Father Stan Swamy Always Looked On the Bright Side of Life

The twinkle in his eyes was his trademark, along with his earnest and honest simplicity and a latent sense of humour.

This pandemic has seen us coming face to face with death in so many ways that death has become the new normal. We were witness to the passing away of Justice Hosbet Suresh, stalwart communist leader Gowri Amma, environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna, Mahavir Narwal and most recently Justice P.B. Sawant. They and many others who died in the last year fought for the rights of the marginalised and for the freedom of those unjustly incarcerated. But the death on Monday of Fr. Stanislaus Lourdeswamy, which he himself shortened to Fr Stan Swamy for the sake of his beloved “adivasi and moolniwasi” communities that he dedicated his life to, has reverberated not just among them but has shaken the conscience of freedom loving people around the world.

Much has been written about these reactions. But imagine the shattering impact that Stan’s death would have on the Bhima Koregaon accused of whom he was the 16th to be arrested. Probably the news was told to them by jail officials. Although in different barracks and separated from one another, they wrangled permission from the new jail superintendent to be allowed to meet. They were called to his office where they held a condolence meeting, shared experiences of Stan and observed a two-minute silence in his memory. They informed relatives who they got to call that today (July 7) they were observing a one-day fast to protest Stan’s death and to raise the demand for: (1) a judicial inquiry into his institutional murder and (2) to register a case under section 302 of IPC (Indian Penal Code) against NIA officials and the previous Taloja Jail superintendent K. Kurlekar. The women co-accused in Byculla women’s jail Shoma Sen, Sudha Bhardwaj and Jyoti Jagtap expressed their grief and shock to hear of Stan’s death.

Also read: Stan Swamy’s Death Shows India’s Complex Legal Structure Fails To Protect Individual Liberty

When his beloved Bagaicha was raided on August 28, 2018 for the first time by the Pune police, during the second round of raids and arrests in the case, the Kafkaesque proportions of the Bhima Koregaon case is what beggared belief. The case was traversing the whole country and had become the nodal case for rounding up high-profile dissidents of the Modi regime by branding them as “Maoist sympathisers” (akin to the conspiracy cases fabricated by the British to round up freedom fighters).

The August 28, 2018 remand papers named Fr Stan as a “suspected accused”, a term not defined in criminal law. He got in touch with his friend of two decades, senior advocate Mihir Desai in Mumbai, who filed a writ petition for quashing of charges against him. The additional commissioner of police of the Pune Police, which was then the investigating agency, informed the high court that he had no intention of arresting Stan as he was not an accused, and the writ petition was disposed of. The high court observed, “It is apparent that presently, there are no proceedings against the Petitioner.”

Stan’s reprieve was short-lived though. Almost a year later, in June 2019, the Pune police raided Bagaicha again. And after the change in guard of government in Maharashtra, the Union home ministry transferred the case to the NIA in January 2020. The NIA’s raids at Stan’s place began in July 2020 when he was interrogated for 15 hours at a stretch. By this time, Stan had resigned himself to getting arrested, issued video statements about his innocence and imminent death once arrested.

On October 9, 2020, the Mumbai Bhima Koregaon defence team of lawyers first met Stan Swamy in courtroom 25, of the Bombay City Civil and Sessions Court, Mumbai, the NIA court where he was produced. He had been arrested from Bagaicha, Ranchi, a day earlier. He was brought from Ranchi without the mandatory transit warrant from a court there. Lawyers from Ranchi had informed lawyers in Mumbai on October 8, 2020 that Stan was arrested in the infamous Bhima Koregaon – he became BK 16.

‘The caged bird will sing…’

Frail and disoriented, with a pandemic raging outside and after a tiring flight from Ranchi, Stan could barely stand. We got him to sit on the chair where lawyers sit so that he had table support to put his signature on a few vakalatnamas (for appointing lawyers). He could barely manage a scrawl for a signature, so we had to take his thumb impression. He could barely be heard when he spoke to us.

Then came the courtroom drama. We had gone with applications for his judicial custody, assuming that his police custody would be sought by the NIA. But no, the NIA had too many other tasks – like filing a 10,000-page supplementary chargesheet – in court on that day. The NIA told the court that they were not seeking his police custody and that he may be sent directly to judicial custody. Advocate Sharif Shaikh, who was appointed by the Ranchi lawyers to represent Stan Swamy, sought his release on bail on medical grounds. All his medical papers were presented to the NIA judge – that he had Parkinson’s disease, he could not walk, hear, eat or drink without support. This was evident for everyone to see. But the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) was the iron-clad law, that when the NIA had asked for jail, there was no question of bail, even for an ailing 84-year old infirm man.

Also read: Father Stan Swamy: A Soft-Spoken Man With a Fire Within

That’s when Stan Swamy asked for permission to speak to the judge. The judge allowed him in the witness box and Stan had said, “I am told I am arrested in the Elgar Parishad case…but I don’t know anything about it. I had nothing to do with it.” The judge could not hear his feeble voice so advocate Sharif had to repeat what he had just said to the court. Still, Stan was packed off to the Taloja Jail while the NIA officers and staff were busy filing bundles of the chargesheet against the seven newly arrested  – Anand Teltumde, Gautam Navlakha, Hany Babu, Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor, Jyoti Jagtap, the youngest of them all, and Fr Stan, the oldest.

