Members of The Bombay Catholic Sabha hold a memorial mass outside St Peter's Church in Bandra in a protest holding banners and lighting candles for Father Stan Swamy who died on July 5, in Mumbai on July 6. (HT file)
Members of The Bombay Catholic Sabha hold a memorial mass outside St Peter's Church in Bandra in a protest holding banners and lighting candles for Father Stan Swamy who died on July 5, in Mumbai on July 6. (HT file)

The life and death of Father Stan Swamy

Father Stan Swamy, as the Jesuit priest was popularly referred to, was the country’s oldest prisoner charged under the UAPA for his role in what the NIA contends was an alleged Maoist conspiracy that led to caste clashes near the Bhima Koregaon village four years ago
By Dhamini Ratnam, KAY Abbas and Divya Chandrababu
UPDATED ON JUL 12, 2021 09:25 AM IST

On July 5, at around 2.30pm, a two-judge bench of the Bombay High Court (HC) took up the matter of Father Stanislaus Lourduswamy’s bail application when senior advocate Mihir Desai interrupted them.

Father Stan Swamy, as the Jesuit priest was popularly referred to, was the country’s oldest prisoner charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, (UAPA) for his role in what the National Investigative Agency (NIA) contends was an alleged Maoist conspiracy that led to caste clashes near the Bhima Koregaon village four years ago.

Swamy’s health had worsened considerably since he was held in judicial custody in Taloja jail since last October. His lawyers had repeatedly moved court for bail which the state opposed and the special NIA court refused. On May 28, aided by a HC order, he was finally admitted to a charitable hospital in Bandra.

“It is with a heavy heart that I have to inform you that Father Stan Swamy has passed away,” said Dr Ian D’Souza, the medical director of Holy Family Hospital in Mumbai where the priest was being treated, after Desai spoke. D’Souza informed the bench that the cleric had suffered a cardiac arrest in the wee hours of July 3 and was on ventilator since then; an hour earlier, he was pronounced dead, the doctor said.

“We are shocked,” the bench observed. “With all humility, we are sorry to know that he has passed away.”

“I only have two things to say. We have no grievance against Holy Family Hospital nor against the court. The high court bench ensured that the best medical care is given to him. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same thing about the NIA and jail authorities,” Desai said and requested the court to not dismiss the priest’s bail application.

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“Our main grievances are against the NIA and jail authorities for not being sensitive towards the condition of Father Stan Swamy though he was an elderly man having medical problems. (The 84-year-old suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, a progressive nervous condition; he had also contracted Covid during his stay in the jail.) We hope to make suggestions to the HC to bring about changes in the Prison Manual while dealing with such inmates,” Desai later said.

“Father Stan Swamy was a human rights activist and his concerns about the conditions in the jail were not only for himself but for other prisoners as well. Though he was not keeping well, his efforts were to highlight the apathy of the jail authorities so that the medical facilities in the jail were improved,” said Father Frazer Mascarenhes, a friend of Swamy who was permitted to meet him during his stay at hospital.

Swamy would have approved of Desai’s request. He had spent much of the past decade fighting for the rights of under-trial prisoners from the adivasi and indigenous communities in Jharkhand. As a prisoner in the last two years of his own life, he wrote movingly in personal correspondence, of the prisoners in the crowded jail who helped him walk, wash and eat as these functions became increasingly impossible for him to perform.

Becoming Father Stan

Born on April 26, 1937 to Lourdusamy and Kiteriyammal in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruchirappalli, Swamy had five siblings. He lost his father at a very young age; so it was his older brother TPL Irudayaswamy who took up farming to raise his brothers and sisters.

“Swamy was self-reliant and reserved since he was a child,” recalled Irudayaswamy. “He spoke very little. He was devoted to the church and his studies. Later, he was completely devoted to the struggles of the Adivasis. He felt so much pain for them and he used to tell me so many stories whenever he came home.”

The house where Swamy grew up was built in 1890; it is where 89-year-old Irudayaswamy still lives with his wife, children and grandchildren. Swamy’s 26-year-old grandnephew Benito Prabhu, now based in Chennai, was the last family member to have met him in February. “He was fearless,” said Prabhu. “He said as long as he is alive he will continue to fight.”

