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Father Stan's death: Capital punishment sans trial of one who 'believed' in non-violence

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat* 

The death of Father Stan Swamy in custody is a reminder of how India’s criminal justice system has collapsed and is being used by the party in power to criminalise activists, writers, dissenters and political opponents. One need not think too much of it, but the sequence of events since 2014 after the Narendra Modi government took power shows how this is happening.
Right from NGOs, civil society organisations, human rights organisations to activists, especially those fighting for the rights of the most marginalised such as Dalits and Adivasis, have been targeted, yet this has almost gone unnoticed in the dominant media. Issues of Dalits and Adivasis never get covered on front page, until one projects the ruling party and the government as the ‘champion’ of these sections. 
Look at the silence in the media today: None questioned the unaccountability of the agencies who can make and unmake people criminals according to their convenience.
Father Stan was a pious man working for the rights of Adivasis in Jharkhand. A man who was born and brought up in Trichy, Tamil Nadu, and later worked in Bangalore, but his heart was always with the Adivasis. He loved them and stood for their rights. Imagine a person who hailed from an entirely different region with a different language and cultural background but becomes one of the most respected social activists of an area!
Father Stan was director of the Indian Social Institute, Banglore, between 1975 and 1986, and would have enjoyed his retired life anywhere in the South, but his convictions brought him to Ranchi where he created an institution named as Bagaicha or Garden.
A visit to Bagaicha will show you why the Adivasis loved and respected him so much. At the place, you will find beautiful statues of Adivasi heroes such as Birsa Munda and others. There is a martyrs' memorial where the names of all the Adivasis killed protecting their rights has been inscripted. Perhaps, the ‘power that be’ is always afraid of people on the margins knowing their history and power.
Father Stan was born on April 26, 1937. He was a Jesuit priest and hence could never think of even preaching violence to his followers. I do not claim to know him personally though I interviewed him and knew him through his work. Whenever we wanted anyone from Jharkhand to speak on the issues of Adivasi question, Father Stan would be the first choice. He was such a gentle and soft voice that nobody can ever think that he would be supporting ‘insurgency’.
Why should Adivasis be seen as ‘insurgents’ in their own land? The Pathalgarhi movement has been Adivasis' fight for protecting their land. It is ironic that thugs and mercenaries who are just looking at the Adivasi spaces through their greedy eyes are terming the issue of rights of Adivasis as unconstitutional.
The historic struggle launched by legendary Birsa Munda, Tilaka Majhi and Siddho-Kanho brothers in the entire Jharkhand region was nothing but protecting their land and forests from the ‘dikkus’, i.e. outsiders. Rather than introspecting, the previous government in Jharkhand was on a marketing spree capturing Adivasi land and making them homeless in their own land.
When I spoke to Father Stan a few years back, he was absolutely confident that nothing would happen to him as he was only fighting his battle non-violently and democratically. The biggest irony is that a man dedicated to peace and non-violence was charged for ‘spreading’ violence at a place which has nothing to do with him.
Bhima Koregaon is the place where Dalits have been visiting for years to celebrate the victory day of the Mahar forces over the Peshwas. The incident of January 1, 2018 violence in Bhima Koregaon was actually the game of those who have been afraid of the Dalits and their assertion. The massive mobilisation of Dalits at Bhima Koregaon happened spontaneously, but the state of Maharashtra under the Brahmanical rule of Devendra Fadnavis found that more assertive Ambedkarites would be a threat to his unquestioned apparatus, hence violence was unleashed by those who were afraid of the rising Ambedkarite assertion.
But what happened later is a typical modus operandi of the Sangh Parivar-led administration. The goons who unleashed violence in Bhim Koregaon and other places got protection from Maharashtra police which filed a case against Elgar Parishad for organising a meeting in Bhima Koregaon under the pretext that it was sponsored by Maoists.
This was a deliberate attempt to discourage people from coming to Bhima Koregaon. Maharashtra police filed cases against numerous intellectuals and activists and arrested them. Later, this case was transferred to the National Investigating Agency (NIA). All those who have been arrested under fabricated charges or cooked up stories are well known activists, authors and intellectuals. They have been working on the ground and most of them are above 65 years of age.
Father Stan was arrested on October 8, 2020 by NIA and was slapped with Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) charges. His office was raided several times but nothing incriminating was found against him. He was 84-years of age, was suffering from Parkinson's, yet the Maharashtra police wanted him to come to Mumbai for investigation which he requested to be done at his place.
Everything was rejected and he was arrested at Ranchi and brought to Mumbai and lodged in Taloja jail. At the time when Covid-19 cases were on the rise, the government should have been careful enough to think of not filling the jails with political prisoners, but it did not bother.
Attempts were made by his lawyers to convince the courts to grant him bail at least on health grounds but shockingly the courts were not ready to ‘ignore’ NIA lawyers who were vehemently opposing the bail. Ironically, revolutionary poet Varavara Rao, also an octogenarian, was granted bail after many hearings after courts tried to convince him that he would be provided medical care. But the ‘laws’ which granted bail to Varavara Rao were not made ‘applicable’ on Father Stan.
