The death of Fr. Stan Swamy in extremely tragic circumstances on July 5 will be mourned by all those who believe in the most basic human values. He will be remembered by countless people for his very strong commitment to justice and for standing up for his beliefs and values with great courage. He will be remembered as a champion of rights of indigenous people, and the protection of environment which is linked closely to these cultures. His death, and the endless suffering which followed the arrest of the 83 year old ailing Jesuit priest about nine months back, will be recorded as an extremely sad event in the history of Indian democracy– a great tragedy that could have been easily avoided even at a late stage.
To understand the enormity of the tragedy and the immense harm caused to the Indian nation, democracy and federalism, we need to look at the condolence messages of various chief ministers, as reported in media. The Chief Minister of Jharkhand, Hemant Soren, has stated that Fr. Stan Swamy had dedicated his life for rights of tribal communities . Pointing out that he had strongly opposed the arrest of Fr. Swamy, Soren has regretted the absolute apathy shown by the union government. The Chief Minister of Kerala P. Vijayan has said it is highly unjustifiable that a man who fought all through his life for the society’s most downtrodden had to die in custody. He added that such travesty of justice should have no place in our democracy. The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu M.K. Stalin after describing Fr. Stan Swamy as someone who fought for the downtrodden has said that the tragedy that befell him should not happen to anyone.
The death of Fr. Stan Swamy in these tragic circumstances has been deeply regretted also by the international community. As per messages reported already in the media, Eamon Gilmore, Europan Union’s Special Representative for Human Rights has said that Fr. Stan Swamy was a defender of indigenous people’s rights and the European Union had been expressing concern regarding his condition. UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Mary Lawlor, has stated that the news of this death has been very devastating. Calling Fr. Stan Swamy a human rights defender, she said that jailing a human rights defender is inexcusable. She regretted that he was arrested on false charges of terrorism.
This small selection of national and international deep regret at the highly tragic death of Fr. Swamy is indicative of the great sadness and wide resentment among people, compounded by the fact that a period of several months was available to correct the initial serious mistake of his arbitrary and unjustified arrest and so many people and eminent persons had been trying continuously to draw attention to the serious mistake during this period.
He has been in jail for nearly 9 months now. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease, often found it difficult to hold a glass, had hearing difficulties , had undergone surgeries, suffered from many-age-related ailments. There was additional risk of Covid infection in jail. Allegations against him had been refuted by several eminent persons with a very well-established reputation for being firm believers in peace and who had known Fr. Stan Swamy and his work
Those who had demanded his release and emphasized his innocence included at least two chief ministers, prominent opposition leaders, eminent academics and public persons, associations of Jesuit priests and other priests in India, similar associations at the international level based in other countries, human rights organizations in India and abroad, Christian organizations in India and abroad, and so the list goes on. Surely the Indian government should have responded in a better way for justice for such a senior person and others who have been placed in a similar position of arrest which is very widely perceived to be highly unjust. A list of all such persons should be carefully prepared with the help of eminent jurists including retired senior judges and such persons should be released as early as possible.
Opposing his arrest much earlier this writer had stated—“In the case of a very elderly person with several ailments like Fr. Stan Swamy an additional question is—who is responsible if , God forbid, something even more serious happens to him in jail? There are Covid times and as emphasized by several persons of world-level fame including United Nations senior officials, there is special need for protecting the health and life of eminent persons jailed as political prisoners.”
Bharat Dogra is a veteran journalist and author . His recent books include When the Two Streams Met ( Freedom Movement of India), Man Over Machine ( Gandhian ideas for our times) and Protecting Earth for Children.