India at 75: Urgent Need to Defend Democracy

India at 75: Urgent Need to Defend Democracy

By Cedric Prakash SJ

The institutional murder of 84-year-old Jesuit priest Fr Stan Swamy,who died on 5 July 2021 while still in judicial custody, has shaken the very foundations of democracy in India.

The need and the urgency to defend democracy and all that is precious in the Constitution of India against repressive and anti-people laws, is perhaps felt today, as never before!

Stan Swamy paid the price

Fr. Stan’s death has evoked a groundswell of protests all across India and abroad. Editorials and op-eds featuring his life and illegal incarceration; rallies and meetings, talks and webinars; prayer vigils and Masses and every form of social media has kept a plain truth alive :the memory and legacy of Fr Stan will live on forever.

Fr. Stan, spent a lifetime working with Adivasis in Jharkhand in defence of their rights; for him, all that mattered was that the Adivasis are accordedthe basic dignity which every human deserves and that their access to their resources of jal, jungle and jameen are not exploited byunscrupulous, corrupt vested interests.

For this, he ultimately had to pay the price!

National Day of Justice in memory of Stan Swamy

On 8 October 2020, he was arrested in the Bhima Koregaon conspiracy case even though he had absolutely no connection with it. He died waiting for a chance to clear his name.

Whilst in prison, Fr. Stan, despite his age and other physical infirmities (like Parkinson’s), was for a long time not even given the straw sipper cup which he desperately needed. 

In denying bail to Fr Stan, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) judge, D. E. Kothalikar argued that “the collective interest of the community” outweighed Fr. Stan’s right to personal liberty.

Fr. Stan’s death should hopefully now shake the collective conscience of the nation and the judiciary, as it brings to an end a stark tale of injustice: one that has left the highest institutions of India’s justice system diminished.

Denial of Bail and the NIA Court

The NIA court recently denied bail to Anand Teltumbde, another member of the BK-16(as the advocates, artists, journalists and intellectuals who have been imprisoned under the Bhima Koregaon conspiracy case are called).

The latest move now is to shift some or all of the BK-16 out of the Taloja jail to an ‘unspecified prison’ in Maharashtra.

According to reliable information, the prison authorities recently submitted an application, requesting to transfer the male accused in the case to other prisons. There was no hearing of the people who are being transferred.

The decision was taken solely by the NIA court without any consultation with the political prisoners or their families. The family members of Surendra Gadling, Sudhir Dhawale, and Anand Teltumbdehave challenged this decision. 

They allege that the purpose behind the transfer is to divide the incarcerated by sending them to separate prisons and therefore a brazen attempt to prevent them from speaking the truth!

Erosion of Democratic Space

There has been drastic erosion in the democratic space for protest in the country; the ordinary citizen has experienced this inmany brutal ways since 2019.

The calculated destruction of democratic values and of the rights of the citizens, take place at a frightening regularity. The way some of the followers of the ruling regime (including a BJP member who is a Supreme Court lawyer) ranted and raved (even ready to kill!) against the Muslims of the country at Jantar Mantar on 9 August,in full media glare, is a case in point. They did so with impunity; after much pressure some were arrested and even released on bail, besides they know very well that nothing will eventually happen to them! 

On the other hand, a strategy that has been central to the erosion of democratic space has been the weaponizing of the criminal justice system by the State to harass and punish those who dare to protest against the anti-people and anti-Constitutional policies and actions of the Government.

In this situation, while one looks to the Courts to protect the fundamental rights of all, the entire judicial system, has apparently failed the citizens.

There have been 7050 arrests in 5128 UAPA cases between 2015-2019 but conviction rate was only 2.20% (according to data presented in the Lok Sabha in March 2021). While this experience has become visible because of a number of cases (eg.the Bhima Koregaon case, the Delhi riots cases), where intellectuals, students, trade unionists, lawyers, human rights defenders and activists have been incarcerated, the axe of state repression consistently and dangerously hangs over the heads of those who express their point of view or dissent from that of the State.

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The Adivasis, the Dalits, the ordinary labourers, the farmers, the migrant workers who raise their voices, experience the State only as an entity that punishes those engaged in peaceful and democratic attempts to challenge the status quo. The Muslims and other minority groups are particularly vulnerable and have been systematically targeted to create a false narrative of anti-patriotism, internal terrorism and of being a threat to the nation.

Disheartening situation

The disheartening situation is that of the courts, who have mostly acted in a conservative manner and have been reluctant to speak truth to power and restore justice.

Earlier, the mainstream media allowed for expression of protest and raised issues of such injustice, today it has become the voice of the State and an important medium to popularise the narrative of the State.

Several human rights activists, friends and supporters of all the people in jail under these laws, have consistently and persistently built up a campaign for their release and against the use of draconian laws. Scores of people have been detained under various other repressive state laws.

