Monday, June 21, 2021

Against the Tide — The powerful current of Fr Stan Swamy’s activism

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A request by a prisoner for a pair of pants to be sent to him in jail might seem unremarkable. So it is, except that in this case, Fr. Stan Swamy, the one who pleaded for it, intended it not for himself but for a fellow prisoner who couldn’t afford to buy one. This little detail, recounted by Fr. Joseph Xavier, the Director of Indian Social Institute, Bangalore is indicative of the caring nature of Fr. Stan that impels him to place the needs of others above his own. In a letter to his friend and human rights activist John Dayal written from Taloja Central Jail with the help of a colleague, Arun Ferreira, he says, “despite all odds, humanity is bubbling in prison.” The ailments that plague him make it difficult to manage his needs himself, but with help from the inmates, particularly other activists in custody like Vernon Gonsalves Fr. Stan is able to cope.

Rabble-rousing demagogues swaying public opinion against a nation’s welfare for private gain have always been numerous. There is, however, another rare breed – understated figures of courage and altruism quietly doing what they have always done – selfless service empowering the lowest socioeconomic strata and often met with unconcealed hostility of the powerful.  Fr. Stanislaus Lourdeswamy SJ, popularly known as Fr. Stan, belongs to this class. An assured, erudite ascetic, this Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist dedicated four decades of his life to the issues of displacement, unjustified detention and fundamental prerogatives of Adivasis and Dalits in Jharkhand.

 Fr. Stan was arrested on 8 November 2020 under the unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for allegedly conspiring to incite violence at the Elgar Parishad in Bhima Koregaon, and purported links to the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). The Elgar Parishad was an event held on 31 December 2017 in a small village of Koregaon, Pune, Maharashtra to mark the 200th anniversary of the battle of Koregaon, which was fought on January 1, 1818, by a largely Dalit British force of Mahar community over Peshawas. The victory marks an important event in Maratha history as it is percieved as the victory of Dalits over the oppression perpetrated by the Peshawas. It was alleged that inflammatory speeches were made on the occasion that led to the violence on the following day.

Fr. Stan, the oldest person accused of terrorism in India, confess that he has never been to Koregaon and denies all charges. His bail plea was kept pending until March 22, 2021, when it was dismissed by special NIA court judge DE Kothlikar, saying it failed to make out a case for grant of bail. Thus, Stan Swamy continues to be in internment but remains calm and firm in his avowal of innocence. His supporters however demand a timely and impartial trial.

Early Life

Born on 26 April 1937 in a village in Tiruchirapally, Tamil Nadu, Fr. Stan studied at St Joseph’s School and was inspired by the Jesuits who ran it, leading him to join their order, the Society of Jesus. It was founded in 1549 by Ignatius of Loyola, a Basque soldier and nobleman, and six others including St Francis Xavier. Jesuits take the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. Education and scholarship were their chief works from the start, though they also took care of the young, the sick, soldiers, prisoners, and the prostitutes. Fr. Stan’s commitment to the people of Jharkhand began in 1965 when he started his regency (Jesuit internship, a part of their fourteen-year training) working at St. Xavier’s High School, Lupungutu, Chaibasa. During his stint at St. Xavier’ School, Fr. Stan developed a deep respect and sympathy for the local people that inspired him to help them out of their situation of exploitation.

Why Fr. Stan Swamy chose the then undivided Bihar is not clear, but it seems that he perceived it to be a place where his documentation and networking abilities could be best utilised to fulfil his objective of societal upliftment. Jharkhand, though it is rich in natural resources, accounting for over 40% of the mineral resources of India, is economically much less developed than his native state of Tamil Nadu Additionally, it has a high proportion of tribal people who are significantly backward and require assistance to improve their circumstances. The availability of abundant natural resources in Jharkhand made the governments and MNCs wealthier but its people continued to remain impoverished. Of the total population of the state, approximately 40% is below the poverty line and a significant proportion of the children are malnourished. These circumstances help understand Fr. Stan’s efforts to uplift the people of Jharkhand. He lived among them for a few years to better understand their troubles, an experience which also contributed to his great regard for their culture and desire to improve their situation.

