What is that Tamil Man Swami doing in Jharkhand?

Stan Swami arrested at 83 years of age

What is that Tamil man Swami doing in Jharkhand? That was the question asked by a former agent of the Research and Analysis Wing, RAW, in a debate on one of the national screaming news channels on a Wednesday morning when they were discussing Kashmir, Pakistan’s ISI, India’s Urban Naxals and the women and men arrested by the National Investigation Agency.

The scowling former Lt Colonel’s argument was that anyone working with India’s Adivasis, Dalits and the dispossessed is a foreign agent conspiring to overthrow the government of India’s elected prime minister, Narendrabhai Damodardass Modi.

Stan Swami, 83, indeed has been arrested on the say-so men of the colonel’s kind, and arguments of the Bharatiya Janata party. As we write, he is in the medical ward of a Maharashtra jail in the compulsory quarantine dictated in the Covid control protocols. After the quarantine, he will enter formal judicial custody, pending trial in what was once the Elghar Parishad case and is now the Koregaon Conspiracy. It was once about the violence inflicted by upper caste political activists on a Dalit Mahar community gathering celebrating a famous victory by soldiers of the once untouchable on the then invincible Scindias.

Stan, as he is commonly known, is of course of Tamil Origin. he will not deny that he, as a young man, joined the Society of Jesus, was allotted the Patna province where he trained. The Patna Province has a hoary tradition of training academicians – Fr Tom Kunnunkal, the father of the Indian Open School system and the Central Board of Secondary Education – is an alumni – academic and grassroots lawyers. He has, in effect, been a Patna man all his adult years. Jharkhand, whose capital Ranchi was from where h was arrested, was once part of Bihar. That, sort of, answers he RAW former agent.

No young man may perhaps have seen Stan in the cassock of a Catholic priest, which he is. But most people, specially the poor, would know his name in the tribal belt extending across the states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh – India’s most deprived and exploited region. This is the playground, and the money mint of India’s largest corporate houses, and their international collaborators or competitors.

This is where hills and forests are ravaged, pillaged and looted for the underground resources, from coal, and iron, manganese and uranium, This is also where the worst violations of human rights and civil liberties take place. And ruthless suppression of protest. This was so when the British ruled. Independence changed the race of the exploiters. not the exploitation, and suppression.

Exploitation of nature and of people has, since independence, attracted people of concern to research, document this massive atrocity on a people kept in ignorance of their rights. This is the sort of situation, not just in India but in Arica, Latin America, Australia and the New Guinea region – which has prompted Francis, the Pope, in drafting his historical Encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti” declaring that all men [and women] in the world are brothers, and sisters, with responsibility to each other, and to the earth on which they all live, its resources, its environment, its climate.

Pope Francis is, like Stan, also a member of the five centuries old Society of Jesus. The Jesuits, as they are called, are currently, world over, at the cutting edge of the struggles of the poor and the marginalised resisting the plunder of their natural resources, and the crushing of their human dignity and constitutional rights. The Society’s founder, Ignatius of Loyola, said God wants for us. “In all things, to love and to serve”. In India, that translated into service of the most deprived, the most threatened.

I have known of his work for all those decades and have known him personally now for some time. I last met him in 2017, around this time, when the Karwane Mohabbat, founded by Harsh Mander, was in Jharkhand, and called on him at his spartan home in Bagaicha, on the outskirts of Ranchi one night to pay him our respect. The lawyers, activists and writers in the young team we led were thrilled to meet a legend, and a hero. He was gracious in receiving our salutations with humility, and a smile, saying he was but human, doing his duty with the people he loved.

The Adivasis of India are these people. Many scientists think of them as the original inhabitants of the subcontinent. But so disturbing is this thought to proponents of religious nationalism that international terms such as indigenous people, or the Hindi equivalent Adivasi, are an anathema. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its spawn, including the Bharatiya Janata Party ruling the country and many of its states, describe them as Vanvasis, or forest dwellers.

Dalits, the former untouchables, are no less distressed, with their caste persecution with all its humiliation and violence, but they perhaps lack the exploitation by national and multinational capital and the threats to their natural resources.

This is about 8.6 % of India’s population continue to suffer despite conditional mandated affirmative action, a proportional representation in educational and government jobs, and in the political processes. As Minority Rights Group and many national activists point out on a daily basis, much of what is on paper does not exist on the ground. “Affirmative action policies – strictly limited to public sector – have not improved the prospects of Adivasis in the growing private sector.

Adivasis often face hardships and exclusion because of physical remoteness, poverty and prevalent social prejudices. Since few Adivasis finish schooling, most are unable to use the reserved places in higher education or the civil service”, says MRG.

The Panchayat Raj (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996, PESA, was introduced in the late 1990s as a legislative means of promoting self-governance in rural areas through the creation of local village bodies is perpetually sought to be diluted, sidestepped, sabotaged. “Adivasis continue to face prejudice and often violence from mainstream Indian society. They are at the lowest point of almost every socio-economic indicator the destruction of their economic base and environment poses grave threats to those who are still able to follow their traditional way of life and may result in the cultural extinction of many of the smaller Adivasi peoples.”

