Political leaders and members of the civil society on Monday called for accountability after tribal rights activist Stan Swamy died at the age of 84 in Mumbai.
Accused in the case related to the violence in Bhima Koregaon village near Pune in 2017, Swamy was arrested by the National Investigation Agency in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic in October 2020. He was charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Apart from other ailments, Swamy suffered from Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological condition.
On May 21, the Jesuit priest urged the Bombay High Court that he be allowed to go back to Ranchi, his home town, as his condition had deteriorated to a point that he could not even do basic tasks like eating and bathing by himself. He was put on ventilator support after suffering a cardiac arrest on Sunday.
Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren said he was shocked to learn about Swamy’s death, while pointing out that he had opposed the activist’s arrest and incarceration. “He [Swamy] dedicated his life working for tribal rights,” Soren tweeted. “The Union government should be answerable for absolute apathy and non-provision of timely medical services, leading to his death.”
Citizens of Justice and Peace said Swamy’s death was “nothing short of an institutional murder” by the NIA and Taloja jail authorities. Teesta Setalvad, the secretary of the organisation, said in a statement that his illness and death could have been avoided.
“Fr [Father] Stan suffered painfully before he succumbed,” she added. “Arguably, it was the inherently pathetic conditions at Taloja Jail, followed by an obdurate web of deceit woven by the jail bureaucracy and the National Investigation Agency that simply did not admit to this condition.”
She called for the repeal of the stringent anti-terror law. “If Stan Swamy’s death is not to be in vain, each and all of these need to be made into a vivid people’s campaign,” the statement said.
Meanwhile, the All India Catholic Union supported the demand by Swamy’s lawyers for a judicial inquiry into his death. AICU spokesperson John Dayal said the government wanted to “make an example out of him” and those arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case.
“His was a death foretold,” Dayal said in a statement. “It was clear that the state had, in cold blood, decided to wreak on him and others the full might of its vengeance for daring to speak for the poor and the deprived.”
Dayal also deplored that Swamy was denied basic human dignity, referring to the activist seeking permission from a court for using straw and sipper. “In life and in his martyrdom, Fr Stan Swamy has become a beacon for all who struggle for human rights, specially the rights of the tribals and other marginalised people, and a role model for young men and women across the nation,” the statement added.
The National Confederation Of Human Rights Organisations also termed Swamy’s death as an institutional murder.
“History will remember that when the most dedicated activists were languishing in jail on false charges and their health was deteriorating, the Indian government turned a blind eye,” General Secretary P Koya said in a statement. “It is the deliberate attempt to implicate activists in false cases and the negligence that follows that make the death of Fr Stan Swamy a murder by the Indian state.”
Koya also pointed out that many citizens had raised an alarm about Swamy’s worsening health condition and added that the 84-year-old was incarcerated on fabricated charges.
The Ranchi Catholic Archdiocese mourned Swamy’s death and said he fought for justice. “The fact that this sick man suffering with Parkinson disease was arrested at the age of 84, refused bail for over 7 months, not even allowed a sipper and finally contracted Covid in jail itself is a sad reflection on those who got the innocent man arrested and the courts who refused to give him bail,” a statement said.
The Ranchi Catholic Archdiocese added that citizens are now weak and helpless before the “cruel justice system”.
Lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan also held the government and the judiciary responsible for Swamy’s death. “This is nothing less than murder by the state of one of the gentlest and kindest men I have known,” he tweeted. “Unfortunately our judicial system is also complicit in this.”
In the same vein, activist Saket Gokhale blamed former Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis for the tribal rights activist’s death. “Father Stan Swamy was murdered by Devendra Fadnavis,” he tweeted. “The coward implicated an old man to appease his masters. The system says ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and the system killed a man who was innocent. Hope justice prevails someday so that his soul may eventually rest in peace.”
Fadnavis was the chief minister of Maharashtra when the Pune Police raided Swamy’s residence in June 2019 and in August 2018. The case was transferred to the National Investigation Agency after the Bharatiya Janata Party lost the elections in Maharashtra. Swamy was arrested on October 8 by the central agency from Jharkhand and brought to Mumbai the next day.
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Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) politburo member Kavita Krishnan also castigated Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah for not accepting Swamy’s bail request. “Modi and Shah have accomplished the custodial killing of the gentle Jesuit social worker Fr [Father] Stan Swamy, who spent his life serving the oppressed,” she wrote on Twitter. “I hope the judges who denied him bail never get to sleep at night: they have blood on their hands.”
Youth Congress chief Srinivas BV said that Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami got urgent hearing in courts, while Swamy was denied bail for over seven months. He asked, “Now he is no more. Who is responsible?”
Swamy had applied for bail twice – once on merit and another on health grounds – but the petitions were rejected. In April, he had moved the Bombay High Court challenging the order. On Monday, the court was hearing the plea, along with one challenging a section of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, when it was informed that Swamy had died.
Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna said the Union government and the judiciary were responsible for “all that he went through towards the end of his life”.
Historian Ramchandra Guha called Swamy’s death “a case of judicial murder, for which the home ministry and the courts are jointly culpable”.
Journalist Barkha Dutt tweeted: “The death of ageing, infirm Stan Swamy subverting even the bail not jail principle. Pause and consider how callous our system can be.”
Congress leader Jairam Ramesh also blamed the Modi government for Swamy’s death. Vadgam MLA Jignesh Mevani said that Modi and Shah have Swamy’s “blood on their hands”.
Congress leaders, including Rahul Gandhi and Shashi Tharoor, mourned the tribal rights activist’s death.