Father Stan Swamy, the tribal rights activist and Jesuit priest imprisoned for his alleged role in the Bhima Koregaon case, has refused to go to hospital in spite of his rapidly deteriorating health. His close associates believe he is taking a strong stand against the establishment even at the cost of his life. The 84-year-old priest, who has been languishing in Taloja Central Jail in Maharashtra, maintains that he and 15 others arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) three years ago have been incarcerated on false charges and that the state is on a witch-hunt to eliminate all those whose existence is uncomfortable to the ruling regime.
Father Joe Xavier, who has worked with Stan Swamy for the past 20 years, said: “Swamy, as his work proves, is a genuine crusader who is not making an empty threat. He appears to be losing the will to live. But we know what he is doing. This is a move in solidarity with those arrested in the Bhima Koregaon-Elgar Parishad case.”
Stan Swamy was arrested on October 8, 2020, in connection with the Elgar Parishad that was held on December 31, 2017, in Pune. The Elgar Parishad was an event held to commemorate 200 years of the Battle of Koregaon Bhima. The NIA charged him and the other human rights activists, lawyers and academics under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for their alleged involvement in Maoist activities which the police claim caused a caste flare-up at Bhima Koregaon about 30 km from Pune on January 1, 2018, the day after the Elgar Parishad.
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The incarcerated activists were deeply distressed physically and mentally, their family members said. To date, there has not been a shred of evidence linking the arrested to the violence or to the Elgar Parishad.
Defence lawyers say the case is fabricated and therefore making no progress. It has not helped that the pandemic-induced lockdown has slowed court proceedings. The harsh provisions of the UAPA prevent the activists from applying for bail.
Many of the arrested persons have serious health problems, including mental health challenges, because of the miserable living conditions, lack of nutrition and poor hygiene in jail. In mid May, Delhi University professor Hany Babu, one of the accused, was admitted to a private hospital with an eye infection that is threatening to affect his brain function. Apparently, the activist Sudha Bhardwaj, who is suffering from diabetes and hypertension, has become so weak that she cannot do any of her routine chores. Her appeals to be released on medical grounds have been rejected.
Activists Surendra Gadling and Shoma Sen are struggling with major ailments, their family members said. “They will keep them alive but just about,” said Smita Gupta, a member of Sudha Bhardwaj’s defence team. A sister of one of the accused said these were blatant human rights abuses and yet nothing could be done.
Stan Swamy’s bail plea
On May 21, Stan Swamy told the Bombay High Court, which was hearing his bail plea via videoconference, that he would rather suffer and possibly die shortly than go to the state-run JJ Hospital.
In a feeble voice, sources said, he told the court: “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 his only request was for interim bail so that he could go back and spend his remaining days in his village in Ranchi.
Also read: Stan Swamy's desperate plea to the courts
“If he dies in jail, the government will have blood on its hands,” said a priest who has worked with Stan Swamy but did not want to be named. He added: “Father Stan knows that the state will be accountable for his death if he dies in Taloja jail. If he passes away in a hospital or under house arrest, the state can always say that they provided him medical help but it was beyond their control.”
Following his plea and perhaps taking cognisance of his condition, the Bombay High Court gave Stan Swamy the option of getting treatment at a private hospital. He declined the provision categorically.
Stan Swamy had moved the court in April challenging the rejection of two of his earlier bail applications. A hearing on this matter came up on May 19 at which the NIA’s counsel, Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh, said the jail’s medical report, which had been submitted to the court, stated that Stan Swamy’s health condition was haemodynamically stable, that there was an attendant to look after him, and that he was getting a nutritious diet and his ailments were largely age-related.
Mihir Desai, Stan Swamy’s lawyer, said they had not been given the report and added that none of what had been stated above was accurate. He provided a detailed note on Stan Swamy’s actual health status, which explains the deterioration of his health because of Parkinson’s disease.
The defence counsel’s note said Stan Swamy complained of fever and weakness and was given antibiotics prescribed by the jail’s Ayurveda doctor. It said: “Swamy was at the 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.”
Court appoints committee
Following the May 19 hearing, the court directed the Dean of JJ Hospital to constitute a committee to look into Stan Swamy’s health status. The bench said the team should include a neurophysician, ENT specialist, orthopaedist and general physician and that the report must be presented on May 21. Desai said the report was not given to them. Instead, a perfunctory document with some data on the tests done on Stan Swamy was read out in the court.
In fact, the judges, too, commented on the fact that Stan Swamy’s complaints were not listed. Stan Swamy himself dismissed the report saying it was not accurate and this was the reason he did not trust the hospital any more and was requesting bail to go back to his village.
In addition to Parkinson’s disease, Stan Swamy has undergone two hernia surgeries, has intense pain owing to lumbar spondylosis and has hearing loss in both ears. Those in touch with him say the tremors owing to Parkinson’s have increased. He falls easily and uses either a walker or a wheelchair.
“Father Stan cannot hold a cup to his lips. He needs a straw. In recent days, he is fed by someone. What has he been reduced to? This is a man who led campaigns in the most backward regions of the country. He is used to hardship. Clearly, the arrest and the conditions in the jail have broken him,” said the priest.
After the May 21 videoconference, Father Joe Xavier said, the other arrested activists spoke to Stan Swamy and convinced him to get treated as the COVID situation was grave and he should not suffer any more than he already had. Desai said an application had been made and it was hoped that the priest could be shifted to the Holy Family Hospital in Bandra, Mumbai.
“He is certainly very frail. He needs to get specialised and timely treatment,” Desai told Frontline .
The NIA had been pursuing Stan Swamy since August 2018 for various reasons and it is believed it got an opportunity to take him in under the Elgar Parishad case. Anticipating arrest, he released a statement to the media on October 6, 2020, saying: “The nature of the present NIA investigation of me has nothing to do about [the] Bhima Koregaon case in which I have been booked as a ‘Suspected-accused’ and consequently raided twice (28 August 2018 and 12 June 2019). But it had everything to do to somehow establish (i) that I am personally linked to extremist leftist forces, (ii) that through me Bagaicha [a social research and training centre at Namkum, Ranchi] is also relating to some Maoists. I denied both these allegations in strongest terms.”
The NIA and the Maharashtra Police have accused the activists of having links to banned Maoists groups, which they say organised the Elgar Parishad. It has been established by defence lawyers of each of the accused that none of the arrested are connected to extremist organisations. While a few may have been part of the Elgar Parishad, the fact is that the commemoration of Bhima Koregaon was a separate incident and the real perpetrators of the violence that day remain free.
Stan Swamy has worked for six decades among the most marginalised communities in Bihar and Jharkhand. He has led movements against mining companies exploiting vast tracts of tribal land. He is singularly responsible for educating and empowering thousands of Adivasis with regard to their land and fundamental rights.
He and fellow activist Sudha Bharadwaj formed the Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee (PPSC) following the indiscriminate arrest of Adivasi and Dalit youths. Its main purpose was to intervene on behalf of the hundreds of undertrials seeking immediate bail and a speedy trial. Those involved in his case categorically state that the work he was doing was the reason for the action against him.