New Delhi: In July 2021, the death of Fr. Stan Swamy, the 84-year-old Jesuit sociologist and Bhima Koregaon undertrial, sparked a nation-wide outpouring of anger and sadness. Arrested on 8th October 2020 amidst the pandemic by the National Investigative Agency, Swamy’s arrest was the 16th in what has come to be known as the Bhima-Koregaon case (read Article 14’s report on Swamy’s work and the NIA’s charges against him here).
Swamy was never interrogated over the nine months that he was incarcerated in Taloja Prison outside Mumbai. An NIA court rejected his bail plea in March 2021.
The only time Swamy had a chance to appear in court was when a Bombay High Court Bench asked for him to be presented via video-conferencing from Taloja jail on the afternoon of 21 May. With multiple ailments, including Parkinson’s disease, diminished hearing, heart trouble and by then COVID-19 contracted in prison, Swamy was visibly ailing. He told the court that prison conditions were steadily destroying his abilities to read, write and walk, and that he be granted bail to return to Ranchi to be with his own.
The request was not granted, and on 5 July 2021, Swamy passed away in Mumbai’s Holy Family Hospital, where the court had allowed him to be admitted.
The Indian Social Institute Bangalore (ISI), where Swamy served as director for over a decade (1975 - 1986), released a collection of his writings ‘I Am Not A Silent Spectator. An Autobiographical Fragment, Memory and Reflection’ on 3 August in Ranchi, Jharkhand, at a public meeting, broadcast online here (at 3 pm).
Swamy wrote the book over 2019 while he spent some months at the ISI to chronicle key experiences which shaped his life. “Some episodes were turning points in my life, some opened new vistas of involvement, some raised question marks on what I was doing, some brought in new colleagues/comrades into my life, some genuine expressions of solidarity from all and sundry with the tribulations and harassments I have gone through in the process of my humble efforts in quest of truth and justice,” he wrote.
June 1975, ‘National Emergency’ was declared. Thousands of political leaders, intellectuals, activists were either thrown behind bars or held under house-arrest. The media was brought to its knees. Only a couple of newspapers had the courage to leave their editorial column blank as a sign of protest. Critical-minded intellectuals, writers, authors were anxiously awaiting the midnight-knock at their door. Since dissent to Emergency could not be expressed openly, confidential communications about what was happening in different parts of the country were passed from hand to hand in cyclostyled sheets. An atmosphere of fear pervaded the whole society. People talked in whispers.
Justification for the declaration of the Emergency was announced through what was called the ‘Twenty Points Programme’. The very first point was ‘Land to the tiller’. I, Stan Swamy, had just taken charge of Indian Social Institute Training Centre (ISI-TC), Bangalore. It was the training organ of the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi. My colleagues, apart from their academic qualifications, were persons who had emerged from Trade and Labour Union backgrounds. ISI-TC, together with several other individuals, groups and organizations joined protests and demonstrations against the Emergency in whatever way possible.
We realized that times had changed. Militant youth were walking out of universities calling the university education irrelevant and searching for meaningful alternatives. The very respectable and charismatic leader Jayprakash Narayan of Bihar gave a call for civil disobedience. College students in their thousands came out on the streets looking for a leader who would lead and guide them in their search for new meanings.
The ISI-TC, started in the 1950s, had been conducting training sessions of various durations to women and men involved in socio-economic development works. The thrust was to ‘equip them with skills’ in agriculture, animal husbandry, cooperatives, community development and so on. But already by the 1970s, the unavoidable realization began to dawn, that so-called ‘development’ was eluding those who most needed it. This was so because it was all “top-down”. The justification was that ‘development’ would “trickle-down”. Sadly, the poor are looking up all the time but hardly anything has trickled down to them.
