As I watch on Youtube the funeral service of Fr. Stan Swamy held on 6th July 2021, a day after his death in judicial custody, I see him draped in a red priestly vestment, chalice in hand, surrounded with gorgeous floral arrangements and resting in a beautifully dressed coffin at a delicately appointed altar of St. Peter’s Church in Bandra, Mumbai. The serenity in Stan’s face and his ever present smile is absent. His face carries the imprint of a man relieved of tiredness. The pain of the horrendous suffering he endured this past year as an undertrial in Mumbai’s Taloja prison, is invisible.
If for a moment we imagine that he has not died in a jail yesterday, and that he attended his scheduled bail hearing in court today, and got bail, we can imagine Stan walking out with his characteristic smile, the twinkle in his eyes having a calming effect on all around him. And search as much as we might, there would not be in him a fleeting thought of getting back at everyone who conspired to frame him on the most ridiculous of charges – conspiring to violently overthrow the Narendra Modi government.
As a student in the 1980s, I had the privilege of participating in various discussions on social change at the Indian Social Institute. Stan was there at that time. He would hang out with various groups, gently nudging them on finetuning their efforts in engaging with social reform. When sought, he offered his compelling analysis of what constitutes real social transformation, in his somewhat halting speech. Stan spoke in a simple language, with clarity and with precision. His sharp eyes would ensure one paid attention to every word he uttered. And not a word he uttered in vain. Just as well then that he was never a person to waste a moment of his time in trivial pursuits.
Stan’s precision as a trainer and researcher on advancing social transformation was in step with his compassionate determination for securing fundamental freedoms of the most vulnerable. For securing which he stridently argued implementing Constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights is a minimum. He gravitated to struggles of the Adivasis in central India, Jharkand in particular, and helped organize them to fight for their rights over their land, over their forests, over their rivers, over their bodies, to protect their cultures and their memories of the place. He helped recall the systematic exploitation these communities suffered during colonial and post-colonial times, and asserted that it is only by implementing the 5th Schedule of the Constitution that the irreversible devastation can be halted. Article 39 of the Constitution was not mere window dressing for him.
In a situation where looting natural resources and exploiting Adivasis is the norm, Stan and his colleagues tirelessly worked, over decades, to build confidence in overcoming the brutal oppression in lawful ways. The State which should have been an accomplice, colluded with manipulative corporations and contractors who recklessly looted the region’s rich mineral wealth, forests and waters. In this horrific landscape of suffering and devastation, Stan lived, with the suffering communities and became one with their struggles.
This troubled many who benefited from the loot and plunder. And there were numerous attempts to neutralize him. He remained unaffected and continued his work systematically, and valiantly, of course. Stan organized multiple efforts to expose the brutality of the State most willing to abuse power, which was indicative in large numbers of adivasis thrown into prison without trial for years. He petitioned the court to secure them speedy trials so they could return home, if the charges against them could not be proved.
Was it some premonition that he had that he would soon become a victim of this process? And that as an undertrial in the preposterous Bhima Koregoan case, accused of being an anti-national and charged with violation of the draconian UAPA? One would never know. But this we can be certain about. Once he was framed along with 15 other leading activists, lawyers, trade unionists, and academics, and thrown into Taloja jail, Stan fought with determination for such a quality of justice that in no way compromised his principles.
It was well known that Stan suffered from Parkinson’s disease and various other age related ailments. But the National Investigation Agency argued all this was a pack of lies. As if to make his suffering an example for anyone who dares question those in power, Stan was not even allowed a simple sipper to drink water comfortably. As his condition deteriorated in prison, he argued against the judge willing to transfer him to a prison hospital that he should be given bail instead – as is his right. That was denied. When his health deteriorated even more, and he unsurprisingly contracted COVID in the cramped prison cells, his transfer to an hospital was ordered but took an entire 10 days to be operationalised. By which time it already was too late.
Stan’s death in custody is a textbook case of what constitutes institutionalised murder overseen extremely judiciously. Stan fought for rights of undertrials. In the end he died an undertrial. This blot on our nation’s consciousness can never be erased. Stan Swamy led a saintly life, peaceful to the core, without any animosity. A true Bharat Ratna India has failed to acknowledge.
[Leo F. Saldanha works to advance social, economic and environmental justice through the non-profit Environment Support Group.]