Outcry over Jesuit priest Stan Swamy’s arrest tests Indian authorities’ anti-terror sweep

Swamy is among 16 writers and activists who have been arrested by the ruling BJP government for allegedly inciting caste-based violence.

A Christian nun, center, and others hold placards demanding the release of tribal rights activist Stan Swamy as they listen to a speaker during a demonstration in Bengaluru, India, on Nov.12, 2020. The 83-year-old Jesuit priest was arrested by the National Investigation Agency for alleged Maoist links. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

NEW DELHI (RNS) — Faith has never been only sacramental for 83-year-old Jesuit priest the Rev. Stan Swamy, but, rather, it has been a conduit to empower the poor and marginalized. That stance, captured in his motto, “Faith that does justice,” has led to his arrest by the National Investigative Agency, India’s counterterrorism task force.

On Oct. 8, NIA investigators detained Swamy at his home in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand for alleged links with Maoist rebels. The investigators seized his phone and escorted him to Mumbai, where he was remanded to judicial custody. A request for Swamy to be released on bail on medical grounds was rejected by the NIA court.

It wasn’t Swamy’s first run-in with security forces. Over the last two years, his home has been raided twice, and earlier this year he was questioned for 15 hours over five days.

The priest denies the current allegations, as have leaders of the Jesuit order.

“What is happening to me is not unique,” he said in a video recorded hours before his arrest. “I’m not a silent spectator, but part of the game and ready to pay the price whatever be it.”

Swamy is among 16 people who have been arrested by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government for inciting caste-based violence in the Bhima Koregaon village of Maharashtra State. These include prominent intellectuals, writers, poets and cultural activists who have repeatedly been denied bail under India’s anti-terror law.

In 2018, Swamy formed the Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee to seek the release of 3,000 innocent men and women languishing in jail after being branded Maoists. He spoke and wrote at length against their arbitrary arrests and called for speedy trials.

Swamy, who spent more than 50 years working for marginalized communities and disenfranchised groups in rural India, says he has no connection with the Bhima Koregaon incident nor any links with Maoists. He believes he’s the target of an alleged witch hunt against political dissenters.  

“I dedicated my life to the development of my poor Adivasi sisters and brothers,” he told the NIA court on Oct. 9, referring to members of India’s indigenous tribes. “I only wanted justice to be done to them as per the constitutional provisions and Supreme Court judgments.”

Swamy’s arrest, amid the raging COVID-19 pandemic and despite his own deteriorating health, has led to outrage from activists, civil society groups and global rights organizations.

On Oct. 20, the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, appealed to the government to safeguard the rights of human rights defenders like Swamy and their ability to carry out their work.

As social media campaigns for Swamy’s release have escalated, one multifaith group has sent a letter to the United States’ secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, urging him to demand that India release all the prisoners of conscience.

The priest suffers from Parkinson’s disease and wears hearing aids in both ears. He has applied twice for basic amenities such as warm clothes and a straw and sipper so he can drink water.     

Yet, Swamy’s faith and his care for others have inspired many. In a letter from prison written on Diwali, the Indian festival of lights (Nov. 14) with the help of another inmate, Swamy wrote, “My inmates are all from very poor families … despite all odds, humanity is bubbling in Taloja Jail.”

Tribal activist Dayamani Barla says the priest’s resilience stems from his work with vulnerable communities and in shaping sustainable development models in remote villages.

“No doubt the Gospel was Father Stan’s reference book, but he was more than a priest to us,” says Barla. “He understood our pulse and helped us assert our self-rule.”  

Since the 1990s, Swamy has been a major voice in defense of the Adivasi and low-caste groups in remote Jharkhand. He spearheaded the local Pathalgadi movement to empower village communities to protect their land from private mining companies.

He learned the indigenous languages, cultures and mores (although he hails from a village in the southern part of India), and the locals looked to him for psychological and spiritual support as they resisted land grabs, abuse of sedition and anti-terror laws and displacement of Adivasis in the name of development.  

“If a cause merited large-scale protests, Father would stand by us,” said one Adivasi laborer in Jharkhand. “If it meant peacefully mobilizing for a just cause, he helped us re-strategize.”   

“He spared no one,” said the Rev. Cedric Prakash, a Christian rights activist and the director of the Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace. “If he felt something was wrong, it didn’t matter if it was his fellow Jesuits, church, corporates or the government.”

When Swamy’s friend and fellow Jesuit, the Rev. Joseph Xavier, visited him three days before his arrest, he saw him “prepared to pay the price as a true follower of Jesus.”

“When we talk about Stan,” said Xavier, “we are talking about all the human rights defenders who have been condemned for standing for truth and justice against all odds.”  

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