Father Stan Swamy: Silenced in death

The passing of 84-year-old Father Stan Swamy marks the lowest point in the functioning of several institutions of the state, which seemed to be more keen on keeping in jail the life-long crusader for the rights of tribal people than helping his cause or upholding the rule of law.

Published : Jul 11, 2021 04:30 IST

Father Stan Swamy with members of a tribal community at a protest site in Jharkhand.

Father Stan Swamy with members of a tribal community at a protest site in Jharkhand.

What is happening to me is not something unique; it is the broader process that is taking place all over the country. We are all aware how prominent intellectuals, writers, poets, activists, student leaders have been put into jail because they have expressed their dissent or raised questions on the ruling powers. We are part of this process. In a way I am happy to be part of this process because I am not a silent spectator; I am part of the game, I am ready to pay the price, whatever it may be.”—Father Stan Swamy, in a video he released a few days before he was arrested on October 8, 2020.

With age-related ailments and Parkinson’s disease gnawing away at his body, 84-year-old Father Stan Swamy knew what that price would be. Through nine months in jail and after being denied bail four times, he saw his health deteriorate rapidly. He eventually lost the fight and passed away as an undertrial in a private hospital in Mumbai on July 5.

At his last court hearing, he spoke to the judges about his approaching death with a lucidity that eluded the arbiters of justice before him. Under the rubble of the noisy politics surrounding his incarceration lies buried the truth of a humble man who eschewed self-indulgence for a life of service and sacrifice—a life uncommon enough to be easily misunderstood.

Also read: Portrait of a priest as an Adivasi

Father Stan Swamy was neither an anarchist nor a leader. His only intention was to stand alongside the most marginalised and vulnerable, understand them and protect them. A Jesuit priest, he spent six decades of his life in the Bihar-Jharkhand belt fighting for land, forest, livelihood and human rights. His was a life led for others that culminated in imprisonment for a crime he did not commit. Father Stan Swamy often said that his work had nothing to do with going against the state. It was about the welfare of tribal people. His work, in fact, supplemented the limited reach of the state, given how downtrodden, marginalised and invisible tribal people are in the country.

Several failures exposed

Father Stan Swamy’s death exposes failures on several fronts. To start with, India’s highest institution, the judicial system, stands diminished. The denial of a simple sipper cup or straw when his deteriorating muscles no longer allowed him to hold a glass and drink water was perhaps the lowest point in this case. The grave injustice in repeatedly denying medical bail when he was so obviously sick was a case of glaring misjudgement, according to Father Stan Swamy’s defence team.

Equally significant is the apathy shown by the current Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi coalition, which had promised during its 2019 election campaign to resolve the Elgaar Parishad/Bhima Koregaon case. (The Elgaar Parishad, which took place on December 31, 2017, at Bhima Koregaon, was an event that discussed issues relating to the marginalised and the minorities, and people’s welfare, and was open to the general public. Elgaar means clarion call.)

The State government could be held singularly responsible for being a silent bystander, allowing a pathetic prison system to bring several of the Bhima Koregaon victims, including Father Stan Swamy, to the brink of death. One of Father Stan Swamy’s fellow activists said: “Father Stan was a victim of an oppressive government. And there will be many more. His death raises the question: what kind of nation have we become to incarcerate and then not release on bail an ailing octogenarian, who has little means to flee anywhere?”

Suhas Palshikar, a social and political scientist, said: “In the Bhima Koregaon case, restricting this question to urban naxals is just half the issue. The real story lies outside of it. All those who are critiquing the Hindutva regime are now issued a warning. This message will go everyone.”

He added: “In this case, the judiciary comes out with a very poor record. Instead, the judiciary should seize this opportunity to revisit the constitutional validity of the UAPA. Both the Congress and the BJP are complicit in this. They have all put innocent people behind bars and then done nothing about it.”

Arrested and charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for his alleged link to banned Maoists who the National Investigation Agency (NIA) believes were behind the 2018 Bhima Koregaon caste violence, Father Stan Swamy was brought to Mumbai on October 9, 2020, and immediately imprisoned.

He walked into jail, a little unsteady, but reasonably healthy. By May 2021, at his last court hearing and public appearance via videoconference, he seemed disoriented and incoherent. Mihir Desai, his lawyer, said that they had been requesting his hospitalisation for weeks before the court finally allowed it. Each time his bail hearing came up, the NIA would claim that Father Stan Swamy’s medical reports were in order and that his condition was not as critical as it was made out to be. Periodically, the prison authorities sent him to the State government-run J.J. Hospital in Mumbai, where he would undergo some perfunctory treatment and be sent back.

