By Devin Watkins
It was surely not how he expected to spend his 84th birthday on Monday, 26 April.
After over 6 months, Fr. Stan Swamy, SJ, an Indian priest with Parkinson’s disease, remains behind bars in a Mumbai prison.
He was arrested on 8 October last year in Ranchi. His crime? Alleged links with Maoist rebels who are said to be behind a 2018 riot in Maharashtra state. His plea? Not guilty. He said before his arrest that he had never even been to Bhima Koregaon village, where the riots took place.
Fr. Stan has spent his life serving the indigenous peoples of Jharkhand and elsewhere, standing up for their rights and speaking out on their behalf.
Commitment to justice
Now, 200 days later and despite numerous appeals for his release on bail for health grounds, apart from innocence, Fr. Stan remains locked up.
One of his fellow Jesuits and social activists, Fr. Cedric Prakash, wrote an open letter to Fr. Stan, and recalled his life of mission and service.
“We continue to marvel at your unflinching commitment to the cause of justice,” said Fr. Cedric. “Over the years you have shown us all what it means to be a person for others, rooted in the non-negotiable faith-justice mandate.”
He added that Fr. Stan lived his evangelical vow of poverty to the full and that he has taught countless people the true meaning of solidarity.
A song from the cage
Even though he is in prison, said Fr. Cedric, Fr. Stan continues to reach out to fellow prisoners in whatever way he can.
“You have not allowed the brutal and inhuman system to break you!” he said. “Instead, you tell us with such positivity and hope, that even a caged bird sings.”
That last line was echoed by the Bombay Jesuits, who released a rap video in tribute to Fr. Stan entitled “A Caged Bird Can Still Sing”.
It wasn’t only Jesuits celebrating Fr. Stan’s birthday with tributes.
A Mass was held on Monday morning, and a prayer service in the evening. His brother, Irudaya Swamy, joined other family members at his home parish in Trichy Diocese to say: “We are with you, dear Father.”
Blood donation campaigns and a twitterstorm rounded off the day’s events in tribute to the jailed Catholic activist.
Civil rights groups slapped posters with Fr. Stan’s face across all major cities in Tamil Nadu, demanding his release.
Indian Catholics and activists weren’t the only ones marking Fr. Stan’s birthday with calls for justice.
The Bishops of England and Wales also expressed their support for the elderly Jesuit priest.
Bishop Declan Lang of Clifton said Fr. Stan’s fervent missionary work, despite suffering from Parkinson’s, is a witness for all.
“You are remembered every day,” he said. “Your work with the marginalized Dalit and Adivasi communities is an inspiration to all of us and a courageous stand for justice.”
Bishop Paul Swarbrick of Lancaster thanked Fr. Stan for his faith and determination.
“I cannot recall Christ ever giving up on his care for the poor,” he said. “Fr Stan is committed and determined to defend the rights of the indigenous people. He will not rest, he will not walk away or allow them to be robbed.”