Stan Swamy, an activist who spent much of his life fighting for the rights of the marginalised and dispossessed, is dead. Swamy was 84, and suffered from Parkinson’s disease. But this malady cannot be singularly blamed for the deterioration in his health over the last year. Instead, the blame lies squarely with the Indian state.
That is because the octogenerian human rights worker was put in jail by the National Investigation Agency in October 2020, as an accused in the controversial Bhima Koregaon case for which the police has so far presented almost no reliable evidence and shown little interest in actually beginning the trial.
The NIA – and the judges overseeing the case – proceeded to keep Swamy in jail for eight months, despite the clear impact it had on his health. In November 2020, it emerged that Swamy had to wait weeks to just get access to warm clothes and a sipper with a straw, even though he had difficulty holding a glass because of his disease. Swamy was repeatedly denied bail, despite his age, limited mobility and absence of criminal history.
The toll this took on his health was impossible to ignore. Swamy fell and injured himself several times while in jail.
As Swamy told judges of the Bombay High Court in an interim bail hearing,
“When I came to Taloja [jail], whole systems of my body were very functional, but during these eight months there has been a steady by slow regression of whatever my body functions were...
Eight months ago, I would eat by myself, do some writing, walk, I could take bath by myself, but all these are disappearing one after another. So Taloja jail has brought me to a situation where I can neither write nor go for a walk by myself. Someone has to feed me. In other words, I am requesting you to consider why and how this deterioration of myself happened.”
When he fell severely ill in May, Swamy told a friend that the jail only had three ayurvedic doctors on staff for more than 3,000 inmates in Taloja jail near Mumbai and that they were prescribing allopathic medicines. Some of these complaints are believed to have been the reason behind the transfer of the superintendent of the jail in June.
It took more than a week in May, however, before the courts would permit the activist to be moved to a competent hospital, where it emerged that he had been infected with Covid-19. Swamy later had to be put on the ventilator. His demand all along to be allowed to go home to Ranchi and be with his own people was repeatedly denied.
“It is beyond comprehension why a veteran tribal rights activist with multiple ailments must be compelled to suffer in this manner at his age on charges that are yet to stand scrutiny in court,” said the People’s Union for Democratic Rights in a statement, on July 4, before Swamy’s death. “We believe an octogenarian ought not to be punished with incarceration that is inhuman and unnecessary.”
India’s jails are notoriously violent, overcrowded spaces that are lacking in medical care, welfare officers and sufficient correction staff. Meanwhile, India’s legal system is also known to use jail time for undertrials as punishment, with judges often paying little heed to health concerns. The draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, applied against all of the Bhima Koregaon accused, tends to almost guarantee inhumane treatment.
Yet even against this background, the treatment meted out to Stan Swamy seemed particularly grotesque. At 83 when he was arrested, Swamy became the oldest person to be accused of terrorism in India. He was then allowed to languish in jail, despite his age and infirmity, with the NIA taking weeks to respond to please for basic provisions like warm clothes, while judges at various levels ignored multiple opportunities to uphold his fundamental right to life.
The Bombay High Court expressed shock at Swamy’s death, after being informed of it on Monday. Yet, unfortunately, this response rings hollow.
Indian authorities, both the NIA and the judicial system, are responsible for the treatment meted out to this activist whose efforts on behalf of the needy meant so much to so many. Is it possible to be shocked at an outcome that so many warned was likely from the day authorities put an 83-year-old in jail? Swamy’s death is yet another reminder that Indian justice is indeed blind – but only to the suffering of its own people.
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