Father Stan Swamy, the 84-year-old Jesuit priest and rights activist who had been jailed in connection with the Bhima Koregaon incident, has passed away. Swamy had been hospitalised a month ago following serious health complications. He had tested positive for COVID-19 soon after hospitalisation, and his condition began to deteriorate rapidly. Swamy suffered a cardiac arrest on July 4 and was put on a ventilator. Sadly, he passed away a day later, on the day the court had scheduled to hear his interim bail hearing.
A Division bench of Justices S.S. Shinde and N.J. Jamadar took up an “out of turn” urgent hearing today on appeals by Swamy against the special court’s orders rejecting his bail pleas on medical grounds and merits. The bench said they would take it up first thing on July 6 after they receive his medical report from the Holy Family Hospital in a sealed envelope. Sadly, it would not matter anymore. Following the priest’s death, the judges said: “With all humility at our command, we really are shocked by hearing this news. Therefore, last hearings we immediately allowed him to remain in hospital of his choice. We have no words to express.”
Swamy was the oldest victim of the Bhima Koregaon witch-hunt. In a span of two years that spanned the pandemic, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) arrested 16 activists, lawyers, intellectuals and academicians. Swamy was arrested in October 2020 under charges that he was involved in the Elgar Parishad, which the NIA claims was a gathering that apparently caused “anti-national” unrest. Swamy, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease and other ailments, was charged under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) which does not permit bail and has been lodged in Mumbai’s Taloja Jail for the past eight months. Unhygienic living conditions, lack of nutrition and overall neglect led to a situation where Swamy could barely walk or eat. Defence lawyers said Swamy’s cellmates helped him tend to his daily needs. When Swamy requested for a sipper cup to drink water as his mouth muscles were weak, the Taloja Jail authorities refused to give him one.
At the May 21 court hearing on his bail petition, Swamy told the judges that he would rather suffer and die than go to the government-run JJ Hospital. He told the division bench of Justices S.J. Kathawalla and S.P. Tavade: “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 JJ 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 told the court that it was a very difficult moment for him and that his only request was for the grant of interim bail so he could go back and spend his remaining days in his village in Ranchi. Associates of Swamy believe the priest had lost the will to live and that his death would bring to attention the human rights violations being faced by the arrested activists.
Swamy was a well-known tribal rights activists who had spent six decades living and working with the most marginalised tribal communities in the Bihar and Jharkhand belt. A social worker, activist, educator and priest, Swamy had been fighting the Central and State governments over land and forest rights for tribals. His most recent campaign before his arrest was against the Adani group, which was building a massive power plant in Jharkhand. This would, naturally, displace thousands of tribal people or destroy livelihoods.
Clearly, a thorn in the Central regime’s side, Swamy had been on the radar since August 2018. He had relentlessly questioned the non-implementation of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, which protects tribal people’s interests, and the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), which gives tribal communities a certain amount of autonomy. Swamy had vociferously opposed the amendments in the Land Acquisition Act, 2013, which once again removed tribal privileges. In 2014-15, he had formed the Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee (PPSC), following the indiscrimate arrest of hundreds of Adivasi and Dalit youth.
Anticipating the NIA’s persecution, Swamy released a video in early October 2020 describing his work, his medical condition and why the government wanted him out of the way. Swamy maintained he was never involved with the Elgar Parishad or the Bhima Koregoan incident and that all the charges were fabricated. Swamy’s name was included in the NIA’s 10,000 page charge-sheet on those arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case.