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12 July 2021updated 12 Sep 2021 1:52pm

How Father Stan Swamy’s “custodial murder” is sparking new demands for justice in India

The untimely death of the elderly activist could mark a turning point for India’s human rights law. But international pressure will be key.  

By alpa shah

Father Stan Swamy, India’s oldest person accused of terrorism, died in judicial custody on Monday 5 July. One week later many people across the country say that, in fact, a martyr of human rights was born: “Father Stan did not die, he was killed,” placards held by protesters have read from Mumbai to Kolkata.

In October last year, detectives from India’s counter terrorism task force revved up in an SUV into the serene tree-lined compound in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand. They entered the ochre-coloured building which housed an indigenous people’s education and training centre, and arrested its founder, the 83-year-old Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy. The octogenarian, known to his friends as a soft spoken gentle giant, was escorted onto a flight to Mumbai. There, despite suffering from several ailments, frail and unwell, he was remanded in judicial custody and thrown into the overcrowded Taloja jail at a time when prisoners across the world were being released because of the raging COVID-19 pandemic.

Father Stan was the last of 16 intellectuals, human rights activists and artists to have been imprisoned in what has become known as India’s infamous Bhima Koregaon case. In 2018, communal violence, which left one person dead, erupted at an annual New Year’s Day celebration of Dalits, India’s previously untouchable low caste groups, in the village of Bhima Koregaon some 165 kilometres southeast of Mumbai. A group of around 30,000 people was attacked by a mob of higher caste men, after gathering to commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of Dalit victory – as soldiers in the British Raj – over an upper caste regime that had enslaved them for centuries

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The authorities said that activists had provoked the violence at a conference held the day before, that they were linked to banned Maoist insurgents – also called Naxalites – who for decades had been fighting a war against the Indian state, and that they were involved in a plot to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But the activists denied these allegations; a Boston based computer forensic service showed that incriminating evidence was planted on the computers of at least two of the accused, and most, such as Stan Swamy, claim not to have even been present in Maharashtra at the time.

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I first met Father Stan amidst 100 young men and women licking rice and dal off their fingers at his training centre in 2008. The youth were from India’s tribal or indigenous communities, popularly known as Adivasis, and had come from mud hut forest villages in which I had also been living for some years as an anthropologist conducting research. When we finished eating, Father Stan led me to a line of sinks where, alongside the youth, we washed our steel plate and cup, dried and stacked them, ready for the next meal. This was no ordinary India, a place where men of authority and status are usually waited upon. “Here we all pitch in to cook and clean,” Father Stan explained. That spirit of equality is what he was battling to protect for India’s indigenous people.

***

Born in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, at aged 27 Father Stan undertook a training period of Jesuits priests in a tribal area of Jharkhand. Here, he was moved by the philosophy and ways of life of the Adivasis which question dominant ideas of growth, progress and development, and that aim to chart more ecologically sustainable futures. Although he travelled to the Philippines to study sociology, to Belgium to undertake an MPhil, and even took a lead in running the Indian Social Institute in Bangalore for 15 years, the Adivasis drew him back to Jharkhand in 1991.

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India had just liberalised its economy, welcomed foreign investment and trade, and national and multinational corporations of every hue, backed by public officials, were waiting to seize tribal lands. Although the indigenous people had been impoverished for centuries, India’s richest mineral reserves lay underneath their forests. Father Stan travelled to remote villages to show Adivasis the plans for the dams, mines and factories to be built on their land, warn them about how their forests and water would be taken away without their consent, and to educate them in how to fight for their constitutionally protected rights.

But from 2008, hundreds of thousands of Indian security forces were sent to surround and clear the Adivasi forested hills in the name of battling the threat of the Maoist insurgents who had made their guerrilla strongholds there. A brutal counter-insurgency escalated. Father Stan and his colleagues documented how India’s anti-terror laws, and in particular the notorious Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), were used to jail without conviction thousands of low caste youth as alleged Maoists, and to prolong their trials. Finding gross misuse of the criminal justice system, in 2018 he led a Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee on behalf of about three thousand Adivasi prisoners and filed a case against the state in the Jharkhand High Court.

Father Stan was clearly getting in the way of powerful corporate and government interest in Adivasi areas. It should perhaps then be no surprise that in October 2020 he was jailed under the same anti-terror laws whose misuse against the Adivasis he was fighting against. Two days before he was taken into custody, he recorded a video message. Slowly, carefully and sincerely he spoke:

“What is happening to me is not something unique, happening to me alone. It is the broader process that is happening all over the country. Prominent intellectuals, writers, poets, activists, student leaders, they are all put into jail because they have expressed their dissent or raised their questions about the ruling powers of India…I am happy to be part of this process because I am not a silent spectator…I am ready to pay the price, whatever it be.”

***

Father Stan knew his actions would likely lead to prison. And yet, the cruelty with which he was then treated, in what is often celebrated as the world’s largest democracy, needs to be marked. His lawyers had to go to court just to get him a sip cup to enable him to drink by himself, for his hands shook from Parkinson’s disease and he could not hold a glass to his lips. His health deteriorated significantly in prison so that he could not walk, hear or eat without support but repeated applications for his bail were rejected even after he contracted COVID-19. He died as the Bombay High Court was considering an appeal against the rejection of his bail appeal.

[See also: How India lost control of Covid-19]

Now, not only are writers, intellectuals and human rights activists across the nation, such as Arundhati Roy, calling Father Stan’s death a “custodial murder” but, the day after his death, leaders of major national opposition parties wrote to the Indian president, urging his intervention in holding accountable those responsible for the detention, “inhuman treatment” and death of the human rights activist. They demanded the release of all those jailed in the Bhima Koregaon case and other politically motivated cases.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet also expressed concern last week over Father Stan’s death and called on the government of India “to ensure that no one is detained for exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, of peaceful assembly and of association”.

Responding to this mounting international criticism, the Ministry of External Affairs, said on Tuesday that due process of law was followed in Father Stan’s case. While influential supporters of Modi’s regime, such as film-maker Vivek Agnihotri, have tweeted that this is a shameful moment, in which “enemies of India” are being glorified by “elite intellectuals”, and that social justice and human rights activism is a façade for urban Naxalites to hide their terrorism against the state.

The lines between social justice and terror are being drawn ever deeper in Indian sand. In this context, as Amnesty and eight other international human rights organisations have said his death “must be a wake-up call for the international community to finally put human rights at the centre of all aspects of their bilateral relationship with India”.

Father Stan’s death may yet become a turning point in Indian history: an opportunity to challenge an increasingly authoritarian regime brutally silencing dissenters, to overhaul the judiciary, eliminate draconian anti-terror laws, and to seek the release – at least on bail – of all those arrested under the UAPA, and certainly his co-accused in the Bhima Koregaon case. For this to happen, however, international solidarity will be crucial.

Alpa Shah is professor of anthropology at LSE. Her prize-winning book, “Nightmarch”, was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2019.

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