Also read: The witch-hunt against the 16 Bhima Koregaon activists

This process left Father Stan Swamy so upset that he told a bench led by Justice Kathawalla in a feeble voice: “Eight months ago, I would eat by myself, do some writing, walk, I could take bath by myself, but all these are disappearing one after another. So Taloja jail has brought me to a situation where I can neither write nor go for a walk by myself. Someone has to feed me. In other words, I am requesting you to consider why and how this deterioration of myself happened. Yesterday I was taken to J.J. Hospital, so I got an opportunity to explain what I should be given. My deterioration is more powerful than the small tablets that they give.” He added: “I would rather suffer and possibly die shortly than go to that hospital. It is a very difficult moment for me.”

Father Stan Swamy said that his only request was for interim bail so that he could spend his remaining days in his village in Ranchi. Father Joe Xavier, a friend and part of his legal defence team, said: “After Stan’s last court appearance, I feared he had given up. He did not have the will to live. But I know him—as a true crusader, he believed his death would benefit the injustices others are suffering.”

On May 28, Father Stan Swamy was shifted from jail to the Holy Family Hospital in Bandra. He tested positive for COVID-19 and was immediately placed in an intensive care unit (ICU). By July 4, close associates said the priest was slipping. On July 5, Father Stan Swamy suffered a heart attack and was put on a ventilator. He never regained consciousness and passed away that day. Dr Ian D’Souza, medical director of Holy Family Hospital, said: “The cause of death is definitely pulmonary infection and Parkinson’s disease among others. There were post-COVID effects on his lungs.”

No bail, no interrogation

Father Stan Swamy was India’s oldest prisoner charged with terrorism to die in custody awaiting bail. From the moment the priest’s health began to decline in jail, he asked the special court for bail on the grounds that an overcrowded prison would make him more vulnerable to the coronavirus, to which the NIA replied: “The accused, under the garb of the current situation on account of the global COVID-19 pandemic, is trying to take an undue benefit of the situation….” And yet, in all these months, the NIA did not seek a day’s custody to interrogate Father Stan Swamy.

Mihir Desai had been relentlessly appealing for hospitalisation. But the NIA did not budge, and the court also did not take cognisance of the seriousness of Father Stan Swamy’s condition. In fact, Mihir Desai said the defence team was not given the medical report compiled by “experts” for the NIA. Speaking to Frontline, he said: “Stan complained of fever and weakness and was given antibiotics prescribed by the jail’s Ayurveda doctor. He was at risk of contracting the coronavirus infection and his life was under imminent threat due to his medical condition, advanced age, and lack of medical facilities at the Taloja prison.”

Also read: UAPA, terror and the law

Following two weeks of constant applications, Father Stan Swamy was moved out of jail. On July 3, Mihir Desai submitted to the court that Father Swamy was still in the ICU. He informed the Bombay High Court about Father Stan Swamy’s fresh criminal writ petition challenging the constitutional validity of Section 43D (5) of the UAPA that creates “obstacle” for an accused to be granted bail, and was violative of fundamental rights under Articles 14 and 19 of the Constitution. The court extended Father Stan Swamy’s hospitalisation until July 6. Tragically, he died before his fifth bail plea was heard.

The Bhima Koregaon pretext

In 1818, a small army of Dalits helped the British overthrow the oppressive Peshwas of Maharashtra in the Bhima Koregaon war. Ever since Dr B.R. Ambedkar visited the memorial site at the Bhima Koregaon village in 1927, Dalits have been making an annual pilgrimage to pay homage to the soldiers of the war.

The year 2018 marked the 200th anniversary of the war, and thousands of Dalits were gathering for the occasion planned for January 1, 2018. The situation turned ugly when local Maratha leaders instigated their community youth to throw stones and attack the Dalit pilgrims. One person was killed in the violence. The incident caused a few minor flare-ups across the State.

From initially probing the Bhima Koregaon incident, the Pune Police did a strange turnaround and began investigating the Elgaar Parishad, which took place on December 31, 2017. Led by the late Justice P.B. Sawant and Justice (retd) B.G. Kolse-Patil, the Elgaar Parishad in 2017 was a day-long event filled with issue-based talks, inspirational speeches and social-themed dance and drama performances. It was held a day before the Bhima Koregaon commemorations so that several activists and community members could attend both.

