Will A Caged Bird Sing Again?

Lodged in jail for over eight months without bail or trial under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the 84-year-old tribal rights activist Father Stan Swamy passed away following a cardiac arrest in a Mumbai hospital on July 5.

With a shaky gentle voice and compassionate smile, Father Stan Swamy explained why India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) was after him. Not at lengths, but with the precision and grit that an octogenarian would rarely exhibit.

“What is happening to me is not something unique… We are all aware how prominent intellectuals, lawyers, writers, poets, activists, student leaders, they are all put into jail because they have expressed their dissent or raised questions about the ruling powers of India… I am not a silent spectator, but part of the game, and ready to pay the price whatever be it,” the Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist told his well-wishers in a video message, two days before the NIA swooped down on him on October 8 last year.

Eight months later, Swamy has paid the price with his own life, unable to cope with confinement at the Taloja Central Prison in Navi Mumbai and the court battles he was forced to fight at every single turn. At 84, he was one of the oldest prisoners lodged in India’s jails.

He was suffering from an advanced stage of Parkinson’s disease and had lost hearing ability in both his ears. He could not eat properly on his own and needed a sipper and straw to consume liquids as it was difficult to hold a glass. But the jail authorities were so callous that he was forced to approach the Bombay High Court in November for such a frivolous thing. The NIA sought 20 days to file a reply to his application, which the court granted. Indubitably, he was the man who could wage a war against the State with a sipper-straw!

After his death, Swamy’s lawyer Mihir Desai claimed that he was tested for COVID-19 only after the court’s intervention and that more than 10 days of fever and weakness had passed before he was shifted to the Holy Family Hospital on May 30.

Despite the court’s intervention, Swamy did not get his first dose of the vaccine until he fell sick. Only three Ayurveda practitioners – they prescribe allopathic medicines as well – are on duty at the jail that houses more than 3,000 prisoners, over and above its maximum capacity. In a letter sent to his friends from prison, Swamy had described how his two cellmates were helping him to go about with his daily chores.

“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,” he wrote, in another illustration of how his thoughts were always with the deprived.

Born in Tiruchy in present-day Tamil Nadu, Swamy’s activism was shaped by his days at the University of Manila, Philippines, where he studied for his master’s degree in sociology. He was inspired by the people’s movement against the corrupt regime of President Ferdinand Marcos. His further studies in Brazil brought him close to Catholic Archbishop Helder Camara, an advocate of liberation theology.

After his return to India, Swamy ran a school for nurturing leaders from marginalized communities in Bengaluru for many years. He was associated with the Jharkhand Organization for Human Rights at Chaibasa, before founding Bagaicha, a Jesuit social research and training center at Namkum in the state capital Ranchi.

Swamy found his true calling in the remote regions of the eastern Indian state, where he worked among the marginalized Adivasi (indigenous tribes) communities for over three decades to empower them on issues of forest, land, and labor rights.

Despite being home to valuable minerals, including gold, silver, copper, coal, uranium, mica, and bauxite, development failed to touch the lives of tribals in the state, which in fact was carved out of the neighboring Bihar state with an aim to uplift its tribals. The area is also a Maoist hotbed, where rebels seek to overthrow the ruling government in a people’s war to ensure greater rights to tribals and the rural poor. Their political outfit, the Communist Party of India (Maoist) has been designated as a terrorist organization since 2009.

By his own video ‘confession’, his ‘sins’ were quite righteous. He questioned the non-implementation of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, which stipulated the formation of a Tribes Advisory Council with only Adivasi members to ensure the community’s welfare, development, and protection in Jharkhand.

Along with activists from other central tribal states, he formed the Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee and filed a public interest petition in the High Court against the Jharkhand state on behalf of 3,000 young Adivasis who were arrested for trying to legally reclaim the lands taken away without their consent.

Swamy was an anathema to the system, which wanted to exploit the Adivasi inhabitations – Indian laws prevent their dispossession – for mining, dam construction, and other development works. He educated the tribals about the laws and aided them in their fight. Indeed, nothing more was needed to stamp him as an enemy of the State!

