In one of those coincidences, 83-year-old Stan Swamy was arrested by India’s high-profile National Investigation Agency about the same time that another octogenarian, Francis, was declaring that all men and women in the world are brothers and sisters, with responsibility to each other and to the earth on which they all live, its resources, its environment, its climate.

Stan Swamy and Francis the Pope are both members of the five-century-old Society of Jesus. The Jesuits, as they are called, are, the world over, at the cutting edge of the struggles of the poor and the marginalised resisting the plunder of their natural resources, and the ushing of their human dignity and constitutional rights.

To demand the freedom of the frail, ailing Catholic priest without an equally strong demand that the rights of Adivasis over their lands, forests, water and resources be safeguarded would be belittling the man who has given the last half-century of his life making their struggles his own. Born in Trichy, in Tamil Nadu, Father Stan Swamy SJ has sought to interpret his vocation and training in Ignatius Loyola’s philosophy in the service of the most deprived, the most threatened.

A legend and a hero

I have known of his work for all those decades and have known him personally now for some time. I last met him in 2017, around this time, when a team of Karawan-e-Mohabbat, founded by Harsh Mander, was in Jharkhand, and called on him at his spartan home in Bagaichi, on the outskirts of Ranchi one night to pay him our respects. The lawyers, activists and writers in our young team were thrilled to meet a legend and a hero. He was gracious in receiving our salutations with humility, and a smile, saying he was but human, doing his duty with the people he loved.

These people are India’s Adivasis. Many scientists think of them as the original inhabitants of the subcontinent. But so disturbing is this thought to proponents of religious nationalism that international terms such as indigenous people, or the Hindi equivalent Adivasi, are anathema to them. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and its offspring, including the Bharatiya Janata Party that rules the country and many of its states, describe them as vanvasis, or forest dwellers. Dalits, the former untouchables, are no less distressed, with their caste persecution with all its humiliation and violence.

In very brief summation of their plight, this about 8.6 % of India’s population continue to suffer despite conditional mandated affirmative action, a proportional representation in educational and government jobs and in the political processes. As the Minority Rights Group and many national activists point out every day, much of what is on paper does not exist on the ground.

“Affirmative action policies – strictly limited to public sector – have not improved the prospects of Adivasis in the growing private sector,” notes the Minority Rights Group. “Adivasis often face hardships and exclusion because of physical remoteness, poverty and prevalent social prejudices. Since few Adivasis finish schooling, most are unable to use the reserved places in higher education or the civil service.”

The Panchayat Raj (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996 or PESA was introduced in the late 1990s as a legislative means of promoting self-governance in rural areas through the creation of local village bodies. But it is perpetually sought to be diluted, sidestepped and sabotaged. “Adivasis continue to face prejudice and often violence from mainstream Indian society,” the Minority Rights Group says. “They are at the lowest point of almost every socio-economic indicator the destruction of their economic base and environment poses grave threats to those who are still able to follow their traditional way of life and may result in the cultural extinction of many of the smaller Adivasi peoples.”

The root problem

Stan Swamy, and everyone else who has seen these areas, knows that the economic and social problems of Adivasis are born of their gradual displacement from their customary lands. “Adivasis have been denied land ownership rights over the last century and their displacement from their land has made them reach a stage where they are fighting to retain their economic and social identity,” a Minority Rights Group report says.

The 2006 Forest Rights Act was enacted to secure the rights of Adivasis to their customary lands and forests. But its implementation is still not more than covering just 2% of potential claims reportedly resolved. A February 2019 ruling by the Supreme Court on implementation of the Forest Rights Group 2006 put more than a million Adivasis at risk of eviction from their land and homes.

These set the stage for protests. The protests triggered government vengeance. This led to ultra-left political activity, which in turn precipitated large-scale state violence, at one time government luring a section Adivasis under the banner of the Salwa Judum to wage war on their brothers. Many were killed, many more arrested on charges of being Maoists or assisting them.

Swamy saw innocent Adivasis languishing in jails on trumped-up charges, much as he himself is now in jail on what we know to be fabricated allegations. He helped conduct a research study on Left-wing undertrials in Jharkhand. The study found that of the 102 imprisoned youth they spoke with, as many as 97% that said allegations against them were wrong. The government had imposed the harshest law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act on them without evidence. The large number of acquittals eventually vindicated the study.

