A caged bird can still sing
Father Stan Swamy, a 84 year-old Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist, was jailed on 8 October 2020 under the draconian UAPA over his alleged involvement in the Elgar Parishad case. On 5 July 2021, he passed away while on ventilator support.
Words by Editorial Team
July 05, 2021
Illustration by Namita Sunil
Father Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist, was jailed on 8 October 2020 under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act over his alleged involvement in the Elgar Parishad case. Despite his frail condition and the COVID-19 outbreak across prisons in Maharashtra, his numerous bail appeals were denied. He was finally admitted to the Holy Family Hospital in Mumbai after he got infected with the virus and his health started worsening. On 5 July 2021, he passed away while on ventilator support.
Swamy was the oldest of the sixteen Bhima Koregaon prisoners – the sixteen prominent activists, intellectuals, social workers, lawyers, and artists that were arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and accused of having links to a plot to overthrow the Narendra Modi government with an “armed militia”.
Swamy had to file multiple applications to the court in order to access basic healthcare facilities. A patient of advanced Parkinson’s disease, Swamy had difficulty in sipping water from a glass; a sipper was eventually made available to him in December 2020 after an application to the court. The National Investigation Agency had repeatedly denied Swamy’s interim bail pleas by claiming that Swamy was taking undue benefit of the pandemic.
On 21 May 2021, Swamy, in an interaction with a vacation bench via video conference, told the court how his health was rapidly deteriorating in the last eight months inside Taloja Prison.
"When I came to Taloja, whole systems of my body were very functional, but during these eight months, there has been a steady by slow regression of whatever my body functions were.
Eight months ago, I would eat by myself, do some writing, walk, I could take bath by myself, but all these are disappearing, one after another. So Taloja Jail has brought me to a situation where I can neither write nor go for a walk by myself. Someone has to feed me. In other words, I am requesting you to consider why and how this deterioration of myself happened."
On 3 September 2018, two years before his arrest, Swamy said in an interview for the Caravan Magazine that the trumped-up charges were an effort by the state to silence and punish him:
"My primary concern has always been the constitutional rights of Adivasis and Dalits. If you take up these issues, these are the things you have to face. The mahaul [current environment] in Jharkhand, adjoining states, and the country is that if you raise questions and find facts, you are anti-development. If you are anti-development, you are anti-government. If you are anti-government, you are anti-national. That is the logic being followed here.
The work that we are involved in is a counter-action to the government. We advocate equality while working in a society where five percent of the population owns a majority of the country’s wealth. If the government introduces a dynamic of inequality through its actions, we work to counter that. There is no shortcut or magic in the work we do. All I can do in this case is to make my work clear, and deny the police fabrications."
While in prison, Swamy sent letters to his friends, supporters, and allied organizations. Excerpts from one such letter detailing his living conditions in Taloja prison were shared on Facebook by Swamy’s friend and human rights activist John Dayal.
"Though I do not have many details, from what I have heard, I am grateful to all of you for expressing your solidarity support. I am in a cell approximately 13 feet x 8 feet, along with two more inmates. It has a small bathroom and a toilet with Indian commode. Fortunately, I am given a western commode chair.
Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira are in another cell. During the day, when cells and barracks are opened, we meet with each other. From 5.30 pm to 06.00 am and 12 noon to 03.00 pm, I am locked up in my cell, with two inmates. Arun assists me to have my breakfast and lunch. Vernon helps me with bath. My two inmates help out during supper, in washing my clothes and give massage to my knee joints. They are from very poor families.
Please remember my inmates and my colleagues in your prayers. Despite all odds, humanity is bubbling in Taloja prison."
On January 22, the content of another letter was shared on the Twitter handle of Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat. In the letter, Swamy speaks of the plight of other undertrials in prison alongside him.
"Another strength during these past hundred days, has been in observing the plight of undertrials. A majority of them come from economically and socially weaker communities. Many of such poor undertrials don’t know what charges have been put on them, have not seen their charge sheet and just remain in prison for years without any legal or other assistance. Overall, almost all undertrials are compelled to live to a bare minimum, whether rich or poor. This brings in a sense of brotherhood and communitarianism, where reaching out to each other is possible even in this adversity."
In the same letter, Swamy wrote that while he has not met the 15 others named in the NIA chargesheet with him, “we will still sing in chorus. A caged bird can still sing.”
Akademi Magazine condemns the politically motivated incarceration of human rights defenders in India. Hany Babu, Sudha Bharadwaj, Sudhir Dhawale, Arun Ferreira, Surendra Gadling, Ramesh Gaichor, Vernon Gonsalves, Sagar Gorkhe, Jyoti Jagtap, Gautam Navlakha, Mahesh Raut, Shoma Sen, Anand Teltumbde and Rona Wilson remain in prison under trumped-up charges of terrorism (UAPA) in relation to the Elgar Parishad case, despite overwhelming evidence pointing to their innocence.