Acting on two separate complaints, filed by Akshay Bikkad and Tushar Damgude, who said that the Elgaar Parishad was filled with inflammatory speeches that instigated the violence at Bhima Koregaon, the Pune Police apparently drew up a list of activists who they believed were behind the trouble. Incidentally, a complaint filed by Anita Savale on two self-proclaimed Maratha leaders, Shambaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, was also investigated. There are eyewitness accounts that both were seen at Bhima Koregaon mobilising their community members and instigating violence on the day of the commemoration. Both remain free. It is not clear how the Pune Police arrived at the names of people to investigate, but within a span of one and half years, between the police and the NIA, 16 activists were arrested from across the country. Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut, Rona Wilson, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Sudha Bharadwaj, Father Stan Swamy, Gautam Navlakha, Anand Teltumbde, Hany Babu, Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor and Jyoti Jagtap were charged for their alleged connections to banned Maoist groups who the police claim organised the Elgaar Parishad, for being part of a conspiracy to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Mod,i and for being involved in an “urban revolution” that could “destablise” the nation.

Also read: Sen, Swamy and the ‘evidence’

All the accused have denied any involvement in the Bhima Koregaon incident and have categorically told the courts that evidence against them was fabricated with an ulterior agenda. The police and the NIA claimed to have “found” letters and documents which they said revealed the activists’ involvement in mobilising forces against the state. These letters were never submitted in court, defence lawyers said.

A United States-based forensics firm called Arsenal Consulting, which investigated a copy of Rona Wilson’s hard drive, said that Wilson’s and Gadling’s computers were aggressively attacked for 22 months and that every document which supposedly links them to the case was planted by an external source via a malware operation.

Investigations conducted by the human rights bodies Amnesty International and Citizens Lab on July 7, 2021, confirmed that spyware software called Pegasus was used in the computers of nine of the Bhima Koregaon accused and their lawyers. In spite of verified data that proved that the accused were framed, their bail applications continue to be rejected.

Why he was targeted

Father Stan Swamy came into the Pune Police’s net in August 2018, when they raided his residence in Ranchi. They subjected him to a second raid in June 2019. When the NIA took over the investigation in 2020, the agency interrogated him for 15 hours over five days on July 25, 2020. In September, the NIA told him to come to Mumbai for interrogation. He refused, citing old age and the pandemic. When arrest seemed imminent, Father Stan Swamy released a video explaining the reasons for being targeted. In fact, the video is testimony to how healthy he was a few days before he went into jail.

In the video, he says, in a quiet but firm voice: “Let me give you some background into why I am under investigation…. The first reason is about my involvement in helping young people fight for the rights of marginalised people when Jharkhand became a State. The issues were displacement due to mining and townships…. people were not taken into confidence….we took it as a challenge to fight it out.”

Father Stan Swamy further explains that helpful pieces of legislation such as the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, and the Land Acquisition Act, 2013, opened the way for people to claim their rights, adding that Bagaicha, his social service organisation, helped people understand these issues.

The other reason, which he thought had become a bone of contention between him and the State, was that he and a few other activists had filed a case in 2017 to free 3,000 young Adivasis from jails across Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. Father Stan Swamy says: “Extracts taken from my computer about some Maoist literature were all interpolations put into my computer. I never visited or had anything to do with Bhima Koregaon.”

Also read: ‘The special court failed in its duty’

Father Stan Swamy was arrested and brought to Mumbai on October 8, 2020. The NIA subsequently named him and seven others in the charge sheet it filed on Bhima Koregaon. Two bail applications on medical consideration were rejected on October 18 and 22. In November 2020, he sought regular bail stating that no purpose was served by keeping an 83-year-old man incarcerated.

By March 2021, Father Stan Swamy was visibly sick. He was not getting adequate medical assistance or nutrition, and he had to be assisted by Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves for his basic needs. Another bail plea filed in March was rejected. In early May, the High Court directed J.J. Hospital to form a panel to examine Father Stan Swamy’s health. That report was never given to the defence, Mihir Desai said.

At the time, prison authorities told the court: “Father Swamy had a good pumping heart and good circulation of blood.” On May 21, Father Stan Swamy told the court of his rapid regression and sought bail to spend his final days with his own people. He refused to go to J.J. Hospital. On May 28, he agreed to be shifted to Holy Family Hospital. On arrival, he was rushed to the ICU and put on oxygen. When his condition turned critical, Mihir Desai applied for bail extensions, which the court fortunately gave.

When Father Stan Swamy was arrested, his co-workers and supporters told Frontline that he was undaunted by the powerful and took on the private mining lobby and fought against big industries exploiting the natural resources in Jharkhand.

