In a more tolerant time, Father Stan Swamy would have been commended for the work he does. A nation that should be proud of his contribution has instead arrested the 83-year-old Jesuit priest on false charges so that an agenda can be fulfilled. Father Swamy has spent 60 years living and working with the most marginalised tribal communities in the Bihar and Jharkhand belt. A social worker, activist and educator, his story is what legends are made of.
By arresting the octogenarian priest, who has dedicated his life to India’s exploited poor, has the National Investigation Agency (NIA) overstepped its brief? Furthermore, has the latest arrest finally mobilised opposition parties to make some noise and demand that the dangerous Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which is being liberally used by the NIA, be repealed?
There has been significant outcry over Father Swamy’s arrest on charges that he is involved with Maoists, with even Pope Francis decrying it. Human rights groups, Catholic and Jesuit associations across the world, the United Nations’ human rights wing, students, intellectuals and the Adivasi communities he works with have been protesting against the arrest on several platforms. However, activists said it was unlikely that the NIA or the ruling dispensation at the Centre would pay much heed to the demonstrations, given their dismissive attitude towards such movements.
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A Jesuit priest in Mumbai who knows Father Swamy said: “The message is strong. Beware of opposing the government. If they can arrest an 83-year-old ailing priest, they will stop at nothing. But we are still a free nation and I believe people are shocked by his arrest and are saying enough is enough. Justice will prevail.” He added: “How can they use the word anti-national and Father Stan in the same sentence? If anything, he is a true patriot.”
It is well known that Father Swamy was always at loggerheads with the government over tribal rights. He has been a thorn in its side. His work on empowering exploited Adivasis was a problem for a government hell-bent on allowing private companies to exploit use the abundant natural resources of Jharkhand. Clearly, the government decided that something had to be done about a man who was reportedly blocking “development” in the region.
Ever since August 2018, the police were at his door, questioning and harassing him, according to his associates. Finally, on October 8 this year, the NIA arrested the priest, accusing him of links to banned Maoist groups, and brought him to Mumbai. Father Swamy’s name was included in the NIA’s 10,000-page charge sheet along with 15 activists reportedly involved in the Elgar Parishad/Bhima Koregaon incident. (The case relates to the violence on January 1, 2018, at Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra. The Elgar Parishad was an event held the previous evening to commemorate 200 years of the Battle of Koregaon Bhima.)
Father Swamy became the latest victim of the NIA’s mission to hunt down people connected with extreme Left organisations. Accused of colluding with another person who was arrested, he has been lumped with other activists such as Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha, Anand Teltumbde, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, Shoma Sen, Sudha Bharadwaj, Sudhir Dhawale, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Rona Wilson, Hany Babu Tharayil, Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor and Jyoti Jagtap, who are languishing in jail for their alleged involvement in the Elgar Parishad, which the NIA says set off the Bhima Koregaon incident that led to caste clashes across Maharashtra in January 2018.
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Susan Abraham, a defence lawyer, said that not only were the charges trumped up, at every level the NIA’s actions violated the priest’s constitutional rights. She added: “When he was brought to Mumbai, he was looking frail. He could barely stand and could not sign documents clearly. To treat an elderly man who is unwell so roughly is shameful.”
Father Swamy has denied any involvement in the violence, saying that he has never been to Bhima Koregaon nor attended the Elgar Parishad, a gathering of Dalit rights activists and community members. The NIA claims that it found letters on Father Swamy’s computer written by him to Rona Wilson, another accused, plotting a conspiracy to cause unrest. Father Swamy said the letters were planted and completely untrue. His lawyers applied for bail under health and humanitarian grounds as the priest is suffering from Parkinson’s disease, which is physically debilitating. Given the COVID-19 situation, the lawyers were hopeful of some mercy. However, on October 23, a special NIA court rejected the bail plea. Father Swamy has been kept in NIA custody at Mumbai’s Taloja jail.
Work among tribal people
The NIA’s action did not come out of the blue. The agency had been in and out of his residence for the past two years. When the intensity of interrogation increased in July this year, Father Swamy knew he was likely to be arrested. A few days before he was taken, he reportedly wrote a lengthy letter titled “What is the ‘crime’ I am supposed to have committed?” (See box.)
