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Proposed popular actions to resonate Tilak's Swaraj is My Birthright, Gandhi’s Do or Die?

By Fr Cedric Prakash SJ* 

The institutional murder of 84-year-old Jesuit priest Fr Stan Swamy, who died on July 5, 2021 while still in judicial custody, has shaken the very foundations of democracy in India. The importance and the urgency to defend democracy and all that is precious in the Constitution of India against repressive and anti-people laws, is perhaps felt today, as never before.
Fr Stans death has evoked a groundswell of protests all across India and abroad. Editorials and op-eds featuring his life and illegal incarceration; rallies and meetings, talks and webinars; prayer vigils and Masses and every form of social media has kept a truth alive that the memory and legacy of Fr Stan will live on forever.
Fr Stan, spent a lifetime working with Adivasis in Jharkhand in defence of their rights; for him, all that mattered was that the Adivasis are accorded the basic dignity which every human deserves and that their access to their resources of jal, jungle and jameen are not exploited by unscrupulous, corrupt vested interests. For this, he ultimately had to pay the price!
On October 8, 2020, he was arrested in the Bhima Koregaon conspiracy case even though he had absolutely no connection with it. He died waiting for a chance to clear his name. Whilst in prison, Fr Stan, despite his age and other physical infirmities (like Parkinson's), was for a long time not even given the straw sipper cup which he desperately needed.
In denying bail to Fr Stan, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) judge, DE Kothalikar argued that the collective interest of the community outweighed Fr Stans right to personal liberty.
Fr Stans death should hopefully now shake the collective conscience of the nation and the judiciary as it brings to an end a stark tale of injustice: one that has left the highest institutions of Indias justice system diminished.
After Fr Stan's death, the NIA court denied bail to Anand Teltumbde, another member of the BK-16 (as the advocates, artists, journalists and intellectuals who have been imprisoned under the Bhima Koregaon conspiracy case are called). The latest move now is to shift some or all of the BK-16 out of the Taloja jail to an ‘unspecified prison’ in Maharashtra.
According to reliable information, the prison authorities recently submitted an application, requesting to transfer the male accused in the case to other prisons. There was no hearing of the people who are being transferred. The decision was taken solely by the NIA court without any consultation with the political prisoners or their families.
The family members of Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale and Anand Teltumbde have challenged this decision. They allege that the purpose behind the transfer is to divide the incarcerated by sending them to separate prisons, and therefore a brazen attempt to prevent them from speaking the truth!
There has been drastic erosion in the democratic space for protest in the country; the ordinary citizen has experienced this in very brutal ways since 2019. The calculated destruction of democratic values and of the rights of the citizens, take place at a frightening regularity.
The way some of the followers of the ruling regime (including a BJP member who is a Supreme Court lawyer) ranted and raved against the Muslims of the country at Jantar Mantar on August 9, in full media glare, is a case in point. They did so with impunity and though after much pressure some are now arrested, they know very well that nothing will eventually happen to them!
On the other hand, a strategy that has been central to the erosion of democratic space has been the weaponizing of the criminal justice system by the state to harass and punish those who dare to protest against the anti-people and anti-Constitutional policies and actions of the Government.
In this situation, while one looks to the Courts to protect the fundamental rights of all, the entire judicial system, has apparently failed the citizens. There have been 7,050 arrests in 5,128 Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) cases between 2015-2019 but conviction rate was only 2.20% (according to data presented in the Lok Sabha in March 2021).
While this experience has become visible because of a number of cases (eg the Bhima Koregaon case, the Delhi riots cases), where intellectuals, students, trade unionists, lawyers, human rights defenders and activists have been incarcerated, the axe of state repression consistently and dangerously hangs over the heads of those who express their point of view or dissent from that of the state.
The Adivasis, the Dalits, the ordinary labourers, the farmers, the migrant workers who raise their voices, know the State only as an entity that punishes those peaceful and democratic attempts to challenge the status quo. The Muslims and other minority groups are particularly vulnerable and have been systematically targeted to create a false narrative of anti-patriotism, internal terrorism and of being a threat to the nation.
The disheartening situation is that of the courts, who have mostly acted in a conservative manner and have been reluctant to speak truth to power and restore justice. Earlier, the mainstream media allowed for expression of protest and raised issues of such injustice, today it has become the voice of the state and an important medium to popularise the narrative of the state.
The large numbers of human rights activists, friends and supporters of all the people in jail under these laws, have consistently and persistently built up a campaign for their release and against the use of draconian laws. Scores of people have been detained under various other repressive state laws.
