A multi-party press conference organised by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) condemned the arrest of Father Stan Swamy, a tribal rights activist and social worker based in Ranchi, Jharkhand. Swamy is the latest victim of the National Investigation Agency’s (NIA) mission to hunt down people reportedly linked to the Bhima Koregaon incident, which the agency says was orchestrated by Maoist groups. The 83-year-old Jesuit priest who has been working in the tribal belts of Jharkhand and Bihar is the 16th person to be arrested in connection with the Elgar Parishad.
Leaders from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren have demanded Swamy’s release and said a movement to repeal the archaic and dangerous Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), under which activists, intellectuals and lawyers have been arrested, must gain momentum.
According to the NIA, Swamy has been under investigation for the past two years. After raiding his residence in July this year, the agency said incriminating evidence linking him to the banned left-wing organisations was found on his computer. He was arrested on October 8 and brought to Mumbai under NIA custody.
Calling for a movement against the UAPA, Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the CPI(M) said: “Like POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act), the UAPA law must go from the statue books. It is being grossly misused. In fact, the UAPA, the sedition law and the National Security Act need to be seen together as part of the larger plan of the BJP and RSS to pave the way for a fascist, intolerant and authoritarian Hindutva nation.”
In the context of the Elgar Parishad arrests, Yechury said that everyone who dissented was considered an anti-national—a view that was anethma to a secular democracy, civil society and human rights. These moves (by the Central government) were undermining the Constitution and constitutional authority. “We need to come together and fight a larger struggle to safeguard the Indian republic,” he said.
Hemant Soren said: “The NDA government is silencing the voices of those speaking for the Adivasis, Dalits and other marginalised groups; the non-BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party]-ruled States are being harassed and the various constitutional mechanisms of our country are being weakened today by different groups and organisations for their own political benefit under a hidden agenda.” Soren warned that today it is Father Stan Swamy, tomorrow it could be any one of us and, therefore, people must not remain silent.
Kanimozhi, Rajya Sabha member of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, said that if the silence was not broken, India, in a few years, would no longer be a free democracy. She urged political parties to come together to take on this threat. “Every law that this government has passed has chipped away at the rights of the people,” she said.
Congress leader Shashi Tharoor said his party stood in solidarity with Father Stan Swamy and demanded that he be granted bail. D. Raja, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI), pointed out that people linked to left-wing extremists groups were being persecuted under the UAPA but the same law was not applied to people associated with right-wing extremists groups.
The PUCL said in a statement: “PUCL would like to point out that the true reason for NIA arresting Fr. Stan Swamy today is because he had dared to expose the large-scale abuse of anti-terror and sedition laws by the previous BJP-led Jharkhand government. Thousands of Adivasis were falsely implicated and arrested for exercising their fundamental right PUCL of protest in the Pathalgadi movement and kept in prison without hearing. Fr. Stan’s meticulous documentation of the untold suffering experienced by Adivasi youth, hundreds of whom were imprisoned for no offence at all, earned the ire of the police and the State which launched a witch hunt against Fr. Stan and some others in the human rights movement in Jharkhand. The data analysis of thousands of adivasis arbitrarily arrested by the police was also put in an affidavit in a PIL filed before the Jharkhand High Court which upset the Government.”
The PUCL has demanded the release of Swamy, the wheelchair-bound academic G.N. Saibaba and activist-poet Varavara Rao and the acquittal of 15 other rights activists languishing in jails.