On May 21, ailing tribal rights activist Stan Swamy appeared via video link from Taloja jail before a Bombay High Court bench that was considering his plea for interim bail. The 84-year-old Jesuit priest had been arrested in October for allegedly being part of a conspiracy to instigate caste violence in Bhima Koregaon village near Pune in 2018. He stated plainly that he feared for his life if he remained behind bars.
Swamy, who suffered from such an acute condition of Parkinson’s disease that he needed a special cup to drink water, told the judges that his body had undergone a “slow regression” since he had been arrested from his home in Ranchi.
“…Taloja Jail has brought me to a situation where I can neither write nor go for a walk by myself,” he added. “Someone has to feed me.”
When the judges offered him the option of being treated at the state-run JJ Hospital in Mumbai, he rejected the possibility outright. “No, I would not want to,” he said. “I would rather suffer, possibly die here very shortly if this were to go on.”
The court did not grant him bail but agreed to let him be treated in a community-run hospital.
A month into Swamy’s hospital stay, the court still hadn’t granted him bail. When it convened on Monday afternoon to consider his application again, Swamy’s lawyer said that his doctor wanted to speak to the court.
Said the doctor, “It is with a very heavy heart I have to inform you that Father Stan Swamy has passed away.” The doctor said that Swamy had suffered a cardiac arrest at 4.30 pm on Saturday and could not be revived. He died on Monday at 1.30 pm.
Just under three years after the first arrests were made in this flimsy case, the trial has not yet started. A total of 16 people – human rights lawyers, tribal rights activists, university professors, poets, cultural activists – had been arrested on charges that seem ludicrously implausible. In addition to allegedly plotting caste violence, they stand accused of planning to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The jerry-rigged nature of the case was apparent right from August 2018, when the now-disgraced Maharashtra Police officer Param Bir Singh held a sensational press conference claiming to have unearthed letters that provided evidence of a conspiracy to “overthrow the lawfully established Indian government using weapons procured from Russia and China”. The lawyers of the arrested people claimed that the letters had been fabricated but to no avail.
In February, compelling evidence emerged to discredit the letters that form the foundation of the case by the National Investigation Agency. A digital forensics firm from the US called Arsenal Consulting found that an attacker had infiltrated a laptop belonging one of the arrested people, activist Rona Wilson, before he was taken into custody and deposited at least 10 incriminating letters on his computer.
Several of the 14 who remain in custody, many of them above the age of 60, have chronic ailments. So far, only 81-year-old Varavara Rao has been granted bail on medical grounds – for only six months.
Their ordeal must end immediately. All Indians of conscience must demand that bail immediately be granted to Hany Babu, Sudha Bharadwaj, Sudhir Dhawale, Arun Ferreira, Surendra Gadling, Ramesh Gaichor, Vernon Gonsalves, Sagar Gorkhe, Jyoti Jagtap, Gautam Navlakha, Mahesh Raut, Shoma Sen, Anand Teltumbde and Rona Wilson and that the National Investigation Agency present the evidence it has gathered in a trial in open court.
These women and men seem to have nothing in common – except their commitment to seeking justice for India’s most marginalised citizens through the rights granted to them by the Indian Constitution. It’s time that faith was honoured in full measure.
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