This includes journalists, human rights activists, trade union activists and workers, cultural activists, comedians, environmentalists, youth, students, farmers, electricity and industrial workers, and large numbers of minorities, to create a false narrative of internal terrorism and threat to the nation.

Rays of Hope

There are however, some rays of hope: recently somejudgements and court orders have begun to question the issues of the sedition law, UAPA and whether a prisoner can be denied the right to bail.

The most recent orders from the NIA court in Guwahati and the Delhi High Court (in the cases of Akhil Gogoi; Asif Tanha, Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal) have offered a devastating critique of the UAPA and is also regarded as a turning point in judicial circles.

The mainstream press (many ‘godified’ media) has taken note of this turn, breaking with the narrative of the BJP government on these issues. These judgements have vindicated and even defended the right to dissent and opposition to government.

Call for Action

Beginning 23 July, a series of actions have been launched all over the country as part of a National Campaign to Defend Democracy.

The first event was a call ‘Justice for Father Stan Swamy’ – which brought together hundreds of people from all walks of life in public protests demanding that the Courts clear the name of Fr Stan.On 28 July, the Jesuit Conference of India (JCI) observed a ‘National Justice Day’.

In a widely -circulated letter the President of the JCI, Fr Stany Dsouza SJ said, “We, along with the civil society organisations and the people of goodwill, have now organised this day (National Justice Day) to pay homage to Fr Stan and to recommit ourselves to the mission of Truth and Justice. It is an inclusive public gathering consisting of Diocesan clergy, the religious, the laity, the staff and students of Jesuit academic institutions, friends and partners in mission and the representatives from the civil society.”

Supporting this initiative, Cardinal Oswald Gracias the President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India said, “the death of Fr Stan Swamy has been a shock for all. We knew his health was precarious; that he was jailed on charges that were not established; that he was given a rough treatment when incarcerated in the Taloja jail. Our hearts went out to him. But when he passed away, we were numbed. I knew Fr Stan personally having briefly lived in the same community with him many years back in Jamshedpur. He was gentle, kind, soft spoken but articulate with a single-minded dedication to the cause of tribals, spending hours with them every day. We remember him with affection. The greatest tribute we can pay to him is to keep alive his vision: to work for the poor and the oppressed with dedication. Pope Francis reminds us of this often.”

Endorsing the call for ‘National Justice Day’ Cardinal Gracias added, “I encourage every bishop in his diocese to participate to the extent possible according to the local situation.”

On 12 August, the Cardinal paid glowing tributes to Fr Stan in a very meaningful virtual programme of the Archdiocese of Bombay ‘Fr Stan Swamy: A Voice that will live in our hearts forever’.

National Justice Day Response

The response to ‘National Justice Day’ was overwhelming: Parishes, Schools and other Institutions brought together their colleagues and collaborators, their staff and students, religious Sisters and other Priests, their parishioners and others from civil society for a public manifestation to pay homage to Fr Stan and to pledge that we all must work together for justice, so that the legacy that he has left us will be carried on.

Candlelight protest and prayer

In most places it was a silent assembly either at one place or in procession.

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The participants carried lit candles, banners, posters and placards which included pictures of and quotes from Fr Stan. COVID-19 SOPs meant that numbers were limited and all manifestations were held on the campuses or in halls.

In some places, eminent persons spoke about Fr Stan and the importance of working for justice particularly for the Adivasis, Dalits, minorities and other disadvantaged sections.

There were prayer services with hymns and songs of unity. A statement was read out at the end which was covered by some of the local media the next day. On 3 August (the thirtieth day of Fr. Stan’s death) a Memorial Mass was held for Fr Stan in Jamshedpur and later his incisive memoir ‘I am not a Silent Spectator’ was released in Ranchi.

National campaign to Defend Democracy

On 9 August, the National Campaign to Defend Democracy gained added momentum when 165 movements, platforms and organisations, representing thousands of citizens, gave a call for a country wide action to save our democracy: marking the international day for Indigenous people & Quit India movement day, as a day of Public Action.

The action will continue until 28 August.

A high point will be on 15 August, India’s Independence Day, when thousands will pledge to campaign for the repeal of draconian laws and to protect our democracy.

Several programmes: both physical and virtual are planned all over the country, over the next weeks.

The signatories to the National Campaign in a public statement, ‘Defend the Right to Dissent, Repeal the Sedition Law, UAPA and Repressive State Laws, Restore the Right to Bail, Justice for Stan Swamy’ said, “State repression and attacks on right to dissent and the Constitution are growing. UAPA, NIA and other draconian laws are being used as instruments of repression. More than 165 organisations and civil society networks are undertaking a country wide actioncampaign (15-28 August) to protest against the institutional murder of Stan Swamy and the repression.  As part of this campaign, programmes were organised across the country on 23 July to demand justice for Stan Swamy.

