An octogenarian activist cum leader, a Jesuit who spent all his life for the upliftment of the poor gets arrested along with a number of other intellectuals for attending a program in support of the oppressed. The said activist suffered from Parkinson’s disease, loss of hearing, and other age-related ailments. Incarcerated and awaiting trial since October 2020, he was denied the right to use a sipper to drink water for fifty days before a court order. The eighty-three-year-old prisoner was denied bail repeatedly despite contacting covid19 in prison and suffering from many ailments. While his health deteriorated severely during the pandemic, the courts found him unfit for bail. Finally on 5th July, after grappling with illness in the ICU for a month and being on ventilation support he left this not-so-just world.
We are not talking about the hermit kingdom of North Korea. Nor is this a military dictatorship of Myanmar or the notorious Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq or some other prison in some totalitarian country. This is the ‘world largest democracy’ in India under the rule of Narendra Modi-led BJP. Father Stanislaus Lourduswamy (1937-2021), known popularly as Stan Swamy was a Roman Catholic Priest of the Jesuit order who believed in liberation theology and dedicated his life to the service of the deprived and the oppressed.
Stan became a champion of Adivasi rights from a very young age, something that he would go on pursuing for more than seventy years or so. After completing his education in theology, he went on to obtain a master’s degree in Sociology in the Philippines. His early experiences exposed him to the horrors of poverty in India, especially the deprivation faced by the indigenous peoples of India (also known as the adivasis). During his stay in the Philippines, he witnessed many protests and struggles of the indigenous people across the world. After a short stint in Belgium, he came back to India, refusing to pursue a doctorate in favor of serving the indigenous people back in India. While he remained associated with Roman Catholic institutes, he was at the forefront of activism along with his ecclesiastical duties as a Jesuit.
Father Stan Swamy actively participated in innumerable protests and movements. He spent most of his life among various groups of indigenous people. Living among one of the poorest populations of the world, Father Stan Swamy had an extremely monastic and abstemious lifestyle. He was significantly influenced by Helder Camara, the Brazilian liberation theologist. Stan also fell out with certain sections of the Catholic Church who accused him of supposed ‘Marxist’ leanings. However, as a leader and community organizer who led and lived by example, Stan held his own and inspired countless followers, students, activists, and other admirers.
As a consistent ally of indigenous rights, especially the rights of the Adivasis over their forests and resources, he vehemently fought against displacement and eviction of the adivasis in the name of ‘development.’ He remained a persistent thorn for various corporate and other groups intending to encroach resource-rich Adivasi land for ‘development.’ Father Stan was also a champion for resisting climate change. As remuneration for his struggles for justice, he was branded as an ‘anti-national,’ ‘conspirator’ and ‘terrorist. ‘He was not unacquainted with false accusations and charges. In 2018, when Adivasi communities of Jharkhand demanded autonomy and direct democracy through the Pathalgadi movement, Stan Swami was accused of sedition.
In 2020 Stan Swamy was implicated in the infamous Bheema Koregaon case. He has been accused of being a ‘Maoist’ that is to say a member of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). Swamy along with Sudha Bharadwaj had created the Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee (PPSC) which fights for the rights of political prisoners. This, the Indian state claims is a recruitment front of the CPI (Maoist). Every year, Dalits (downtrodden castes in India) commemorate the victory of a Dalit regiment in the battle of Koregaon. In 2018 this celebration was marred by violence due to attacks by right-wing Hindu nationalists. Ironically, it was Stan Swamy along with other prominent pro-Dalit activists who have been arrested (and still languish in prison) for their alleged involvement in the violence while accused Hindu right-wingers roam scot-free. Stan claimed that he was not present on the occasion but in today’s India that is not adequate to shield one from arrests.
One must be wondering how this, or the horrors mentioned in the first paragraph, is possible in a democracy? Welcome to India where the UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) exists. This act, originally enacted in 1967 has been amended several times. Amendments in 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2019 have been especially draconian. After these amendments, the Indian state has become grossly empowered to arrest people, keep them in prison and deny them basic rights. Under normal democratic jurisprudence, bail not jail is the norm. However, under UAPA, the opposite seems to have become the norm. Under UAPA, a person may be kept in prison for up to one hundred and eighty days before a charge sheet is lodged. The UAPA has also shifted the burden of guilt on the accused.
The amendment in 2019 is has been excessively repressive. Under this amendment of the UAPA, the Indian state now has the power to declare an individual a ‘terrorist’, that too without trial. This perhaps lacks precedent in any democratic country. These provisions enable the law to severely compromise various fundamental rights. Using the alibi of ‘security’ the Indian state can play with the lives, reputation, liberty, and dignity of citizens. The UAPA, criticized as a thoroughly undemocratic, authoritarian, and unjust law, is mostly used as a tool for political vendetta and harassment of opposition/dissidents. For example, Gour Chakraborty was imprisoned for seven years before being acquitted by the court. This law has an alarmingly low percentage of conviction rate of around 2.2 percent. The main objective of this law, along with other oppressive laws such as the colonial sedition law, seems to be more of an instrument to terrorize dissidents and make them reconsider expressing opinions or engaging in activism.
A law like UAPA does not have any place in a civilized society, let alone a democracy. It is alarming how these laws have made their place in a democratic system. A greater question is, can countries having such curbs on personal liberty, dissent, and free speech be called democratic at all? Since the advent of the Modi regime in 2014 and his re-election in 2019, there has been an enormous and disproportionate increase in violence, persecution against minorities, and clampdown on dissent. In 2021, Freedom House finally declared India as a ‘partly free’ country. In tune with the march of far-right politics worldwide, there has been a discernible backslide of democracy in India as well. The struggle to restore democracy and annul these laws must go on with greater effort. That is the least that can be done to honor the legacy of Father Stan Swamy who did not get human dignity in life. ‘The caged bird can sing’ he said, all democracy lovers must sing, before it is too late.