Tuesday, July 6 2021

Dive In

I deeply appreciate the overwhelming solidarity expressed by many during these past 100 days behind the 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. On the other hand, we 16 co-accused have not been able to meet each other, despite being in the same jail. But we will still sing in chorus. A caged bird can still sing.

That’s from a letter written by Father Stan Swamy, expressing gratitude to those who had expressed solidarity with him. The 84-year old activist died yesterday, still in prison, still waiting for bail. The caged bird no longer sings.

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The tragic death of Father Stan Swamy

The TLDR: The 84-year old Jesuit priest and activist died in hospital yesterday. The news broke in a courtroom assembled to hear his bail plea. The immediate cause of death: cardiac arrest. The true cause of death: our justice system. We look at the life of Father Swamy and why it ended in such tragic circumstances.


A life of adivasi activism

  • Born in Tiruchirappalli, Father Stanislaus Lourduswamy entered the priesthood in 1957, and has since been a member of the five-century-old Society of Jesus. 
  • Over the decades, he has tirelessly fought for jal (water), jungle (forest) and zameen (land) for tribal communities. 
  • A big turning point was when as a trainee priest he moved to West Singhbhum in Jharkhand to teach Adivasi schoolboys at the Xavier’s school. The experience exposed him to tribal culture, people and also the injustices suffered by them.  
  • He spent the rest of his life training tribal communities to fight for their rights. In 1991, he returned to Jharkhand, and soon began working toward organising a grassroots movement to reclaim tribal land rights.
  • Ironically, Swamy also authored a key study that found a vast majority of tribal youth were arrested on trumped-up charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA)—the very same law that would later be used to arrest him. 


The first sign of trouble: In 2018, the Jharkhand police slapped sedition cases against 20 senior adivasi activists including Swamy for publishing Facebook posts critical of the BJP-led state government. They were also accused of supporting the ‘Pathalgadi movement’ to assert their right to self-rule. Adivasis put up giant plaques declaring their tribal council as the only sovereign authority in their area, and banned all ‘outsiders’. Swamy and others were accused of “manipulating the innocent and uneducated villagers” against the government and instigating them towards “anti-national activities.” It marked Swamy’s first real run-in with the law—although he was not arrested. 


The arrest of Father Swamy

The Bhima Koregaon case: We explained this at length here, but here’s a summary:

  • In January 2018, a number of activists gathered at a Dalit annual event called Elgar Parishad in Bhima Koregaon—a small village in the district of Pune. Stan Swamy was not one of them. 
  • The event was marred by violence when it was interrupted by a group of people carrying saffron flags. 
  • The FIR filed in that case was later expanded to include charges under the extremely strict anti-terrorism law UAPA. 
  • It has since been used to arrest a variety of activists and intellectuals—many of whom were never present at the original event. 
  • They have been accused of hatching “a nationwide plot against the Indian state” with the financial assistance from a banned Maoist party. 
  • Apart from Swamy, those arrested include poet Varavara Rao and lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj along with activists Arun Ferreira, Gautam Navlakha and Vernon Gonsalves.
  • In January 2020, the case was transferred from the Pune police to the National Intelligence Agency (NIA)—soon after the BJP government in Maharashtra lost power. The move was seen as political since it happened right after the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress coalition government in Maharashtra decided to review the case.


Point to note: The arrests in the Bhima Koregaon case have followed a clear pattern. Authorities add one activist to the original FIR, raid their home and confiscate laptops and other devices. They find “evidence” incriminating the activist, and also his associates—who are then arrested next. Rinse and repeat. 


The charges against Swamy: Last year, he was questioned multiple times by the NIA—which also raided his residence in Bagaicha, Jharkhand. And he was finally arrested on October 8. The chargesheet claims that he was a member of CPI (Maoist) party—a banned organisation—and received funding from it. It also alleged that the legal rights NGO he led—Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee—was a front for the Maoists.  


Swamy’s arrest too followed a now familiar pattern. The NIA confronted him with several incriminating files—‘proving’ the Maoist connection—that were found on his computer. Swamy previously said: “I told them all these were fabrications stealthily put into my computer and I disowned them.”


About that evidence: In February this year, the investigation of a highly respected US forensics firm called Arsenal Consulting presented damning evidence that the laptop of one of the accused—Rona Wilson—in the Bhima Koregaon case had been hacked. And someone had planted documents on its drive. And this was not an isolated case. According to the report, the same attacker used the same servers and IP addresses to target the others accused in the case over a period of four years. But Arsenal says it’s ”one of the most serious cases involving evidence tampering” it has ever encountered, calling it “unique and deeply disturbing.” (We explained this investigation here).


A cruel and unusual punishment


In today’s edition

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