Fr. Stan studied theology in Manila and also obtained an MA in sociology. He joined the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium in 1974. From 1975 – 1990, he served as Director at the Indian Social Institute, Bangalore, where he influenced youth through training programs and studied community development, attempting to spread education on social analysis. In 1991, he returned to Jharkhand and was associated with the Jharkhand Organization for Human rights (JOHAR) in Chaibasia for a few years. He then moved to Ranchi and founded Bagaicha, a Jesuit social service organization that became functional in 2006. Ever since, his life has been devoted to the welfare of the Adivasis of Jharkhand.

 Conversations with Peers

From conversations with a few people in Fr. Stan’s milieu, a clearer picture emerges of the man and the priest constituting the rights activist. The dialogues show how his compassion, civic sense, and skills in uniting people drove him to support the Adivasis of Jharkhand in their efforts to maintain their rights as the citizens of India.

Dayamani Barla, noted journalist and activist from Jharkhand, is herself an Adivasi from Munda tribe who outspokenly opposes the displacement of her people. She spoke with sincerity about Fr. Stan and the campaigns they both support to prevent the continuing mistreatment of the lower socio-economic strata.   About his work and its wellspring of compassion, she says “How does one define kindness? It has two forms when it metamorphosizes into action – the individual deed and the collective effort. One feels pity for a beggar on the street and may give him something, which is a personal and discrete act. Or one can act jointly with the mistreated to stop their oppression, which is an organized and effective kindness.” According to Barla, Fr. Stan has taken the later route to stop the displacement and oppression of the tribal people of Jharkhand by his participation in their joint endeavours.

Fr. Stan understands that the local Adivasis would not be able to adjust well elsewhere even if they are paid with compensation; they need to retain their land and the natural wealth it contains. Like her, he opposes large corporations whose proposed projects would harm the tribal people. Agents desiring to usurp the natural wealth of the area find it easy to take advantage of Adivasis and Dalits who are often neither aware of their legal rights nor able to afford a lawyer. Activists like Fr. Stan and.Barla perceive accurately the ramifications of such situations and guide the affected in pursuing the legitimate methods available to them to obtain redressal. She describes how he works through informed action not just for, but with, the wronged, diving deeply into the ocean of their problems. “We have won many victories together with them by this method.” She added.

Jean Dreze, an economist and activist who works as a visiting professor at the Ranchi University, shared with me some views from his long experience with Fr. Stan in an illuminating chat, providing some intriguing glimpses of his reasoning and functioning. According to Mr.Dreze, Fr. Stan’s independent thinking and honesty made him acknowledge impartially the good and the bad that he perceived in everything around him, so that he was not blind to flaws even in the Church, feeling that while the Church did much good, it could accomplish even more for the community, particularly in Jharkhand. Mr.Dreze reveals “while studying in Belgium, Fr. Stan was inspired by Francoise Houtart, the eminent scholar” who promoted tolerance and nonviolence and believed that the church stands for the poor. This influence can be seen in Fr. Stan’s mission to address the issues of the deprived in a reasonable manner. Mr. Dreze further states, “he fostered communal harmony and worked for basic rights but his most distinctive attributes were inspiring people to unite and creating mass movements”. He believes “Fr. Stan played a significant role in social transformation.” Mr. Dreze remarks poignantly, “Gentle, patient Fr. Stan who objected to unjustified detention of Adivasi youths is now himself languishing in Jail.” 

Dedicated social workers seem to attain wider acknowledgement when their quietening is attempted by their unfair detainment. Fr. Stan was arrested and charge sheeted on 8 October, 2020 from Bagaicha by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) for his alleged role in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence and links to the Communist Party of India (Maoist) under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention)  Act ( UAPA) by which bail can be denied. Such crackdowns seem to be growing, as clearly indicated by disturbing statistics. There has been a 72% increase since 2015 in the number of arrests under the harsh UAPA.  Between 2016 and 2019, a staggering 5, 922 persons were detained. It is truly ominous is that 75% cases have no charge sheets. A mere 2. 2% of cases registered under UAPA from 2016 – 2019 ended in a conviction, which is a telling figure. A silver lining in this dismal scenario is that arrests of activists like Fr. Stan are attracting domestic as well as world-wide attention, with increasing demands for their release.

