75). “Despite having the option to pursue his PhD, he returned to India to continue social work,” he said.

Since 1971, Stan Swamy had been in touch with Henry Volken, the then Director of the Indian Social Institute Training Centre (ISI-TC) in Bengaluru, where he attended a three-month course in community development. Stan Swamy has noted in his memoir that most of the trainees at the centre were from the deprived sections of society, namely, Dalits and Adivasis, and that they “did not shy away from acknowledging that the content of our social analysis was based on the Marxian tools of analysis”.

Also read: ‘What is the crime I have committed?’

Volken believed that an Indian Jesuit should head the institute and proposed Stan Swamy’s name. On returning from Belgium, Stan Swamy began his 15-year-long stint with the ISI-TC, initially as a lecturer and later as its Director, where he developed systematic training sessions. The curriculum placed emphasis on the Marxist philosophy and principles. This was resented by a few right-wing ideologues. Henri Tiphagne said: “The three-month intensive course in Social Analysis and Community Organisation offered by the institute was extremely popular then.”

Stan Swamy’s academic commitments and compulsions did not diminish his love for the tribal people. In 1991, he returned to Jharkhand to be with “the Adivasi societies who were my ‘first love’”. Stan Swamy writes in his memoir: “Even before I came to ISI they were calling me to be with them in their struggle to claim their right to self-respect and dignity. So, I bade farewell to ‘old face’ ISI and plunged into the world of Adivasis with ‘new hopes’.”

He stayed with the Jesuit community of St Xavier’s High School Lupungutu and worked to revive JOHAR (the Jharkhand Organisation for Human Rights), advocating popular causes and the revival of the traditional self-governance (Munda-Manki) system of the Ho society. (Ho is one of the Scheduled Tribes of Jharkhand and Odisha.) Henri Tiphagne said: “As the turn of the millennium saw a rise in mass struggles in the region as Adivasis were being displaced from their lands for large-scale projects such as dams and industries, Jesuits involved in social action felt that a centre should be established in Ranchi to coordinate the efforts of organisations and movements.”

Stan Swamy was given this responsibility, and in 2006 the Bagaicha centre was established in Ranchi. Stan Swamy notes in his memoir: “In 1990 or 1991, I reached Jharkhand and I was asked to revive a social organisation, by name JOHAR, which was founded in 1989. By 1995, JOHAR became active again and I worked for five years with some committed Adivasi youth, taking up different issues of the Adivasi people who have been facing issues such as, displacement by mining companies and a host of other exploitative forces.”

Also read: Terror and the UAPA law

Explaining the title of his memoir Stan Swamy writes: “Because the truth has become very bitter to those in power and position, dissent, so unpalatable to the ruling elite, justice, so out of reach to the powerless, marginalised, deprived people. Yet, truth must be spoken, right to dissent must be upheld, and justice must reach the doorsteps of the poor.”

He said the communities that “drew me to them like a magnet” were the Dalits in Tamil Nadu and the Adivasis of central India (comprising Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh) and the Tamil plantation workers in Sri Lanka, who were victims of exploitation and oppression. “I responded to their calls by going to them every other year until the pogrom against Tamils began in 1983,” he noted. He had travelled to Sri Lanka regularly until 1983.

(Stan Swamy had been living and working in Jharkhand until the night of October 8, 2020, when the NIA arrested him under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act as an accused in the Bhima Koregaon-Elgaar Parishad case. He has authored many books and published many articles, mostly on Adivasi rights and their exploitation by the state. In January 2021, the National Confederation of Human Rights Organisations (NCHRO) conferred the Mukundan C. Menon award 2020 for human rights on him.)

Inhuman act

Henri Tiphagne said Stan Swamy was “forcefully” vaccinated in the prison although he showed symptoms of COVID-19. “It was an atrocious and inhuman act,” he said.

Prof Amirthalenin said: “Stan had remained a humanist until the last. He struggled for the poor and oppressed. It was a shame that the might of a state is scared of an old and sick Jesuit Father. All the cases that have been registered by the NIA against activists and intellectuals should be reviewed and withdrawn. It was corporate and saffron terrorism that killed Stan.”

Also read: The institutional murder of Stan Swamy

Stan Swamy sent a message to his friends, perhaps his last one, from the Taloja prison in Navi Mumbai, a few days before his hospitalisation and death. He wrote: “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 we will still sing in chorus. A caged bird can still sing.”

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