They added that he had the ability to mobilise tribal people and said that his ability to use his constitutional knowledge astutely made him extremely inconvenient to both the State and Central governments. Above all, his pure dedication to the tribal community was in itself a threat.

Specifically, his associates said, the following causes he took up were perhaps the reason Father Stan Swamy incurred the establishment’s wrath.

Father Stan Swamy relentlessly questioned the non-implementation of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, which protects tribal interests, and the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act. Whenever he got the opportunity, he spoke about the failure of governments in honouring the Supreme Court’s Samatha judgment of 1997.

Father Stan Swamy was vociferous in his opposition to an amendment in the Land Acquisition Act, 2013, which he said would cause the decimation of the Adivasis in Jharkhand. The Act had clauses that alluded to tribal people gifting their land for development. An associate said that Father Stan Swamy had meticulously documented all the violations committed and profits gained by mining companies. He had even calculated how much natural wealth the Adivasis had lost when their natural habitat was taken over by government-corporate alliances.

In recent years, Father Stan Swamy lashed out against the Adani group on several forums for acquiring land at throwaway prices for a power plant in Godda, Jharkhand.

He said that not only did the group get immediate environmental clearances, it bulldozed large tracts of standing crop. An associate of Father Stan Swamy said: “Taking on a powerful friend of the BJP probably landed him in this situation. They have been out to get him for a while.”

Maoist groups are quite active in parts of Jharkhand, and it is common for Adivasi youths to be arrested by the local authorities for supposedly getting indoctrinated by militant Leftist groups. Father Stan Swamy often said that this was the very reason he never supported the Maoists, as thousands of lives had been ruined owing to the accusation of involvement with extremists. In fact, he was responsible for steering a movement to save youths from such trouble.

Also read: ‘State alone cannot be held responsible’

In 2014-15, he formed the Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee (PPSC) following the indiscriminate arrest of hundreds of Adivasi and Dalit youths. The committee, incidentally, includes Sudha Bharadwaj, a lawyer who was also arrested in connection with Bhima Koregaon. The group’s main purpose was to intervene on behalf of hundreds of undertrials seeking immediate bail and a speedy trial.

Some 25,000 viewers logged in to Father Stan Swamy’s online funeral and holy Eucharist held at the St. Peter’s church in Mumbai on July 6, 2021. According to Father Cedric Prakash, who steered an online tribute, the number was likely to be higher as in some convents and seminaries, 20 or more people would be watching a single screen.

Outrage and sadness

Solidarity and support came from all over the world. So did outrage. Yet, it was the outpouring of respect and adoration which defined him. Father Stan Swamy was undoubtedly a man of high calibre, a rare and legendary Samaritan and a brave foot soldier. Many who paid tributes online said that his death was irreparable loss to India.

While a large outpouring of outrage came from human rights organisations, intellectuals, minority groups and the media, it was the quiet yet bold statements made by the four senior Jesuit priests who conducted the last rites of Father Stan Swamy online that truly told the world that this country had done grave injustice to a man who provided selfless service to the nation.

Father Frazer Mascarenhas, former principal of St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, who took care of Father Stan Swamy while he was in hospital, said: “The Maoist accusation is absolutely ridiculous. Stan was gentle and loved peace…. Stan had a great skill in social analysis and he used this in his work. For instance, he found there are beautiful provisions for India’s indigenous people in our Constitution which were not being implemented. He worked towards implementation through analysis, intellectualism and action. He said all have to go hand in hand. And that is the reason he was effective and became a thorn in the side of the powerful…. he was fighting and he was succeeding and that’s the reason he had to be done away with. The powerful managed it.”

Father Cedric Prakash, a rights activist who worked with Father Stan Swamy, said: “Father Stan Swamy was deeply embedded in the values enshrined in the Constitution and the Gospel and lived them to the fullest. He was a martyr who lived and finally sacrificed his life for the excluded and exploited of our country. His death will not go in vain.”

Also read: Bhima Koregaon case, planted evidence?

Father Stanislaus D’Souza, head of the Jesuit order in South Asia, said: “They hounded and arrested him. Rough treatment meted out to him hastened his death.”

The Ministry of External Affairs released what seemed like a forced and defensive reaction to the outrage emanating from all over the world. In a curt statement issued on July 6, 2021, it said: “Father Stan Swamy was arrested and detained by the National Investigation Agency following due process under law. Because of the specific nature of charges against him, his bail applications were rejected by the courts. Authorities in India act against violations of law and not against legitimate exercise of rights. All such actions are strictly in accordance with the law. India remains committed to promotion and protection of human rights of all its citizens.”

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