On January 1, 1818, the British army of 800 Dalit soldiers defeated a battalion of 2,000 made up almost entirely of elite high-caste Brahmins. The battle was one of many confrontations that ultimately led to the British overthrow of the ruling Peshwa. Today, thousands of Dalits gather every year in the village of Bhima Koregaon in the present-day Caribbean state of Maharashtra to commemorate the anniversary of the group’s victory.
In the months leading up to the 2018 bicentenary of the battle, high-caste Marathas and right-wing Hindu groups began to express their displeasure with the planned celebration, arguing that it was an anti- national to celebrate the British victory. On the first day of the year, hundreds of thousands of celebrants and protesters arrived. Clashes broke out between Maratha and the lower caste Mahar, killing one person and injuring five.
Initially, the police investigated Hindutva leaders as possible instigators of the violence. But within six months, they identified new culprits: human rights activists and lawyers who had organized a public meeting they called Elgaar Parishad on December 31, 2017, in the city of Pune .
Over the next two years, police arrested 16 human rights defenders, social activists, lawyers and religious leaders, including Father Stanislaus Lourduswamy, the oldest person to be charged with terrorism in the country.
A priest who championed the rights of tribal and Dalit youth in eastern India, Father Stan Swamy insisted he never attended Elgaar Parishad but remained in police custody for months. Then, last summer, he died while still incarcerated. He was 84 years old.
A fight for justice
At the time of his death, Swamy (also known as Father Stan) had dedicated over three decades to working for the welfare of his country’s most vulnerable. Born in the southern state of Tamil Nadu in 1937, the Jesuit priest spent much of his ministry working in Jharkhand fighting on behalf of tribals and Dalits, especially when their interests intersected with issues of land, forests, water and labor rights. He asked why the government had not implemented the constitutional provisions for the welfare, protection and development of local tribes, Dalits and natives.
Father Stan helped the natives earn a living, said Damodar Turi, a community activist who worked alongside the priest for 16 years. And he would act as liaison for them when the local government seized their lands despite laws designed to protect them. Father Stan also intervened to help the women of these communities, fighting against discrimination, dowries and honor killings.
In 2017, Swamy began advocating for the interests of around 3,000 tribal and Dalit youths whom the government had begun arresting indiscriminately around the time the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Jharkhand in 2014. He and other activists sued the government, challenging its power to detain the youth. This case is ongoing.
As Father Stan faced the wrath of the local BJP government and was embroiled in a sedition case in July 2018, even more controversy had begun to stir.
About a week after Elgaar Parishad, a local businessman filed a formal complaint arguing that human rights activists and lawyers who attended the event were at least partially responsible for the 2018 bicentenary violence. (Citizens must file formal complaints for the government to open a case.)
From the ensuing investigation, authorities alleged that Father Stan conspired with the activists originally arrested in the case.
Over the next few years, Swamy suffered two raids by the police. One was conducted by officers from Maharashtra, the state where the bicentenary took place, about 1,000 miles away, and the other by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), India’s counter-terrorism task force.
In July 2020, members of the NIA interviewed Father Stan about his role at Elgaar Parishad. In September, the NIA asked him to report to Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra, for further questioning. Swamy offered to conduct the questioning via videoconference but declined to appear in person for health reasons, citing advanced Parkinson’s disease, old age and various ailments, as well as the exorbitant increase in pandemic cases and the country being on red alert.
Swamy knew that his work for the tribals and the Dalits had made him a target. His lawsuit against the government, he said in a video message, had become “a bone of contention with the state”. He said, “They wanted to keep me out, and an easy way was to get me involved in serious cases,” even though Bhima Koregaon was “a place where I [had] I have never been there in my entire life.
“He was definitely a ‘thorn in the flesh’ for the [BJP] government, and they found it convenient to remove him from there because he was one of the few who empowered the tribals and argued their case in court,” said Fr. Frazer Mascarenhas, a fellow Jesuit, who was made Swamy’s guardian while he was in hospital.
In the video, Father Stan also said government officials questioned him about snippets of emails allegedly found on his computer that linked him to the Communist Party of India, a Maoist organization the government considered as a terrorist group. He denied these allegations.
