Dear Fr. Stan Swamy,
On 5 July, you completed your pilgrimage here on earth! Thousands feel your loss everywhere; a light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere! There is spontaneous outrage because of what led to your death; most regard it as institutionalised murder! I am sure that you will not want us to mourn your death; as we look back, we also celebrate your life of commitment; the rich legacy you have left us all. We are overwhelmed with emotion; our hearts are full as we say “Thank you, dear Stan, you will live Forever!”
“Thank you, dear Stan, you will live Forever!”: we thank the Almighty for the Gift of You to so many people everywhere: particularly the excluded and the exploited, the Adivasis and Dalits, the poor and the marginalised, the voiceless and the unlettered; to all those who are denied their legitimate rights; and also, to the Country, the Church and the Society of Jesus.
“Thank you, dear Stan, you will live Forever!”: we cannot help but think of your incredibly committed and simple life-style. Your frugality was known to all. You lived your vow of poverty to the fullest and in a most edifying manner; your material needs were few; your actual possessions were even less. The media had a field day, when some time ago, the ‘authorities’ came to seize your possessions- they got almost nothing!
“Thank you, dear Stan, you will live Forever!”: you were an extraordinary person; in a selfless manner, you gave and did not count the cost! As a young priest, you lived in an interior Adivasi village sharing a small room with one of the local families. During that time, you mastered the Ho language, studied their culture and customs, ate their food and even sang and danced with them. Insertion into the tribal way of life was always paramount to you and also ‘your forte’! You believed in youth, gave them a sense of identity and helped them to critically analyse what was happening to their tribal society. With the generosity and help of the locals you also built your own residence which was an ‘open house’ to one and all! All through your life you mentored, trained and accompanied many women and men!
“Thank you, dear Stan, you will live Forever!”: the world has today celebrates your amazing work on this earth! You were an Adivasi rights activist, working on various issues: land, forest and labour rights; questioning the non-implementation of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, which stipulates setting up of a Tribes Advisory Council with members solely of the Adivasi community, for their protection, well-being and development; your work also involved opposition to the setting up of ‘land banks’, which you believed would free up land belonging to the community in favour of the corporate sector Besides, you helped form a group called the ‘Persecuted Prisoners’ Solidarity Committee’ that sought to do a study of the nature of undertrial prisoners (3,000 Adivasis illegally put in jail) and to have recourse to justice. Your work necessitated expressing dissent with several official policies and laws, which you were convinced were violative of the Constitution. The Adivasis and other excluded, who have been consistently denied their legitimate rights, saw in you a person who left no stone unturned, to champion their cause.
“Thank you, dear Stan, you will live Forever!”: you have taught us all, the true meaning of ‘solidarity’ what it means to actually walk the talk; that to meaningfully empower the exploited and the excluded, one has to be in solidarity with them, in their struggles and to accompany them visibly and vocally, with prophetic courage for a more just and humane society. You did this unreservedly to the very end! You worked together with other women and men of goodwill who believed in the values enshrined in the Constitution of India and the Gospel of Jesus; these were your comrades, your companions, your collaborators!
“Thank you, dear Stan, you will live Forever!”: we listen to those heartfelt words which you said shortly before your arrest on 8 October 2020 “What is happening to me is not something unique- happening to me alone. It is a broader process that is taking place all over the country. We are all aware how prominent intellectuals, lawyers’ writers, poets, activists, students, leaders, they are all put into jail because they have expressed their dissent or raised questions about the ruling powers of India. We are part of the process. In a way I am happy to be part of this process. I am not a silent spectator, but part of the game, and ready to pay the price whatever be it”. Yes, you were never a silent spectator!
“Thank you, dear Stan, you will live Forever!”: on 21 May, you told the Bombay High Court the suffering you were going through in prison; you said “I was brought here eight months ago. When I came to Taloja, my full system, my body was still very functional. But during these eight months, I have gone through a steady regression of all bodily functions. Eight months ago, I could have a bath by myself and also do some writing by myself. But these are disappearing one after another. Taloja jail brought me to a situation where I can neither write nor go for a walk by myself or even eat. I am not able to meet this demand. Eating has become a real difficulty; someone has to feed me with a spoon.” You also highlighted the dire conditions in Taloja jail that prompted prisoners to help each other in the face of acute economic deprivation. You were profoundly touched by the help you received from your fellow prisoners. You seemed to have an intuition of your impending death: you wanted to be given regular bail and to go back to Ranchi to be in the midst of your people “I want to go to Ranchi to be with my friends…. Whatever happens to me I would like to be with my own”.; if not that, you were very clear about your option: to continue to be in Taloja jail “I would rather die here very shortly if things go on as it is”.