As this “trickle-down” ideology engulfed the countries of the Global South (Central and Latin America, Africa and Asia), the philosophy enunciated by Paulo Freire in his small booklet The Pedagogy of the Oppressed began to ring a bell to the oppressed. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed advocated, that if the oppressed would be conscientised (awakened) about their situation, the contradictions prevalent in their society, and the mechanisms of exploitation and oppression, they would rise up and devise ways of freeing themselves from oppression.
As there was no Indian edition of the book, we summarized the book into a few pages, photocopied it and shared it among all the activists who were in touch with ISI, Bangalore. Our friends in the field translated it in their local vernaculars, and through informal education, we began delivering the message to the deprived people in our areas of involvement.
A new enthusiasm on the part of people became visible. One fine morning in the early 1970s, a group of students who had left their professional colleges walked into ISI-TC and said to the director, “Please teach us Marxism”! It came as a wakening call to us, the teaching staff, and we asked ourselves “How do we respond to this new demand of this new generation?”
We introduced ‘socio-political analyses’ as the main thrust, followed by methods of mobilizing / organizing the exploited and oppressed masses to claim their due rights in society. As the appeal of the ‘Social Analysis’ course caught on, we staff members were called upon to give shorter courses here, there and everywhere. We did not shy away from acknowledging that the content of our social analysis was based on the Marxian tools of analysis.
Batch after batch of young people, especially from deprived communities, came and participated wholeheartedly in our training programme. They went back to their respective communities to educate and organize themselves. In their efforts to spread the knowledge of social analysis to their colleagues who were not in a position to come to ISI for the three-months course, they called on us to go to their places to give shorter sessions ranging from 10 – 15 days.
Responding to their call, I myself went to different parts of the country as well as to the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to give training sessions. Within India, the communities which drew me to them like a magnet were the Dalits in Tamil Nadu and the Adivasis of central India (present Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh).
The Dalits in Tamil Nadu were becoming increasingly aware of the prevalent economic and social oppression. They had been drawn to the philosophy and way shown by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, and had started to mobilize themselves forming some significant movements. The Adivasi communities in central India were still reeling under the plunder of their natural resources and could not strike a clear way out.
In Sri Lanka, the Tamil plantation workers in the central part of the country, who had been the victims of severe exploitation and oppression, called on me several times. I responded to their call by going to them every other year until the pogrom against Tamils began in 1983.
Hailing from Tamil Nadu and having become a Jesuit, I searched for a place and people to whom I could be of greater help. With the help of some friends, I came to know of the indigenous, Adivasi societies in central India – a place where despite tremendous natural wealth, the people were very poor. I arrived in the district of Singhbhum and was assigned to teach in an Adivasi boys’ high school. I wanted to learn more about my students, and so I spent my holidays with them–going from one village to another, meeting people, speaking to them and getting to know them.
In one such village, I was staying at a student’s home. It was mango season. One morning, we were sitting in their courtyard under a mango tree laden with fruits. My student’s father pointed to a few branches of the tree and asked his son to bring down the ripe fruits. The boy did as he was told, and we enjoyed some of the fruits together. But my attention was drawn to one particular branch of the tree, which was still laden with ripe mangoes. The boy’s father had not asked him to pluck any fruit from that branch, and I thought that perhaps he had failed to notice it. So, I pointed to the branch and said, “There are plenty of ripe fruits on this branch. Why didn’t you ask your son to pick those too?” He responded very simply, saying, “Those are fruits for the birds of the air. Nature has given freely, and so we share freely.” This incident forced me to question my value system.
I learnt their Ho language and spent a lot of time with the youth, most of whom could not have education beyond primary or middle school-level. Their socio-cultural values of equality, primacy of community over family and individual, mutual cooperation, readiness to share without counting, closeness to nature and the practice of consensus decision-making came as new revelations to me and my friends. I realised more than ever how the present capitalist order stands in direct contrast to Indigenous values insofar as inequality is the hallmark of success in life, cut-throat competition is the order of the day, sharing is a bad word, individual achievement is the ultimate goal, and majority versus minority is the sign of democracy.