The letter and detailed accounts of the priest’s work in the remote tribal belts of Jharkhand clearly revealed that Bhima Koregaon was just an excuse to arrest a man who was coming in the way of the agendas of private companies close to the ruling establishment. Father Swamy was questioning the state on not implementing several tribal welfare measures and was perhaps singularly responsible for educating and empowering Adivasis on these issues.
Associates and supporters of Father Swamy said that the issues the priest was involved were the reason why both the Central and State governments found him a threat. Father 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 (PESA), which gives tribal communities a certain degree of autonomy. Whenever he got the opportunity he spoke about the failure of governments in honouring the Supreme Court’s Samatha judgment of 1997. He always crossed swords with the state over the lack of action on the Forest Rights Act.
Father Swamy was also 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 of Father Swamy said that he 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.
More recently, he spoke and wrote on several forums about the Adani group acquiring land at throwaway prices for a power plant in Godda, Jharkhand. Father Swamy said that not only did the company get immediate environmental clearances, but it bulldozed large tracts of standing crop. His associate 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 some parts of Jharkhand and it is common for Adivasi youths to be arrested by the local authorities for supposedly getting indoctrinated by the militant Leftist groups. Father Swamy has 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 Maoists. In fact, he was responsible for steering a movement to save youths from such trouble. 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 has also been 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.
Also read: Elgar Parishad arrests: Decimation drive
Father Swamy was also one of the petitioners of a public interest litigation (PIL) petition that demanded the Jharkhand government take cognisance of the findings of a study conducted on undertrials. The Jharkhand High Court directed the State government to furnish information regarding undertrials and the reasons for delay in trial, but this has still not been done, according to those familiar with the case. To get Father Swamy out of the way, in 2018 the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Jharkhand government filed a case against him in connection with the Pathalgadi movement.
Started by two former bureaucrat-turned-activists, the movement was a take on the Pathalgadi tribal tradition, where stone slabs were erected with the names and dates of birth and death of villagers. The movement gave it a new shape by erecting stones with details of the Fifth Schedule and PESA. This spread a tremendous amount of awareness in the tribal belt. While he was supportive of the movement, Father Swamy had little to do with it, his associate said.
Father Cedric Prakash, a Jesuit priest and well-known human rights activist, said: “Father Stan Swamy is today being punished by an inhuman system and a corrupt regime because he had the courage to empower the Adivasis and other excluded of our country. He has selflessly been accompanying them in their quest for justice and dignity.”
John Dayal, a writer, activist and former president of the All India Catholic Union, said: “From the day the Koregaon case was taken over by the NIA from the CBI and the local police, it was clear that the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah government wanted to make it the instrument for a larger political agenda. It can be seen how the NIA very rapidly expanded its net to cover representatives of almost every sector and people’s groups from whom they see a challenge to their system of governance, and to their allies, the crony capitalists in India and abroad.”
He added: “The list of the arrested includes lawyers, human rights activists, cultural activists, people raising their voices on behalf of Muslims, on behalf of students, Kashmiris, and those fighting against land, forests, water and underground resources being pillaged by corporate interests and politicians.”
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According to Dayal, governments and politicians have been targeting the Church and the Christian community “not for conversions as the RSS-VHP say in public but for its work in the empowerment of the poor, Dalits and the tribal people”. He said that over the decades Father Swamy had been helping the Adivasis unite and get clarity on issues that concerned them. “He has been in several instances the source of courage and hope when things looked bleak. There is no doubt that to the Adivasis he is a hero. Many talk of him in the same breath as Birsa Munda,” Dayal added.
Born in 1937 in Tiruchi, Tamil Nadu, Father Swamy joined the Jesuit order after completing his schooling at St. Joseph’s High School in Tiruchi. As part of his early training towards priesthood, he taught at St. Xavier’s High School in Lupungutu village in West Singhbhum district, which was then in undivided Bihar. According to his biography, he specifically chose Bihar as a place to work and study in as it was home to India’s poorest. The move was in tune with the philosophy of Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order: “In the service of the most deprived, the most threatened.”
Although he spent some time studying abroad and had a long stint at the Indian Social Institute in Bangalore, Father Swamy eventually settled down in Jharkhand among the people he loved. In the early 1990s, when the neoliberal policies kicked in and the exploitation of Adivasis assumed mammoth proportions, he revived the Jharkhandi Organisation for Human Rights. Volumes can be written on Father Swamy’s contributions to society. Sadly, his work has been rewarded with State harassment culminating in his arrest.