I spoke with Fr. Joseph Xavier, the Director of Indian Social Institute, Bangalore. He opined that Fr. Stan felt drawn to Jharkhand during his period at the ISI. He was, apparently, concerned with the issues of Adivasis even at that early stage . The ISI Director talked about Fr. Stan’s interest in reading. The Spanish best-seller Jesus: an historical approximation by Jose Antonio Pagola is a book that Fr. Stan read when it was first published, but he expressed a desire to have it sent to him in prison, presumably in order to study it again, says Fr. Xavier. His intellectuality was accompanied by an endearing humility and frugality which an anecdote recounted by Fr. Xavier highlights; it describes how on one instance, Fr. Stan turned down a generous travel allowance saying such a large amount was unnecessary for the proposed trip, as his hosts would take care of his simple needs.  The ISI Director explains Fr. Stan’s work as founded not on a charity mode but on a rights-based approach.  He says Fr. Stan “articulates the struggles of the masses,” and undertakes “meaningful intervention aligning with the poor.” He further states that Fr. Stan has “his own way of doing things in bringing people together, talking to the community, and building awareness among them.”  His societal acumen and interactive skills enabled him to guide the illiterate towards obtaining their legal and human rights.

 Activism

As Fr. Stan’s activism encompassed everyone needing legal and other support, individuals belonging to banned organizations may have been included, regardless, in its benevolent ambit. This circumstance does not make Fr. Stan a member of those organizations or a criminal. In this context, Fr. Stan’s advocate Sharif Sheik says, “the prosecution was trying to criminalise organisations and activists working to provide robust legal defence as envisaged in the constitution.” The bail plea says ‘providing legal aid is not an unlawful activity or cannot be seen as an assistance to an unlawful association.’ Advocate Sheik submitted that “working with undertrials who could or couldn’t have been Maoists doesn’t make him a Maoist.” Assistance rendered indiscriminately and motivated by concern does not, logically, criminalize the helping hand.

Fr. Stan has been in the thick of action in the human rights arena saying, “I am not a silent spectator, but part of the game and ready to pay the price whatever it may be.” His notable work includes involvement with a number of organizations concerned with community issues. He supported a project that researched young left-wing undertrials in Jharkhand detained under the UAPA without evidence. Its findings revealed that   97% of the detainees said that the allegations against them were wrong. The acquittal in majority of such cases indicates the validity of the study.

Fr. Stan along with human rights lawyer and activist Sudha Bharadwaj founded the Persecuted Political Prisoners Solidarity Committee, which according to Stan is one of the most active human rights organisations and do not relate to the CPI (Maoist) as the NIA alleges. Fr. Stan and Bharadwaj jointly wrote a paper that appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly, exposing the unauthorized harsh treatment by jail authorities as well as the poor conditions to which inmates were subjected. Fr. Stan also criticized ‘Operation Green Hunt’ a government programme intended to eliminate Naxalites. This expression of opinion is being held against him by the NIA. He published a book – Jail Mein Band Qaidyon ka Sach  (The Truth about Prisoners in Jail) – in 2010, showing that most arrested tribal youths were too poor to seek legal assistance, which caused him to come under the censorious scrutiny of the state administration.

 Fr. Stan was associated with the Pathalgadi movement, which emulated the tradition of inscribing stone slabs with the accomplishments of ancestors – Pathalgadi –  to voice the people’s complaints . Fr. Stan challenged the tardy implementation of the fifth schedule of the Indian Constitution which stipulates the establishment of a Tribes Advisory Council (TAC) consisting exclusively of Adivasis to guide the Governor of the state on the well-being and development of their community. Under the Pathalgadi movement portions from the fifth Schedule of Indian constitution was carved on stone to emphasize its neglect.

