News media across all platforms was taken by a storm after the news of the death of the Jesuit priest and human rights activist Father Stan Swamy broke out. All those who were well acquainted with the work and identity of Father Stan Swamy took his death as their personal loss.
Condolences, as well as criticisms, poured in on social media over his death. For many, Father Stan Swamy was a humanitarian, a human rights activist, while some believed he was a naxal, a maoist, and also a ‘maoist sympathizer’ as labelled by many of the news anchors who today hold clamorous prime time debates in our nation.
So who really was Father Stan Swamy? Why are so many people talking about his unfortunate death? Why are they calling it an institutional murder and a failure of our justice system?
Born on April 26, 1937, in Trichy, Tamil Nadu, Stan Swamy as he was popularly known, started pursuing religious studies and began working for the welfare of the poor and downtrodden from 1957. He has worked tirelessly for the tribals of Jharkhand for around 4 decades. He has fought for the equal rights of women, tribals, Dalits from time to time.
Stan Swamy succumbed to a cardiac arrest on 5th July in Mumbai. He was under the central government’s custody and was charged with sedition and UAPA. There were also allegations against this 84-year-old human rights activist of being involved in a plan of assassinating India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.
What led to the arrest of Stan Swamy?
He was arrested in the Elgar Parishad case under which violence broke out at Bhima Koregaon, Maharashtra in 2018. The Elgar Parishad was an association of 250 Dalits and other not-for-profit groups who had organised a conference in Shaniwar Wada to mark the victory of the battle of Bhima Koregaon on its 200th anniversary. The cultural event was held in the village of Bhima Koregaon on 1st January 2018. As many as 35,000 people gathered to commemorate the day which included prominent personalities like Prakash Ambedkar (Social Activist, Indian politician, fighting for the rights of Dalits), Umar Khalid (activist, a former student of JNU and currently under the custody of the central government under the charges of sedition and UAPA), and Jignesh Mewani (social activist turned politician in Gujarat).
Violence erupted on the same day between two caste groups – Marathas (considered upper caste)and Mahars (considered lower caste) causing damage to life and property. An FIR was filed by Pune Police against Sambhaji Bhide, a right-wing activist and Milind Ekbote the founder of an ultra-right-wing group named Shiv Pratap Bhoomi Mukti Andolan for inciting violence at the event. The Supreme Court, in February, criticized the BJP government of Maharashtra and the investigative agencies for their slow progress into the probe of the accused in the case.
However, from June 2018 onwards, the Pune Police began arresting Dalit human rights activists not just from Maharashtra but from different parts of the country under the charge of UAPA accusing them of being responsible for the violence. They faced allegations like smuggling weapons, funding Maoist activities and also planning the assassination of PM Narendra Modi.
The Supreme Court directed the Pune Police to keep all the arrested activists under house arrest till 17th September 2018, after four individuals moved SC to seek the release of the arrested activists in August 2018. However, a bench of the Supreme Court refused to interfere any further with the arrests on 28th September 2018 and declined to form an SIT for further investigation, bringing the issue to a standstill.
Then, in January 2020 when a new government was formed in the state by Shiv Sena, Congress and NCP, it decided to reopen the case and ordered a probe into it. Just two days after this order, the NIA (National Investigation Agency) that falls under the central Ministry of Home Affairs took over the case without taking the consent of the state government.
Why is Stan Swamy’s death being called an institutional murder and a failure of the justice system by many?
Later in October 2020, the NIA filed a new charge sheet of the Elgar Parishad violence case which was 10,000+ pages long. It released a fresh set of names to be arrested. This included the arrest orders of Stan Swamy as well. He was accused of bringing the Dalits and Muslims together to bring down the BJP government and was thus charged with UAPA and sedition. Although Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old humanitarian suffering from health conditions like poor hearing ability and Parkinson’s disease, was arrested, no evidence could be produced against him in spite of raiding his place of residence twice. Father Stan Swamy, due to his Parkinson’s disease was unable to drink water normally and had thus requested to be provided with a sipper. However, he wasn’t provided with that too. The NIA took 20 days to decide over it. Further, stating depleting health conditions, he had also requested for interim bail, but the NIA special court refused that as well ironically stating lack of sufficient evidence as the reason for refusal.
Stan Swamy also tested positive for COVID-19 on 28th May 2021 and was taken to the hospital due to deteriorating health for the third time since his arrest. On 4th July, after suffering from cardiac arrest, he was put on a ventilator and on 5th July, at 1:30 pm he breathed his last in the hospital, while still under custody.
Why was he considered a criminal without any evidence when the constitution itself states that no one must be seen as a criminal until proven guilty with sufficient evidence? Why was he arrested under the Elgar Parishad case when he didn’t even participate in the event? Why was he called a Naxal or a Maoist when all his life he only fought for the equal rights of the tribals. A man, who committed his life to uplifting the lives of others met with such fate. Did he deserve this kind of death? I leave it up to your conscience to decide.