On January 1, 1818, the British-led army of 800 Dalit soldiers defeated a 2,000-strong battalion made up almost entirely of elite high-caste Brahmins. The battle was one of the many confrontations that ultimately led to the overthrow of the ruling Peshwa by the British. Today, thousands of Dalits gather annually in the village of Bhima Koregaon in what is now the western Indian state of Maharashtra to mark the anniversary of the group’s victory there.
In the months leading up to the 2018 bicentennial celebrations, senior Maratha and right-wing Hindu groups began to voice dissatisfaction with the planned celebration, arguing it was an anti-national act to celebrate the British victory. Hundreds of thousands of revelers and protesters came on the first day of the year. Clashes broke out between Maratha and the low-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 organized a public gathering they dubbed the Elgaar Parishad in the city of Pune on December 31, 2017.
Over the next few years, police arrested 16 human rights defenders, social activists, lawyers and church leaders – including Father Stanislaus Lourduswamy, the oldest person accused of terrorism in the country.
Father Stan Swamy, a priest who campaigned for the rights of tribal and Dalit youth in East India, insisted he had never visited Elgaar Parishad but remained in police custody for months. Then, last summer, he died while still incarcerated. He was 84.
A fight for justice
At the time of his death, Swamy (aka Father Stan) had dedicated more than three decades to serving the most vulnerable in his country. Born in 1937 in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the Jesuit priest spent much of his ministry in Jharkhand campaigning for tribesmen and Dalits, particularly when their interests intersected with issues of land, forest, water and labor rights. He questioned why the government had failed to implement constitutional provisions for the welfare, protection and development of local tribes, Dalits and indigenous people.
Father Stan helped the natives earn a living, said Damodar Turi, a community activist who has worked with the priest for 16 years. And he would be her liaison when the local government confiscated her land despite laws designed to protect it. Father Stan also intervened to help women in these communities and fought against discrimination, dowry and honor killings.
In 2017, Swamy began campaigning on behalf of some 3,000 tribal and Dalit youth who were indiscriminately arrested by the government around the time the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Jharkhand in 2014. He and other activists sued the government, challenging its authority to detain the youth. This case is not yet closed.
In July 2018, while Father Stan faced the wrath of the local BJP government and was involved in a case of hate speech, more controversy began 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 partly responsible for the violence of the 2018 bicentennial. (Citizens must file formal complaints for the government to open a case.)
Subsequent investigation revealed that authorities claimed that Father Stan was conspiring with the activists originally arrested in the case.
Over the next few years, Swamy endured two police raids. One was conducted by officials from Maharashtra, the state where the bicentennial had taken 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 questioned Father Stan about his role in Elgaar Parishad. In September, the NIA asked him to present himself for further questioning in Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra. Swamy offered to proceed with the interrogation via videoconference but declined to appear in person due to health reasons, citing advanced Parkinson’s disease, old age and various medical conditions, as well as the exorbitant rise in pandemic cases and the country’s state of alert.
Swamy knew his work for the tribes and Dalits had targeted him. His lawsuit against the government, he said in a video message, had become “a bone of contention with the state”. He said, “They wanted me out of the way, and an easy way was to get me involved in some serious cases,” although Bhima Koregaon “was a place I was [had] I’ve never been there in my whole life.”
“He was definitely a ‘thorn in the flesh’ for them [BJP] government, and they found it convenient to get him out of there because he was one of the few who empowered the tribesmen and actually represented their case in court,” said Father Frazer Mascarenhas, a fellow Jesuit appointed a Guardian of Swamy while he was in the hospital.
In the video, Father Stan also said government officials questioned him about email excerpts reportedly found on his computer that linked him to the Communist Party of India, a Maoist organization the government regards as a terrorist group considered. He denied these claims.
Wired issued a report alleging law enforcement used hacking tools to place “false incriminating files on targets’ computers, which the same police then used as grounds for the arrest and detention” of those linked to the Bhima Koregaon human rights defenders and lawyers arrested by violence.
After Father Stan refused to travel to Maharashtra on October 8, authorities arrested him at his home and flew him to Mumbai overnight.
Within weeks, Father Stan requested bail on medical grounds, which was denied. In November, he applied for permission to receive a straw and drinking cup as he was unable to hold a glass securely due to advanced Parkinson’s disease. The government rejected his requests for several weeks before finally giving in.
“If things go on like this, I could die soon,” Father Stan, barely able to speak, told the Bombay High Court via videoconference in May 2021. “Please grant me medical bail so that I can attend my people can be … in my last days.”
Only a few days later, his health began to deteriorate. He tested positive for COVID-19 in prison and was hospitalized, placed in intensive care and placed on a ventilator. Father Stan went into cardiac arrest and died on July 5, 2021, the day before his bail trial.
Mascarenhas said that at the hospital, Father Stan described the government’s treatment as “targeted abuse”.
The Search for Justice
A year after his death, Christians and Indians from all backgrounds gathered in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Jharkhand and Bengaluru for several days in early July this year to commemorate Swamy’s life and contribution.
But his death and the wider Elgaar Parishad controversy have not gone unnoticed by leaders in India and around the world. In 2020, Fr. Chidambaram, a senior politician, questioned whether Father Stan and the 15 others arrested for their alleged role in the events surrounding the bicentennial violence were being treated fairly.
Jairam Ramesh, a leader in the opposition Congress Party, had his own questions.
“There is no excuse for a human rights defender to be framed as a terrorist and there is no reason why he should ever die the way Father Swamy died, was tried and imprisoned and denied his rights,” wrote Mary Lawlor, a UN Associate human rights expert, in the days following Swamy’s death.
outside the country, in July of this year, a resolution seeking an independent investigation into Stan Swamy’s death, was introduced by a California congressman. And in June, Father Stan posthumously received the Martin Ennals Prize, an award for human rights activists.
After his death, Swamy’s Catholic order attempted to clear his name.
“Father Stan Swamy didn’t die in vain. We really want to fight this to the end,” said Swamy’s attorney, Mihir Desai, who is calling for an inquest into his death The cable. “This case is no longer just about Father Swamy’s death. We want to expose the federal penitentiary and the investigative agency (NIA) whose criminal actions 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, risk incarceration, but still stand up for the truth and won’t bow to the pressure,” he said.
Swamy’s intercession extended to Christians and non-Christians alike.
“Father Stan has always championed the cause of humanity. Whether it was mob lynchings against the Muslim community or wherever human rights abuses were taking place, Father Stan was always there,” said Dayamani Barla, a tribal leader and award-winning journalist. “Nobody ever perceived him as working exclusively for his community.”
Aakash Ranjan, a community leader who worked with Father Stan to offer 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 may be one way he continues to encourage his staff after his death. While in prison, Father Stan, with the help of others, reached out to friends and associates through letters that 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 legal system. He noted that these processes have nonetheless produced “a sense of brotherhood and communitarianism in which it is possible to reach out to one another even in times of need.”
In the prologue to his 2019 memoir, he wrote, “‘Why has truth become so bitter, dissent so intolerable, justice so elusive?’ Because the truth has become very bitter for those in power and those in power, dissent so unpalatable to the ruling elite, justice so out of reach for the powerless, marginalized and disadvantaged.”
“Yet,” he continued, “truth must be spoken, the right of appeal must be upheld, and justice must reach the doorsteps of the poor. I’m not a silent spectator.”