A lot else died with Father Stan Swamy

Father Stan Swamy has died. He has found peace and eternal rest and has at last been freed of the tyranny unleashed on him by a hate-filled power machinery that thinks the only way to silence resistance is to lock up people, to browbeat them with the might of the State and to try and break them into submission.  The nation can never forget that an octogenarian, peace-loving activist, who devoted years working for tribals in Jharkhand, who lived a simple life and stood up for what he thought was right, has died after spending nine months in jail as an undertrial, with poor medical attention that led him to suffer from Covid-19 and brought on a deterioration in his health. He was later shifted to the Holy Family Hospital in Mumbai from the Taloja Central jail and died on a ventilator at the hospital on July 5, only hours before another hearing on his bail application was scheduled to come up in the Bombay High Court.

The nation can never forget that an octogenarian, peace-loving activist, who devoted years working for tribals in Jharkhand, who lived a simple life and stood up for what he thought was right, has died after spending nine months in jail as an undertrial, with poor medical attention that led him to suffer from Covid-19 and brought on a deterioration in his health.

This is a case that will remain a blot on the police team that investigated it, the political masters who undoubtedly thought it fit for this kind of harassment of a 83-year-old to continue for so long and the judiciary who in a glaring instance of insensitivity did not routinely and immediately direct that a sipper be provided to a man suffering from Parkinson’s disease so that he could drink water without spilling it; the National Investigation Agency instead asked and got 20 days to reply to the demand for a sipper. The legal back-and-forth on a request of an ailing senior citizen whose hands would shake because of Parkinson’s underlined that pain, suffering, humiliation and disregard for minimum courtesies are a part of the Indian system where punishment is meted out long before the trial. In the India of today, this is heaped on activists, never mind if the activist is elderly, ailing and fighting it by himself in the midst of a pandemic. In fact, the trial may fail but the sentence is already served as an undertrial.  

The predicament of Father Stan Swamy is a fit case for a full-fledged judicial investigation into the conduct of various arms of the State, to fix responsibility for the conditions that led to his death and for setting out exemplary punishment to all those who had a hand in what is nothing short of a heinous crime. Like it or not, it will be difficult to escape the charge that Father Stan Swamy was killed by a system that was out to get him for his views, his work and his passion in standing against exploitation and for justice to the poor.

In many ways, Father Stan Swamy’s suffering reflected the suffering of the people of India. His case represents the crossing of all boundaries of sanity and sense, and signals that India is in territory it has not seen before.  A hate filled dagger has been drawn deep into the heart of India and all that the nation stood for – democracy, secularism, a free press and space for diverse and dissenting voices.

Father Stan Swamy was killed by a system that was out to get him for his views, his work and his passion in standing against exploitation and for justice to the poor.

In other ways, Father Stan Swamy by going through the suffering he did may have even served us in his last days. For one, his case will never be forgotten. It must be and will be studied, recounted and discussed again and again across schools and colleges, civil society institutions, in our courses on law and politics, in our training manuals for the police and the judiciary. It must stand out as the case that lowered India like never before. It will keep telling us that ‘Emergency’ was not a one-off – that this danger and the danger of it getting worse is ever present, only on the edge, waiting to snatch away a young nation and its aspirations to standing tall for its values and its constitutional guarantees in the comity of nations.

The case also highlights the tyranny of the Unlawful (Activities) Prevention Act, the UAPA, and the way the law is being applied in cases that are related to anything but terrorism.  As has been well reported, Swami’s arrest was based on seizure of electronic records form his computer. Father Swamy himself asked many questions on the material so seized. He never received any replies to those simple questions. He was never present at the site that led to what has come to be called the Elgar Parishad case.  Yet, he became the 16th activist to be arrested in the case, and was accused by the NIA of being involved in the activities of the banned CPI (Maoist) organization, and had allegedly received funds through an associate for furthering Maoist agenda.

A hate filled dagger has been drawn deep into the heart of India and all that the nation stood for – democracy, secularism, a free press and space for diverse and dissenting voices.

But for so many who knew the person and his work, Father Swamy stood out as a picture of service. Even if we take the extreme prosecution case and assume that the charges carried any merit, there was no justification for keeping an ailing grandfatherly figure behind bars for so long; there was no where he would run or escape. There was nothing he could keep or hide. Father Swamy could not walk well; he could not hear; he reportedly fell in jail. His condition deteriorated while he was behind bars.

A case as shameful as this may yet become a lightning rod and allow the nation to see where we have landed. There are many who will still not be able to see this fall. In an India divided, every attempt is being made to break the nation, to divide between “them” and “us”. More such attempts may follow the passing of Father Stan Swamy. It is becoming easier to see these attempts. Yet, these divisions will continue to take their toll before they halt. Till these prejudices are not seen and called out, and brought to s halt and the guilty brought to book, India will continue to bleed. 

(The author is a senior journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)