Stan Swamy is an activist and a Jesuit priest who has spent many decades fighting for the rights of Adivasis in Jharkhand. He is a founder member of the Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan, a peoples’ movement against displacement.
In this interview with India Development Review, Swamy discusses the emergence and growth of people’s movements, his work with young Adivasi undertrials who are falsely accused of being Maoists, the difficult choices that confront young Adivasis today and the ongoing case against him in connection with the Bhima Koregaon caste clashes near Pune in 2018.
This interview was conducted in May, before a second raid on Swamy’s residence.
Could you speak a little about the work you’ve been doing over the past several years?
I’ve been involved in the emergence of some of the people’s movements that Jharkhand has witnessed over the last few decades. One of the main issues we see is that people are being displaced because they live on lands that are rich in mineral resources.
An Adivasi will say, “Jaandenge, par zameennahidenge!” [I will give up my life, but I will not give up my land.] But it isn’t enough to say this. So, I have been working with young Adivasis to help them better understand the dynamics of the society we now live in and develop strategies to resist displacement and save their lands.
A related issue is that young people who resist displacement of their land or their villages are accused of being Naxalites or Maoists, and arrested. Since you can’t really rely on the information that is reported in the newspapers, we decided to conduct a study to understand the situation of undertrials in Jharkhand.
We visited 18 districts in the state and spoke to 102 alleged Naxalite undertrials. Ninety seven percent of our respondents reiterated that they had not committed the crimes attributed to them by the police. Through our study, it was evident that in the current system, justice is beyond the means of most of those who have been falsely accused. Once they have been implicated in these cases, the threat of persecution in the form of harassment, intimidation or re-arrest persist even after accused persons are released on bail. The study also exposed the deliberate misuse of criminal justice procedures to repress alleged Naxalite undertrials in Jharkhand’s jails.
We estimate that there are at least 3,000 young Adivasis and another 2,000 Dalits languishing in Jharkhand’s jails; this is a large number of undertrials for a small state. And, it isn’t just enough to learn about the reality of the situation. You have to act on it. So, I filed a PIL against the Government of Jharkhand in the Jharkhand High Court, demanding speedy trials and information about undertrials in the state. The High Court ordered the state to furnish all the relevant information from each and every jail in Jharkhand in January 2018.
There have been several hearings and each time the state will say that one or two undertrials have been released. But we have not received any of the information that we seek and this is because the state has much to hide.
I have been at it for a while now, and this is one of the reasons why they are trying to get me out of the way. They have tried to implicate me in the Bhima Koregaon case. But I have never been there.
Can you tell us more about the raid that took place in relation to the Bhima Koregoan case?
On August 28 last year, at 6 am, the Pune police along with a battalion of local police appeared at the Bagaicha campus, where I live and work. I had just woken up and was getting ready. I saw a lot of people and I opened the door. There were around 30-40 policemen standing in front of my room.
I said, “What do you want?” They said, “We are from Pune and we have come to search your premises.” I said, “Do you have a search warrant?” The police said, “We don’t have a warrant but we have an order.” I said, “May I see it?”
One of them opened the file and it was in Marathi. I said, “Sorry, I don’t understand Marathi; please translate it into either English or Hindi so that I can know the reasons why you want to search my home/office.” They said that translation would take time but that the search had to take place immediately. They pushed me out and eight of them entered my room. (I work and live in the same room; I don’t have a separate office).
They took three hours for the search and turned everything upside down. They took every single thing – my computer, mobile, documents and some CDs. Every morning I like to listen to some classical, light instrumental music – AR Rahman, Ilayaraja, and a few others. They seized all of that too.
At the end of it, they said, “Here is the inventory, please sign it.” I looked at it; again it was in Marathi. I said, “I will not sign it. You give me a Hindi or English translation”; I stood my ground. They had put all my things in a big plastic bag. I insisted that none of it would leave my room without my consent and signature. So, they left everything, went down to the gate, to contact their supervisors as to what to do. In the meantime, word had spread to my colleagues and media, and they had all arrived.
The police then said that they would do the translation but it would take a few days. For the time being, they would read every sentence and translate it into Hindi, and it would be recorded on video for all to see. I asked the media people who had come, to bear witness. We sat down and the officer read the inventory sentence by sentence, translated into Hindi. It was only then that I signed it.
I still haven’t got my belongings back. The case is still on. Mihir Desai, a prominent human rights lawyer in Mumbai, has offered to take my case in the Bombay High Court. I had filed a case against the state of Maharashtra in the Bombay High Court. When it was time for the hearing in December last year, the judge said, “Mr Stan Swamy is only a suspect, not an accused. Whereas the others – Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara [Rao], Vernon [Gonsalves], Arun [Ferreira] – they are all accused so they have been arrested.” I haven’t yet been arrested because I am only a suspect. So, the judge said that there is no case against me.
However, the court has allowed the Pune police to continue its investigation on me and as and when they find something incriminating according to the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act , they can arrest me. That is the situation I am in – neither here nor there. My life is hanging by a thread.
More importantly though, if something like this happens to a person like me, who has some security, what happens to the thousands of others who don’t have this? Are they just to rot in the jail? So, I feel impelled to do something for them, and be ready to face whatever has to be faced. We don’t know what will happen; and my handbag is ready with a change of clothes. If they come to arrest me, I’m ready.
Are you seeing things changing as a new wave of younger Adivasis come to the fore?
There are many young Adivasis who have been educated and have good jobs, have built a house in Ranchi, and send their children to English-medium schools. But they have severed ties with the villages they come from.
The ones who have stayed behind cannot stand up and resist; if they do, they are put in jail. It’s a difficult choice for them. The young men say, “I cannot bear to stay back in the village and see my land being taken away; but if I resist, I’ll be thrown into jail. Let me instead leave this place, go elsewhere and earn money for my family.”
This leads us to another situation: migration. Many young Adivasis are migrating, especially towards the southern states, and much of this migration is because their land is being taken away from them. Despite the fact that Jharkhand has protective laws that safeguard land rights of the Adivasis such as the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act and the Land Acquisition Act of 2013, there is a great deal of forcible land acquisition taking place.
When the youth stand up against this, they are putting themselves at risk of being arrested and staying in jail for years without a trial.
But the young are still resisting?
When your land and your home are forcibly taken away, are you going to sit quietly? You are definitely going to stand up. There is resistance, but it isn’t organised such that the community as a whole stands by it. So we have created the VisthapanVirodhi Jan Vikas Andolan, a peoples’ movement against displacement, of which I am a founder member.
While we have successfully fought some cases through people’s mobilisation, we have also failed in others, because of the brutal repression of state.
There are others who are doing this too, and leaders have emerged among them. Take the case of Dayamani Barla. She is from the Munda tribe and has played a terrific role in leading the community in the fight for land rights. When ArcelorMittal wanted to set up a steel plant in Gumla-Khunti, the state government wrote off 12,000 acres of land without any consultation with the inhabitants of that land. Dayamani went from village to village, creating awareness about what was happening and leading a campaign against the displacement of Adivasis from their own land.
When ArcelorMittal realised that they could not acquire the land forcibly, they tried other means. Brand new ambulances that were fully equipped and staffed with doctors and nurses started making their way to these villages, offering free services. The community knew exactly why this was happening and sent them packing. This is a very telling move for poor people who are in need of health services. Finally, ArcelorMittal tried to negotiate them down from 12,000 acres to 800 acres, but the people refused to give them an inch of land and eventually they had to leave.