This includes journalists, human rights activists, trade union activists and workers, cultural activists, comedians, environmentalists, youth, students, farmers, electricity and industrial workers, and large numbers of minorities, to create a false narrative of internal terrorism and threat to the nation.
There are some rays of hope: Recently some judgements and court orders have begun to question the issues of the sedition law, UAPA and the right to bail. The most recent orders from the NIA court in Guwahati and the Delhi High Court (in the cases of Akhil Gogoi; Asif Tanha, Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal) has offered a devastating critique of the UAPA and is also regarded as a turning point in judicial circles.
The mainstream press (many who qualify as ‘godified’ media) has taken note of this turn, breaking with the narrative of the BJP government on these issues. These judgements have vindicated and even defended the right to dissent and opposition to government.
Beginning July 23, a series of actions have been launched all over the country as part of a National Campaign to Defend Democracy. The first was a call ‘Justice for Father Stan Swamy’ – which brought together hundreds of people from all walks of life in public protests demanding that the Courts clear the name of Fr Stan. 
On July 28, the Jesuit Conference of India (JCI) observed a National Justice Day. In a letter addressed to the Church in India, the President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, Cardinal Oswald Gracias endorsed this call!
The response to National Justice Day was overwhelming: Parishes, schools and other Institutions brought together their colleagues and collaborators, their staff and students, religious sisters and other priests, their parishioners and others from civil society for a public manifestation to pay homage to Fr Stan and to pledge that we all need to be and work together for justice, so that the legacy that he has left us will carry on In most places it was a silent assembly either at one place or in procession.
The participants carried lit candles, banners, posters and placards which included pictures of and quotes from Fr Stan.COVID-19 SOPs meant that numbers were limited and all manifestations were held on the campuses or in halls. In some places, eminent persons spoke about Fr Stan and his life and the importance of working for justice particularly for the Adivasis, Dalits, minorities and other disadvantaged sections.
There were prayer services with hymns and songs of unity. A statement was read out at the end which was covered by some of the local media the next day. On August 3 (the 30th day of Fr Stan’s death) a Memorial Mass was held for Fr Stan in Jamshedpur and later his incisive memoir ‘I am not a Silent Spectator’ was released in Ranchi.
On August 9, the National Campaign to Defend Democracy gained added momentum when 165 movements, platforms and organisations, representing thousands of citizens, gave a call for a country wide action to save our democracy: marking the international day for Indigenous people and thr Quit India movement day, as a day of Public Action. The action will continue till August 28.
A high point will be on August 15, India’s Independence Day, when thousands will pledge to campaign for the repeal of the draconian laws and to protect our democracy. Several programmes: both physical and virtual are planned all over the country, over the next weeks.
We have to wake up now before it is too late! We need to internalise and act on Tagore's call, 'Let my country awake'
The signatories to the National Campaign in a public statement, ‘Defend the Right to Dissent, Repeal the Sedition Law, UAPA and Repressive State Laws, Restore the Right to Bail, Justice for Stan Swamy’ said:
“State repression and attacks on right to dissent and the Constitution are growing. UAPA, NIA and other draconian laws are being used as instruments of repression. More than 165 organisations and civil society networks are undertaking a country wide action campaign (August 15-28) to protest against the institutional murder of Stan Swamy and the repression. As part of this campaign, programmes were organised across the country on 23 July to demand justice for Stan Swamy.
"The demands of this campaign are 1) Justice for Stan Swamy, 2) Repeal of UAPA, sedition section and all other draconian laws, including state laws that allow preventive detention, 3) Restore Right to Bail,4) Release all Political Prisoners, 5) Accountability for filing false cases and Compensation to victims, 6) Stop illegal detentions and weaponizing the criminal justice system.
"Country-wide protests and various action programmes will be organised in this campaign on August 9 and during August 15-28. August 9 is International Day for Worlds Indigenous People. It is also the day on which the Quit Indian movement started in 1942. Stan Swamy dedicated his life for Adivasi rights and struggles for jal, jangal and zameen. 
"Come, let us organise programmes on August 9 to protest against Stan Swamy's murder, and for protection of Adivasi rights and the democracy. Also, on August 15, we will pledge to campaign for repeal of the draconian laws and to protect our democracy.”
The Pledge which thousands are expected to make on 15 August 2021 is:
"On the occasion of the 75th Independence Day on 15th August, we pledge to defend the legacy of our Freedom Movement, the spirit of the Preamble and the values of our Constitution.
"We pledge to campaign for repealing all draconian laws and assert the right to bail of every citizen.
"We believe that the right to question and the Right to Dissent are the foundation of our democratic, secular and socialist republic.
"We commit to campaign against all ideologies, laws, and state actions that deprive us of the freedoms of speech and opinion, conscience, association, and to non-violent opposition."

