Priests, activists, and family mourn death of India’s oldest political prisoner Stan Swamy

Jesuit priests, activists, friends, journalists, and family of Father Stan Swamy have organised a condolence meeting for the “people’s priest who became the first martyr of BK-16 prisoners” after he succumbed to death on Sunday following a year-long imprisonment as an under-trial prisoner under the draconian UAPA in the Elgaar Parishad case.  

Jesuit Priest head Father Stany Dsouza, Father Arun, senior journalist N Ram, musician TM Krishna, award-winning writer Nayantara Sehgal, former Supreme Court judge Madan Lokur, World Organisation Against Torture general secretary Gerald Staberock, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Mary Lawlor and many others spoke at the virtual event organised by Jesuit Priests and rights activists.

Father Stany Dsouza, head of the Jesuits in India noted that he lost a courageous, committed, and compassionate elder brother who lived and worked for the mission of the Society of Jesus.

“He championed the noble ideas of love, compassion, equality, justice, truth, and peace, and sacrificed his life for them. He is an example for us Jesuits to emulate and to become effective Jesuits, Stany said. “Father Stan had a deep love for Jesus and the poor. This made him see, judge, and act differently. He embraced the simple life and work tirelessly for the rights of the poor, Dalits, and indigenous people,” Stany remembered.

Stan Swamy’s colleague and the Jesuit provincial of Jamshedpur Father Jerry Cutinha started his condolence speech by recalling the poem written by Stan Swamy inside the jail “But we will still sing in chorus. A caged bird can still sing.”

“He chose to travel the road less traveled. Stan opted to spend his entire life for the tribals of Jharkhand. He worked among the Adivasis, Dalits, and other marginalised communities so that the poor may have the fullness of life with dignity and honour. He was a courageous man who dared to call a spade a spade. He knew no fear and was happy to take on any institutions,” Father Jerry said. Jerry added that Stan had told him, before the arrest that if working for the poor tribals and the marginalised groups is a crime and sedition, he is ready to face any consequences.

Father Joe Xavier announced the eucharistic celebration bidding a final farewell to their beloved Stan Swamy will be held on Tuesday at St Peters church in Bandra following COVID -19 protocols. The renowned human rights defender’s body will be cremated and his ashes will be taken to Jharkhand and memorial services will be held at Bagaicha and Jamshedpur in Jharkhand.

Human rights activist Henri Tiphagne described Stan as his mentor. Henri accused the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of being inert in the rights violations in Stan Swamy’s case. He alleged that the commission had ignored multiple complaints and Stan’s life would have been saved if the commission did a timely intervention.

Musician TM Krishna hoped that Stan’s martyrdom will be a galvanizing moment in the movement against the authoritarian government. “We can’t let this moment pass. We have to find collective energy through public action, judicial action. Our entire system is vulgar. It’s only a vulgar and vile nation that will not be shaken and stirred at this moment when an 84-year-old human being has been allowed to die”, the musician said.

According to award-winning writer Nayantara Sehgal, it is the Indian state that killed Stan Swamy. “Father Stan Swamy did not die, he was killed. He was killed because he spent his life working for the human rights of the poor and the deprived. Today the jails are filled with those who dared to fight for human rights. We are living in an endless state of mourning for the dead who are deliberately killed,” she said.

Many international human rights activists offered condolences to Father Stan Swamy who is the champion of Adivasi land rights. Gerald Staberock, World Organisation Against Torture general secretary, noted that he couldn’t believe that a democracy like India jails the right defenders. “It’s raging to see the cruelties in some of the cases that you have to go to the court to get basic needs. It’s a reminder of a situation that many (human rights) defenders find themselves of now in India being in jail while COVID-19 is raging in the country”, he said.  

UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Mary Lawlor termed Father Stan’s arrest as a stain on the reputation of India. “Father Stan’s arrest, his jailing, and his death in custody are stains on the reputation of the Indian authorities and they will last forever. I will be following it up again with them,” she ended her speech by reciting Irish poet John O’ Donohue’s poem, For grief.

Apart from the civil society groups, activists, and lawyers, Stan’s family members also joined the meeting. Father Stan Swamy’s grand-niece Lincy told that “Stan thatha is a person who found the purpose of his life”.

“Our family is still in shock and unable to digest that Thatha (Stan) is no more. He didn’t deserve this ending for sure. He always wanted to be with his people in Ranchi during his last days. The fact that none of us can join his funeral is even saddening,” she said.

Activist Teesta Setalvad described father Stan Swamy as a priest “who left out the walls of the church and made the people his religion”. “He stood not just for himself but for the 4,000 incarcerated Adivasis in Jharkhand,” she said. She demanded for the repeal of draconian UAPA and insisted for a campaign for monitoring the prisoner health conditions by autonomous bodies and to insist that the gaze of the judiciary is deep and more consistent.

“Friends, father Stan Swamy has left us. His writings and inspiration stay on. His work on Adivasis in Jharkhand stays on and we need to re-dedicate ourselves to this struggle,” Teesta said.

The program, live-streamed on the Youtube page of Indian Social institute Bangalore, screened the protest music video Hum Honge Kaaamyab and the birthday tribute rap “A caged bird can still sing” in tribute to the Jesuit priest who believed in the Jesus of Nazareth, a revolutionary who paid the price by being accused of sedition by the Roman empire and cruelly crucified on a cross.