By R. Raj Rao
THE Elgar Parishad held in Pune District in January 2018, also known as the infamous Bhima-Koregaon meet that ended in violence, has seen its first casualty. On Monday, 84-year-old Stan Swamy breathed his last in Bombay’s Holy Family Hospital. Although reluctant to go to hospital, Swamy preferred the private Holy Family Hospital to the government-run JJ Hospital.
Swamy’s death has sparked outrage, both in India and abroad. The Congress’s Rahul Gandhi and the CPM’s Sitaram Yechury have called the death “state-sponsored murder”. The UN and the EU have condemned the death. The media too has come down heavily on the government for its cruelty to Swamy. Rajdeep Sardesai, Editor-in-Chief of India Today TV, said that the state has “blood on its hands.” Sreenivasan Jain of NDTV 24×7 believed that Swamy’s death was caused “by a combination of abuse of state power and judicial apathy.” He called the death “a failure of the criminal justice system.” Even former Supreme Court judges are appalled by Swamy’s death. Justice Madan B. Lokur, writing in The Wire, says, “The entire episode leaves behind a feeling that Stan Swamy was virtually thrust [with] a sentence of death, without charges being framed against him, and without a trial.” Advocate Vrinda Grover said, “The whole country needs to question Stan Swamy’s death; his work was against corporate interests.” Activist and economist Jean Dreze held, chillingly, that “the death was allowed to happen on purpose, to send a message to other activists.”
Soon after the Maha Vikas Aghadi took over the reins of the Maharashtra government in November 2019, the centre transferred the Bhima-Koregaon case from the Pune Police to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), fearing that the state government would go soft on the activists arrested in the case. Since then, the NIA has been consistently refusing bail to the activists, even though many of them have been struck with Covid and with other illnesses. Of the 16 activists arrested in the case, including Hany Babu, only one, the poet Varavara Rao, has been granted bail for a period of six months. Rao’s bail will shortly be coming to an end. Another activist, Gautam Navalakha, was given house arrest by the court in lieu of jail.
According to the NIA, the principal reason for refusal of bail to the activists is that they are “Urban Naxals” who have Maoist links. However, evidence from an independent US-based agency has shown that the alleged correspondence found in the computers of Stan Swamy, Varavara Rao, Rona Wilson and others, including a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Modi in a Rajiv Gandhi-style suicide-bombing attack, was actually malware planted in their devices to incriminate them. The activists have repeatedly denied any knowledge of how the 30-odd offending emails landed in their computers. In Swamy’s case, even searches conducted by the cops in his Ranchi office revealed nothing.
In a video released in October 2020, Stan Swamy said he was interrogated in jail for 15 hours over 5 days. He called his arrest a pogrom launched by the state to punish activists, poets, writers and students who dissented with the government’s policies. He said that of all the seditious emails attributed to him, only one innocuous email that he wrote to Sudha Bhardwaj, another activist arrested in the case, was genuine. All the other emails were manufactured. However, Swamy declared that he would not be a silent spectator to what went on in the country, and that he was ready to pay any price to put an end to the abuse of state power.
Indeed, the price Swamy paid was his life. The Bible says, “The wages of sin is death.” But Swamy died without committing any sin. On the contrary, he was a missionary and a Jesuit priest, who worked for the welfare of poor adivasi tribals in Jharkand State.
The very fact that Swamy was a Jesuit priest is enough to prove that he could not at the same time be a Maoist. Maoism is a radical Marxist ideology, and the Marxists abjure religion, with Marx famously calling religion “the opium of the people.”
On the contrary, I am tempted to compare Swamy’s death to the murder of Graham Staines, the Australian missionary, who was charred to death in his car, along with his two minor sons Philip and Timothy, by Bajrang Dal activists. Staines, who worked with adivasi tribals in Orissa, was killed on the suspicion of converting them to Christianity. Likewise, the charge of “promoting enmity among religions” has been levelled against Swamy, who worked with adivasi tribals in neighbouring Jharkand.
When Staines was murdered in January 1999, the BJP, under Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s leadership, was still nine months away from power at the centre. But today, when Swamy has died, the BJP is very much in power, but has done nothing to stall his death. After all, the prosecution that opposed Swamy’s bail in the NIA Court obviously acted at the behest of the union government. Adivasis, incidentally, are invisible to the ruling dispensation, who only seem to have an eye for corporate giants.
Neither the Prime Minister nor the Home Minister have condoled Swamy’s death. Wouldn’t it have magnanimous on their part to spare a word for him, like so many others in civil society, even though his ideology was diametrically opposed to theirs?
Besides being inflicted with Covid, Stan Swamy also suffered from Parkinson’s Disease. His hands constantly trembled. The Bombay High Court observed that Swamy had a hearing problem. In Swamy’s own words, he could neither write nor walk, and had to be fed by others. Yet he was denied even a straw sipper by the Taloja Jail, where he was incarcerated.
Maharashtra’s Taloja Jail, where most of the Bhima-Koregaon detainees are lodged, is a crumbling jail that houses over 3000 inmates, although the jail has a capacity to accommodate only 1400 prisoners. The only in-house doctor in the Taloja Jail is an ayurvedic doctor. But the NIA, perhaps in order to punish the activists, has refused to transfer them to other, more hospitable jails, although many of them are seriously in need of medical attention.
Like Varavara Rao, had Stan Swamy been released on bail, he would have perhaps survived. Rao too has been stricken with Covid and has very weak eyesight. (So much so, he is unable to read the 50 poems written by him that Maithri and I have co-translated from the Telugu).
The draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) under which Swamy was arrested has a conviction rate of just 2%. Recently, the Delhi High Court granted bail to student activists Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal, arrested after the anti-CAA Delhi riots of February 2020. Last week, the NIA Court also acquitted Akhil Gogoi, arrested under the UAPA. Yet, Justice V. K. Aiyer’s view that bail should be the rule and jail the exception has not been followed in the case of most of the Bhima-Koregaon activists, none of whom has so far been convicted. Nor has the other view of the courts, that undertrials should be housed in jails close to their places of residence, so that friends and family can visit them, been followed in Swamy’s case. Even if Stan Swamy had to be jailed, he would have liked to be housed in a prison in Ranchi rather than in Maharashtra.
Alas, not just in life, but even in death, Stan Swamy hasn’t been taken to his beloved Ranchi. According to reports, his funeral will be held in Bombay itself.
I would like to end with a tweet posted by Youth Congress Spokesperson, Latoya Ferns:
Today, the flag in my heart flies at half-mast.
May Stan Swamy’s soul rest in peace.
Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer
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