Opposition leaders on Wednesday expressed solidarity with 83-year-old Jesuit priest and human rights activist Stan Swamy, who has been detained under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence case along with several other activists.

Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren and MPs Shashi Tharoor, Supriya Sule, and Kanimozhi emphasised the need to build a strong movement against the misuse of laws like UAPA and demanded that it be repealed. They also asked the people to speak up against the Narendra Modi government’s attempts to “chip away at the rights of people”.

The political leaders were speaking at a press conference organised by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties to demand the release of activists arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case and to condemn the role of investigating agencies in carrying out “illegal” arrests.

Soren, who had earlier this month too expressed support for Swamy, said the government was trying to silence the voices of marginalised communities.

“The NDA [National Democratic Alliance] government sitting in the Centre today is silencing the voices of those speaking for the Adivasis, Dalits and other marginalised groups, the non-BJP ruled states are being harassed, the various constitutional mechanisms of our country are being weakened today by different groups and organisations for its own political benefit under a hidden agenda,” Soren said. “It is forcing us to ponder about where the country is headed.”

Soren said that the arrest of Swamy, who had been working in Jharkhand for years in faraway places to reach Dalits, Adivasis and other marginalised communities, has “crossed all limits”. He said Swamy, who is 83, also suffered from multiple diseases.

“Today it was Stan Swamy, tomorrow it will be us,” the Jharkhand chief minister said.

‘Break your silence,’ Opposition tells people

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Kanimozhi said at the video press conference that people have to break their silence about the government.

“Today we have to make a decision as political parties, as the whole society whether to accept what is happening in silence or say this is enough and fight them together,” she said. “If we accept this, then in a few years we will not see a democratic India that we know. Every law that this government has passed has chipped away the rights of the people. It’s time to break the silence.”

Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury said the UAPA has been grossly misused and just like the Prevention of Terrorism Act, should be repealed. Yechury said that many draconian laws are being used by the government to silence the people.

“These arrests are not isolated cases; these are part of an agenda to establish a rabidly theocratic Hindutva Rashtra which was their plan from the beginning,” Yechury said. “This cannot be accepted. We must break this silence. For evil to succeed, the good only requires to be silent. People need to restore the secular democracy.”

Congress leader Shashi Tharoor said that Stan Swamy deserved respect and support, and not a jail term. “No Jesuit will indulge in any violence or entice anyone towards violence,” Tharoor claimed. “This must stop. I appeal to the government to be fair and at least grant him bail.”

Stan Swamy’s arrest

Swamy, arrested earlier this month from his Ranchi house, was sent to judicial custody till October 23. He will be in Taloja Central Jail in Mumbai with the other accused in the Bhima Koregaon case.

Earlier this month, National Investigation Agency officials claimed that Swamy was actively involved in the activities of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), a banned organisation. They alleged that he was in touch with “conspirators” like Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Hany Babu and Varavara Rao, among others. Swamy was also named in NIA’s chargesheet in the Bhima Koregaon case.

The NIA took over the investigation from the Pune Police in January 2020. All the accused in the case are booked for allegedly delivering inflammatory speeches at the Elgar Parishad conclave at Shaniwar Wada in Pune on December 31, 2017, which triggered violence at the Bhima Koregaon war memorial on January 1, 2018.

Several organisations and citizens have called for Swamy’s release. This includes the All India Catholic Union and the North East Catholic Research Forum. In a statement, the All India Catholic Union said Swamy’s arrest seems to be an attempt to stifle dissent in India. The North East Catholic Research Forum said that it was “shocked and saddened” by his arrest. It called Swamy’s arrest “selective targeting”.

Also read: Adivasi rights activist Stan Swamy’s life and work demonstrate why the powerful want him silenced