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Callous silencing of Fr Stan Swamy, a voice from the wilderness for the voiceless

United Nations, Suhakam, politicians and civil societies disturbed by unjust death of tribal activist which many decree is ‘judicial murder’

By Joseph Masilamany, member of SIGNIS (The Vibes).

We are put on this earth to accomplish something. To work well and resiliently at things worth doing is to know life’s greatest satisfaction and fulfillment.

The late Fr Stan Swamy lived this calling right unto his deathbed like the many saints and prophets before him.

India and a good part of the world are stunned by the death of this unwavering Jesuit whose voice rose from the wilderness of his mission land – the jungles of Jharkhand – the home of the Adivasi indigenous people.

His untiring pursuit was to defend the rights of the Adivasi, a tribal community in the state. He worked single-mindedly for these poor indigenous folks to rightfully return to them their sense of dignity and upliftment.

News of Fr Stan Swamy’s death sparked angry headlines across India and on the international front with Britain’s The Guardian screaming ‘Fury in India over death of 84-year-old political prisoner Fr Stan Swamy’. India’s Hindustan Times wailed: ‘Fr Stan Swamy’s death: Political leaders express outrage’. The BBC declared: ‘India outraged over death of jailed activist’.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Tuesday said it is disturbed by the death of the priest-activist. It said: “No one should be detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, of peaceful assembly and of association.”

Another United Nations Special Rapporteur Mary Lawlor spelt it out: “Devastated to hear of Fr Stan Swamy’s passing. Jailing HRDs (Human Rights Defenders) is inexcusable.”

Jerald Joseph a commissioner with Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) told The Vibes: “A nation should be celebrating committed persons like Fr Stan Swamy for daringly standing up to speak for victims of caste discrimination, the marginalised and the poor.

“Unfortunately the ‘might of the state’ was so easily abused to shut the voice of defiance that has kept marginalising the Adivasi, Dalits and the poor communities.”

He pointed out a humble priest who remained true to his calling to be of service to the poor was held using the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, an anti-human rights law which means “detention without trial”.

“I would call it unlawful by international standards and the basic premise of rule of law that one is innocent until proven guilty.

“This burden is shifted now to the accused. Abuse is so easy with such all-powerful laws. The government of India must be held accountable for this abuse of power”.

He said Fr Stan Swamy’s spirit of fighting for the human rights of the marginalised and the poor will remain to inspire all of us to right the wrong.

Mission fraught with peril

The mission of this hardcore battle-worn Jesuit had its own challenges. It turned out that this calling of his to serve the Adivasi had its own perils.

Fr Stan Swamy was arrested on October 8 last year under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and was left languishing in the Taloja prison on trumped-up charges of terrorism and was repeatedly denied bail.

The accusations against Fr Stan Swamy were in connection with caste violence at a rally in Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra in 2018. India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA), which investigates terror crimes, accused Fr Stan Swamy and others of having links with Maoist rebels.

Fr Stan Swamy had denied the charge, saying he was targeted for his work, fighting for the rights of the tribals and even claimed false documentary evidence was planted in his computer linking him to be a Naxalite (far-left Communists).

The priest was moved to the Holy Family Hospital on May 28 and he died of a heart attack on Monday as he waited for the long-overdue bail process that never came. He was also Covid-19 positive and quivering with Parkinson’s.

Throwback to the River Jordan

As I write this piece, my thoughts return to a Gospel story where a group of dignitaries is headed to the desert to ask a certain man a weighty question. When they found him by the River Jordan baptizing and preaching, they asked: “Who are you?”.

“I am not the Christ,” John replies. “Who then? Are you Elijah? Are you that prophet?”. When he answers “No”, they press him, that they might bring their answer to their superiors in Jerusalem. “Who do you say, you are?”.

And John quoting from an old Scripture, responds: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”

That enigmatic figure in the desert, “John the Baptist” stands forth like a colossus from the bleakness and confusion – the “wilderness” – of his own time.

The forerunner of Christ, he was the last of the prophets but at the same time the first great preacher of what was to become Christianity.

Many “other prophets” and martyrs have come after John in practicing their Christianity. Peter and Paul, Thomas and Mathew, John and Andrew, Mary of Magdala, Teresa of Calcutta, Damian of Molokai, and hundreds more.

These men and women lived for God. As saints, they understood in an intense and radical manner that God is the “supreme good” and so patterned their lives to do all that they could, mindful of the greatest commandments of all times – and that is, “to love”.

For the Adivasi, Fr Stan Swamy stood forth in their bleak wilderness cutting a lone figure like that of John. It was another era from John’s but judicial persecution was the same. Like John, Fr Stan Swamy did not cringe away from the mission in his hands.

When NIA officers arrived to arrest him in his threadbare jungle hut in October last year, the same question “who are you?” asked of John at the River Jordan was put to Fr Stan Swamy prior to him being handcuffed.

And like John, Fr Stan Swamy continued to shout himself hoarse from prison, raising issues of state-committed atrocities and injustices against his person and the tribal community.

So who is Fr Stan Swamy?

Hundreds of activists, members of civil societies and the international community took to social media to pay tributes to the jailed tribal rights activist.

In a condolence meeting hosted via Zoom by India’s Society of Jesus on Tuesday, tributes poured in for the fearless Jesuit, attesting to the man that he was – who even while in prison spoke up against the atrocities committed against the marginalised indigenous people.

His Jesuit compatriot Fr Jerry Cutinha SJ describes Fr Stan Swamy as one who had gumption. “Even though he was in prison, he continued to reach out to other prisoners telling them not to allow the brutal inhuman system to break their spirit.

“And while incarcerated, he wrote a poem, ‘A caged bird can still sing’ said Cutinha. Taking a cue from this jailhouse poetic musing, the Bombay Jesuits produced a rap video titled “A caged bird can still sing”.

The head of Jesuits in India Fr Stanly de Souza SJ said the Society of Jesus have lost a courageous, compassionate, and committed Jesuit brother who had championed noble values of love, compassion, equality, truth, justice and peace.

“Fr Stan Swamy had a great love for God and the poor and sacrificed very much, totally giving all of himself in the service of the people. “His love for the poor made him see, judge and act differently,” said De’ Souza. ‘Fr Stan Swamy was a good example for us to emulate and become effective Jesuits.

“He embraced the simple life and worked tirelessly for the Dalits, the Adivasis and other marginalised groups.

“Right up to his last breath, imprisoned and deprived of human rights, he still continued to march in solidarity with the less fortunate,” he added.

“So, even if we mourned his untimely and ‘unjust demise’ we shall still celebrate his life fully dedicated to the service of the last, the least and the lost.”

He said: “We are deeply troubled by the death of a person like Fr Stan Swamy, but a person like him cannot die. He will rise in the lives of the people in the continued struggle for justice and peace.”

The Gandhi siblings Rahul and Priyanka Vadra both members of the Congress party were among several politicians and intellectuals to condole Fr Stan Swamy’s death.

Rahul Gandhi said Fr Stan Swamy deserved justice and humanness, in a one-liner tweet.

Priyanka tweeted: “A humble tribute to Fr Stan Swamy. How unfortunate that a person who served the poor and tribals throughout his life and became the voice of human rights was himself denied human rights even in the hour of his death.”

Cut to heroic size, an image of Fr Stan Swamy’s frail and haggard figure chained to his bed is starkly reminiscent of a monument to human courage and integrity. His was the agony and the distinction of being both – an end, and a beginning.


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