New Delhi: The death of tribal rights activist Father Stan Swamy in judicial custody earlier this week has been lamented by the editorials of several prominent national English dailies as a “slow death” that was allowed to happen despite being foretold. The 84-year-old Jesuit priest was arrest by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in October last year, which resulted in denial of bail to him. The editorials commented that while the state was responsible for his death, the loss was really of the people.
Most of the editorials also remarked that there was a pattern of institutional oppression in the manner in which he was incarcerated on trumped-up charges, which they said lead to his death in judicial custody, despite his seeking bail on health grounds.
‘Swamy’s death will weigh heavy on the country’s collective conscience’
The Hindu, in its editorial titled, ‘A death foretold: On activist Stan Swamy’s death‘, stated that “there is a pattern of institutional oppression behind the demise of Father Stan Swamy”. It observed that Swamy, known for his service and activism for the cause of Adivasis, died nine months into his unjust imprisonment on tenuous charges. His death, “despite being foretold by his deteriorating health in prison will weigh on the country’s collective conscience for long.”
The newspaper said despite having a strong case, Swamy was denied bail, mainly due to the statutory bar on bail under the anti-terrorism law invoked against him. “The best the diffident judiciary could do for him was a spell of hospitalisation, even as the octogenarian pleaded that he be given interim bail to be with his friends or allowed to die in prison.”
The paper charged that “much of the blame and accountability for his death should be on the NIA, which perversely opposed his release, and the court which could have granted interim bail weeks earlier.”
Stating that the prison stay was detrimental to the well-being of Swamy, especially during the pandemic, the editorial added that while he was denied bail on medical grounds, the Bombay high court had intervened to grant interim bail to Varavara Rao, another elderly co-accused, holding that bail can be granted “purely on the grounds of sickness, advanced age, infirmity and health conditions”.
The editorial also questioned the legality of the bail-denying feature of UAPA and the validity of the Bhima Koregaon case itself, adding that “the call for accountability for Fr. Swamy’s death rings painfully true”.
When Swamy’s lawyers asked for a straw, the court adjourned for three weeks
In its editorial titled ‘I will probably die‘, the Indian Express wrote that Swamy’s death in judicial custody has diminished the highest institutions of the justice system.
It said during the nearly nine months of his incarceration, the ailing priest “came up — again and again — against the heavy hand of the state, an unresponsive judiciary and a broken prison system.”
It reminded that “when Swamy’s lawyers asked for a sipper and a straw for him, as Parkinson’s disease had made it impossible for him to drink water from a glass”, the court adjourned the case for three weeks.
Likewise, during the pandemic, it said “when Swamy asked the special court for bail on the grounds that an overcrowded prison would make him more vulnerable to the coronavirus, the NIA replied that ‘the accused under the garb of the current situation on account of the global pandemic Covid-19, is trying to take an undue benefit of the situation…’ And yet, in all these months, the NIA did not seek a day’s custody to interrogate Swamy.”
Averring that “there are far too many instances of the judiciary’s lack of urgency, its reluctance to stand up for the liberty of citizens, faced with a state that does not flinch from using draconian laws like a blunt instrument against public intellectuals, students and dissenters,” the editorial said, “in failing to protect the life of a fragile, ailing undertrial, and his right to due process, the state and the judiciary don’t just shrink the space for dissent and dissenters but also invite the damning verdict of history.”
‘Not an assassination but a slow death’
The Telegraph too held that “the State is responsible for Stan Swamy’s death,” but added that “the shame of it and the loss it signifies are the Indian people’s”. It said the Jesuit priest’s death was “not an assassination but a slow death”.
The newspaper recalled how Swamy was arrested along with several poets, journalists, teachers and lawyers in connection with the Elgaar Parishad case; how he had fought lifelong for the rights of tribal people, against their land alienation and the imprisonment of young tribal men as Maoists when they protested. Now, it said, “it is a bitter irony that, after a rapid worsening of his health, he should die in custody, accused of Maoist links.”
Editorial said Swamy’s death highlights the issue of “habitual refusal to give bail under the advice of the prosecuting or investigative agencies in spite of the Supreme Court’s emphatic declaration that bail should be the rule and jail the exception, aside from specific circumstances.” The denial of bail to Stan Swamy and the others arrested in the Elgaar Parishad case, it said, goes against Supreme Court rulings, while treating the accused as convicts overturns the principles of justice.
The case, it said, also raised the “question of humanity” on “the treatment meted out to those labelled ‘urban Naxals’. It said while Swamy’s co-prisoner Varavara Rao was released on six months’ bail after his family’s desperate efforts, it was not before his physical and mental health too had deteriorated unrecognisably.
A case of four injustices
The Times of India termed Swamy’s demise a “death of a principle”. It said the tribal activist’s death “should shake up a justice system, on procedure and on judges’ reading of laws”.
The newspaper editorial said Swamy’s death was an “entirely avoidable tragedy” and held that “pretty much every part of the criminal justice system” was responsible for it.
It identified areas which showed how Swamy was being wronged. “First, he was not even being tried. He was awaiting further proceedings in last year’s NIA-filed Elgar Parishad chargesheet. Second, NIA arrested Swamy only a day before filing its chargesheet. This showed it didn’t need him for custodial interrogation. Therefore, investigative integrity wouldn’t have been threatened had Swamy received bail,” the editorial said.
It also noted that there was “grave injustice” as the “NIA stoutly opposed bail pleas of an 84-year-old with serious medical conditions, and one who was jailed when a pandemic was raging.” Finally, the editorial said, the trial court failed on counts of common sense, simple decency and judicial principles by stalling the bail of an octogenarian with Parkinson’s, who couldn’t possibly intimidate witnesses or pose a flight risk.
Stating that a strong case now exists for revisiting UAPA provisions defining terrorist acts and discouraging bail, the editorial asked: “Will Swamy’s tragic death give the system the shaking up it needs?”