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In his video testimony recorded two days before his arrest by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on October 8, 2020, Father Stan Swamy said that he was pleased to not be a silent spectator in the face of injustice and was willing to pay the price for dissent. Even moments before India’s criminal justice system failed him, Swamy was resolute in his belief in the Constitution, truth and justice.
I did not know Swamy personally, but I feel like I did. As a young woman finding my place within India’s civil society, I find Swamy embedded in the collective consciousness that drives us all. Swamy was emblematic of what democracy means to those of us who fight for it everyday and envision a just world.
For human rights defenders in India, it is easy to be cynical. Stan Swamy was special, not only because of his lifelong struggle for India’s most disadvantaged communities – the Dalits and Adivasis – but also because of the love and empathy that drove his struggle.
In his tribute to Swamy, Arun Ferreira recounts that Swamy had conditioned himself to eat half a meal, as other tribal families around him did, and 50 years of maintaining this habit had made his stomach shrink. Swamy transformed himself to relate to the lived reality of those he worked for; he learned from experience the difficulty of raising slogans on a half-empty stomach. His fight was not easy, but his vision was singular; undivided by the institutions that plague our country today.
Even as a Jesuit Priest, he challenged the Church and religion at large, shunning religious beliefs that did not come to the aid of the people. He fought till the very end for the rights of people – their communities, their land, their rivers and foremost, their freedom of thought.
One day before Swamy breathed his last, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) directed the Maharashtra government to make all possible efforts to provide him with medical care. However, Swamy had already predicted his own death in custody, much earlier than the NHRC cared to notice.
On May 21, 2021, Swamy had testified before the Bombay high court and had spoken of his ill health in Taloja jail. Stating that his health would not improve even if he was transferred to J.J. Hospital, he pleaded to be granted interim bail and allowed to go to Ranchi – his home – before his death.
The NHRC had been aware of the threats and harassment that Swamy had been facing since before his arrest by the NIA. Swamy’s house had been raided twice; he was implicated in the Bhima Koregaon case without ever having visited the place himself; and he was also charged with sedition in another case by the Jharkhand Police. The Human Rights Defenders Alert (HRDA), a human rights organisation in India, consistently wrote to the NHRC, seeking intervention and justice for Swamy, but the Commission remained unmoved.
For instance, on June 13, 2019, the HRDA wrote to the NHRC regarding the raid conducted on Swamy’s house in Jharkhand by the Maharashtra Police without a valid search warrant. More than a year later, on July 7, 2020, the Commission stated that a similar case, on which the NHRC had taken suo-moto cognisance, had already been closed on December 10, 2018 and thus, no further intervention of the Commission was required.
However, the case that the Commission was referring to relates to the arrests of human rights defenders Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha and Arun Ferreira in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case and makes absolutely no mention of the raids conducted on Swamy’s residence. Moreover, the case was closed by the Commission solely based on the reports submitted by the director-general of police (DGP) of Maharashtra without seeking interventions by civil society members or the accused human rights defenders.
When the HRDA wrote to the Commission regarding Swamy’s arrest by the NIA on October 8, 2020, it closed the case citing the report of the NIA. The report stated that due procedure was followed in Swamy’s and that he “cannot seek any protection or cover in the name of infringement of human rights whereas his act itself is against the security of the state and law”.
The NHRC took this comment by the NIA on face value despite being well aware that Swamy was an undertrial prisoner whose guilt had never been proven. The NHRC not only overlooked, but supported the arrest of an 84-year-old human rights defender and allowed him to be taken from Ranchi to Mumbai during the peak of the pandemic. The report of the NIA was not sent to the HRDA for comments, contrary to due procedure, even though the HRDA had written to the NHRC about the same on December 15, 2020.
While Swamy was in prison, the HRDA and other civil society members wrote to the NHRC regarding his failing health, lack of medical attention in prison, risk of contracting COVID-19 and the denial of vaccination to prisoners. On May 20, 2021, the NHRC asked for an action report from the director general of prisons, Yerawada Central Prison. On July 5, a reminder was issued to the authority for the report. On August 17, another reminder was issued to the authority and while sending this reminder, the NHRC stated that taking a “lenient view with regard to the pandemic”, the authority had been granted more time to submit the report.
It is crucial to observe here that on July 5, 2021, Swamy passed away due to lack of healthcare and inhuman prison conditions during the pandemic. In spite of this, the NHRC took a ‘lenient view’ with authorities, citing the pandemic instead of taking up an urgent intervention in favour of his health which was endangered by the pandemic.
The directive issued by the NHRC to the Mahrashtra government on July 4, 2021 to pay adequate attention to Swamy’s health is an act of saving face and doing too little when it was clearly too late. While Swamy was being threatened, raided, falsely implicated in cases in spite of no evidence, the NHRC repeatedly delayed urgent interventions in the matter; did not follow its own Practice Direction 17 in sending reports by authorities to the complainants for their comments; did not send reminders to authorities for taking urgent actions on the issue; and closed cases based on reports submitted by concerned authorities, rather than independently investigating the allegations made by civil society.
It seems clear that in the fight to save Swamy, the NHRC stood firmly with the state that incarcerated him, rather than following its mandate to actively protect human rights defenders from reprisals.
The injustice meted out to Swamy is reminiscent of India’s last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. For his participation in the revolt of 1857, Zafar was charged with treason, exiled to Burma, and buried in an unmarked grave after his death. His last wish of being buried in Mehrauli, in his home and country, was not fulfilled by the British. He wanted to spend his last days in prison writing poetry, but the British denied him pen and paper.
But we had expected this cruelty from our colonisers. Our ancestors had fought hard against this cruelty, and I don’t think they would have fought so hard if they could see the country as it stands today; where a man like Swamy, who spent his life fighting for the ideals that independent India was built upon, was falsely accused for his human rights work; harassed, imprisoned, denied a straw and sipper, denied a chance to visit his home before his death, denied the last chance to walk as a free man.
We had expected this tyranny from our oppressors, not from a government that we willed into power.
The Indian state persecuted Swamy simply because it could. But what the state did to Swamy is symbolic of something larger. It means that the state wants to keep India’s Dalits and Adivasis away from positions of power. It does not want them to be aware of their rights, lest they start demanding them.
The state intends to continue the disenfranchisement of its communities and will persecute anyone who dares to showcase its injustice to the world. And the state has emerged victorious – the people that Swamy had endlessly worked for have lost their voice yet again; first it took away their rights, then their land, and in the end, it took their spirited leader.
However, to the state’s dismay, Swamy will remain as powerful in death as in life; his courage, empathy, and unwavering commitment to justice will continue to be an inspiration to those who had known him and to those who are only now starting to.
Prachi Lohia is an independent researcher in the field of human rights.