A rude shock awaited me when I saw how unscrupulous outsider-traders exploited and cheated the simple Adivasi villagers when they went to local markets/bazaars to exchange their forest produce for items they needed such as clothing and household utensils. Even ruder was the shock to witness how government bureaucrats at every level looked down upon Adivasis and treated them with scant regard bordering contempt.
I took a square look at myself and asked myself if I should not commit the rest of my life for the cause of Adivasi societies in such a way that my life would make even a little bit of difference in their search/struggle for self-respect and dignity.
When one opens the morning newspaper or opens a TV news channel in the Adivasi states of Central-Eastern India, one finds media reports of one or more Adivasi and Dalit youth being sent to jail on the suspicion of being naxals or helpers/sympathizers of Naxals. According to media reports, several hundreds of Adivasi and Dalit youth are languishing in the jails of Jharkhand as Naxal suspects.
When the general reading/viewing public gets used to this as a matter of daily occurrence and finds nothing amiss, it is a dangerous sign for democracy. Sadly, most of the educated, urban, middle-class public approves of this police action and is happy thinking that the police are doing a ‘good job’ against what is called “Naxalite-menace”.
Getting bail is not within the reach of most under-trial prisoners. For one thing, the lower courts consistently refuse to grant a bail to anyone accused of being a Naxalite. This means that the prisoner has to approach the High Court, and sometimes the Supreme Court to get bail.
The second factor is the expenses involved. An average expense at the level of the High Court is between ten to twenty thousand rupees. How many rural Adivasi families can afford this expense? In fact, most families are not even in a position to allow them to come to the jail to meet their dear ones. At the same time, the government does not reach out to them by providing free legal aid.
In short, the several hundreds of Adivasi/Dalit under-trial prisoners in Jharkhand alone are condemned to languish in jail for years to come. We can be sure that when the trial would take place, most of them might be acquitted. Regrettably, there has not been any time limit within which the trial has to take place. Again, the Adivasis are the victims. Justice delayed is justice denied.
A point of serious concern is that when the rights of people are denied outright and wholesale, at least we know where we stand. But when constitutional/legal/judicial rights are given by one hand and surreptitiously taken away by the other hand, it is a deceptive game being played by the powers that be on the life of those deprived people. Are they to wait indefinitely hoping against hope?
In 2015, we at Bagaicha, felt that we should not rest with the media reports but should find out the reality ourselves. First, we approached jail-superintendents for permission to go inside the jails to interview the Under-Trial Prisoners but our request was flatly refused; then we sent a questionnaire as per the Right to Information Act (RTI) to all jail-superintendents of all the 24 jails of Jharkhand.
As per the Act, the respondent must answer the request for information within 30 days of receipt of the application. We patiently waited for two months and only 12 of the 24 jail superintendents bothered to respond; and that too, haphazardly. We, then, complained to the Inspector General of Prisons. However, he too washed his hands of the responsibility, saying that he was new to the job, did not know the precedents, and hence, could not act on our complaint.
The Bagaicha Research Team, then, decided to do a sociological sample study of Under-Trial Prisoners (UTPs) who were out of jail on bail but who still run to the courts for every date of hearing where no trial-hearing takes place but instead they only get the next date! The research team consisted of Bagaicha staff and some UTPs. The sample study took six months to complete. The Team met 102 UTPs in their own homes in 18 of Jharkhand’s 24 districts. The Research Report was published in October 2016 and brought to light some startling facts:
(1) Of the 102 persons interviewed; only three admitted that they had any relation with any naxal/Maoist groups. That means, 97 per cent of those jailed as naxal-suspects are likely to be innocent. Can there be a greater injustice done to the hapless Adivasis/Dalits?