Swamy, who attended St Joseph’s school in Trichy, was exposed to the work of Jesuit priests at an early age. Inspired by them, he undertook religious studies in 1957. In 1965, he spent his regency — when trainee Jesuits spend two years taking up works of the order — at St Xavier’s High School Lupungutu, Chaibasa in west Singhbhum. According to an article by his associates, Tony PM and Peter Martin on the news site, scroll.in, it was this experience that left a lasting impression on Swamy.

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“He used to go to the weekly bazaar in Chaibasa on Tuesday (the Mangal-haat) with his students and saw for himself how the outsider merchants and their agents cheated the adivasis. ‘I felt pain but could not do anything about it,’ he said. On holidays, he visited his boys and their families in their villages. It gave him a sense of their culture. The values they held deeply impressed him,” they wrote in the October 2020 piece.

Two years later, Swamy went to Philippines to study theology, where he also acquired a post-graduate degree in sociology. On his return in 1971, he was given the responsibility of the Catholic Relief Services charity in the Jesuit Jamshedpur Province. During the same period, he attended a three-month course on community development at the Indian Social Institute (ISI), Bangalore (now Bengaluru). He later went on to work at the ISI for 15 years, from 1975 to 1990, along with educationists such as Duarte Baretto, and trained the young people from marginalised communities. The institute’s three-month course on community organisation and social analysis became very popular and had attendees from across the subcontinent.

Baretto died in April at his Bengaluru home. In a blog post dedicated to him, labour activist John Edoor wrote that the team at institute in the 1970s “was instrumental in challenging the belief systems and thought processes of an array of young people and guided them to ideas of liberation theology and Marxian tools of analysis to study and intervene in social, political and economic systems and processes. Many of them took leadership positions in Dalit, adivasi, fishing community, agrarian and labour movements and entities all over the country.”

People’s rights crusader

The timing of Swamy and Baretto’s work was crucial, for the decades leading up to liberalisation of the economy witnessed immense social upheavals: the Naxalbari movement from the late 1960s onwards, the Emergency years of 1975-77, and the JP Narayan movement, each of which galvanised the young in different ways.

“When he was in Bangalore, at that time, his interest was to promote opportunities for children from the poorer sections to get an education. I remember his criticism of Jesuit schools itself, pointing out that much of their admission was for the elite (sections of society). He did research to demonstrate that the more deserving students are not getting an opportunity to get into Jesuit educational institutions,” Professor Babu Mathew of the National Law School, said.

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In 1991, Swamy returned to Jharkhand and set up base in Chaibasa. He became involved in the Jharkhandi Organisation for Human Rights (JOHAR), which took up matters pertaining to displacement of adivasi communities on account of development projects. By the end of the century, he moved to Ranchi and with the help of the Jesuit society and intellectuals and activists such as Ramdayal Munda and Xavier Dias, he set up Bagaicha, a research institute, in 2006.

The idea, Swamy said during an interview, was to “focus on these two issues, land alienation and displacement caused by developmental projects like mining, dams and creation of townships without the consent of the people… and it was often such people who were at the receiving end. It became our task to … work with (young people of the Dalit and adivasi communities) and help them to understand scientifically the issues they are facing. And if this is the issue, what will be the nature of the people’s movements and people’s organisations, and what could be the strategies that need to be worked out.”

Part of the work Swamy undertook was also advocacy of the legal rights of adivasi and Dalit communities granted by laws like PESA (1996), which ensured self governance through gram sabhas for people living in Scheduled Areas; the Forest Rights Act (2006), which recognised the rights of forest-dwelling communities to forest resources; and the Land Acquisition Act of 2013, which guaranteed the rights to fair compensation and transparency in land acquisition, and the need for the assent of gram sabhas.

