It was a death his well-wishers feared would happen and one he had anticipated. Father Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest , known for his service and activism in the cause of Adivasis, died nine months into his unjust imprisonment on tenuous charges. A death that was simply allowed to happen despite being foretold by his deteriorating health in prison will weigh on the country’s collective conscience for long. His age and frailty drew no sympathy from either the prosecuting agency or the trial court, which clung to the state narrative of there being grounds to believe that he was part of a Maoist plot to overthrow the government. Despite being a fit case for bail, he was denied bail, mainly due to the statutory bar on bail under the anti-terrorism law invoked against him. The best the diffident judiciary could do for him was a spell of hospitalisation, even as the octogenarian pleaded that he be given interim bail to be with his friends or allowed to die in prison. The Bombay High Court did issue notice on his bail petition, observing that he was entitled to bail, but his end came in a hospital even before the matter could be taken up for final disposal. Much of the blame and accountability for his death should be on the NIA, which perversely opposed his release, and the court which could have granted interim bail weeks earlier.
It was fairly obvious that his prison stay, especially during the pandemic, was detrimental to his well-being. A good two months elapsed between the High Court seeking the NIA’s response to his bail plea on medical grounds and his death. The same court had intervened to grant interim bail to Varavara Rao, another elderly co-accused, holding that bail can be granted “purely on the grounds of sickness, advanced age, infirmity and health conditions”, especially if incarceration amounted to endangering life. It is systemic and institutional failure that another undertrial placed in similar circumstances did not get the benefit of this humane approach. A pattern of institutional oppression can be seen in the events, from the denial of a sipper in jail to his death while in custody. Two larger issues here are the questionable legality of the bail-denying feature of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the validity of the Bhima-Koregaon case itself. It is time the higher judiciary examined these; especially the attempt to link a simple case arising out of violence a day after the Elgar Parishad, a commemorative event held in Pune, and an alleged Maoist plot involving lawyers, activists and human rights defenders. To make matters worse, credible reports that some of the electronic evidence gathered in this case could have been planted remotely by malware were never investigated. The call for accountability for Fr. Swamy’s death rings painfully true.