(2) The proportion of Adivasis and Dalits to those of general categories was far higher than that found in the general population;
(3) Most of them were picked up by the police either from their homes or from buses/trains on the way to the market/town, thus disproving the police version that they were captured in the forests as they were trying to flee;
(4) Two-thirds of them were in the age group of 18-35 years, just the age when a young man becomes an active member of the community, and most of all is the breadwinner of the family. By being suddenly plucked away and thrown into jail, the whole family is irreparably affected, and often their small assets sold or mortgaged. In short, several families have been reduced to destitution;
(5) Most of them did not even know why they were arrested until chargesheets were filed and they saw to their horror that they were implicated in too many legal clauses; and it would take years before they come out clean from all the litigations. In other words, their family lives have been ruined permanently;
(6) ‘Bail is a right of the prisoner’, but who will bail them out? Even if the court grants bail, one has to look for ‘bailers’ and lawyers to pursue the case; all this costs several thousand rupees which is far above their capacity. Hence, most of them, their families and communities, have been suffering in silence.
The Bagaicha Research Team felt that having found out the truth, we had to act on it. The only way of doing this was to take recourse to legal action. After consulting several legal professionals, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed in the Jharkhand High Court towards the end of 2017. The PIL got admitted in January 2018, with Stan Swamy listed as the main petitioner.
The Chief Justice, even as he admitted the case, directed the state to furnish all the required information about all the UTPs in Jharkhand. It is now one-and-a-half years and Jharkhand state is yet to submit the complete details of all the prisoners. All kinds of excuses have been proffered before the court. Some eminent lawyers have offered to argue the case. However, the case has not come to the argumentation stage yet, since we do not have all the required information about all the UTPs of Jharkhand.
Our prayer before the HC is: (1) that all UTPs in Jharkhand jails be released on personal bond since they cannot afford regular bond; 46 (2) that their trial-process be speeded up with the certainty that most of them will be acquitted; (3) that a judicial commission be appointed to find out and rectify the inordinate delay leading to so much human suffering and denial of their human and constitutional rights; (4) that the police officers who deliberately and illegally arrested them be given exemplary punishment; (5) that a just and adequate compensation be paid to the families of those acquitted. We have been hoping against hope that justice will be done to the unjustly imprisoned Under-Trials.
We feel that this PIL, of which I am the main Petitioner, has become a thorn in the flesh of the state government since it takes to task the state for its deliberate persecution of Adivasis and Dalits. The state, in this case, has much to hide. The real purpose is to irreparably maim Adivasi and Dalit communities by incapacitating the younger generation. Even if they manage to get bail, they would be running to the courts for years.
They would have spent their limited resources and would be forced to move out of their homes/villages/communities just to eke out a living as casual/ contract labourers. Their small children will be growing up without paternal love and care. Their strong community-bond and their community-based culture will dissipate.
The onslaught on their land, forest, despite so-called ‘protective laws’, would continue unabated all in the name of ‘national development’. If there is strong resistance against land alienation and consequent displacement, the ‘law of eminent domain’ of the state would be liberally used. It is a well laid out plan to extinguish the Adivasi (indigenous) and Dalit peoples as distinct social groups asserting their special constitutional and human rights. It is, hence, all the more important that this case, on behalf of the thousands of Under-Trial Prisoners, be fought till justice is done. But the state is doing all it can to see that it does not reach that stage. (Editor’s note: In 2019, the Jharkhand High Court merged Swamy’s petition with three other petitions on prison reforms. There has been no hearing since October 2019. )
At 6 a.m. on 28 August 2018, I heard loud footsteps outside my room at Bagaicha. On opening my door, I saw standing in front of me a local police contingent of about 30 men with rifles and lathis. A small group of eight persons in civil clothes came forward. They introduced themselves as the Pune Police and said they had come to raid my premises and search me. I asked for a search-warrant and the chief produced a typed sheet. However, I found it was typed in Marathi language.
I told them that I do not understand Marathi, and hence, need an English or Hindi translation so that I could understand why they had come to search me. At this, the officer said the translation could wait but that the search had to be done right away; he brushed me aside and forcibly entered my living-cum-work room. They spent three hours turning everything upside down. I asked the officer why they were doing this to me. He replied, “You are a ‘suspect’ in the Bhima-Koregaon case in Pune”.