Wired released a report alleging that law enforcement used hacking tools to place “false incriminating files on targets’ computers which the same police then used as grounds to arrest and jail” human rights defenders and lawyers arrested in connection with Bhima Koregaon violence.
After Father Stan refused to travel to Maharashtra on October 8, authorities arrested him at his home and airlifted him overnight to Mumbai.
Within weeks, Father Stan applied for medical bail and was denied. In November, he asked permission to get a straw and a cup because his advanced Parkinson’s disease made it impossible for him to hold a drink safely. The government denied his demands for several weeks before finally giving in.
“If things continue like this, I could die soon,” Father Stan, who was barely able to speak, told the Bombay High Court via video link in May 2021. “Please grant me medical bail so that I may be with my people. …during my last days.
A few days later, his health began to deteriorate. He tested positive for COVID-19 in prison and was hospitalized, placed in the intensive care unit and put on life support. Father Stan suffered cardiac arrest and died on July 5, 2021, the day before his bail trial date.
Mascarenhas said that while in hospital, Father Stan described the government’s treatment of him as “targeted abuse”.
The quest for justice
A year after his death, for several days in early July this year, Christians and Indians from all walks of life gathered in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Jharkhand and Bengaluru to commemorate Swamy’s life and contribution.
But his death and the wider Elgaar Parishad controversy have not gone unnoticed by Indian leaders and around the world. In 2020, P. Chidambaram, a senior politician, questioned whether Father Stan and the 15 others arrested for their alleged role in the events surrounding the Bicentenary violence were being treated with justice.
Jairam Ramesh, a prominent opposition Congress Party politician, had his own questions.
“There is no excuse, ever, for a human rights defender to be vilified as a terrorist, and no reason for him to ever die like Father Swamy is dead, charged and detained, and denied his rights,” wrote Mary Lawlor, a UN human. human rights specialist in the days following Swamy’s death.
Out of the country, in July this year, a resolution calling for an independent investigation into the death of Stan Swamy has been introduced by a California congressman. And in June, Father Stan was posthumously awarded the Martin Ennals Award, an honor for human rights activists.
In the aftermath of his death, Swamy’s Catholic Order attempted to clear his name.
“Father Stan Swamy did not die for nothing. We really want to fight to the end,” said Swamy’s lawyer, Mihir Desai, who has called for a judicial inquiry into his death. Thread. “This case is no longer just about the death of Father Swamy. We want to expose the state prison and investigative agency (NIA) whose criminal action led to this.
Father Stan’s quest for justice, human rights and kingdom values has cost him dearly, says Denzil Fernandes, executive director of the Indian Social Institute in Delhi.
“He is an example of people who are willing to risk their lives, to risk being imprisoned, but who respect the truth and do not give in under pressure,” he said.
Swamy’s advocacy extended to Christians and non-Christians alike.
“Father Stan has always championed the cause of humanity. From mob lynchings against the Muslim community to wherever human rights abuses have taken place, Father Stan has always been there,” said Dayamani Barla, tribal leader and award-winning journalist. “Nobody ever perceived him as working exclusively for his community.”
Aakash Ranjan, a community leader who worked alongside Father Stan to deliver food to the hungry, described him as “the backbone of all movements in Jharkhand and a role model for us young people”.
Swamy’s words can be a way for him to continue to encourage his collaborators even after his death. In prison, with the help of others, Father Stan contacted friends and colleagues through letters, which have since been compiled and added to his memoirs.
In these letters, he shared the hardships he had endured at the hands of the country’s police and justice system. He noted that these trials nonetheless brought “a sense of brotherhood and communality where reaching out to each other is possible even in this adversity.”
In the prologue to his memoir, written in 2019, he wrote: “’Why has truth become so bitter, dissent so intolerable, justice so out of reach?’ Because truth has become very bitter to those in power and position, dissent, so distasteful to the ruling elite, justice, so out of reach for the powerless, marginalized and deprived.
“Yet,” he continued, “the truth must be told, the right to dissent must be respected, and justice must reach the doorsteps of the poor. I am not a silent spectator.