Stan, and everyone else who has seen these areas, knows that their economic and social problems are born of their gradual displacement from their customary lands. “Adivasis have been denied land ownership rights over the last century and their displacement from their land has made them reach a stage where they are fighting to retain their economic and social identity,” an MRG report says.

The 2006 Forest Rights Act (FRA) was enacted to secure the rights of Adivasis to their customary lands and forests. But its implementation is still not more than covering just 2.0 per cent of potential claims reportedly resolved. A February 2019 ruling by the Indian Supreme Court on implementation of the FRA 2006 put more than a million Adivasis at risk of eviction from their land and homes.

These set the stage for protests. The protests triggered government vengeance. And ultra-left political activity, which in turn precipitated large-scale state violence, at one time government luring a section Adivasis under the banner of Salwa Judum to wage war on their brothers. Many were killed, many more arrested on charges of being Maoists, or assisting them.

Stan saw innocent Adivasis languishing in jails on trumped up charges, much as he himself is now in jail on what we know to be fabricated allegations. Swamy helped conduct a research study on the left wing undertrials in Jharkhand. The study found that of the 102 imprisoned youth they spoke with, as many as 97%said allegations against them were wrong. The government had imposed the worst laws, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) on them without evidence. The large number of acquittals eventually vindicated the study.

As part of the Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee, Stan Swamy questioned the solitary confinement following the banning of Mazdoor Sangathan Samiti in December 2017. His paper, in the April 7, 2018 edition of the Economic and Political Weekly, written with human rights lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, now in jail in the Koregaon case, exposed the deplorable conditions in jail, and the repressive measures by the authorities without court sanction.

Swamy has consistently questioned why governments, of all political hues, do not implant PESA as it should be, and have been tardy in following Article 244(1) of the 5th Schedule which demands a Tribal Advisory Council sending its reports to the President of India.

Stan has, like many if not most activists, has also been supportive of the ‘Pathalgadi’ movement which has fore fronted a traditional practice of honouring ancestors specially in the Khunti region of Jharkhand. By placing sone slabs in burial or cremation places.

In the 1990s, the retired bureaucrat turned activist BD Sharma and his colleague Bandi Oraon, used stone slabs with constitutional provisions under PESA and fifth schedule were inscribed. This came to be known as Pathalgadi, a way to assert rights.

Governments, and their backers in India Inc. were not amused. The central government in 2013 passed the Land Acquisition Act, diluting the need for social impact assessment before any acquisition of land, and potentially removing legal safeguards of Adivasi lands.

Says Stan in the transcript of his interrogation by the NIA earlier this year “I moved to Jharkhand [from Bangalore] and was associated with the JOHAR (Jharkhand Organization for Human Rights) at Chaibasa for a few years. Then I moved to Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand state, and founded Bagaicha, a Jesuit social research and training centre at Namkum, Ranchi. I have been active at Bagaicha for the last 15 years. I have been working in collaboration with people’s movements that were working against unjust displacement, human rights violations, illegal land acquisitions, and policies that were designed or amended to acquire more land, making the indigenous people landless. I have been writing and supporting the struggles for the implementation of the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitutions, implementation of the provisions of Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996 and the Samata Judgment by the Supreme Court of India and promoted the concept of ‘Owner of the land will be the owners of Minerals therein’.

Stan said he was surprised when on August 28 2018,”my room in Bagaicha was raided by Pune Police saying that my name had appeared in an FIR in the riot case at Bhima-Koregaon, together with eleven others. During this raid, my laptop, mobile phone, a few CDs, documents and files were confiscated by the Pune Police. After about 10 months, since the first raid of my room, once again my room was raided, on 12 June 2019. in this instance too, the hard disk (internal memory) of my computer, mobile phone, my email and social media accounts were confiscated. The Jharkhand, the government headed by the BJP, filed an FIR against me and 19 other activists based on a Facebook posts relating to Pathalgadi 2 movement in Khunti district, Jharkhand.

“The FIR accuses us of inciting violence through Facebook posts during the Pathalgadi movement. Though this FIR was filed in the month of July 2018, it was never pursued. But, suddenly in the month of July 2019, it was activated, after the second raid in my room by the Pune police. Since the case against us was merely based on our Facebook posts, we appealed to the Jharkhand Hight Court to quash the case against us. However, the Khunti police have submitted an annexure, received from the Pune police, to the effect that I was one of the accused in Bhima-Koregaon case. To my surprise, during the hearing in the High Court, the Advocate General referred to me as a ‘dreaded criminal’.

The National Investigation Agency finally shed all pretenses, and arrested the Jesuit priest from his home in Ranchi, on 8th October. He was produced before the special court in Mumbai on Friday which remanded the octogenarian to judicial custody till October 23.

In his pre-arrest video message, Stan has maintained “I have never been to Bhima Koregaon for which I am being made an accused”. But …what is happening to me is not something unique happening to me alone, it is a broader process taking place all over the country. We all are aware how prominent intellectuals, lawyers, writers, poets, activists, student leaders are put in jail because they have expressed their dissent or raised questions about the ruling powers of India.”

He said he was part of the process and, in a way, happy to be so because he was not a “silent spectator”. “I am ready to pay the price whatever be it.”