Fr. Stan questioned the unsatisfactory implementation of the 2006 Forest Rights Act intended to protect the rights of Adivasis over their lands and forests and of the Panchayat Raj (Extension to the scheduled areas) Act of 1996 (PESA). This momentous Panchayat Raj Act was introduced to facilitate rural self-governance by the formation of local councils. It acknowledges the great tradition of self-rule through the Gram Sabha. Fr. Stan says the Act has been “neatly ignored” and has “deliberately been left unimplemented in all the nine states”. He discovered and condemned the Jharkhand government’s attempt to circumvent the Gram Sabha’s role in land acquisition for industrial use. Fr. Stan toiled relentlessly to organize the Adivasis to claim their rights under PESA. 

The recent Amendment to the “land Acquisition Act 2013’ by the Jharkhand government was described by Fr. Stan as the ‘death knell’ of the Adivasis, stressing that it removed the requirement of ‘Social Impact Assessment” meant to protect the environment, social relations, and cultural values of the people impacted. He expressed concern over the government’s ability to allow agricultural land to be used for non-agricultural purposes and “Land Banks,” which he felt were against interests of the Adivasi people.

One of the projects on which Fr. Stan worked was that with the Jharkhand Organisation for Uranium Radiation(JOAR), in 1996. Their extensive campaign helped prevent the Uranium Corporation of India ltd. from constructing a tailing dam in Chaibasa that would have displaced Adivasis residing in  Judogoda’s  Chatikocha locality. His efforts contributed to the welfare of displaced Adivasis of Paranganas, Bokaro, Koderma, and Santhal. He advocated that the minerals and other resources of the land belonged to the owner of the property.


Expressions of Solidarity

Support and solidarity for Fr. Stan has been steadily growing. Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren and Kerala chief minister Pinayari Vijayan have demanded justice for Fr Stan. In Mumbai, the Society of Jesus that runs many prestigious educational institutions in the city publicly demonstrated their solidarity with Fr. Stan. Jesuits in the US requested President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to advocate Fr. Stan’s release. They gathered at the foot of the Gandhi statue in the Indian embassy in Washington holding placards saying “we stand with Stan,”. Similar demonstrations were held in the United Kingdom by Jesuits in solidarity with Fr. Stan. Although Indian bishops and cardinals visited the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to plead for the release of Fr. Stan Swamy, the PM refused to intervene in the matter.

 In a letter to the Government of India dated 3 November, 2020 , senior United Nations officials Elina Steinerte, vice chair of the Working Group on Arbritary Detention, Mary Lawlor, special rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, and Fernand de Varenness, special rapporteur on minority issues, write that Fr. Stan’s arrest indicates “the escalation of harassment the human rights defender has been subjected to since 2018.” A statement issued by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) says that it is “shocked by and condemns the detention and arrest.”

In jail, Fr. Stan’s request for a straw and sipper – made because his Parkinson’s disease induced tremors in his hands that caused spilling – was not granted for a month. Numerous Indians were so appalled by this callousness that they ordered sippers to be delivered at the jail and posted images of the orders on social media.

According to an article published in The Wire, more than 2,500 activists, academics, others, from India and abroad have issued statement demanding Stan Swami’s release. They have also said that the charges against him must be dropped. The statement says “we, the undersigned, are shocked by the rejection of a bail application filed by Fr. Stan Swami in the Bhima Koregaon case by the NIA.”  A press release issued by Fr. Joseph D’Souza SJ, President, Jesuits India, stated that the Society is saddened to hear about the refusal of bail to Fr. Stan, but will continue to hope and pray that justice prevails and he is released promptly after a fair trial.

Fr. Stan’s bail plea states that the prosecution was unable to establish terrorist activities by Fr. Stan and denies the allegations against him in his charge sheet. It also cites medical reasons as Fr. Stan suffers from Parkinson’s disease, spondylitis and deafness. The defence asserts that Fr. Stan is being persecuted for his writings. 

In interaction with the outside world and his fellow prisoners, Fr. Stan continues tranquil and affable. Thanking those who stand by him, Fr. Stan says, “though I do not have many details, I am grateful to all of you for expressing solidarity.” His tide of humanitarianism swells as strongly as ever in jail, with tremendous goodwill from outside and within.



Featured cover image Art by Reneesh/Oldesigns for Indian Ruminations

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Rosemary Isaac
Rosemary Isaac has worked as a language editor, copyediting manager and mentor to professional writers for over two decades. She has helped many of her proteges to excel in the fields of literature and academics.

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