The twinkle in his eyes was his trademark, along with his earnest and honest simplicity and a latent sense of humour. I introduced myself as a lawyer and that my husband Vernon Gonsalves was in Taloja Jail, where he was being sent to. His worldly belongings were in a simple bag which contained few sets of clothes to wear, his one identity document, ironically an Election Card, and the doomed steel sipper with a straw which gained national and international attention because it was denied to him by the Taloja jail authorities.

Just before his arrest on October 8, Stan told his Jesuit colleagues that he would launch a fast unto death in jail. This is what they were most concerned about. It was probably meeting his co-accused in Taloja Jail that stopped him from doing that.

Varavara Rao

For in October last year, the other octogenarian in the BK case, poet Varavara Rao was still lodged in Taloja Jail, completely bedridden after he was abruptly sent back to jail from the Nanavati Hospital in August last year. This was purely so that his medical bail petition in the high court could be scuttled. VV was bed-ridden, a shadow of his former self, returned to jail with a urine bag which was not changed for three months because the jail hospital lacked trained medical personnel. He was provided two attendants, his own co-accused Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira. The two were made to stand in for Stan as well. On the first day of admission in jail, Stan had a fall in the bathroom. On intervention by his Jesuit friends with the state government, he was also provided with a bed.

For the first month, Stan could meet four of his co-accused daily – VV, Vernon, Arun and Anand Teltumde – who too have been lodged in the hospital ward of the Taloja jail.

“Always look on the bright side of life” was a mantra that Stan tried very hard to live by while in jail. On the first night of sleeping on the floor near a bathroom, he had ant bites all over his body. When he showed this to a fellow prisoner, he was told that the ants too needed to live. It was adopted by Stan as his motto to sustain him for jail life is what Vernon told me after hearing of Stan’s death. His initial letters to the outside world were full of homilies. How Stan found “humanity bubbling in Taloja jail” became widely known. That’s obviously what Stan wished to convey to the outside world when he posted in a letter to his close friend and fellow Jesuit Fr Joe Xavier, “that the caged bird will sing…”

Apparently, Stan loved singing. He would sing songs daily in English, Hindi and at times in the tribal language Ho. For VV’s 81st birthday on November 3 last year, Fr Stan organised a “celebration” getting other inmates to sing songs, and he himself sang a song for VV’s long life. At that time, Stan was still standing while VV was bed-ridden and wheelchair-bound.

Stan had his humorous side and the curiosity of a child. When Vernon received one of my letters, he wanted to know whose it was. Arun told him that it’s from his “better half”. Pat came his response, “Anyone would be his ‘better’ half!”

It definitely affected Stan to see VV’s health deteriorate before his eyes, till VV was ordered to be hospitalised (for the third time) with senior advocate Indira Jaising’s intervention in the Bombay high court. VV was ultimately released on medical bail in February this year. Stan remained an optimist till almost the very end. Arun Ferreira described how he would dress up every evening, expecting either a call from his Jesuit friends or from the lawyers. Imagine Stan’s bail on merits was filed on November 26, 2020. His lawyer Sharif Shaikh completed his arguments within a month’s time. Both the NIA and the NIA court are squarely to blame for dragging the bail application for another four months for one reason or the other. The NIA court’s rejection of Stan’s bail application came five months later on March 24, 2021!

Steady deterioration 

His bail rejection by the NIA court started the slow but steady decline of Fr Stan’s optimism. But it was after the second round of COVID-19 hit Taloja jail and its inmates started falling ill, with some of them dying, that it took a bigger toll on Stan’s health. According to his attendant Arun Ferreira, Stan slowly starting losing hope that he would see freedom. This also explains why when at the high court hearing on May 21, he was expressing this apprehension when he told the high court judge to send him back to Ranchi or he would prefer to die in jail, like a true Satyagrahi.

Also read: Killing Him Softly With His Song: A Requiem for Father Stan Swamy

The case of negligence by the jail authorities is another horror story. Stan was showing symptoms of COVID-19 on the day he was taken to JJ Hospital, but still he was administered a vaccination, which could have proved fatal. The travel of 84 km from Taloja jail to the JJ Hospital and back on two or three occasions would have worsened his condition. Possibly, Stan getting admitted at the Holy Family Hospital on May 29, after urgent orders of the Bombay high court, came just in time to save him from immediate death. But it was too late to save his health. Within a few days, he tested positive for COVID-19 and had to be shifted to ICU. As Dr Ian D’ Souza informed a shocked high court on Monday, July 5, at 2:30 pm that Stan had breathed his last around 1:30 pm, the cause was post-COVID-19 complications.

The jail administration, the state government, the NIA and the NIA court have all reacted in the same way with Varavara Rao, Hany Babu and Stan. All three tested positive after being hospitalised with health complications. In all bail applications filed for the BK accused, the NIA has a stock reply that the accused are taking advantage of the pandemic. By this absurd logic, did all three contract COVID-19 to take advantage of the pandemic? And the NIA court has rejected all bail applications during the pandemic, including that of Shoma Sen and Sudha Bhardwaj, stating that the high power committee rules drawn by the state government and high court for de-congestion of jails do not apply to those accused under UAPA.

In a way, Stan has had the last laugh. His death has exposed the twisted state of India’s criminal justice system as it stands today. Maybe in death, Stan has shown just how urgent is the need for reforms to ensure rule of law, which is what he fought for till the very end.

Susan Abraham is a lawyer and wife of one of the Bhima Koregaon 16, Vernon Gonsalves.