Fr. Stan Swamy: The Jharkhand Priest who made People his Religion Human Rights Defender Profile
31, Aug 2018 | Sushmita
On the morning of August 28 just as the people of Ranchi city were waking up to a clear sky after heavy downpours in the previous days, and preparing themselves for the day’s chores, they were taken aback by the abrupt raid on the home of Father Stan Swamy, one of the city’s prominent social and political activists.
The Bagaicha campus, which is also the residence of Father Stan Swamy, was raided by the Maharashtra and Jharkhand police around 6 am and the search operations continued for several hours. The police confiscated Father Stan’s mobile, laptop, some audio cassettes, some CDs, and a recent press release on the Pathalgadi movement by Women against Sexual violence and State repression (WSS). Father Stan was not told about the details of the charges against him. The police video-recorded the entire event.
This raid comes just a few weeks after Father Stan and 19 other persons including activists, journalists and intellectuals were booked on charges of sedition by the Jharkhand government. The police have cited their Facebook posts as evidence of their role in the Pathalgadi movement in Khunti. Among other sections, they have been booked under 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 which was repealed by the Supreme Court in 2015!
Rapid industrialization in Jharkhand
Ranchi, the capital city of Jharkhand, is a city with developmental aspirations. The landscape can be seen slowly transforming after it became the capital of the newly formed Jharkhand state in 2000. It accounts for more than 40% of the mineral resources of India, but it suffers widespread poverty as 39.1% of the population is below the poverty line and 19.6% of the children under five years of age are malnourished. The state is primarily rural, with only 24% of the population living in cities.
The interests of Adivasis were never taken into account and the state saw several unstable and allegedly corrupt governments. But the exploitation of Adivasis especially increased after the BJP government came to power at the centre in 2014 and the aspirations of industrialization have seen an aggressive push by the state government since then. About 209 MoUs worth Rs. 3 lakh crore were signed last year itself, in an Investors Summit held in Ranchi in 2017.
Rapid industrialization meant land had to be occupied and the rich minerals excavated from Jharkhand’s soil, by hook or crook, by legal or illegal mechanisms. It appears that force, rather than dialogue and negotiations has been given preference over everything with thousands of people displaced from their lands without adequate compensation or rehabilitation.
Owner of the land is also the owner of sub-soil mineral
The SC order that ‘Owner of the land is also the owner of sub-soil mineral’ [SC: Civil Appeal No 4549 of 2000] wherein the SC said that
“We are of the opinion that there is nothing in the law which declares that all mineral wealth sub-soil rights vest in the State, on the other hand, the ownership of sub-soil/mineral wealth should normally follow the ownership of the land, unless the owner of the land is deprived of the same by some valid process.”
Despite this, the rich land possessed by Adivasis have come under severe attack. And though the Supreme Court declared 214 out of the 219 coal blocks in the country illegal, ordering their closure and levying a fine, the Central and state governments allegedly re-allot the illegal mines through auction to make it look legal.
Father Stan Swamy’s extensive work
It is in this context that Father Stan Swamy has extensively worked in Jharkhand for the rights of the Adivasis. One of the major campaigns he was associated with was the Jharkhand Organisation Against Uranium Radiation (JOAR), a campaign against Uranium Corporation India Limited in 96. The campaign successfully stopped the construction of a tailing dam in Chaibasa which, if constructed, would lead to the displacement of adivasis in Jadugoda’s Chatikocha area. After vociferously raising these issues, he moved to work with the displaced people of Bukaro, Santhal Parganas and Koderma and has continued to work for them.
The plight of Under-trials and fabricated arrests in Jharkhand
In 2010 he published a book titled, ‘Jail Mein Band Qaidiyon ka Sach’ exposing the arbitrary and unlawful arrests of tribal youths with alleged links to the Naxal Movement. In his book, he highlighted that in 97% of the cases, the family income of the youths arrested was less than Rs. 5000 and they could not even afford lawyers to represent their cases. In 2014 when a report was published discussing the plight of the arrested youths, Father Stan came into the State machinery’s radar. According to the report 98% of the 3000 arrested were falsely implicated and had no links to the Naxal Movement. Some served years in jail without a trial. He has selfless contributed to pay for the youth’s bail bonds and approached lawyers to represent these cases in the court of law.
Father Stan Swamy was questioning the non-implementation of the Vth Schedule of the Constitution that stipulates that a ‘Tribes Advisory Council’ (TAC) composed solely of members from the Adivasi community should be constituted and it would advise the Governor of the State about the well being and development of the Adivasi communities. However, Father believed that despite seven decades since the Constitution came into force, none of the Governors (the discretionary heads of these councils) ever reached out to Adivasis to understand and work on their problems.
