By Vatican News staff writer
Protests are continuing in different parts of India against the arrest and judicial custody of an elderly Jesuit priest, a champion of the rights of adivasis, tribals, and dalits.
Catholic churches in Tamil Nadu, the native state of 84-year-old Father Stan Swamy, offered special Masses for his health following a call from Tamil Nadu Bishops Council on Oct. 18.
In a message to the people of his state, Archbishop Antony Poppusamy of Madurai, president of the Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council, lauded Father Swamy for his relentless fight for the right of oppressed indigenous people and dalits.
“Upholding the empowerment of the oppressed humanity is the path of Christ Jesus, is the true Christian faith,” the archbishop wrote. “Blaming him with false cases cannot be tolerated in any possible ways,” he stressed.
Meanwhile, in the eastern state of Jharkhand, where Father Swamy works, people of all walks of life and of some political affiliations held a “justice rally” on Oct. 18 demanding the immediate release of Father Swamy and withdrawal of all charges against him saying, “he was falsely framed for working for the welfare of the oppressed.”
A protest march in Jharkhand capital, Ranchi, on Oct. 17, handed over a memorandum to the governor’s office demanding the release of the priest and withdrawal of all false charges against him.
Earlier on Oct. 16, more than 1,000 Christians, including priests and nuns, formed a five-kilometre long human chain in Ranchi, demanding justice for and the release of the jailed priest.
Archbishop Felix Toppo of Ranchi, who was accompanied by his Auxiliary Bishop, Theodore Mascarenhas, joined the human chain, holding a placard that read: “We demand justice.”
Among the other slogans on placards and posters were “Stop terrorizing activists” - “Stan is a worker for Dalit and Adivasi rights and not a terrorist” - “Everyone has human rights, stop branding them as terrorists” and “Release Stan Swamy - the voice of the oppressed.”
They also shared their concerns for the health of Father Swamy, who is in a Mumbai jail hospital.
Similar protests and online actions in support of Father Swamy are going on all over the country since his arrest from his residence at Bagaicha, a Jesuit social work centre in the outskirts of Ranchi.
The officials of the National Investigation Authority (NIA), a federal agency to combat terrorist activities, arrested the priest, accusing him for alleged links with Maoist insurgents who are said to have been behind the violence in Bhima Koregaon village in Maharashtra state in January 2018, in which one person was killed and many others injured.
Realizing his arrest was imminent, Father Swamy released a video explaining his commitment to the rights of the displaced and those deprived of their land, for which he had filed a case against Jharkhand state at the Jharkhand High Court. Regarding the charges of his links with the Bhima Koregaon violence, he said it is “a place that I have never been to in all my life.”
The day after his Oct. 8 arrest, the priest was hauled before a special NIA court in Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra, and was remanded in 14-day judicial custody.
Meanwhile, a silent protest march against Father Swamy’s arrest was organized on Oct. 17 in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), the capital of the neighbouring state of West Bengal.
Archbishop Thomas D'Souza of Calcutta told AsiaNews they are “in solidarity with the cause of Fr. Stan for human rights and against the injustice inflicted on him”. "He was a champion for human rights and the dignity of the poor and tribals ... therefore, we are in solidarity, to tell him that he is not alone, we are with him,” Archbishop D’Souza said.
One of the organizers of the Kolkata protest, Father J. Felix Raj, the vice-chancellor of the Jesuit-run St. Xavier's University, regarded Father Swamy as a prophet who speaks for the poor.
“He has a spirit like Mother Teresa,” said Father Raj, drawing several parallels between the saint of Kolkata who dedicated her life to the dying and destitutes and Father Stan who is working “for the oppressed dalits and tribals”.
Jesuits are working with a team of lawyers in Mumbai to appeal against the priest’s judicial custody.
Meanwhile, the United Nations rights chief on Tuesday appealed to the Indian government to safeguard the rights of human rights defenders and NGOs, and their ability to carry out their crucial work on behalf of the many groups they represent. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet particularly expressed concern over three “vaguely defined laws” that are “increasingly being used to stifle these voices”.
Criticizing the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act that has been widely criticized for its lack of conformity with international human rights standards, Bachelet’s office noted that “the 83-year-old Catholic priest Stan Swamy, a long-standing activist engaged in defending the rights of marginalized groups, was charged and reportedly remains in detention, despite his poor health.” She urged the government to “release people charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for simply exercising basic human rights that India is obligated to protect.” . (Sources: UCANEWS, AsiaNews, UN)