Two days before his arrest, Father Stan Swamy, 83, a Jharkhand-based Jesuit priest, human rights activist and writer who was arrested by NIA on Thursday in the Bhima Koregaon case, had in a video statement spoken about his work on displacement, land alienation, rights of gram sabhas and of Adivasis in jail, among other issues.
He said he challenged the “indiscriminate” arrests of thousands of young Adivasis and Moolvasis by calling them ‘Maoists’, as they “question and resist unjust land-alienation and displacement”. This, he said, could be the main reason why he was targeted in the Bhima-Koregaon case.
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Swamy’s arrest has led to widespread protests in Jharkhand, where he has been based for over two decades. Various civil society groups and activists have criticised this arrest. In a statement, the Ranchi Catholic Church said it was “distressed and troubled” at the way he was arrested and called for his immediate release.
On a non-tribal person like Swamy, who is originally from Trichy in Tamil Nadu, coming to work in Jharkhand, human rights activist Xavier Dias recalled that Swamy studied in the Philippines, where he was acquainted with a series of protests and demonstrations against the administration in the 1970s. He said Swamy, during further studies, made friends with Brazilian Catholic Archbishop Helder Camara.
Dias said: “Camara had said, ‘When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist’…. Swamy’s early influences were people like this. After returning to India, he was the director of Indian Social Institute [ISI] in Bangalore. But he wanted to be with the proletariat…he was very compassionate about them…. After quitting ISI, he started living in a Jamshedpur labour colony, and then in Chaibasa [in Jharkhand’s West Singhbhum district].”
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In Chaibasa, Dias said, Swamy started working with the Jharkhandi Organisation for Human Rights (JOHAR). Ramesh Jerai, 61, an activist who worked with him, said Swamy first analysed the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 – PESA Act – which gives rights to gram sabhas. “Stan Swamy started doing campaigns for PESA and started forming gram sabhas, informing the authorities. He made tribals aware of their rights,” Jerai said.
He said one of Swamy’s main works was collection of data of the displacement of tribal people due to mining, townships, industries, dams, among others.
Dias said Swamy’s disagreement did not remain limited to the establishment. “He was very much in disagreement with even the Church. He was depressed that the Church sided with the elites. He said big institutions run by Jesuits taught in English medium, leaving behind the poor who did not understand the language. He demanded that schools run by Jesuits should be converted to Hindi medium so that the common people may benefit.”
Das also said that Swamy also told his “bosses in the Church” about various social movements taking place in Jharkhand surrounding Dalits, women, environment and the tribal people, and many of them did not have place for conferences, among others.
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The Church gave him some land and Swamy moved to Ranchi and founded ‘Bagaicha’ – a Jesuit social research and training centre – 15 years ago. He has been based there since.
Before his arrest, Swamy had said in a statement, “During the past three decades I have tried to identify myself with the Adivasi people and their struggle for a life of dignity and self-respect. As a writer, I have tried to analyse the different issues they are faced with. In this process I have clearly expressed dissent with several policies, laws enacted by the government in the light of the Constitution.
“I have questioned the validity, legality, justness of several steps taken by the government and the ruling class.”
In a video released after arrest, Swamy said: “Displacement, land alienation because of minings, townships, industries, dams were done and people were not taken into confidence. Hardly minimal compensation was paid. We took it as a challenge on how young people can take it as a life issue and fight it out and in this process some very helpful rulings were passed by the parliament PESA Act significant powers to gram sabha.”
Swamy said he “expressed disappointment” at the silence of the government on the Supreme Court’s Samatha judgment of 1997, which was meant to “provide some significant safeguards for Adivasis to control excavation of minerals in their lands and to help develop themselves economically”.
He said he raised his voice against the “half-hearted action of government” on the Forest Rights Act, 2006, against the “historic injustice done to Adivasis and other traditional forest-dwellers” and has “strongly disagreed” with setting up of land banks in Jharkhand. The latter, he stated, he sees as a recent plot to “annihilate the Adivasi people because it claims that all ‘gair-majurwa’ land (‘Commons’) belong to the govt and it is free to allot it to anybody (read industrial houses) to set up their small and big industries.”
In 2018, Swamy and other activists were booked under sedition charges and under 66A of IT Act – after the Supreme Court had struck it down – for their social media posts against the state’s actions on tribals during the Pathalgadi movement. The police had said that when Swamy failed to appear in court despite several orders, seizures were made from his house.
Tribal activist and journalist Dayamani Barla said that as a non-adivasi, Swamy was accepted among the tribals. Calling his arrest “illegal”, Barla said, “He never tried to become a leader, but was someone who stood with them.”
In its chargesheet in the Elgaar Parishad case on Friday, NIA claimed that Swamy was a Maoist actively involved in the outfit’s activities, and had been receiving its funds. The agency claimed that documents, including propaganda material and literature, were found from his possession.