P.A. Chacko SJ
Jesuit Priest Fr Stan Swamy’s arrest in Jharkhand on 8 October and subsequent detention under judicial custody in Mumbai may be glorified by the central government as a feather in its cap. This self-adorned feather by incarcerating an 83 year old ailing priest is seen by many as a symbol of venomous intent.
Some feel that, given the animosity of the previous BJP- led Raghubar Das government in Jharkhand against the Church’s stand for human rights, Modi’s hidden agenda could be sending a symbolic message to Christians as a whole. Whatever that be, Stan Swamy’s arrest has far more implications.
As a priest Fr Stan felt primarily to be the servant of the people. The ‘people’ meant for him those not of the Christian fold only, but the panoramic stretch of the vulnerable sections of society such as Dalits, Adivasis and other marginalised groups. His was a rights-based approach. Hence, without getting into the ramifications of a Christian priest’s life of liturgical rites and rituals, he preferred a prophetic and grassroots approach in living out his vocation. He felt comfortable in immersing himself in the hardcore human affairs of people.
With the tools of socio-political analysis and liberation theology, Fr Stan took sides decisively. For him, his neighbour was the one in dire need. He identified that need in the lives of the marginalised masses of Jharkhand.
Fr Stan belongs to the Jesuit Province of Jamshedpur in Jharkhand. The reason he left his home state in Tamil Nadu to join the Jesuits was not because he looked for a joyride to a land of adventure. This became evident when he was ordained priest.
His involvement in Jharkhand is well described by Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha, a rights group: ‘Stan works for the rights of Adivasis and other underprivileged groups in the state. Among other issues, he works on displacement, corporate loot of resources, the condition of under-trials and PESA. Stan has been a vocal critic of the government’s attempts to amend land laws and the land acquisition act in Jharkhand, and a strong advocate of the Forest Rights Act, PESA and related laws. He is an exceptionally gentle, honest and public-spirited person. Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha has the highest regard for him and his work.’ (Statement issued on 12.06.2019)
It looked as if he unleashed a hornets’ nest by undertaking A Study of Under-trials in Jharkhand. This research study documented and highlighted ‘the problems of impoverished Adivasis and Moolvasis of Jharkhand, who are being accused as Maoists’ (Introduction to the Research document). The Study claimed that ‘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’ (Summary Introduction to the Document).
The circuitous way Fr Stan swami is implicated in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence case in Maharashtra is deliberate and mischievous. His helping poor Adivasis, accused of being Naxals (Maoists) or Naxal informers, to get legal relief is cunningly linked with his alleged Maoist link in the Bhima Koregaon case.
Fr Stan denies any such involvement and he avers that he never in his lifetime went to Bhima Koregaon in far away Maharashtra. So, how could he be linked to that violence, winders Fr Stan. Secondly, he alleges that NIA fabricated criminal evidence which was not in his computer, after the Agency had raided his residence in August 2018 and June 2019.
The chilling event of his custodial detention and arrest on October 8 is seen by rights groups as the government’s striking terror to stifle voices that cry foul against state-sponsored human rights violations. Stan swami was the sixteenth person to be arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case alleging Maoist links. Moreover, he is the senior-most among the group as he is 83. Age or disease is not a factor for a government that is determined to implement a draconian law. Incarcerating a senior citizen who has been troubled with Parkinson’s disease for over a decade and finds it difficult to hold even a tea cup exposes the government’s own human right violation.
Hemant Soren, Jharkhand’s current Chief Minister, has outright condemned the arrest of Fr Stan. “Why this insistence on crushing every voice of dissent? What message does the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre want to give by arresting 83-year-old Stan Swamy who voiced the concerns of the poor, the deprived, the Adivasis?” Tweeted Soren.
The nationwide agitations over the arrest of Fr Stan and other human rights activists have opened further the flood gates of anger at the Modi government’s imperious and dictator-like behaviour. It is important to note that Modi Government on the whole has not found favour with the world bodies.
The ever growing vicious environment of state sponsored rights violations has been taken serious note of by the European Parliament. The Parliament’s Sub-committee on Human Rights urged the Narendra Modi government to meet its pledge to promote and protect human rights.
The Chief of the Panel, Maria Arena stated that journalists and peaceful critics were being arrested under “draconian counter-terrorism and sedition laws.” She condemned the targeting of human rights activists.
It is not just the arrest of Fr Stan swami alone that is the focal point of blazing anger all over the country. When voices of critical opinions are stifled by a cruel hand or when people standing with the oppressed in solidarity call for at least a breathing space, they are targeted. When certain instances of untruth are brought to the fore by social critics or by an investigating media, they are muzzled, implicated in criminal cases or made to live in incarceration for life.
Democratic dissent is a constitutional right. Anyone, individual, institution or government, who cannot accept the gentlemanly concept of ‘agreeing to disagree’ as a civilized norm or behaviour, is bound to behave like Dracula.