On October 23, 2020, the court rejected his bail plea. On November 6, his lawyers filed a request to provide him straw and sipper as he was unable to hold a cup or glass on his own. NIA responded to this after 20 days. After much persuasion he was provided the same. Justice (retired) Madan B Lokur in his brilliantly articulated piece in the "The Wire" said:
“This application was dealt with great insensitivity. First, the prosecution sought time to file a reply. Was it necessary? Could a straw and sipper not have been provided to Stan Swamy? Then, even more surprisingly, the learned judge granted 20 days to the prosecution to file a reply! This was simply amazing. Frankly, if the prison system had been compassionate and humane, it would not have been necessary for Stan Swamy to approach the Trial Court for something as simple as a straw. Ultimately, as a great favour, the powers that be supplied Stan Swamy a sipper. Small mercies! A classic case of strumming his pain with their fingers.”
Father Stan Swamy is a ‘free’ man now. Indian state can’t do anything to him now. It has exposed itself to the international community that our institutions are not merely collapsing but also compromised. We used to say that for a stronger and healthier democracy, people need independent media and judiciary, as both become watchdogs at the time when ‘powers-that-be’ are in an intoxicated state. But unfortunately in India both have deeply disappointed right-thinking people.
Courts these days are not questioning the narrative of the probing agencies. Judges are transferred if they take an independent position. The case of Justice Muralidhar is an example. Media is part of the conspiracy. Never has media become a bigger threat to democracy as today. It legitimised the narrative being built by the ruling party through probe agencies.
Courts are unable to pull up the agencies for their delay or failure to probe even after two or three years. People are incarcerated in jails, are suffering in silence and are facing threat to their lives in this age of Covid-19, and yet there are no questions are being asked.
These are difficult times. Father Stan got martyred for a cause. He did not compromise his principles and continued with them. He led a life which we all are proud of. He had a sensible voice. If saner voices who speak of unity of the country, Constitutional power and rights of the marginalised are being made criminals by government agencies, the future of the country is bleak.
Our Constitution is already torn. Journalists like Siddique Kappan are in jail for reporting a case. Courts are unable to ask serious questions or take the political leadership to task.
The question is whether the judiciary will act now, whether there will be an introspection that enough is enough and our institutions need to assert their independence and autonomy, whether it will protect the rights of human rights defenders and allow them to breathe. None of them have or will speak for violence and hatred. Indeed, it is time to act and seek accountability from the executive.
Our Constitution is already torn. Journalists like Siddique Kappan are in jail for reporting a case. Courts are unable to take political leadership to task
Father Stan will now be part of folklore in Jharkhand. His dedication and conviction will remind us to stand tall on the face of a fascist regime, speak truth to the power. Things may turn bitter. It can take our life, but ultimately it will give life to the lifeless sufferings due to despondency of the political leadership in the country.
It is time for our judiciary, our civil services and media to ponder over seriously as to whether laws like UAPA should not be scrutinised or whether these laws are violating the Constitutional principles or international treaties and covenants that we claim proudly part of. Civil society is speaking out, but it is being harassed, humiliated and violated -- which appears to have bcome the first task of the government for the country.
One may or may not agree with the political views of any of the ‘accused’ but nobody would say that they are Naxals or are operating against the Constitution of India. They are facing the same law which is applicable on Naxals or Pakistanis or anti-nationals. Nobody in any society and country can be prosecuted without being given a fair chance to prove his or her innocence.
UAPA actually violates the basic premise of law. Now, the accused have to prove themselves innocent. Moreover, the procedures are such that if you are above 60 or are facing various ailment then it can well turn out to be ‘capital punishment’ without trial or final judgement. In the times of Covid, our authorities, whether judiciary or police, should have been more sensitive. Of course, the biggest offender in this is the political leadership which shamelessly builds up vicious narratives through its ‘propaganda’ machinery.
Father Stan fell to this insensitive regime because he spoke the truth and stood tall. We don’t know whether those who selectively and in a well planned and calculated manner criminalised respected intellectuals, authors and activists will ever do any introspection or show remorse. It never happened when Graham Stains and his two children were burnt in their vehicle. Till date, they defend the goons and thugs who were engaged in the heinous crime.
They bring in ever ‘new evidences’ to further justify their criminal act but we hope people of the country would definitely feel the pain and anguish of an 84 years old man who was denied basic dignity and human rights in jail. What happened to Father Stan could happen to anyone who the regime feels is against their political ideology.
In all big democracies it is the institutions who have to show the strength and stand up to the lawlessness of the state. With one judgement, Justice HR Khanna, became immortal in the legal parleys, though there have been many chief justices and other judges after him, but whenever the country remembers of human rights, civil liberties, Justice Khanna’s name is taken with great reverence.
Let us see how our ‘system’ moves after they have killed an innocent man without trial.A big salute to Father Stan Swamy.
---
*Human rights defender. Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/vbrawat. Twitter: @freetohumanity

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