This shocked me because I have never been to Bhima-Koregaon in all my life nor had I anything to do with what happened there on 1 January 2018. They seized my laptop, mobile and sim card, some CDs and some documents lying on my table. No restrictions with regard to my regular activities or movements or contacts were imposed on me and my confrères and I carried on with our activities as ever before.
Almost ten months later, at 7 a.m. on 12 June 2019, the Pune police accompanied by about 30 local police arrived again at Bagaicha. This time, they were led by the Assistant Police Commissioner of Pune. He and his team of eight forcibly entered my living-cum-work room and started rummaging through everything. This time around they took away the hard disk from my computer and some documents lying on my table. I faced the unique distinction of being raided twice in a span of one year.
What lies behind this Bhima-Koregaon episode? Most concerned persons are intrigued by the Pune police action. They have been asking, “What exactly happened at Bhima-Koregaon and why have eminent writers, lawyers, poets and social activists, who have given the most and best of their life for the cause of exploited and marginalized people, been harassed to the extent of not even getting bail even after one year of their incarceration? (Editor’s note: The earliest arrests in the case took place in June 2018, and these undertrials have spent over 3 years in prison now.)
My lawyers, colleagues and I believe that the real reason I have been implicated in these cases might be the challenge I have posed to the state in Jharkhand by the PIL I filed in the High Court of Jharkhand on behalf of thousands of Under-Trial Prisoners (UTPs) languishing in the jails of Jharkhand. In this context, several concerned social activists and lawyers from central Indian states had given a call to each other to come together and chalk out a way to come to the rescue of the thousands of UTPs in all four central-eastern (Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and West Bengal) states.
We had come together towards the end of 2015 and had formed an informal body called the Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee (PPSC). It is an open body with no formal membership but with the resolve that we would collaborate with each other and have recourse to legal action. I happen to be a co-convener of this body as well. It is on the basis of the above study of under-trials that my PIL was formulated.
The state has much to hide; and hence, even after one-and-a-half years, it is not placing all the relevant facts regarding UTPs before the court. But I kept pressing on in every hearing. I have, thus, become a thorn in the flesh of the state and it is intent on getting me out of its way. The police force and those utilising them are obliged to help each other and the Bhima-Koregaon case is a convenient alibi to do that. The alleged reason given by the police is that PPSC, together with the Committee for Release of Political Prisoners and All India Peoples Lawyers, is a frontal organisation of the Maoists and that all these three organisations receive directives from Maoists and are funded by them!
The sober fact is that PPSC, of which I am a founder member and a co-convener, is a spontaneously-formed body of some concerned 42 citizens of central-eastern India who intend to reach out to the unjustly imprisoned Adivasi and Dalit youth. We meet as and when we feel the need to do so. We receive no funds from anybody. The expenses of board and lodge are met by mutual contributions, each one contributing as per one’s financial capacity and desire to do so. We are accountable to each other and together we are accountable to the Adivasi and Dalit peoples of central-eastern India. This should put to rest all speculations and cooked-up accusations.
Where will this all lead to, will there be an end to this harassment; and when will that ‘end’ come? It is hard even to guess. But even now, irreparable damage has been done to all the accused and incarcerated: their reputed standing in society has been seriously affected; their financial assets have dwindled, thus, severely affecting their respective families. Will, at least, the highest court of the land uncover the truth? This is the flickering hope that is still being nurtured. They say, ‘Truth will finally prevail’…but how long is it going to take? And how much damage is being done in the process?
(In October 2020, the NIA arrested Swamy from his one-room residence in Bagaicha, Ranchi. He had written the following note for release if and when he was arrested.)
