One can talk of many things, but nothing can justify the death of Fr. Stan Swamy, an octogenarian Catholic priest suffering from multiple ailments, including Parkinson’s disease. The extreme hostile circumstances in which he was kept confined at Taloja Central Jail is an unimaginable gross violation against humanity.
He was reportedly arrested by the National Investigating Agency (NIA) in the Anti-Terrorism and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act on October 8, 2020 for his alleged role in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence, a place he never visited in his life, as per his interview with Brut and supposed links with CPI(M). He was languishing in jail for 9 months and though he requested bail on medical grounds, he was denied multiple times.
At a time when Covid 19 looms large, with social distancing as one of the primary preventive measures, instead of 1,400 inmates, the prison hosted 3,000 people, cramped far beyond its capacity and for an elderly, gravely ill Swamy, contracting Covid was a death knell. Adding to the woes, the prison reportedly had no allopathic doctor for medical treatment. He died on July 5, 2021 due to Covid complications at the age of 84.
It is absolutely unjust for a man, who gave close to four decades of his life, for the service of the poor, downtrodden and marginalized tribal community in Jharkhand to die this slow, painful death held as a prisoner for nine long months, awaiting trial.
With failing health, things were going beyond control and he had to literally beg for a straw and sipper, for several long weeks, as he was unable to hold a glass in his hands, due to Parkinson’s. When he was arrested in Ranchi, his belongings like a sipper, straw and winter clothes were confiscated. On November 6, he moved court seeking permission to allow a sipper and straw, after 20 days NIA said it does not have it. The issue came to the public fore and they started ordering a sipper and straw online, displaying screenshots in social media, to be delivered to the NIA headquarters for Swamy. Only after much public outcry, it was finally given to him on December 4, 2020.The National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD) also objected the denial as violation of his basic rights.
Swamy who stood for communal harmony, equality and justice was made to undergo undue terrible harassment, acute physical pain and mental agony, without any legal recourse or medical care. He earned the dubious distinction of being the oldest person to be accused of terrorism. He denied the charges two days before being taken into custody saying that he was implicated with incriminating evidence planted in his computer because he, like many others had expressed dissent against the ruling government.
Swamy was the Director of the Jesuit run “Indian Social Institute”, Bangalore for more than a decade. He had questioned the non-implementation of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution that stipulates setting up of a “Tribes Advisory Council” with members solely from the Adivasi community for their protection and welfare.
He created awareness on the landowner’s right to claim compensation through the Land Acquisition Act, but sadly the landowners were thrown into jail when they did so. So he founded the “Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee” to study the nature of under trial in the central tribal states of MP, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa, WB and then sought legal recourse, by filing a case against Jharkhand State in Jharkhand High Court on behalf of about 3,000 young Adivasis languishing in jail. According to him, this became the bone of contention and those in power wanted to put him out of the way. Thus the serious charge of Bhima Koregaon violence was slapped on him. He was taken away first by Pune Police, then forcibly by NIA and interrogated. He however said that what was happening to him is not something unique to him, but a part of the broader process taking place all over the country, as many prominent intellectuals, lawyers, writers, poets, student leaders were put in jail just because they have expressed dissent or raised questions, against the ruling powers of India. He said he was happy because he was not a silent spectator, but a part of the process, part of the game and was ready to pay the price, whatever be it.
While in Taloja Centra Prison, he highlighted the plight of the under trials, who were unaware of the charges against them and who had no legal or other assistance. He was optimistic, despite being imprisoned and wrote, “But we still can sing in chorus. A caged bird can still sing.” In his words, “If I don’t speak for the poor and the exploited then I am not true to myself ‘. He lived true to his words.
India, the largest democracy in the world has failed its citizens, by killing a man who was innocent, until proven guilty, a central tenet of criminal justice. A dead person cannot defend or justify his own cause, should we also be silent?
Kuolachalie Seyie, Trustee Member,
Kezekevi Thehou Ba (KTB).
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