Father Stan Swamy, a tribal rights activist who spent a large part of his life fighting for the underprivileged and downtrodden Adivasi community in Jharkhand, recently passed away on May 5 in a private hospital in Mumbai. He had been undergoing treatment for Covid and incidentally, the Bombay High Court was hearing an urgent bail petition made on his behalf on account of his deteriorating health when the news came of his death. After his demise, Stan Swamy’s lawyer told the court that he didn’t blame the hospital or the court for the unfortunate passing away but rather, the National Investigating Agency and Taloja Jail. The 84-year-old Jesuit priest had been arrested last year in the Elgaar Parishad case last year for suspected involvement with the Maoists – a claim that was never verified, under the UAPA act. The UAPA law, or the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, was recently amended last year and prevented anyone who was charged with terrorism to be freed on bail. This ensured that the ailing old Stan Swamy who was charged without concrete evidence staying in jail for an indeterminate period until he eventually passed away from cardiac failure.
Who was Stan Swamy and what did he do?
Stan Swamy was a Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist who is best known for fighting alongside the Adivasi community for three decades for their land, forest, and labor rights. After he served as the director of the Indian Social Institute in Bangalore from 1975 to 1986, he returned to Jharkhand to help fight for their welfare. He described being touched and amazed by their culture and traditions when he had lived among them and was appalled by how they were denied their rights and how no one in the government seemed to care. He constantly called out the government’s failure to call out the fifth schedule of the Constitution, which stated that the governor of every state had special powers to look after the tribal communities who lived within their jurisdiction. He grew frustrated with how state governments fell short of doing this and in turn, hurt the prospects and well-being of the tribal communities who lived there. Working alongside many others, the PESA Act of 1996 was born, it
granted the power to the Gram Panchayat of the tribal village which allowed them the chance to deny the unlawful acquisition of their land and property without their permission.
Stan Swamy realized that even after this, the tribal communities weren’t given adequate compensation for their land nor were they aware of their rights – this inspired him to travel from village to village to educate them on what they were entitled to and helped them demand for their long-denied rights.
Unfortunately, the more and more the tribal people demanded their rights, they were swiftly arrested under suspicion for being Naxals or supporters of Maoism. In 2017, he partnered with other rights
activists including Sudha Bharadwaj, and set up the Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee, the research that they conducted revealed that there were many tribal people languishing in jail under false evidence planted against and couldn’t afford the services of a lawyer to help clear their name. In 2017, he went to the high court against the Jharkhand government and filed a case on behalf of three young tribal people – a move that turned him into a thorn in the government’s side. He said that he had been interrogated for 15 hours by the NIA and asked to come to Mumbai for the next round of questioning which he refused as he was old, frail, and suffering from Parkinson’s but asked to do it through video conferencing – this led to his arrest under the UAPA act in what is known as Elgaar Parishad case.
Stan Swami was in jail for 9 months and his health greatly worsened during that time. He asked for a sippy cup to drink from since his tremors prevented him from doing so and the NIA took 3 weeks to say that they didn’t have it, and another 20 days to respond to a petition for warm clothes. There were concerns about him contacting Covid since the jail was crowded and his lawyer repeatedly filed appeals to grant him bail. During one video conference with Stan Swamy, the court noted that he couldn’t even hear the person next to him. He was finally allowed to move to Holy Family Hospital where he was kept in the ICU until he passed away.
The appalling mistreatment of Stan Swamy is staggering and more so, are the cold and callous words of many who despised this man. This tragedy is something that could have been avoided and only sheds light on how broken our country truly is. This man raised his voice and fought alongside a community that lives in the shadows for 30 years, but who will raise their voices for his demise? A phrase that emerged on twitter serves as an apt conclusion: "This is what the UAPA is designed to achieve. Death under detention for a trial that will never begin and never end."