Father Stan Swamy has passed away, Dr. Ian D'Souza told the Bombay High Court earlier today. Fr Stan Swamy, a tribal activist died an hour ahead of the urgent hearing scheduled to hear his plea seeking interim bail on medical grounds.
He continued fighting for his constitutional rights till his last breath. His death, like his arrest eight months ago has sparked outrage with many calling his demise "institutional murder". As tributes poured in for the tribal activist, the anger toward the lack of elementary compassion by the state and judiciary is palpable.
The 84-year-old Jesuit priest became the 16th accused when he was arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in August 2020 for his alleged role in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence. At 83 (his age at the time of his arrest), he also became the oldest person to be accused on terror charges.
On May 28, his declining health prompted the high court to direct his transfer to a private hospital, days after Swamy said he would rather die in jail than go to the state-run JJ Hospital.
His journey from Tamil Nadu to Jharkhand is a story of his struggle fighting for the rights of the Adivasis. However, if the NIA is to be believed, Swamy hatched a "serious conspiracy" as part of the overground cadre of the banned organisation Communist Party of India (Maoist) (CPI (M)), plotted to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi, plotted to overthrow the government, organised the marginalised sections of the society, and incited the Bhima Koregaon violence on January 1, 2018.
The NIA said Swamy had received Rs 8 lakhs from one Comrade Mohan to further the cause of the CPI (M). During one of the bail hearings, the prosecution had told the court about another letter in which a Comrade Arun started with the salutation 'Lal Johar' which is allegedly common among CPI(M) members.
However, since his arrest in August 2020, the NIA did not seek his custody even once and though the chargesheet has been filed (more than 10,000 pages have been filed), the charges are yet to be framed.
"Stand against Adani prime reason for his incarceration"
Swamy was a fearless gentle warrior, activist Harsh Mander said speaking to BOOM. Many among a cross-section of the society believe that his work against corporate interests made him a target.
In an opinion piece for The Indian Express, Mander spoke about how Swamy fought for land and forest rights in Jharkhand. Swamy had spoken out against the manner in which Gujarat based industrial group Adani acquired land for its power plant in Godda at dirt cheap prices. Mander accused Adani's bulldozers of destroying standing crops, forests were ravaged, environmental clearances hastily pushed through, and how farmers did not get their due.
"In the end, his only crime was his stand with the Adivasi against Adani," Mander said.
The NIA picked him on what appears to be transparently planted evidence," he added. "Why couldn't they let out a man this sick in COVID times and with Parkinson's declining by the day. Elementary compassion was missing," Mander said.
Senior advocate Colin Gonsalves said Swamy's continued incarceration was not required. "The question is not of trial, which had yet to commence, the question is - if the chargesheet was filed, why was he kept in jail?
Two days before he was arrested in August 2020, Swamy released a video statement in which he spoke about "how prominent intellectuals, lawyers, writers, poets, activists, student leaders are put in jail because they have expressed their dissent or raised questions about the ruling powers of India."
He was questioned for 15 hours over a span of five days. He had disowned "some extracts" allegedly taken from his computer which pointed toward his links with Maoists. They were "fabrications" that were "stealthily" put on his system, Swamy had claimed.
"I have never been to Bhima Koregaon for which I am being made an accused. But ...what is happening to me is not something unique happening to me alone, it is a broader process taking place all over the country," Swamy said in the almost eight-minute-long video.
"In a way, I am happy to be part of this process. I am not a silent spectator, but part of the game, and ready to pay the price whatever be it," he had said.
State and Judiciary culpable for Swamy's death
Mander, the convenor of NGO Karwan-e-Mohabbat, said the state and the judiciary have to take responsibility for Swamy's death. "The state and judiciary's culpability in his death amounts to institutional murder, I can't call it anything else," he added.
On October 23, 2020, a month after he was arrested, a sessions court denied Swamy bail on medical grounds. The 84-year-old suffered from Parkinson's and his hands shook. On November 6, 2020, he filed an appeal requesting a sipper and warm clothes. The NIA at the time had sought 20 days to file a reply, at the end of which it said that they did not have a sipper for him.
In May 2021, Swamy told the high court how his health had worsened since his incarceration in Pune's Taloja Jail. He said he preferred to die in jail then get treated in a hospital.
"Earlier I could write, walk and even eat on my own. But since I have been in Taloja (jail), all this is slowly disappearing. I cannot write, walk or even eat on my own. Someone has to feed me with a spoon," Swamy had said. "The only thing I request is for the court to consider interim bail. I have been in deteriorating condition. I would rather be in Ranchi. I do not think any of that (hospitalisation) is going to help," he added. The NIA had opposed his plea, while the high court observed that his ailments were simply age-related.
"Any judge could see that the man was on his death bed," Gonsalves said referring to the May hearing. "I am very bitter about his death. I am very bitter about the judiciary who couldn't see that the man was dying. I am very bitter that the judiciary continued this 84-year-old's incarceration in jail. One who has never committed an act of terrorism in his lifetime. I am very bitter at the government who tells all these lies in court," Gonsalves said speaking to BOOM.
"I now hope that with Stan Swamy's death, the whole range of human rights' activists who are the modern freedom fighter of today are released," he added.
"The UAPA act is unconstitutional. The no bail provision must go," Gonsalves said. "It is not harassment. It is the state and entire prosecutorial system which is murdering human rights activists," he said.
A Fearless Gentle Warrior
Father Stan Lourduswamy, more popularly Stan Swamy was born on April 26, 1937, in Tiruchirappalli or Trichy, a village in Tamil Nadu. However, Swamy spent the last four decades of his life in Jharkhand where he fought for tribals rights. Swamy studied at the local St Joseph's School, but the work of the Jesuits priests influenced him to join the order in Bihar.
In 1957, Swamy joined the religious order—the same order to which Pope Francis belongs—and committed himself to improve the lives of the marginalised. Over the years, Swamy's work has been synonymous with tribal rights, Adivasi rights, land and forest rights.
Swamy did not waver from his commitment despite the fact that his work upset the Catholic hierarchy. His work in training people in scientific social analysis and his commitment towards the rights of the oppressed resonated among many.
In July 2018, the Jharkhand government filed an FIR against Swamy charging him with sedition over his support for the Pathalgadi movement. The pathalgadi movement is a tribal custom of the people of Jharkhand where stones are erected on a) tombs; b) to honour ancestors; c) announcement of important decisions; d) or simply to mark village boundaries.
Shortly after he was charged, Swamy had penned a note asking whether raising questions on the rights of Adivasis made him a 'Deshdrohi' (traitor)?
The charges filed under the aegis of the BJP regime were eventually revoked in December 2019 after the Hemant Soren government was voted into power.
"Swamy was a fearless and gentle warrior combined in one. He lived very simply for decades. Even in jail, Swamy's concern for the rest of the inmates, their suffering and the injustice was obvious," Mander said.