Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has said that the Narendra Modi government had made life of tribal rights activist Stan Swamy more difficult in custody.

“Stan Swamy was a philanthropist, he was working tirelessly for helping people,” Sen said in an interview with The Indian Express that was published on Monday. “The government, instead of providing him protection, made his life more precarious, more difficult, through adverse use of legal means. One result of it was that he was in a much more fragile state than he should have been.”

Swamy, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease and also contracted the coronavirus infection while in prison in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence case, died in a Mumbai hospital on July 5. He was repeatedly denied bail despite his deteriorating health condition. Swamy was the oldest of a dozen people, most of them academics and human rights activists, jailed under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act in the case without any reliable evidence.

On May 21, the 84-year-old Jesuit priest had 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 July 4.

On a question about whether the judiciary as an institution failed to protect the activist, Sen responded in the affirmative. “At least we need an explanation of how the judiciary failed in its protective role,” the economist added. “Could the judiciary have helped him more? The issue that has to be examined is whether the judiciary failed to keep the excesses of the Executive in check.”

The family and friends of those arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case have said Swamy’s death was an “institutional murder”. United Nations Human Rights Commission spokesperson Liz Throssell had said that the agency had repeatedly urged Indian government to protect a robust civil society. She also raised concerns about the way he was treated, while calling for the release of people detained without proper legal basis.

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Coronavirus pandemic

Sen also deplored the widespread suppression of public discussion in India. “Just check how many people are incarcerated without being tried, how many people are silenced through authoritarian force,” he told The Indian Express.

He said after the Independence, it was possible to have public discussion in the country and it made it difficult for a “terrible government” to be in power because of public scrutiny. Public discussion, he added, could have saved the disadvantaged sections from suffering during the coronavirus crisis.

“But it has not happened much in India, and the poor has had little voice in policy making,” Sen continued. “It was amazing that when the first lockdown was imposed, the interests of the poor rather than getting special attention were quite neglected. The poor dependent on finding jobs with wages could not even look for jobs, confined as they were. The migrant labourers far away from their home had to rely on walking back home...”

The mass exodus of migrant workers from major cities had become a point of concern and deliberation during the nationwide lockdown in March 2020. With most modes of public transport shut down, thousands of migrant workers were left with the option of either ferrying rides on private vehicles with cramped spaces, or walk hundreds of kilometres on their way to hometowns.

The 87-year-old economist said the Covid pandemic has certainly widened the inequalities between the rich and the poor. “There is a much better way of fighting the pandemic together, which we have lost,” Sen told the newspaper. “But I don’t think we have lost it forever. We have to think about how it is possible to maintain physical distance, but not be economically or socially separated.”