Father Stan Swamy could have been treated more humanely in prison and granted bail, not only because he was old and ailing, but also because that is what democracy is all about ― being humane, compassionate and vibrantly on the side of justice, says OSWALD PEREIRA
Tribal rights activist Father Stan Swamy is dead. It’s a sad day for humanity. The 84-year-old, seriously ailing priest, languishing in prison for nine months, pleaded for interim bail on medical grounds, but was denied it, repeatedly. In the nine months he spent in Tajola jail, his health declined to a point where he could not even eat or bathe by himself.
Father Swamy’s ailments included severe Parkinson’s disease. Swamy was the oldest among the 15 others accused of terrorism in the Bhima Koregaon case ― all erudite and intellectual people with no previous record of criminal activities.
Bail is generally denied when there are grounds to believe that the accused will fly the coop, tamper with evidence or influence witnesses. Swamy was the oldest person among the others accused of terrorism. Father Swamy’s lawyers had argued that the case against their client was shakier than the octogenarian’s grip. In fact, the gentle priest had pleaded for a sipper and straw to drink water in prison ― his wish was granted after a month of procrastination.
The Jesuit priest had fought for the rights of tribals for several decades. The soft-spoken, peace loving, non-violent priest, ironically, was accused of a violent crime like terrorism and on October 8, 2020, arrested and chargesheeted by the National Investigative Agency (NIA) under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
The UAPA has been criticised for being draconian. Section 43D(5) of the UAPA bars granting of bail to the accused if the court finds the accusations are prima facie true, thus making it violative of Articles 14 (right to equality) and 21 (right to life and personal liberty) of the Constitution.
The NIA, however, had claimed sufficient evidence to prima facie prove that Father Swamy was involved in the conspiracy to instigate caste violence in the Bhima Koregaon village near Pune in 2018. Father Stan Swamy till the end maintained that he had never been to Bhima Koregaon and an independent investigation by an American firm said that the so-called evidence was planted in the computers of all the accused.
Swamy and his associates were accused of making inflammatory speeches at the Elgar Parishad conclave held at Shaniwar Wada in Pune on December 31, 2017, which the authorities claim triggered violence at Bhima-Koregan war memorial the next day. Swamy and his co-accused were charged by the NIA for working on behalf of Maoists.
Casting him and his fellow accused as members of a complex transnational conspiracy, the chargesheet listed among other charges, a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister. The chargesheet ran to more than 10,000 pages!
While the NIA continued to oppose Swamy’s release, several activists and rights bodies, including foreign organisations and the UN pleaded for the bail of Father Swamy with many organisations describing the investigation as a “witch hunt” targeting critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
The son of a farmer father and homemaker mother from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, Swamy had led a school for training leaders of marginalised communities in Bangalore for more than a decade. During his lifetime, he fought for the rights of indigenous adivasis in Jharkhand. He had moved the high court in the state seeking the release of 3,000 young men and women who were languishing in prison after being branded as Maoists.
Paradoxically, the activist who fought for freedom of prisoners held indefinitely in prison without trial, himself died without trial, accused of serious crimes that were never proved.
Will the NIA pursue the case posthumously to prove his guilt? The charges were serious but would they have stuck to the saintly priest, considering that most of the cases under UAPA eventually fall flat on the face?
Colin Gonsalves, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court, said on a leading television channel yesterday that Father Swamy’s death was “nothing short of murder through the legal system” and hoped that judges will now wake up from their deep slumber and release human rights activists, especially the sick and the old. He added it was almost as if the “prosecution desired and designed his death in jail as a signal to all activists that if you oppose the Central Government, we will keep you in jail till you die.” Gonsalves said he could have been easily released on bail to go back home in Ranchi to die among his family and friends.
Vikram Singh, former UP Director General Police, said that had he been in charge of the case, he wouldn’t have opposed the bail of an old, ailing person like Father Swamy, but instead allowed it and kept a close vigil on him at his home.
Personally, I believe that Father Swamy could have been treated more humanely in prison and granted bail, not only because he was old and ailing, but also because that is what democracy is all about ― being humane, compassionate and vibrant. Aren’t we the world’s largest democracy, coupled with a rich heritage and spiritual practices like Sanatan Dharma, which we would like the world to emulate?
No matter how sad the end, Father Stan Swamy will continue to be an inspiration ― forever ― for the young and the old, and for people who love to fight for freedom and justice.