Father also highlighted how Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act [PESA], 1996 was “neatly ignored” and “had deliberately been left unimplemented in all the nine states.” This Act, for the first time recognized the fact that the Adivasi communities in India have had a rich social and cultural tradition of self governance through the Gram Sabha. He tirelessly organised the adivasis to fight for the rights granted to them under (PESA). This transpired into the Pathalgadi movement in 2017. The Pathalgadi movement played an important role in highlighting the State’s methodical negligence to implement PESA. About the movement he said something very crucial,
“As for the Pathalgadi issue, I have asked the question ‘Why are Adivasis doing this?’ I believe they have been exploited and oppressed beyond tolerance. The rich minerals which are excavated in their land have enriched outsider industrialists and businessmen and impoverished the Adivasi people to the extent there are starvation deaths taking place.”
Father Stan questioned the silence of the government on the Samatha Judgement 1997 of the Supreme Court which provided significant safeguards for the Adivasis to control the excavation of minerals in their lands and to help develop themselves. The judgment came at a time when
“consequent to the policy of globalization, liberalization, privatisation, national and international corporate houses started to invade particularly the Adivasi areas in central India to mine the mineral riches.”
Not only this, Father Stan questioned the lack of implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006. As per his findings, from 2006 to 2011, about 30 lakh applications were made under FRA all over the country for title-deeds, of which 11 lakhs were approved but 14 lakhs were rejected and five lakhs were pending. He also found out that the Jharkhand govt is trying to bypass the Gram Sabha in the process of acquiring forest land for industrial set up.
More recently, he was questioning the recently enacted Amendment to ‘Land Acquisition Act 2013’ by Jharkhand govt. Which he called as “death knell” for the Adivasis. He insisted that it did away with the requirement for “Social Impact Assessment” which was aimed at safeguarding the environment, social relations and cultural values of affected people. The most damaging factor, in his words, is that the government can allow any agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes.
He also questioned ‘Land Bank’ which he sees as the most recent plot to annihilate the Adivasi people.
Stan Swamy’s work an Oasis in the Desert
Because of Father Stan Swamy’s exceptional commitment to the most marginalised and vulnerable people, some of the news about atrocities and incidents of human rights violations in Jharkhand, a state otherwise largely ignored by mainstream media, started seeing the light of the day in the past two decades. His astounding documentation skills combined with his ability to network with other human rights groups ensured that there were several initiatives meant for the real development of a state like Jharkhand. He identified himself with Adivasi people and their struggle for a life of dignity. As a writer he expressed his critique of several of the government’s policies. Not only that, his silent and steady work with his humble and polite attitude made him dear to a lot of people he worked with.
A group of activists that released a statement recently, said
“Stan has been a vocal critic of the government’s attempts to amend land laws and the land acquisition act in Jharkhand, and a strong advocate of the Forest Rights Act, PESA and related laws. We know Stan as an exceptionally gentle, honest and public-spirited person. We have the highest regard for him and his work.”
Questioning and arrest in 2020
I was interrogated by NIA for 15 hours during a span of 5 days (July 27,28,29,30, Aug. 6). Apart from my bio-data and some factual information, several extracts allegedly taken from my computer implicating my connection to maoist forces were placed before me. I told them all these are fabrications stealthily put into my computer and I disowned them.
The nature of the present NIA investigation of me has nothing to do about Bhima-Koregaon case in which I have been booked as a ‘suspected-accused ’ and consequently raided twice (28 August 2018 and 12 June 2019). But it had everything to do to somehow establish (i) that I am personally linked to extremist leftist forces, (ii) that through me Bagaicha is also relating to some maoists. I denied both these allegations in strongest terms.”
After six weeks of silence, I am being summoned to appear in NIA-office in Mumbai. I have informed them
(i) that I fail to understand the need for interrogating me further given the fact I have been subjected to that for 15 hours already,
(ii) that I am not in a position to undertake the long journey given my age (83) and the nature of the epidemic ravaging the country. Besides Jharkhand State Govt has given a directive that during the lockdown period elderly persons above the age of 65 may not appear in public, (iii) that if the investigating agency wants to interrogate me further it can be done through video-conference.
If NIA will refuse to consider my request and insist that I go to Mumbai, I’ll tell them that it will not possible for me to go for the above reasons. Hoping human sense will prevail. If not, I / we must be ready to face the consequences.
Grateful to all who have stood in solidarity with me all these years.”
Illness and Martyrdom
Father Stan Swamy, who suffered from several age related illnesses including Parkinson’s Disease, was denied bail on medical grounds. In fact, he was even denied a sipper to drink water, even though Parkinson’s Disease made it difficult for him to hold a glass or a cup. His hearing deteriorated, once he slipped and hurt his arm and he even contracted Covid-19 in jail.
At 84, the activist who had been battling for his life since May 2021, was put on ventilator support at the Holy Family Hospital, Bombay. This is where he breathed his last at 1:14 P.M on July 5, 2021. Before starting to hear his plea for medical bail at around 2:30 P.M, Father Stan’s lawyer, Senior Advocate Mihir Desai, told the Bombay High Court Bench that the medical director of the hospital that was treating the priest wanted to inform the court about a development.
The Bench comprising Justices SS Shinde and NJ Jamadar was then apprised by Dr. Aaron D’Souza of Holy Family hospital that Fr Stan Swamy passed away after suffering a cardiac arrest early in the morning. What followed was complete silence.
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