“It was also in 2014-15 when a lot of young people were simply being picked up and put in jail — anyone who resisted unjust displacement, was thrown into jail,” Swamy said, in the same interview which is available for public viewing on YouTube. “It was happening in all the tribal-dominated states, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and the western part of Bengal. In 2017, I gave a call to whoever I knew, social activists, human rights organisations, civic organisations and said, come, let us sit together and see what we can do. We cannot be bystanders to this.”

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The result was a group that called itself the Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee, which brought together several lawyers in these states. Swamy filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Jharkhand HC, seeking information on under-trial prisoners across these various states, most of who belonged to adivasi communities.

Swamy’s work with imprisoned adivasi youth, in fact, was already well-known. In 2015, a study carried out by Bagaicha researchers across 18 districts in Jharkhand found that of 102 under-trial prisoners accused of being Maoists and out on bail, only two actually had any affiliation to the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist); the rest were youth who had resisted displacement through legal, non-violent means.

“Fieldwork for this study was undertaken from early March to the end of June 2015 by paying personal visits to families and villages of arrested persons presently out on bail and those incarcerated for long. These persons have been alleged as Naxalites and foisted cases mostly under section 17 of the Criminal Law and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 2004,” its introduction read.

“This study discloses several undisclosed, striking realities about alleged ‘Naxalite’ under-trials in Jharkhand. Disproportionately large numbers of adivasis, Dalit and other backward castes (generically referred to as adivasi-Moolvasis) have been trapped in several false cases especially when they try to assert their constitutional and human rights that are often violated by those who consider themselves ‘upper’ castes/ classes and the state system (…)”

“His idea of life was so inspirational. He has worked tirelessly for tribals and youths in Jharkhand for several decades. I have come across very few people like him,” said Siraj Dutta, an activist who worked with Swamy.

Not everyone thought this way.

In 2017, Swamy was charged with sedition by the Jharkhand state for a Facebook post, written in support of the Pathalgadi movement (started by an adivasi community and which sought self-governance). The charge was only revoked with a change of regime, when Hemant Soren’s Jharkhand Mukti Morcha came to power in 2019.

And then, in August 2018, his one-room home in the Bagaicha campus was raided by the Pune police, this time in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence.

Judicial custody and failing health

In the first raid, the Pune police, which was tasked with investigating the case, seized his computer, cell phone, books and some music cassettes. They conducted another on June 2019. Both times, Swamy extended full cooperation and denied having any role in anti-national activities.

In January 2020, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs transferred the probe to the NIA, and in July, the Jesuit priest was interrogated in Ranchi for almost 15 hours.

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“I was interrogated by the NIA for 15 hours during a span of five days (July 27, 28, 29, 30, Aug. 6). Apart from my bio-data and some factual information, several extracts allegedly taken from my computer implicating my connection to Maoist forces were placed before me. I told them all these are fabrications stealthily put into my computer and I disowned them,” Swamy said in a video message that he released around the time.

On September 30, 2020, the NIA asked Swamy to come to Mumbai for further interrogation, but his health was frail, and the country was in the grip of a pandemic. He refused citing these reasons, and the NIA arrested him on October 8. The special NIA court remanded him to judicial custody and he was sent to Taloja jail where some of the other accused in the case were already lodged. The NIA then filed a charge sheet against eight of the accused, including Swamy.

He applied for bail on medical grounds in the special NIA court on October 18, but it was rejected. As his condition worsened, he moved the special court to provide him a straw sipper through which he could eat as the jail authorities had failed to provide him one despite repeated requests.

The cleric applied for regular bail in the special NIA court in November, but the court only decided the matter in March 2021. It refused to grant him bail.

The Taloja jail hospital had no qualified allopathy doctors, so though Swamy had been moved to the hospital by this time on account of his failing health, his condition did not improve. In April, his lawyers moved the HC against the rejection of his regular bail by the special NIA court.

“Fr Swamy kept requesting for being tested for Covid but the jail authorities did not heed him,” said Father Frazer Mascarenhes, Swamy’s close associate. “It was only after senior advocate Mihir Desai informed the HC about the apathy of the jail authorities did the court direct that he be taken to Sir JJ Hospital for being tested for Covid and be treated for other ailments.”

