Jailed to die: Father Stan Swamy’s legacy will live on

Father Stan Swamy
Father Stan Swamy

Academics associated with InSAF India accuse the Indian state of silencing the human rights defender.

By Lotika Singha, Neepa Majumdar and Jyotsna Kapur

“I would rather suffer, possibly die here very shortly if things go on as it is … Whatever happens to me, I would like to be with my own.”

Father Stan Swamy made this statement from Taloja Jail to the Bombay High Court on May 21, 2021. But his plea for bail on medical grounds was rejected. On May 28, however, as his health continued to fail, the court “magnanimously” allowed him to be admitted to a hospital of his choice.

But it was too late. Increasingly frail due to post-Covid complications and pre-existing co-morbidities, despite good care at Holy Family Hospital according to his lawyers, Fr. Stan succumbed to a heart attack on 5 July 2021.

In a statement issued for a public memorial organized on the same day by Jesuit communities, Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury noted: “A brave and truthful witness, whose life has in effect been taken by the agents of the state. Be sure of my prayers and thoughts in solidarity with all meeting today, and with all who continue Fr Stan’s work for justice and shared human dignity.”

On 5 October 2018, United Nations experts condemned the arrest of 10 human rights defenders by the Indian state on charges of “terrorism” under India’s draconian and contentious Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).

READ: US asks India to engage minorities on controversial CAA, FCRA (May 13, 2021)

Ignoring this, the Indian government went on to arrest six more people up to October 2020, including Father Stan Swamy, an 83 year old Jesuit priest with Parkinson’s disease.

There is now evidence that these people, known as the Bhima Koregaon 16 (BK-16) were incarcerated on fabricated charges. Just days before he was arrested, in a recorded statement Fr. Stan had said: “what is happening to me is not something unique. It is a broader process that is taking place all over the country. We are all aware how prominent intellectuals, lawyers, writers, poets, activists, students, leaders, they are all put in jail because they have expressed their dissent or raised questions about the ruling powers in India. 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.”

To date, India’s National Investigation Agency is still to make a case for their arrests, and still the arrested have repeatedly been denied bail. Since the pandemic began, the families have been stressed out by concerns about the BK-16 contracting Covid-19, including Fr. Stan, as it spread through India’s massively over-congested prisons.

This condition prevails because 70% of India’s prison population are incarcerated before trial and without conviction, often on non-bailable offenses as with the BK-16. In the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, this has also resulted in further compromised health and a high risk of infection among the prisoners. Indian jails often lack proper medical healthcare.

Like the other BK-16, Father Stan Swamy spent the majority of his life advocating for the fundamental rights of India’s many marginalized communities, in particular the Adivasi communities in the state of Jharkhand, increasingly threatened by the global specter of “development”: “land and forest rights, forced displacement due to mining and industrial projects, the right to food, and death from hunger”.

His house was raided two times in 2018-2019 by the NIA who failed to find any evidence of “Maoist” material to implicate him in seditious activities. Yet the organization he co-founded, Bagaicha, to research socio-economic marginalization was labelled a “frontal organization” of Maoists by the agency, accusing it of posing a threat to India’s national security.

READ: USCIRF says India is among worst violators of religious freedom (April 28, 2020)

He was arrested without charges in October 2020, transported hundreds of miles to Mumbai under false pretexts, and repeatedly denied for nearly a month his request for a sipper to drink water comfortably because of his Parkinson’s condition.

It was only after civil society launched a campaign #SipperforStan that this elderly citizen’s request was granted. If this is the case with someone whose case made it to the news, readers can imagine the conditions of those thousands of under-trials who have no voice.

Civil society organizations both within and outside India have been making huge efforts to raise awareness of the BK-16 as an exemplary case of the incarceration of thousands of Indians, in which all rights of under-trial prisoners, the majority of whom are from marginalized communities, and their families and communities, are being disregarded by all the authorities concerned, from the prison authorities to the Supreme Court of India.

InSAF India (International Solidarity for Academic Freedom in India) wrote an open letter signed by over 1,200 academics and other concerned citizens and sent an appeal to the authorities signed by over 50 internationally renowned figures.

While signing, Olga Tokarczuk, Nobel Prize for Literature 2018, said: “No human rights should be abused. No defenders of human rights anywhere should be imprisoned.” InSAF India, in collaboration with International Civil Watch India (ICWI), Ambedkar King Study Circle (California) and European and American universities, also held a webinar “Ideas Behind Bars” in April 2021 on the planting of evidence in order to jail human rights defenders.

Along with ICWI, on June 27, 2021 we also held a public appeal meeting presenting testimonies of family members alongside legal and international human rights experts for the urgent need for release of the BK-16 by appropriate implementation of the temporary Covid-19 administrative order. Prisoners have a constitutional right to live and die in dignity. Or don’t they?

If this account does not shake the world’s conscience what will? Our campaign continues: the jailed cannot be allowed to die there.
Rest in power, Father Stan.

(Lotika Singha is Honorary Research Fellow, University of Wolverhampton, UK; Neepa Majumdar is Associate Professor, Department of English, Film & Media Studies Program, University of Pittsburgh; Jyotsna Kapur is Professor, Cinema and Media Studies; cross-appointed Sociology Director, University Honors Program, Southern Illinois University. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.)

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