Mr Singh- -
In an early morning raid on his house at Ranchi (Jharkhand), social activist and Roman Catholic Father Stan Swamy, 84, was arrested under India’s notorious Unlawful Activities Prevention Act on 28 August 2018, accused of links with Maoist insurgents. The sole shred of evidence was an unsigned email from someone else’s confiscated computer using the word “comrade”, alleged to have been sent by Swami. US forensic agency Arsenal Consulting termed the email “planted”. Swami suffered from Parkinsonism. He could hardly walk or lift a glass of water. The jail authorities refused to provide him a straw with a sipper. Thereupon he petitioned the court for a straw. It took the court a month to allow him one.
Swami on July 5, after almost three years in jail. His multiple bail applications were rejected.. Swami’s death aggrieved not only international human rights organisations but also people from thall walks of life. At a briefing in Geneva, UN Human Rights Commission spokeswoman Liz Throssell said the agency had repeatedly urged India’s government to protect a robust civil society.
The media called his death a “custodial death” and an “institutional murder.” Human rights activists and the US religious-freedom organisation had called for his release along with others. The others included professor Shoma Sen, 71, head of Nagpur University’s English department, a cardiac and skin-disease patient, Surendra Gadling, 53, almost blind, Mahesh Raut, 34, a patient of ulcerative colitis and others, mostly covid-19 patients. The jail authorities refused to provide them with oximeters and a folding chair for an easy toilette.
The misuse of draconian laws and ill treatment of elderly prisoners call into question India’s claim of being a democracy respecting human values. In a statement issued through general secretary Anindita Pujari, the Bar Association of India said Swami’s death ‘brought disrepute to the Indian legal system. Stan Swamy died due to cruel and unusual institutional mistreatment’.
Swami was a hard nut to crack for the government. He not only mounted campaigns against the government for rights of Adivasis (tribals) but also lambasted the government’s lethargy towards implementing the tribals’ constitutional rights.
Fr Swami’s death has once again brought into limelight use of India’s draconian laws to stifle dissent. Media calls Swami’s death a “death in police custody”. Thus, the world community is questioning why India has not yet ratified the convention against torture.
Jharkhand has over 40 percent of India’s mineral resources, but 39.1 percent of the population is below the poverty line and 19.6 percent of under-five children malnourished. The state is primarily rural, with only 24 percent of the population in cities.
Jharkhand is rich in uranium. The government had embarked upon an ambitious programme to extract iy. It cared little for the hazards of radiation on the tribals. Swamy associated himself with the Jharkhand Organisation against Uranium Radiation.
His campaign forced the government to stop building a tailing dam in Chaibasa. It would have led to displacement of Adivasis in Jadugoda’s Chatikocha area. Encouraged by this success, Swami then launched a campaign for rehabilitation of the displaced communities of Bukaro, Santhal Parganas and Koderma.
Swami was rueful at arbitrary arrest of innocent people in Jharkhand and the miserable plight of the prisoners under trial on fabricated charges. In 2010 he published a book titled, ‘Jail Mein Band Qaidiyon Ka Sach’ (the truth about the prisoners in jails). One point he highlighted was that youth were falsely implicated in case to send them behind the bars. One common charge was that they had links with the Naxalbari, a charge which was ultimately slapped on him also.
In his book, he highlighted the fact that 97 percent of those arrested were so poor they could not afford a lawyer. Swami found that the family income of the arrested youths was less Rs 5000. Incidentally it is pointed out that the UAPA had altered the maxim “innocent until proven guilty” to “guilty until proven innocent”. As such, a lawyer was necessary in each case. . .
In 2014, the government’s own national-crime reporting agency published a report pointing out 98 percent of the 3000 arrested youths were innocent. Some had already served years in jail without trial. Swami worked tirelessly to hire lawyers for the arrested persons and pay for their bail.
Fr Swamy became a bête noire for the government when he began to question why the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution relating to Adivasis (tribals) was not being implemented. The Schedule provided for a ‘Tribes’ Advisory Council’ composed solely of member of the Adivasi community in each state. The Governor was empowered to look after the wellbeing and development of the Adivasi communities. Swami proved with facts and figures that since independence no governor reached out to the tribals to understand their problems.
Swami highlighted that Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act [PESA], 1996 was “neatly ignored” and “had deliberately been left unimplemented in all the nine states.” This Act for the first time recognized the fact that the Adivasi communities in India have had a rich social and cultural tradition of self governance through the Gram Sabha (village council). He tirelessly organised the Adivasis to fight for their rights under PESA.
This turned into the Pathalgadi movement in 2017, which played an important role in highlighting the State’s negligence on PESA. In Swami’s own words, “As for the Pathalgadi issue, I have asked the question ‘Why are Adivasis doing this?’ I believe they have been exploited and oppressed beyond tolerance. The rich minerals which are excavated in their land have enriched outsider industrialists and businessmen and impoverished the Adivasi people to the extent there are starvation deaths taking place.”
Swami bitterly criticised the government’s apathy to the 1997 of the Supreme Court’s Samadha judgement, which provided safeguards for the Adivasis to control the excavation of minerals in their lands and to help develop them.
Swami questioned the lack of implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006. As per his findings, from 2006 to 2011, about three million applications were made under FRA countrywide for title-deeds, of which 1.1 million were approved but 1.4 million rejected and 500,000 pending. He also found out the Jharkhand government is trying to bypass the Gram Sabha in the process of acquiring forest land for industry.
He bitterly criticised the recent amendment to the Land Acquisition Act 2013. He called it a “death knell” for Adivasis, insisting it ended the requirement for “Social Impact Assessment” aimed at safeguarding the environment, social relations and cultural values of affected people. The most damaging factor, he said, was that the government can allow any agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes. He also questioned the ‘Land Bank’ which he saw as the most recent plot to annihilate the Adivasi people.
Swami’s death is bracketed with custodial deaths in India. India is yet to ratify the UN convention against torture. A recent report by an international human-rights’ body, the National Campaign against Torture reveals as many as 1731 custodial deaths in India in 2019. Victims were mostly from vulnerable communities, Dalits, Muslims and Adivasis. This works out to five custodial deaths daily. More ominously, 1,606 died in judicial custody and 125 in police custody.
The analysis reveals 75 of the total 125 deaths in police custody belonged to poor and marginalized communities, including 13 Dalits and Adivasi, and 15 Muslims, while 35 were picked up for petty crimes. The report reveals that women continued to be tortured or targeted for sexual violence in custody. During 2019, the deaths of four in police custody were reported. Fr Swami’s death has once again brought into limelight use of India’s draconian laws to stifle dissent. Media calls Swami’s death a “death in police custody”. Thus, the world community is questioning why India has not yet ratified the convention against torture.
Swami never went to Bhim Koregaon, where he allegedly incited people to violence. The UAPA is brutally applied to incarcerate people for long periods. Bashir Ahmad of Srinagar spent 11 years in jail before being released as innocent. Another Kashmiri, Nisar, spent 23. Swami had been a vocal critic of the government’s attempts to amend land laws. During June 2018 thereafter, the BJP government jailed 16 in connection with the 2018 violence in Bhima Koregaon village in Maharashtra state. They included, besides Swami, some of India’s most-respected scholars, lawyers, academicians, cultural activists, and an ageing radical poet, who then contracted Covid-19 in prison.
Indian government should haul up the officials responsible for Swami’s death (as the USA did over Floyd Patteraon’s suffocation)