Besides, the physical programmes (where numbers will be limited because of the pandemic) across the country, there will also be several virtual(online)programmes in the coming weeks. All signatories (organisations and individuals) will also be active on social media on dedicated pages/ handles and from their own pages/handles using the hashtags #FreeAllPoliticalPrisoners #JusticeForFatherStan #RepealUAPA #RestoreRightToBail #NoJailWithoutBail #DraconianLawsQuitIndia. There is also a dedicated email id ncddfor2021@gmail.com.
In the meantime, the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) has initiated a year-long nation-wide campaign ‘Jan Azaadi 75: On the path to Freedom’ which focusses on remembering the values of the freedom struggle; re-asserting the contributions of people’s movements over 75 years; and to resolutely strengthen our collective struggle for democracy, human rights, social and ecological justice. The campaign which began on 9 August will conclude on August 15, 2022.
At the start of the Quit India Movement, late evening of 8 August 1942, Mahatma Gandhi gave a call to the nation to “Do or Die; the next day his words translated into concrete action and India after much struggle, finally gained her freedom on 15 August !947. The current call to ‘Defend Democracy’ is in a similar vein: it is a do or die for we the people of India today.
In 1908, when Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak was being tried for sedition in the Bombay High Court, he courageously stated, "Swaraj is my birth right, and I shall have it." Justice Davar, the presiding judge, then asked him if he had anything to say before the sentence was pronounced, he audaciously replied: 
"All I wish to say is that in spite of the verdict of the jury, I maintain my innocence. There are higher powers that rule the destiny of men and nations. It may be the will of Providence that the cause I represent may prosper by suffering than by remaining free."
These immortal and inspiring words of Tilak can be read even today; they are etched on a marble plaque outside Court Room 46 in the Bombay High Court. Tilak's biographer NG Jog has described this historic moment profoundly:
"These words delivered on the spur of the moment have a spontaneous dignity and almost a Socratic sublimity. They breathe the spirit of dedication to freedom and of defiance against the might of the British Raj. And, they could have been uttered by only one man in India's contemporary history Bal Gangadhar Tilak."
In 2021, in a fairly similar way Fr Stan resonated the words of Tilak!
As we the people of India ‘celebrate’ yet another Independence Day, it is fitting to remind ourselves of that prophetic prayer of our Nobel laureate, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore:
"Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake."

We have to wake up now before it is too late! We need to internalise and act on Tagore's call to “let my country awake”; together with Gandhi’s “do or die” and Tilak’s "Swaraj is my birth right.” Above all, like the freedom fighters who gave us our independence, that at whatever the price, we must 'act now' to defend democracy!
---
*Human right, reconciliation & peace activist/writer

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