A year after Stan Swamy's death, very little has changed, say his associates
After being admitted for a month to Bandra’s Holy Family Hospital in Mumbai last year, 83-year-old tribal rights activist Fr. Stan Swamy passed away on July 5, 2021, while he was an undertrial in the Bhima Koregaon case.
He was lodged in Taloja Central prison for eight months, during which his health was deteriorating. An octogenarian who suffered from Parkinson’s disease – and whose repeated requests for straws and sippers to help him eat and drink in jail were vehemently stalled by the NIA – Swamy was arrested on October 8, 2020, after being charged under stringent sections of the UAPA.
On his first death anniversary, many of those who were close confidants of the Jesuit priest remembered him as someone who had dedicated his life to the upliftment of marginalised sections of society, especially those belonging to the tribal population of Jharkhand. And they uniformly acknowledged that the battle to fight for the truth, especially in the case of minorities, had only gotten tougher over the past year due to “unfortunate circumstances.”
A human rights group that monitor violent crimes committed against Christians in India released a fact-finding report last year which stated that over 300 instances of such atrocities had been committed in the first nine months of 2021 – a whopping 75% rise since the previous year.
Multiple incidents have been reported of Christian schools being vandalised by mobs sporting saffron scarves around their necks, and church doors being kicked in by Hindutva groups who alleged forceful conversions against pastors.
When asked if the situation seems to have gotten worse for minority communities ever since/despite Stan’s death, Dolphy Dsouza, spokesperson for the Bombay Catholic Sabha (BCS), told The Federal: “Once the wheels of communal hatred start spinning, it becomes very difficult to stymie it – unless there is a clear upholding of the rule of law. Unfortunately, this has not happened in the present circumstances. There has been a lax-sided approach that has emboldened these elements.”
Dsouza stated that he isn’t specifically talking about BJP-ruled states upholding the rule of law when it comes to protecting minority communities and vulnerable sections of society. “At this point in time, we are looking at whichever government is in power…it needs to enrich the rule of law…they (government) have an allegiance to the Constitution – particularly against those responsible for creating violence.”
Bigger political issue
According to him, the rising Hindutva wave being witnessed across the country “has become more of a political issue in terms of polarising and garnering of votes, one that goes against the secular ethos of this country.”
He said that in most cases of such perpetrated violence against minority communities, the police are hand in glove because of “political directions.”
“The police are under the control of political executives – and that is why we are demanding police reforms all the time. Why are we doing so? Because of the insulation that is required in terms of functional autonomy for police. Even today, in spite of directives and in terms of systemic reforms…this has not been implemented, Whichever government is in power controls the police.”
“Fr. Stan’s death is on the conscience of the state, the judiciary, and all of us. We must hang our heads in shame.”
Remembering Stan Swamy
On Tuesday evening, the Bombay Catholic Sabha, in collaboration with St. Peter’s Church in Bandra, hosted a symposium titled “Remembering the Tribal and Human Rights Crusader: His Life and His Message For Us” at the latter’s Loyola Hall.
Dsouza told The Federal shortly before the symposium began: “Today’s a day of mourning, with one year since the passing away of our beloved Fr. Stan Swamy – a gentle giant of a defender and crusader of the human rights of tribals and Adivasis. He was a voice of the voiceless.”
“He left a message, in his life and in death, that reaching out and fighting for justice and to empower the vulnerable, is the best humanitarian religion of all. Fr. Stan’s life inspires many of us to take a stand against injustices and work towards converting ‘mourning’ to a ‘morning’ of peace and harmony for all of us beloved citizens of this country.”
When asked if it sometimes felt like Stan’s death may have been in vain, he said: “These are challenging times. There are no ready answers to this. The only answer is that each of us, as citizens, must play a role in standing up against injustice and speaking about it. There is always a bend at the end of the straight road and one has to always be optimistic and hopeful that there will be transformation. There will be more and more citizens starting to take a stand in terms of what’s happening.”
Invoking Martin Niemoller’s (the pastor who defied the Nazis) “Then They Came For me”, Dsouza said: “The idea of justice comes about only when ‘I’ become a victim,” he explained. “It is only then that I expect everyone else to stand by me, but when others are facing injustice, I’m not willing to take a stand for them. Changing this process is a challenging transformation, and it is not easy in present circumstances for people to always take a stand…there’s a certain amount of palpable fear. The courage is there, but the fear sometimes prevents them from taking a stand.”
Long struggle for freedom
Stan is not survived by any immediate family.
Fr Frazer Mascarenhas, a former principal of St Xavier’s College in Mumbai, had met Swamy for the first time almost 40 years ago when the latter was teaching at the Indian Social Institute in Bangalore. He was also one of the last people Swamy spoke with before he died at Taloja prison.
Mascarenhas was one of the speakers at Tuesday’s symposium as well. When asked whether it sometimes felt like Stan’s demise had been in vain, he laughed. “I think that both Fr Stan and the rest of us who are left behind know that these are not things that can be addressed in a few short years,” he told The Federal. “It is a long struggle for freedom and justice…it doesn’t happen overnight.
“There is a long period of waiting, struggle, and suffering, which will in its time bear fruit,” he said. “We aren’t dejected or saddened that the situation in the country has not improved (since his death) – but we expected that. These are very powerful forces that we have against us. They have planned this; they have prepared for this for many years. It won’t be so easy to overcome their efforts.”
“The BK16 was a test case for this establishment,” said Mascarenhas. “They realised that judicially, they can get away by only making accusations – without having real proof and convictions. They realised this and therefore after this test case, they have gone ahead in large numbers…peaceful CAA protesters were implicated in the Delhi violence…all sorts of people have been p behind bars on draconian laws. It (suppression) isn’t really confined to small sections anymore – it is against anyone who opposes anything of the government.”
What the life symbolised
“We are still mourning for the death of Fr. Stan who was allegedly falsely incarcerated,” said Dsouza. “At the end of the day, we may not always have the power to prevent injustice and have the power to speak up against it…but that’s what Fr. Stan’s life symbolised…in terms of constantly talking truth to power.”
When asked about what message we could derive from Stan’s untimely demise, he said: “It all comes down to revisiting one’s own priorities in terms of humanitarian outreach.”
“I think we have to continue his legacy and we shouldn’t get discouraged by modern-day setbacks,” said Mascarenhas. “There are a lot of courageous people who are going ahead with their work. Fr. Stan used the courts to gather evidence, which he then used to fight for the rights of vulnerable sections of society. We must do the same.”