The death in custody of an 84-year-old Jesuit who dedicated his life to the indigenous people of India has infuriated militants who say the priest is a victim of Narendra Modi’s relentless repression against dissidents.
Meenakshi Ganguly, director of Human Rights Watch in South Asia, said the “tragic” circumstances of Father Stan Swamy’s death have highlighted the growing rift between India’s demands for democratic credentials and the their use of harsh anti-terrorism laws to silence their critics.
“This is not exactly the kind of progressive, free civil society that boasts when looking for investments in India or looking for an Indian voice in world affairs,” Ganguly said Tuesday.
“Authorities are using such draconian laws because people will not receive bail. . . They use the power of the state to punish anyone who thinks they disagree with them. “
Swamy, who was arrested nine months ago on suspicion of Maoist rebel ties, has been repeatedly denied bail, despite being afflicted with a serious Parkinson’s disease that could cost him just a cup to drink water. He was never put on trial.
The priest was the oldest of a clique of prominent human rights lawyers, academics and writers. imprisoned under anti-terrorism laws for their defense of marginalized groups. These included indigenous tribes and Dalits, the untouchables of the Hindu caste system.
“Today, the word itself is a crime, the word itself is a sedition,” said Colin Gonsalves, a human rights lawyer. “The government uses speech, even non-violent speech, to be as lethal as an AK-47.”
From a South Indian Catholic family, Swamy spent 11 years as director of the Jesuit-run Indian Social Institute in Bangalore, which forms grassroots organizers working with marginalized communities. In 1986, the sweet-spoken priest moved to the far east of India to support the indigenous people, or adivasis, which are among the most disadvantaged groups in the country.
For 34 years, Swamy has sought to help tribal groups assert their legal rights, even against powerful corporate and political interests eager to exploit mineral-rich tribal lands. But at a time when conflict between tribal communities and a resource-hungry state is intensifying, activists said the priest was increasingly seen as a disturber.
“Corporate interests are out to take over the land adivasis, which was a challenge, “said Father Joseph Xavier, director of the ISI.” He never promoted any violence. He upheld the peace. But he asked the government to do justice to the tribals. ”
In 2017, Swamy filed a public interest litigation, highlighting the situation of alleged Maoist rebels languishing for years in prison without trial.
Swamy was arrested in a night raid on his home in October, when India’s first wave of coronavirus was at its peak. He was accused of Maoist ties, flew to Mumbai and sent to the crowded Taloja prison.
Like many other activists and political dissidents imprisoned while awaiting trial, Swamy was detained under the Illegal Activities Prevention Act, a law intended to be used in cases of terror attacks by mass victims.
The law eliminates the presumption of innocence, which lawyers have said makes it virtually impossible for defendants to obtain bail.
Many analysts believe that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi uses harsh national security legislation, including anti-terrorism and sedition laws, against high-profile activists to discourage Indians from engaging in political activism or publicly opposed government policies.
“They treated him very badly and used him as an example to suppress any kind of dissent,” said Father Frazer Mascarenhas, a former student of Swamy. “His intention is to scare people with the idea that they would be treated the same way.”
The judges began to push. Last month, the Delhi High Court security agreement to three student activists held for one year to protest against the new rules of citizenship of India.
“It seems that, in its eagerness to suppress dissent, in the mind of the state, the line between the constitutional guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activity seems to have become a bit blurred,” the judges wrote. “If this mentality gains traction, it would be a sad day for democracy.”
At his last side hearing in May, Swamy described the deterioration of his physical health in prison, and said he could not eat or bathe without assistance. He called for being guaranteed the right to return home and predicted that he would die “soon” in prison. He took a positive test for Covid-19 a few weeks later.
“Everyone knew he was too sick to survive like that and his health was deteriorating,” Gonsalves said. “It’s death by design – it’s the murder of a man by denial of bail. That’s how I see it.”