Now, what is the ‘crime’ I’m supposed to have committed to warrant arrest? During the past three decades, I have tried to identify myself with the Adivasi People and their struggle for a life of dignity and self-respect. As a writer, I have tried to analyze the different issues they are faced with. In this process, I have clearly expressed dissent with several policies, laws enacted by the government in light of the Indian Constitution. I have questioned the validity, legality, justness of several steps taken by the government and the ruling class:
1. I have questioned the non-implementation of the 5th Schedule of the Constitution [Indian Constitution, Article 244(1)] which clearly stipulates that a ‘Tribes Advisory Council’ (TAC) composed solely of members from the Adivasi community who will advise the Governor of the State about 97 any and everything concerning the protection, well-being and development of the Adivasi people in the State.
2. I have asked why the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act [PESA],1996 has been neatly ignored which for the first time recognized the fact that Adivasi communities in India have had a rich social and cultural tradition of self-governance through the Gram Sabha.
3. I have expressed disappointment at the silence of the government on Samata Judgment, 1997 of the Supreme Court. The judgment was meant to provide some significant safeguards for the Adivasis to control the excavation of minerals in their lands and to help develop themselves economically.
4. I have cried aloud at the half-hearted action of the government on the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (which is) meant to correct the historic injustice done to the Adivasi and other traditional forest-dwellers.
5. I have queried why the government is unwilling to carry out the Supreme Court order ‘Owner of the land is also the owner of sub-soil minerals.’ [SC: Civil Appeal No 4549 of 2000] and continues auctioning coal-blocks to industrialists without a due share to owners of the land.
6. I have expressed my apprehension at the recently enacted Amendment to the ‘Land Acquisition Act 2013’ by the Jharkhand government which sounds a death-knell for the Adivasi Community. This does away with the requirement for ‘Social Impact Assessment’ and allows the government to give away even agricultural and multi-crop land for non-agricultural purposes.
7. I have strongly disagreed with the setting up of ‘Land Bank’ which I see as the most recent plot to annihilate the Adivasi people because it claims that all ‘gair-majurwa’ land (‘commons’) belong to the government and it is free to allot it to anybody (read industrial houses) to set up their small and big industries.
8. I have challenged the indiscriminate arrest of thousands of young Adivasis and Moolvasis under the label of ‘naxals’ just because they question and resist unjust land-alienation and displacement. I’ve taken legal action against the Jharkhand State by filing a PIL in the HC praying that: (i) all Under-Trial Prisoners (UTP) be released on bail on personal bond, (ii) speed up the trial process which surely will acquit most of them, (iii) appoint a judicial commission to probe the reasons why the trial process is indefinitely being delayed, (iv) the police submit all needed information about all UTPs to the petitioner. It is now more than two years since the case was admitted but the police are yet to provide all needed information about all UTPs.
Above are questions I have consistently raised. If this makes me a ‘desh drohi’ (traitor) deserving of life-sentence, then so be it!
(After his arrest in October 2020, Swamy wrote the following letter to a friend from Taloja prison)
First of all, I deeply appreciate the overwhelming solidarity expressed by many during these past 100 days behind bars. At times, news of such solidarity has given me immense strength and courage especially when the only thing certain in prison is uncertainty. Life here is on a day-to-day basis.
Another strength during these past hundred days, has been in observing the plight of the undertrials. A majority of them come from economically & socially weaker communities. Many of such poor undertrials don’t know what charges have been put on them, have not seen their charge sheet and just remain in prison for years without any legal or other assistance.
Overall, almost all undertrials are compelled to live to a bare minimum, whether rich or poor. This brings in a sense of brotherhood & communitarianism where reaching out to each other is possible even in this adversity. On the other hand, we sixteen co-accused have not been able to meet each other, as we are lodged in different jails or different ‘circles’ within the same jail. But we will still sing in chorus. A caged bird can still sing.
(Excerpted with permission from I Am Not A Silent Spectator. An Autobiographical Fragment, Memory and Reflection.)
Stan Swamy was a Jesuit sociologist and Adivasi rights activist in Jharkhand. He passed away on 5 July 2021 after nine months as an undertrial in the Bhima Koregaon case.