The demands of this campaign are – 1) Justice for Stan Swamy, 2) Repeal of UAPA, sedition section and all other draconian laws, including state laws that allow preventive detention, 3) Restore Right to Bail,4) Release all Political Prisoners, 5) Accountability for filing false cases and Compensation to victims, 6) Stop illegal detentions and weaponizing the criminal justice system.

Country-wide protests and various action programmes will be organised in this campaign on 9 August and during 15-28 August. 9 August is international day for world’s indigenous people. It is also the day on which the quit Indian movement started in 1942. Stan Swamy dedicated his life for Adivasi rights and struggles for jal, jangal and zameen. Come, let us organise programmes on 9 August to protest against Stan Swamy’s murder, and for protection of Adivasi rights and the democracy. Also, on 15 August, we will pledge to campaign for repeal of the draconian laws and to protect our democracy.

The Pledge

The Pledge which thousands are expected to take all over the country, on 15 August 2021 is:

On the occasion of the 75th Independence Day, on 15th August, we pledge to defend the legacy of our Freedom Movement, the spirit of the Preamble and the values of our Constitution.

We pledge to campaign for repealing all draconian laws and assert the right to bail of every citizen. We believe that the right to question and the Right to Dissent are the foundation of our democratic, secular and socialist republic. We commit to campaign against all ideologies, laws, and state actions that deprive us of the freedoms of speech and opinion, conscience, association, and to non-violent opposition.

Besides, the physical programmes (where numbers will be limited because of the pandemic) across the country, there will also be several virtual(online)programmes in the coming weeks.

All signatories (organisations and individuals) will also be active on social media on dedicated pages/ handles and from their own pages/handles using the hashtags #FreeAllPoliticalPrisoners #JusticeForFatherStan #RepealUAPA #RestoreRightToBail #NoJailWithoutBail #DraconianLawsQuitIndia.

There is also a dedicated email id

Year Long Jan Azaadi 75

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In the meantime, the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) has initiated a year-long   nation-wide campaign ‘Jan Azaadi 75: On the path to Freedom’ which focuses on remembering the values of the freedom struggle; re-asserting the contributions of people’s movements over 75 years; and to resolutely strengthen our collective struggle for democracy, human rights, social and ecological justice.

The campaign which began on 9 August 2021 will conclude on 15 August 2022.

In a hard-hitting lead story “The unravelling of a conspiracy: were the 16 charged with plotting to kill India’s prime minister framed?’ the Internationally renowned ‘The Guardian Weekly ‘(12 August 2021) says, “If the case of the BK 16 stands out from India’s vast ranks of political prisoners, it is for the vision of India it reveals. The case of the BK 16 is not merely the Hindu right’s response to the assertion of Dalit rights around the anniversary at Bhima Koregaon. It is about the Modi government seizing the opportunity to put some very troublesome opponents behind bars, people it had long ago identified as a threat because of their commitment to civil rights and equality.The arrests had been planned and prepared for by the establishment of a massive project of surveillance, entrapment and incarceration. That project is still alive, still picking its way stealthily through the devices of other people who have chosen to stand up against Modi’s violently authoritarian version of India”.

At the start of the Quit India Movement,late evening of 8 August 1942, Mahatma Gandhi gave a call to the nation to “Do or Die”; the next day his words translated into concrete action and India after much struggle, finally gained her freedom on 15 August !947.

The   current call to ‘Defend Democracy’ is in a similar vein: it is a do or die for we the people of India today. In 1908, when Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak was being tried for sedition in the Bombay High Court, he courageously stated, “Swaraj is my birth right, and I shall have it.”

Justice Davar, the presiding judge, then asked him if he had anything to say before the sentence was pronounced, he audaciously replied, “All I wish to say is that in spite of the verdict of the jury, I maintain my innocence. There are higher powers that rule the destiny of men and nations. It may be the will of Providence that the cause I represent may prosper by suffering than by remaining free.” 

These immortal and inspiring words of Tilak can be read even today; they are etched on a marble plaque outside Court Room 46 in the Bombay High Court. Tilak’s biographer N.G.Jog has described this historic moment profoundly,  “These words delivered on the spur of the moment have a spontaneous dignity and almost a Socratic sublimity. They breathe the spirit of dedication to freedom and of defiance against the might of the British Raj. And, they could have been uttered by only one man in India’s contemporary history – Bal Gangadhar Tilak.”In 2021, in a fairly similar way Fr Stan resonated the words of Tilak!

As ‘we the people’ of India ‘celebrate’ yet another Independence Day, it is fitting to remind ourselves of that prophetic prayer of our Nobel laureate, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

We have to wake up now before it is too late! We need to internalise and act on Tagore’s call to “let my country awake”; together with Gandhi’s “do or die” and Tilak’s “Swaraj is my birthright.”Above all, like the freedom fighters who gave us our independence, that at whatever the price, we must ACT NOW to defend democracy!

*(Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human right, reconciliation & peace activist/writer.  Contact:

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