Stan Swamy had been fighting for indigenous people’s rights in India for 40 years until he was arrested. Today various organizations have come together to demand his release.
“What is happening to me is not something unique that happens to me alone. We are all aware of how prominent intellectuals, lawyers, writers, poets, activists, students, leaders, who defend the rights of the Adivasis (indigenous), Dalits (untouchables) and express their disagreement with the ruling powers are in the spotlight and they are imprisoned. I’m glad I’m not a silent onlooker. I’m willing to pay the price, whatever it is.”
10/12/2020.- Two days after speaking these words on video, Father Stan Swamy was arrested and detained by the National Agency of India. He is currently in prison along with 15 other people, falsely accused of having links with Maoist movements and of being present in Bhima Koregoan in an incident that in 2018 resulted in one death and several injuries.
Although these accusations have been flatly denied, Stan Swamy faces a month and a half in Taloja prison since last November 9, in the middle of the covid-19 pandemic and in totally inadequate conditions, after having been denied bail in the past October 23. But who is Stan Swamy and what is his “crime”?
Stan Swamy is an 83-year-old Jesuit, in poor health – affected by Parkinson’s and other diseases – but with an enviable strength derived from his deep convictions. For 40 years, he has worked in the State of Jharkhand, India, with indigenous communities (adivasis) forcibly displaced from their territories by mining, industrial agriculture or development projects.
Swamy facilitated the organization of the Adivasis so that they could claim their right to the land and their livelihoods. In 2017, he documented in a meticulous study with other organizations how a large number of them were imprisoned for years when they claimed their rights, accused of being “terrorists”. He filed a legal public action in court against the State of Jharkhand on behalf of 3,000 indigenous people and has since been the subject of suspicion, questioning, accusations and, now, imprisonment. His arrest is part of an increasingly authoritarian drift by the Government of India, which is manifested in the draconian law to prevent illegal activities (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act), by which the state can label someone as a terrorist and imprison him without trial .
The persecution of rights and land defenders, in any case, is a global phenomenon that occurs in many places, be it in India, the Philippines, Colombia or Honduras, to name just a few examples. As Global Witness denounces, in 2019 212 defenders of the land were killed. Many more, like Stan Swamy, have been defamed, criminalized or imprisoned, being accused of “anti-development”, “anti-national”, “criminal” or “terrorist”.
The response to the arrest of Swamy and the human rights defenders has not been long in coming. Jesuits and other groups have mobilized internationally demanding their release, as expressed in the statement from the Secretariat for Social Justice and Ecology of the Society of Jesus in Rome.
In Asia and India, the South Asian Jesuit Conference declared a mobilization day with Stan Swamy under the theme #StandwithStan. Civil society is mobilizing across the country, carrying banners, creating human chains, online campaigns and collecting signatures, prayers, poems, songs or other creative forms of protest. Contacts are also being maintained with political representatives in India and in various countries around the world, including contacts and statements by representatives of the United Nations.
The campaign will intensify in the coming days as the request for bail based on humanitarian grounds will be appealed – previously denied – and the request for bail on substantive grounds will also be presented. Meanwhile, Swamy, from his cell shared with two other people, appreciates the expressions of solidarity and support, and the stories and help that his companions give him when it comes to eating, drinking or washing. “Despite everything, humanity is very present in the Taloja prison,” he says in a letter.
The fight for their liberation is also the fight for that of the other rights defenders, but it goes further. It is the fight for justice, for democracy, for the rule of law, for a world in which indigenous communities can live in peace on their lands. And in some way, it affects us all, because as Martin Luther King pointed out, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
This article is written by Valeria Méndez de Vigo, Communications and Advocacy Officer at the Secretariat of Social Justice and Ecology of the Society of Jesus at the Roman Curia, and it was originally published on November 30th at El País newspaper.
UPDATE: Read the International Statement asking for the immediate release of Fr. Stan Swamy published by the solidarity group today, Dec 10th, on the International Human Rights Day