On May 19, Desai informed the HC that the priest was in bad shape and had become so weak that he was unable to do anything on his own. The court the directed that Swamy be brought before the court through video conference on May 21.

During the interaction with justice S J Kathawalla, Swamy told the court that he wanted to go back to Ranchi and would prefer to die in the jail rather than being admitted to the Sir JJ Hospital. The court observed that Swamy needed to be hospitalised. Chief public prosecutor Deepak Thakare and the NIA, through additional solicitor general Anil Singh, opposed this on the grounds that shifting him to a private hospital would set a wrong precedent and Sir J J Hospital was well equipped to take care of the 84-year-old.

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“Fr Swamy was very much attached to the people he lived and worked with in Ranchi and had made it clear to the high court during the May 21 hearing that he desired to go back to Ranchi and be with his people,” said Mascarenhes.

On May 28, the court directed that Father Stan be shifted to Holy Family hospital the very same day for 15 days, provided that he bore the cost of hospitalisation. Swamy tested positive for Covid, and two days later, he was moved to the Intensive Care Unit. The hospital also treated the priest for heart-related ailments, and the court monitored his health closely, extending his stay till July 5.

On July 2, Desai moved the court for an urgent hearing of the bail application, but the court adjourned the hearing to July 6 due to a paucity of time. The following day, Swamy suffered a cardiac arrest and was put on ventilator.

For the past few years, Swamy’s family had been asking him to come home or live in one of the guest houses for Jesuit priests. They wanted him to stop his decades-long fight owing to his old age and ill health. More crucially, they were scared about his safety after human rights defenders were jailed. “He told me that the authorities were somehow trying to trap him after police raided his house in Ranchi in 2018,” Prabhu said.

The funeral and the protests

Father Stan Swamy’s last rites were conducted at St Peters church in Bandra on July 6 and it was attended by fewer than two dozen people, mostly from the Jesuit order and the nuns and medical staff who took care of him at the hospital. It was, however, livestreamed and at one point of time, at least 21,000 people viewed the service.

Since his death, several gatherings have taken place, both online and in various cities. Students congregated at Chaityabhoomi, the memorial of Dr BR Ambedkar in Mumbai, the day after Swamy’s funeral. A meeting was also organised in Bagaicha, by the Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha, a coalition of rights groups.

The United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet and human rights officials of the United States and European Union (EU) expressed concern at his death. Bachelet’s spokesperson Elizabeth Throssell said that the office has raised the issue of the 15 other human rights defenders associated with the Bhima Koregaon case with the Indian government over the past three years and sought their release from pre-trial detention.

“In light of the continued, severe impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is even more urgent that States, including India, release every person detained without a sufficient legal basis, including those detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

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“We stress, once again, the High Commissioner’s call on the Government of India to ensure that no one is detained for exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, of peaceful assembly and of association,” Throssell said.

Both Mary Lawlor, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, and Nadine Maenza, chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), contended that Swamy had been held on “false” charges of terrorism. They were joined by Eamon Gilmore, the EU special representative for human rights, in expressing concern at his death.

The ministry of external affairs however, responded to the criticism by saying “due process under law” was followed in Swamy’s case, and that India remains committed to promoting and protecting the human rights of all citizens.

A statement by the ministry contended that he was arrested and detained by NIA “following due process under law”, and his bail applications were rejected by courts because of the “specific nature of charges against him”. Authorities “act against violations of law and not against legitimate exercise of rights”, and all such “actions are strictly in accordance with the law”, the ministry said.

In life, Stan Swamy, who traversed the long journey from his village in Tamil Nadu to Jharkhand to Philippines to Bengaluru and then back to Jharkhand and finally a jail and hospital in Mumbai, dedicated himself to the most dispossessed and marginalised. And with his death, he brought the focus back on fundamental rights of all Indian citizens, the legal architecture that curtailed these rights, what it meant for those who worked with communities, at the grassroots, through legal and non-violent means, and the conditions of prisons. In his life and death, Swamy left lessons for India.

(With inputs from Sharan Poovanna and Vishal Kant)

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