The NIA had questioned Swamy for about 15 hours between July 25 and August 7 last year and had searched his spartan home at Bagaicha citing alleged Maoist links, but it could not gather any incriminating evidence.

Earlier, the Pune Police had raided his room in August 2018 and June 2019. Subsequently, the then Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the State filed an FIR against Swamy and 19 others based on Facebook posts over the Pathalgadi movement, which basically involved erecting huge plaques in village entry points declaring the sovereign authority of gram sabha (a local body for governance) and banning outsiders by taking a cue from the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, which guarantees self-governance for people living in Scheduled Areas of India. The NIA, however, returned in October and came up with proof of his Maoist allegiance in the form of several extracts that it claimed were seized from Swamy’s computer. Swamy denied the allegations and said the extracts were placed stealthily on his computer.

Nevertheless, the NIA sleuths arrested him on October 8 and brought him to Mumbai the next day. The agency claimed that Swamy was a member of the banned CPI (Maoist) and was involved in a conspiracy to instigate caste violence in Bhima Koregaon village – a place Swamy said he had never visited in his life – near Pune in Maharashtra on January 1, 2018. He was the 16th accused in the case, with lawyers, activists, academics, artists, and even a poet, now aged 80, arrested before him.

The case related to the violence during a commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the British victory against the Peshwas in the Battle of Bhima Koregaon, wherein the winning force largely comprised of soldiers from the Dalit community. Though a First Information Report (FIR) was filed against two leaders advocating Hindutva – the BJP’s core ideology – it was followed by a second one claiming the arson was a fallout of an event called Elgar Parishad held at Shaniwar Wada in Pune on December 31, 2017. The Pune Police claimed the event was organized as part of alleged Maoist activities of the arrested accused. The case was shifted to the NIA in January last year, suggesting a larger plot to wage a war against the country.

Swamy’s claim of “fabricated extracts” got a fillip when co-accused Rona Wilson’s defense team sent the latter’s laptop, which the NIA said carried the main evidence, to Arsenal Consulting, a Massachusetts-based digital forensics firm. The Pune police had argued that the letters found on the laptop were the primary evidence in the case. After examining an electronic copy of the laptop, Arsenal Consulting in February concluded that Wilson’s laptop was compromised “for just over 22 months” and 30 incriminating files were planted on it.

A day after Swamy’s death, The Washington Post reported that Arsenal Consulting had concluded that Surendra Gadling, another accused in the case, was also surveilled in the same manner by the same attacker and 14 incriminating letters were planted on his computer using NetWire malware over a period of 20 months.

Despite such an explosive analysis, faith over India’s justice system did not move mountains for Swamy, who was charged under the draconian provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. A law that was originally meant to tame secessionist tendencies, the UAPA became a potent weapon when terror-specific laws TADA and POTA were repealed and its provisions attached to the former via amendments.

Under the amended law, both organizations and individuals could be implicated in offenses such as terrorist acts, membership in terrorist organizations, and funding, support, and recruitment for terrorist organizations. The definition of unlawful activities in the Act was broad and nebulous, even allowing arrests of individuals for the sole act of possessing books or pamphlets of revolutionary movements.

Under the law, a person could not be granted bail at all if the State’s accusations seemed prima facie true. According to the Act, the accused may be informed about the reason for arrest “as soon as may be”, unlike the ordinary law where police need to immediately inform the reason of arrest. While the ordinary law allowed automatic bail if the charge sheet was not filed within a maximum of three months, the UAPA granted custody of the accused up to 90 days with bare minimum evidence. Additionally, the investigating agencies could take up to 180 days to file a charge sheet. Incarcerating a person without trial would only be an exception in the ordinary law, but under the UAPA, it would be jail without bail or trial.

Protestors opposite the church in which Stan Swamy’s funeral was being conducted on July 7. | Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

Swamy was a thorn in the path of those who wished to push Adivasis to the fringes. The best way to stop him was to use a law that sought his custody, not conviction. Those nefarious machinations had failed before his grit, or so it should be assumed from the letter he penned for his well-wishers to mark his 100 days in custody: “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.”

In a country where free speech menacingly contours anti-nationalism and where citizens are jailed because of their convictions, will caged birds be allowed to sing any longer?

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