As humanity bubbled in prison

Published July 6, 2021
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

“THEY killed Stan Swamy.” Fellow journalist John Dayal’s Facebook message startled me. The 84-year-old Jesuit priest was put on the ventilator two days ago after weeks of fighting Covid at a private hospital in Mumbai. Although denied bail, a judge permitted him to be treated for the virus contracted in prison.

Swamy was suffering from Parkinson’s when he was thrown into prison in October last year, and was slapped with outrageous terror charges. Nothing better can be expected, of course, from India’s palpably communal rulers. They thrive on a blend of hate and ignorance. It was early in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s innings that a Hindutva fanatic murdered an Australian missionary and his two young sons in an Orissa village by setting their jeep on fire. Vajpayee was at least contrite and condemned the crime publicly. That was a different stage in the steady journey of Hindutva.

Acknowledged to be a member of the saffron family, the killer of Graham Staines and his sons is serving a life sentence. Who is responsible for Swamy’s needless and cruel death, which his supporters say is nothing short of murder?

Hindutva’s hatred of Muslims and fear of Christian missionaries is legendary. But the 1950s movie that L.K. Advani screened on Doordarshan in his avatar as information minister soon after the defeat of Indira Gandhi in 1977 takes the cake. A helpless Hindu woman in an Indian village approaches the temple priest to cure her mute husband. The priest prescribes an amazing cure — to throw out Christian missionaries from the village. The woman musters support and violently evicts the missionaries thereby finding that her husband is miraculously cured of his ailment. Difficult to forget watching Swayamsiddha on a stunned neighbour’s black-and-white TV set in Delhi.

India’s palpably communal rulers thrive on a blend of hate and ignorance.

Much like the Staines family who were selflessly devoted to the treatment of leprosy stalking a village, Indian Jesuit and Catholic priests have worked among the poor for over a century. Swamy lived and worked for around six decades with the most marginalised tribal communities in the Bihar and Jharkhand belt. A social worker, activist and educator, his life is what legends are made of.

Swamy’s arrest by the National Investigation Agency was always suspicious, but it acquired a more dubious ring after an NIA court last week released Akhil Gogoi, a social activist and recently elected MLA in Assam. Gogoi told the media that instead of pressing charges against him, the NIA seemed more interested in recruiting him as a member of the BJP and its sister organisations. The claim deserves to be probed, of course, but Gogoi was lucky to get away. Others have not been as lucky.

Swamy’s arrest did mobilise opposition parties to demand that the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which is being liberally used by the NIA, be repealed. Recently, the Delhi High Court also raised questions about the use of the law.

Pope Francis on his part questioned the arrest. Human rights groups, Catholic and Jesuit associations across the world, the UN’s human rights wing, students, intellectuals and the Adivasi communities Swamy worked with have been protesting against the arrest in several countries. However, when did anyone see the Modi government rowing back from its mission to wipe out critics and ordinary opponents?

Father Swamy was always at loggerheads with the government over tribal rights. His focus on empowering exploited Adivasis was a thorn in the flesh for a government wanting private companies to exploit the virgin forests and abundant natural resources of Jharkhand. Evidently, the government decided to deal with the man they saw as blocking ‘development’ in the region.

Read: Furore after Modi critic quits top Indian university 'under political pressure'

After arresting him on Oct 8 last year, alleging he had links with banned Maoist groups, the NIA brought Swamy to Mumbai. His name was included in the NIA’s 10,000-page charge sheet along with 15 activists it accuses of involvement in what has come to be known as the Elgar Parishad/Bhima Koregaon incident. ‘Elgar’ here appears to be a corruption of ‘yalghaar’, Urdu for attack, expressing Dalit anger.

The case relates to caste violence on Jan 1, 2018, at Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra. The Elgar Parishad was an event held the previous evening to commemorate 200 years of the Battle of Koregaon Bhima in which Dalit soldiers jointly with the British forces defeated the Brahmin peshwa’s army.

Named as an accomplice with another person who was arrested, Swamy was bracketed with other intellectual activists, including radical poet Varavara Rao. Other idealists and activists languishing in prison include Gautam Navlakha, Anand Teltumbde, Shoma Sen, Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, Sudhir Dhawale, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Rona Wilson, Hany Babu Tharayil, Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor and Jyoti Jagtap. Wheelchair-bound Prof Saibaba, a 90 per cent paralysed teacher from Delhi University is rotting in solitary confinement in Nagpur.

Susan Abraham, Swamy’s defence lawyer, said the priest could barely stand and could not sign documents clearly when he was arrested. His supporters say the issues Stan Swamy was involved in were the reason why the government found him a threat. For one, he relentlessly pressed for the implementation of panchayati rights for the tribespeople under the Fifth Schedule of the constitution, which protects tribal interests. He always crossed swords with the state over the lack of action on the Forest Rights Act. But Father Swamy bore no grudge against his tormentors.

In a letter from prison, the octogenarian priest already troubled by Parkinson’s disease, described Mumbai’s Taloja prison in indelibly affectionate words.

In his letter, Swamy lauded Ferreira for helping him eat his meals and Gonsalves for bathing him. “My two inmates help out during supper, in washing my clothes and giving massage to my knee joints,” he wrote. “They are from very poor families. Please remember my inmates and my colleagues in your prayers. Despite all odds, humanity is bubbling in Taloja prison.”

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

jawednaqvi@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2021

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