When an officer from the National Investigation Agency (NIA) came to interrogate Father Stan Swamy last monsoon, the Jesuit sociologist, then 83, in turn asked him about police integrity, and why a father-son duo (P. Jayaraj and Bennicks) should die of custodial torture in a Tamil Nadu police lock-up. It was quintessential Fr. Swamy: unafraid, outspoken, and questioning injustice.
Fr. Swamy was sent to Taloja Jail in October 2020 in the Bhima Koregaon case , where some of his co-accused have now spent more than three years without bail or trial. All have been charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), a widely misused tool for governments to criminalise lawful dissent and hold ideological opponents in prolonged incarceration. For all the talk by authorities of a terrorist conspiracy, Fr. Swamy was never interrogated in nine months of custody. His arrest in the middle of the pandemic, over two years after the first raid on his spartan one-room residence, seems like targeted viciousness.
Also read: The reality of an India at the crossroads
All Indians have dignity, not just the wealthy and the privileged. This belief guided Fr. Swamy’s life-long concern for justice, as I saw in my interactions with him over the years as a journalist.
Adivasis and loss
When he first came to West Singhbhum from his native Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu in the 1970s, living among the Adivasi communities profoundly shaped him. He had told me in an interview, “I underwent an awakening, looking at Adivasi values of equality, community, and decision-making by consensus.” His work firmly rejected the prejudice of Adivasi ‘backwardness’, and tirelessly pointed out how violence and dispossession was pushed down their throats and called development: “Adivasis lived on lands full of minerals. Others took these out and enriched themselves, but Adivasis did not get anything.”
In a decade-long tenure as Director of Bengaluru’s Indian Social Institute, he trained countless grass-roots activists. He continued this work when he co-founded the Ranchi-based Bagaicha in 2006 — a centre for research, training and social action dedicated to working with Adivasi and other marginalised communities and legally empowering their struggles for justice and dignity. As long-time friends and colleagues testify, Fr. Swamy wanted it to be a place which the marginalised felt was their own. A statue of Birsa Munda and a megalith with the names of those killed in anti-displacement protests marked Bagaicha’s central ground. Its one room library contained reports, studies and files of newspaper cuttings on issues such as forced displacement, hunger deaths, extra-judicial killings and grassroots protests — a buried history of India’s democracy.
Helping hand for undertrials
When I first met Fr. Swamy in 2013, his team was immersed in efforts for poor undertrials in prisons across Jharkhand against a raging armed conflict. After three years of painstaking research based on prison visits, meeting police officials and villagers, and Right to Information Act requests, his team released a report that included the case studies of over 100 UAPA undertrials. Overwhelmingly, they were Adivasis and Dalits, and in some cases they had languished in the criminal justice system for up to 10 years. About 59% of the households of undertrials, the report found, earned under ₹3,000 per month and were forced to sell assets such as goats to meet bail conditions or legal expenses. Fr. Swamy also filed a public interest litigation on the basis of his team’s findings, which is still being heard in the Jharkhand High Court. As he publicly stated before his arrest, he believed that such efforts to challenge an unjust status quo led the state to target him.
Fr. Swamy’s demise has led to a public outpouring of sadness and anger at the cruelty of our criminal justice system. Ever self-effacing, he would have wanted this attention not on him but on the resource grabs that continue to inflict staggering violence against Adivasis and other marginalised groups, fill our prisons with people with little access to justice, and necessitate draconian laws such as the UAPA. To blame ‘the system’ or ‘the government’ for his death is to overlook how we are implicated in this political economy founded on dispossession, and the ever-expanding criminalisation of demands for social and environmental justice as conspiracies against the state.
Liberalisation, the oppressed
The human rights activist, K. Balagopal, had argued that an abiding legacy of liberalisation is the delegitimisation of concern for the oppressed. This is why a man who strove all his life for solidarity, fraternity and justice in real terms stands accused by our government of promoting enmity. And why his death, while foretold, transcends textual analyses of the UAPA, courtroom proceedings and prison reforms.
Fr. Swamy had one chance to appear in court, when a Bombay High Court Bench asked for him to be presented via video-conferencing from Taloja jail on the afternoon of May 21. Battling multiple ailments including Parkinson’s disease, diminished hearing, and by then COVID-19 contracted in prison, he was visibly ailing, but as always full of self-respect.
He told the court that prison conditions were steadily destroying his abilities to read, write and walk, and that he be granted bail to return to Ranchi to be with his own. In rejecting the judges’ suggestion that they send him to hospital for a few days, Fr. Swamy asserted his dignity and innocence, and registered a moral protest against being effectively made to serve a death sentence, as an indefinitely imprisoned undertrial.
As now well known, a dying man’s final wish to return to Jharkhand, to the people he loved and with whose struggles he had become one for over five decades, went unheard. These struggles will keep Father Stan Swamy’s quest for a more democratic India alive.
Chitrangada Choudhury is a journalist and on the editorial board of Article 14