As part of the Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee, Stan Swamy questioned the practice of solitary confinement following the banning of Mazdoor Sangathan Samiti in December 2017. His paper, in the April 7, 2018, edition of the Economic and Political Weekly, written with human rights lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, also in jail in the Bhima-Koregaon case, exposed the deplorable conditions in jail, and the repressive measures by the authorities without court sanction.

Swamy has consistently questioned why governments of all political hues do not implant the Panchayat Raj (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act as it should be, and have been tardy in following Article 244(1) of the 5th Schedule, which requies a Tribal Advisory Council sending its reports to the President of India.

Pathalgadi supporter

Stan Swant has, like many if not most activists, has also been supportive of the Pathalgadi movement that has foregrounded a traditional practice of honouring ancestors specially in the Khunti region of Jharkhand by placing stone slabs in burial or cremation places.

In the 1990s, the retired bureaucrat-turned-activist BD Sharma and his colleague Bandi Oraon, used stone slabs inscribed with constitutional provisions under Panchayat Raj (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act and the Fifth Schedule. This came to be known as Pathalgadi.

Governments, and their backers in India Inc. were not amused. The Central government in 2013 passed the Land Acquisition Act, diluting the need for a social impact assessment before any acquisition of land and potentially removing legal safeguards of Adivasi lands.

In the transcript of his interrogation by the National Investigation Agency earlier this year, Swamy said:

“I moved to Jharkhand [from Bangalore] and was associated with the JOHAR (Jharkhand Organization for Human Rights) at Chaibasa for a few years. Then I moved to Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand state, and founded Bagaicha, a Jesuit social research and training centre at Namkum, Ranchi. I have been active at Bagaicha for the last 15 years. I have been working in collaboration with people’s movements that were working against unjust displacement, human rights violations, illegal land acquisitions, and policies that were designed or amended to acquire more land, making the indigenous people landless.

 I have been writing and supporting the struggles for the implementation of the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitutions, implementation of the provisions of Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996 and the Samata Judgment by the Supreme Court of India and promoted the concept of ‘Owner of the land will be the owners of Minerals therein’.”

Sway said he was surprised when on August 28, 2018,

“ room in Bagaicha was raided by Pune Police saying that my name had appeared in an FIR in the riot case at Bhima-Koregaon, together with eleven others. During this raid, my laptop, mobile phone, a few CDs, documents and files were confiscated by the Pune Police. After about 10 months, since the first raid of my room, once again my room was raided, on 12 June 2019. in this instance too, the hard disk (internal memory) of my computer, mobile phone, my email and social media accounts were confiscated. The Jharkhand, the government headed by the BJP, filed an FIR against me and 19 other activists based on a Facebook posts relating to Pathalgadi 2 movement in Khunti district, Jharkhand.

“The FIR accuses us of inciting violence through Facebook posts during the Pathalgadi movement. Though this FIR was filed in the month of July 2018, it was never pursued. But, suddenly in the month of July 2019, it was activated, after the second raid in my room by the Pune police. Since the case against us was merely based on our Facebook posts, we appealed to the Jharkhand Hight Court to quash the case against us. However, the Khunti police have submitted an annexure, received from the Pune police, to the effect that I was one of the accused in Bhima-Koregaon case. To my surprise, during the hearing in the High Court, the Advocate General referred to me as a ‘dreaded criminal’.”

The National Investigation Agency finally shed all pretences, and arrested the Jesuit priest from Bagaichi on October 8. He was produced before the special court in Mumbai on Friday. It remanded the octogenarian to judicial custody till October 23. He is currently in the mandatory Covid-19 isolation.

In a video message recorded two days befor he was arrested, Stan Swamy maintained, “I have never been to Bhima Koregaon for which I am being made an accused. But ...what is happening to me is not something unique happening to me alone, it is a broader process taking place all over the country. We all are aware how prominent intellectuals, lawyers, writers, poets, activists, student leaders are put in jail because they have expressed their dissent or raised questions about the ruling powers of India.”

He said he was part of the process and, in a way, happy to be so because he was not a “silent spectator”. He asserted, “I am ready to pay the price whatever be it.”

The state has already paid a price. Its reputation is mud. Activists, chief ministers, pollical parties, members of Parliament and common men and women have expressed their shock, their disgust.

Not that it will move the National Investigation Agency or the men in New Delhi whose order it obeys. The Bhima-Koregaon case is about an allegation that India’s intellectuals are conspiring to kill India’s prime minister.

Elsewhere, and in the past, young men and women have been liquidated on such a suspicion.

John Dayal is a veteran journalist who lives in Delhi.