“Thank you, dear Stan, you will live Forever!”: your death seems to have united the major opposition political parties of the country. In a strongly worded letter to the President of India they write, “We are urging your immediate intervention as the President of India to direct ‘your government’ to act against those responsible for foisting false cases on him (Stan Swamy), his continued detention in jail and inhuman treatment. They must be held accountable. It is now incumbent that all those jailed in the Bhima Koregaon case and other detenues under politically motivated cases, misusing draconian laws like UAPA, sedition etc be released forthwith.” Ironically, these political parties could not come together on several key issues which plague the nation; some of them have been responsible for introducing draconian laws like the UAPA! But then your death has provided them at least a cosmetic unity to address a serious reality!!
“Thank you, dear Stan, you will live Forever!”: tributes that have come in from the highest echelons of power globally. A statement from the United Nations said, “High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet and the UN’s independent experts have repeatedly raised the cases of Father Stan and 15 other human rights defenders associated with the same events with the government of India over the past three years, and urged their release from pre-trial detention; The high commissioner has also raised concerns over the use of the UAPA in relation to human rights defenders – a law Father Stan was challenging before Indian courts days before he died.” The US State Department through its Office of International Religious Freedom tweeted, “We are saddened by the death of Father Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest & tribal rights activist, who died in Indian custody under charges of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. We call on all governments to respect the vital role of human rights activists in healthy democracies”. All this has obviously raised the hackles of those who illegally incarcerated you! They were afraid and insecure for what you stood for. They tried to do away with you, not realising that your spirit will never die!
“Thank you, dear Stan, you will live Forever!” : the powers that tried to put you away, to annihilate you, have failed miserably in their evil design. They did not realise that doing away with you would spawn hundreds and thousands of ‘Stan Swamys’ everywhere. Since your death, there have been numerous programmes all over the world: rallies and demonstrations; candle light vigils and processions; memorial prayer meetings and Masses; webinars and articles. Leading dailies and magazines have you on the cover with powerful editorials and op-eds; social media has not stopped talking about you. In several ways you have galvanised people across the board, to celebrate your life and mission; and to condemn the way you were made to die! The underlying refrain everywhere is “I am Stan”; no longer the hashtag #StandWithStan, it has gone way beyond.
“Thank you, dear Stan, you will live Forever!”: a new cohesive, vibrant national campaign is emerging and gaining momentum- ‘The Joint National Action to Defend Democracy; Defend Right to Dissent’. The campaign calls for a “repeal of Sedition Laws, UAPA and Repressive State Laws; and demands for the Restoration of the Citizens Right to Bail”. Already on Friday 23 July there is a ‘Day of Action’ planned called ‘Justice for Father Stan Swamy’ which will lead up to a fortnight’s National Action Programme from August 15- 28. Thousands from all over the country are expected to participate. We demand the immediate revocation of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA); the unconditional release of all the Bhima-Koregaon fifteen and all others illegally incarcerated under the draconian UAPA; we demand prison reforms and better conditions for prisoners. All that you relentlessly worked and died for! Strangely enough, in a lecture on 13 July, Supreme Court Justice D.Y. Chandrachud emphatically stated, “criminal law, including anti-terror legislation, should not be misused for quelling dissent or for harassment of citizens; the Supreme Court plays the role of a counter-majoritarian institution and has the duty to protect the rights of socio-economic minorities. Powerful words, a vindication of what you lived and died for; we need to see now what happens in practice!
Even in prison and from the moment you were hospitalised, you reached out to others -the less fortunate prisoners, your caregivers, in every possible way! You tell us with such conviction and positivity, that even a caged bird sings. As a prophet of our times, you epitomised compassion, courage and commitment. You had the audacity to dare: to walk with the excluded and the exploited and to make their struggles your own. Today you are a martyr for justice and truth. The Adivasis and many others already regard you as a ‘Saint’ But you have not died; you will continue to live in each one of us. Many more ‘Stan Swamys’ will continue to rise until that day when your vision of a more humane, just, equitable, fraternal, free and dignified society becomes a reality for the poor and underprivileged, the excluded and the exploited of India! Yes, you were murdered by the State – we are sorry and sad about that! We hang our heads down in shame but at the same time, pledge to live your legacy in our lives! You have gone to that eternal reward you so richly deserve and from the depths of our hearts we say “Thank you dear Stan: You will live Forever!”
14 July 2021
Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer