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Stan Swamy vs Arnab Goswami: Are activists fighting a losing battle? Whither justice?

By Fr Sunil Macwan SJ*

It is time one raised pertinent questions over the courts denying bail to Fr Stan Swamy, who was arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), and granting it to Arnab Goswami, editor-in-chief of the Republic TV, arrested under the charge of abetting suicide of Avay Naik, who ended his life in 2018. It is travesty of justice that a human rights activist is not only denied bail but is also made to wait for weeks to hear a response to his legitimate request for a straw to drink water, while Arnab Goswami walks free.
Arnab found a quick hearing from the Supreme Court, which granted him bail to uphold his personal liberty. Baffling as it is, the apparent double-standards of our legal system reveal a harsh reality, which the supporters of Stan Swamy and champions of truth and justice would need to perceive.
Arnab was released on bail in less than 10 days but Stan Swamy still remains imprisoned for over a month now, because the former is a powerful mainstream media personality who speaks for certain establishments, while the latter is a peripheral activist, who speaks for the marginalized and the voiceless. One speaks with power; the other speaks truth to power. The former is facile, while the latter is challenging.
An activist, Stan Swamy has fought for justice for well over four decades, vowing to relentlessly continue doing so in future. Therefore, those supporting him must not become disheartened by the denial of bail to him, nor by the legal relief made available to others, such as Arnab Goswami. If speaking truth to power were easy and cheap, an octogenarian with serious ailments would not be languishing in jail today. Indeed, speaking truth to power has consequences and being heard can take a long time.
Stan Swamy, an 83-year-old priest, was arrested on October 8 from his residence in Ranchi by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case. The chargesheet accuses him of possessing Maoist propaganda material and receiving Rs 8 lakh from the CPI-Maoist organization. He is also accused of planning to instruct people to “disrupt the fake development propaganda disseminated by star campaigners of BJP-RSS corporate-friendly family”.
Stan categorically denies these charges and courageously claims that if NIA refuses to consider his plea, he is “ready to face the consequence”. According to the octogenarian activist, he is not alone in facing the government’s ire for fighting for justice and human rights. Several others have also been indicted, arrested and imprisoned.
One could notice three trends on speaking truth to power in support of Fr Stan Swamy – among masses, politicians, and the international community.

Spontaneous public protests

Spontaneous public support for Stan Swamy gained momentum across the country after his arrest. Concerned citizens, fellow social activists, and human rights groups came together to express solidarity with him in recognition of his decades-long service to the Adivasis and the marginalized. Notable among these were demonstrations in Jharkhand – Fr. Stan’s karmabhumi for the last three decades – in the form of justice rally and human chain on October 16 and 17. Similar solidarity events also took place in various places in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and Maharastra.
Social media has been abuzz with the campaign #StandWithStan, though not much about it is heard in the mainstream media either because they consider the matter sub judice or for fear backlash from the government. That said, a sustained public outrage against the arrest of Stan Swamy and other human rights activists in the Bhima Koregaon case evinces that there are people who consider him a champion of human rights and justice. They all are an asset to the nation and not a threat.

Political leaders

Political leaders and groups have also risen in support of Stan Swamy across the country. A good example of this trend is the virtual meeting organized on October 21 by various political parties and eminent personalities to condemn the arrests of the Bhima Koregaon activists and to demand immediate their release.
The participants included Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren (who sent across his video message to the meet), CPI-M general secretary Sitaram Yechuri, CPI leader and Rajya Sabha MP D Raja, DMK leader and Lok Sabha MP Kanimozhi, Congress leader and Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor, and eminent academic Jean Dreze.
Their sentiment was eloquently expressed by Shashi Tharoor. Describing Stan Swamy as an ailing activist “who has spent four decades of his life, working with poor people and tribal people,” Tharoor said, Stan Swamy “is a good man who has worked and lived with the Adivasis” of Jharkhand. He described Stan Swamy as part of the groups that strive to meet the challenge of making progress in the future of “the most deprived and marginalized of our country.”
Indeed, in that role, Stan Swamy joins ranks with various lawmakers, writers, opinion shapers, social activists and religious and social leaders, who collaborate to realize this dream. It is crucial, therefore, to highlight the wider context in which Stan Swamy lives and serves. But will Tharoor’s observation on Stan Swamy’s invaluable service as a social activist will find a listening ear among the investigating agencies so as to examine his track record in proper light?

International community

Solidarity with Stan Swamy and other human rights activists is not limited to spontaneous protests and political support in India. International organisations have also raised concerns about his unfortunate arrest and incarceration. Among them, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressed serious concern about Stan Swamy’s arrest in a statement released on October 20.
Noting that activists and human rights defenders have faced pressure from the Indian government in recent months, Bachelet cited the recent arrest of “the 83-year-old Catholic priest Stan Swamy, a long-standing activist engaged in defending the rights of marginalized groups”, and urged the government “to ensure that no one else is detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly… and to protect India’s robust civil society.” The larger context of Bachelet’s statement focused on urging the Indian government to protect human rights defenders and NGOs in the aftermath of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
Intensity of protests has waned. Much of the public demonstrations have ceased. Political parties have diverted attention to other issues
Bachelet’s reading of Stan Swamy’s arrest serves as an example of the challenges faced by social activists who oppose certain government policies in the wider public interests. It also functions as a reminder to the establishments to respect the legitimate concerns felt by the international community with regard to the human rights and justice situation in India. Treating Stan Swamy’s case merely as a Maoist sympathizer’s arraignment will grossly overlook the deeper sociopolitical and economic issues addressed by his social work.
In his recorded statement just before his arrest, Stan Swamy identified his predicament with those of several others across the country. “What is happening to me is not unique. Many activists, lawyers, writers, journalists, student leaders, poets, intellectuals and others who stand for the rights of Adivasis, dalits and the marginalized and express their dissent to the ruling powers of the country are being targeted,” he said.
Those who have rallied in solidarity with Stan Swamy on the streets and social media, political circles and international organizations have spoken truth to power, albeit in different degrees and manners. And inasmuch as speaking truth to power involves standing up for justice in the face of oppression and intimidation, these movements have, in their own way, helped globalise dissent to promote justice.
Such activism can be violently suppressed in the name of law and order and national security, but cannot be completely silenced. Much less can they be completely wiped out in our 21st century. We live in a digital and cyber world, which enables us to transcend all barriers to connect with others instantly.
Yet, the fact is, the intensity of the protests has waned in recent weeks. Much of the public demonstrations have ceased. Political parties have diverted attention to other issues, and the international community seems to have lost track of the case. The denial of bail to Stan Swamy has dealt a setback to his supporters, and the granting of bail to Arnab Goswami rubs salt in the wound.
The question arises: Is there no justice in India? Are we fighting a lost cause? Is it a losing battle? No. Speaking truth to power is a potent act and the fight must continue. The struggle has to be sustained by campaigning for Stan Swamy’s release. It will be a painfully long and challenging process. Deserting it is not an option, just as speaking truth to power is not an option for civil society.
Veteran Congress leader Kapil Sibal’s recent comment on Justice Chandrachud’s statement on the Supreme Court’s responsibility of safeguarding personal liberty of citizens gives one hope that intellectual and legal struggle to free Stan Swamy will endure for as long as it takes. It is not only about his freedom; it is about the freedom to stand up for truth, justice and human rights without the fear of reprisal. After all, if Arnab Goswami can be released on bail on account of his personal liberty, why not Stan Swami? Why not all others? Time will tell.
*Department of English, St Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad


Anonymous said…
What is happening in the case of Fr.Stan Swamy is Gross injustice .
Anonymous said…
It's a shame to see the media and the political parties influencing and controlling the entire system and especially the judiciary in India. Hope to get bold people who can reinstall our faith in the system.


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