In an early morning raid on his house at Ranchi (Jharkhand), the 84-year-old social activist Stan Swamy was arrested under India’s notorious Unlawful Activities Prevention Act on August 28, 2018. He was accused of having links with the Maoist insurgents.
The sole shred of evidence presented against the accused was an email from someone else’s confiscated computer using the word “comrade”. The unsigned email was alleged to have been sent by Swami. The US forensic agency, Arsenal Consulting, termed the email as “planted”.
Swamy suffered from Parkinson’s disease. 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 to use a straw.
Swamy died after being incarcerated for over nine months (October 8, 2020, to Jul 5, 2021). His multiple bail applications were rejected.
Swamy’s death aggrieved not only the international human rights organizations but also people from all walks of life. At a briefing in Geneva, U.N. human rights commission spokeswoman Liz Throssell said the agency had repeatedly urged India’s government to protect a robust civil society. “We are very concerned with the way he was treated,” she said, calling for the release of people detained without proper legal basis.
The media called his death a “custodial death” and an “institutional murder”. Human rights activists and the US religious-freedom organization have called for their release. They include, among others, professor Shoma (Sen71), head of the English department at Nagpur University, 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 an oximeter 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 his death brought disrepute to the Indian legal system.
Stan Swamy died due to cruel and unusual institutional mistreatment.
Swamy was a hard nut to crack for the government. He not only mounted campaigns against the government for the rights of Adivasis (tribals) but also lambasted the government’s lethargy towards implementing the tribal’s constitutional right.
Swamy stopping government’s ambitious plans
Jharkhand accounts for more than 40 percent of the mineral resources of India, but it suffers widespread poverty as 39.1 percent of the population is below the poverty line and 19.6 percent of the children fewer than five years of age are malnourished. The state is primarily rural, with only 24% of the population living in cities.
Jharkhand is rich in uranium deposits. The government had embarked upon an ambitious program to extract uranium from Jharkhand mines. It cares little for the hazards of radiation on the tribal. Swamy associated himself with the Jharkhand Organisation against Uranium Radiation. The government was annoyed with Swamy as uranium was being extracted under the aegis of the Uranium Corporation India Limited.
His momentous campaign forced the government to stop the construction of a tailings dam in Chaibasa. If this dam had been constructed it would have led to the displacement of Adivasis in Jadugoda’s Chatikocha area. Encouraged by the success of the campaign, Swami then launched a campaign for the rehabilitation of the displaced communities of Bukaro, Santhal Parganas, and Koderma.
Campaign against arbitrary arrests
Swamy was rueful at the 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 cases 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 that they could not afford to hire a lawyer to prove their innocence. Swamy found that the family income of the arrested youths was less than five thousand rupees. 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 which pointed out that 98 percent of the 3000 arrested youths were innocent. Some of them had already served years in jail without a trial. Swamy worked day in and day out to hire lawyers for the arrested persons and pay for their bail.
Father Stan Swamy criticizing the government
Father Stan 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 that a Tribes Advisory Council (TAC) be composed solely of members from the Adivasi community.
It was empowered by the Governor of the State on the well-being and development of the Adivasi communities. Swamy proved with facts and figures since independence no governor condescended to reach out to the tribals to understand their problems.
Swamy 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 organized the Adivasis to fight for the rights granted to them under (PESA). This transpired into the Pathalgadi movement in 2017. The Pathalgadi movement played an important role in highlighting the State’s negligence to implement PESA.
In Swamy’s own words, “As for the Pathalgadi issue, I have asked the question that 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.”
Swamy bitterly criticized the government’s apathy to Samatha Judgment 1997 of the Supreme Court. This judgment provided safeguards for the Adivasis to control the excavation of minerals in their lands and to help develop them.
Swamy questioned the lack of implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006. As per his findings, from 2006 to 2011, about 30 lakh applications were made under FRA all over the country for title deeds, of which 11 lakhs were approved but 14 lakhs were rejected and five lakhs were pending. He also found out that the Jharkhand govt is trying to bypass the Gram Sabha in the process of acquiring forest land for industrial setup.
He bitterly criticized the recently enacted Amendment to ‘Land Acquisition Act 2013’ by Jharkhand govt. He called it the “death knell” for the Adivasis. He insisted that it did away with the requirement for “Social Impact Assessment” which was aimed at safeguarding the environment, social relations, and cultural values of affected people. The most damaging factor, in his words, is that the government can allow any agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes.
He also questioned ‘Land Bank’ which he saw as the most recent plot to annihilate the Adivasi people.
Swamy’s death is bracketed with custodial deaths in India. India is yet to ratify the United Nations’ convention against torture. A recent report by an international human rights body, the National Campaign against Torture (NCAT) reveals as many as 1,731 custodial deaths recorded in India in 2019.
Victims were mostly from vulnerable communities, Dalits, Muslims, and Adivasis. This works out to five custodial deaths daily. Even more ominously, 1,606 of these people died in judicial custody and 125 people in police custody.
The NCAT’s analysis reveals 75 (equivalent to 60 percent) of the total 125 deaths in police custody belonged to the poor and marginalized communities including 13 from Dalits and Adivasi, and 15 from Muslims, while 35 were picked up for petty crimes. Three of these were farmers, two were security guards, two drivers, a laborer, a rag picker, and a refugee.
The report reveals further that women continued to be tortured or targeted for sexual violence in custody and the victims often belonged to the weaker sections. In 2019, the deaths of four women were reported in police custody.
Swamy’s death highlighting a grave issue in India
Swamy’s death has once again brought into the limelight the use of India’s draconian laws to stifle dissent. The media calls Swamy’s death a “death in police custody”. Thus, the world community is questioning why India has not yet ratified the convention against torture.
Swamy never went to Bhim Koregaonwhere to allegedly incite 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 an innocent person. Another Kashmiri Nisar spent 23 years in jail. On being released he looked like a skeleton.
Stan Swamy has been a vocal critic of the government’s attempts to amend land laws and the land acquisition act in Jharkhand, and a strong advocate of the Forest Rights Act, PESA, and related laws.
In June 2018 thereafter, prime minister Narendra Modi’s BJP government jailed 16 people in connection with the 2018 violence in Bhima Koregaon village in Maharashtra state. They included, besides Swamy, some of India’s most respected scholars, lawyers, academicians, cultural activists, and an aging radical poet, who then contracted Covid-19 in prison.
Indian government should haul up the officials responsible for Swamy’s death (as the US did in Floyd’s suffocation case).
Mr. Amjed Jaaved has been contributing freelance for over fifty years. His articles are published in dailies at home (The News, Nation, etc) and abroad (Nepal. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, et. al.). He is the author of eight books including Kashmir: The Myth of Accession. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.