India’s adivasi community loses a strong and vocal supporter of their cause5 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
On July 5, India mourned after news of the passing of Father Stan Swamy spread. The 84-year-old priest, who was hospitalised at a private hospital in Mumbai on May 30, had been ailing for quite some time while in jail for nine months.
Public outrage followed his death, with people blaming the government for the death of this important figure. But who was Stan Swamy and why is he in the news so much? Let’s find out in today’s Law and Order column.
Who was Stan Swamy, and why was he in jail?
Father Stan Swamy was a Jesuit priest and a tribal rights activist based in the state of Jharkhand. He had worked in the state for over three decades on various issues faced by the adivasi communities on land, forest and labour rights.
Who are adivasis?
Adivasis is the collective name used for the many indigenous Indian tribes. Officially, adivasis are termed ‘scheduled tribes’, but this is a legal and constitutional term.
In October last year, Swamy was arrested and charged under the country’s anti-terrorism laws – Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act – which, if you recall, we dove into last week. Swamy, along with 15 other activists and academics, was accused by authorities of being involved with a “banned terrorist organisation”, and for being co-conspirators in a 2018 violent incident.
Owliver’s Obscure Observations: Stan Swamy is the oldest person in India to be accused of terrorism!
In the incident, known as the Bhima-Koregaon case, riots broke out between lower-caste and other regional groups in the state of Maharashtra. Hundreds of thousands of Dalits – who are ranked the lowest in India’s caste-based system – had gathered in the village of Bhima Koregaon to mark the 200th anniversary of a battle in which they, as part of the then-British colonial army, defeated an upper-caste ruler, when the violence broke out.
Authorities accused Swamy of having ties with the organisation responsible for the violence. They also alleged that he had links to Maoist rebels, who are considered one of the country’s biggest security threats. In a video recorded days before his arrest, Swamy denied all involvement and said he had never visited the location where the violence took place.
His arrest sparked outrage worldwide, prompting several politicians, national and international rights groups to demand his release.
Activism in jail too
While in Taloja Central Jail, Maharashtra, in a letter to his colleague, Swamy highlighted the plight of the prisoners stating, “Many of such poor undertrials don’t know what charges have been put on them, have not seen their chargesheet and just remain in prison for years without any legal or other assistance.” He ended the letter saying, “But we will still sing in chorus. A caged bird can still sing.”
Swamy suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, and despite his worsening health, which became worse when he contracted coronavirus in prison last month, authorities repeatedly rejected his lawyers’ bail pleas to allow him to recover at home.
The National Investigation Agency (NIA) in-charge of the case went against Swamy’s bail application, claiming the charges against him were too severe and that he was receiving proper care at the prison. In fact, Swamy was allegedly not allowed to even drink from a straw as his mobility worsened in custody – a claim the NIA has denied.
On court orders, Swamy was moved to a hospital at the end of May.
A day after activist Stan Swamy’s death, senior opposition politicians, including Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar and Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee, have written to President Ram Nath Kovind demanding the release of all activists jailed in connection with the Bhima-Koregaon case.
This is what Stan Swamy had said before he was arrested.
Sources: NDTC, Al Jazeera, Scroll, Firstpost