By Vatican News staff reporter
Father Stan Swamy, the jailed 84-year-old Indian Jesuit priest who was championing the rights of indigenous and marginalized people in eastern India’s Jharkhand state, died on Monday. He breathed his last at 1.30 pm at the Holy Family Hospital in Bandra, Mumbai, where he was admitted for treatment over a month ago.
“We are deeply saddened at the passing away of Fr. Stan Swamy. We give thanks to God for Fr. Stan’s life and commitment to the poor indigenous people and their struggles,” wrote Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay in a brief statement. "Fr. Stan’s arrest was very painful,” lamented the cardinal who is President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI). “Under the Indian criminal law, one is innocent until proved guilty,” he wrote. “Fr. Stan’s case did not even come up for hearing. We were eagerly waiting for the case to be taken up and the truth to come out," the cardinal wrote.
India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) that is tasked with fighting terrorism and sedition under the controversial Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), arrested Father Swamy on October 8 from Bagaicha, a Jesuit social action centre on the outskirts of Ranchi, the capital of the eastern state of Jharkhand.
The following day, he was lodged in Taloja Jail, near Mumbai. He was arrested for alleged links with Maoist insurgents who were said to have been behind the caste-based violence in Bhima Koregaon village in Maharashtra state in January 2018, in which one person was killed and many others injured. Fifteen others, including scholars, lawyers, academicians, cultural activists and an ageing radical poet, have also been implicated in the same case.
Serious health issues, Covid-19
Father Swamy who suffered from Parkinson’s disease had difficulty in even sipping water from a glass and depended on co-prisoners for his other basic needs. Besides, he also had hearing impairment and other age-related ailments.
The NIA court denied him bail twice, forcing him to twice move the Bombay High Court for bail. In the second week of May, the priest’s family members sought his release on grounds that he had contracted Covid-19 and was unable to even speak to his lawyers. While hearing his bail plea on health grounds on May 21 through a video linkup, the Bombay High Court sensed Fr. Swamy’s failing health, and offered him treatment in a government or private hospital. But the Jesuit turned down the offer, saying all he wanted was bail to go back to his home. “I would rather suffer, possibly die very shortly if this were to go on,” he said. He explained that when he arrived at the prison, his bodily systems “were very functional”, but in the over 7 months in prison, “there has been a steady, slow regression” of his health.
The Jesuit Conference of South Asia (JCSA) which also announced the death of Father Swamy said he was undergoing treatment at the intensive care unit of the Holy Family Hospital in Mumbai, where he was shifted from the Taloja prison following a High Court order on May 28. The ailing priest tested positive two days later.
JCSA said “the Bombay High Court was hearing some petitions, seeking bail and a constitutional challenge to a section of UAPA, on July 5 when his lawyer announced Stan Swamy’s death.” “He suffered a cardiac arrest at 4.30 am on Saturday, and deteriorated thereafter,” JCSA said.
Indian Church remembers Fr. Swamy
In his statement, Cardinal Gracias noted that “Fr. Stan worked tirelessly for the underprivileged and downtrodden, giving them a sense of dignity and upliftment.” The CBCI president said he personally witnessed the priest’s “dedication to the exploited tribals”. “This work had its own challenges, but Fr. Stan worked single-mindedly for the poor.” He hopes that “the truth will come out soon and his name will be cleared of all criminal conspiracy”.
The Archdiocese of Ranchi where Father Swamy served hailed him as “a champion of tribal rights, a fighter for justice and a symbol of courage”. “The fact that this sick man suffering with Parkinson disease was arrested at the age of 84, refused bail for over 7 months, not even allowed a sipper and finally contracted COVID in jail, itself is a sad reflection on those who got the innocent man arrested and the courts that refused to give him bail,” said a statement signed by Archbishop Felix Toppo of Ranchi and Auxiliary Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas. “The ‘caged parrot’ now sings in heaven but its blood is on our hands," they wrote, “May the hand of God intervene to bring justice to all innocent victims of insensitivity, vindictiveness and injustice. We have lost Fr. Stan Swamy but we still hope in the God of justice,” they added.
The Jamshedpur Jesuit Province, to which Father Swamy belonged, also expressed “a deep sense of pain, anguish and hope” at the death of the “servant in mission of justice and reconciliation”. In a Facebook post, Father Jerome Cutinha noted that the “author of life” had given Father Swamy “a mission to work among the Advasis [indigenous], Dalits [downtrodden] and other marginalized communities so that the poor may have life and life to the full, with dignity and honour”. “The Society of Jesus [Jesuits], at this moment, recommits itself to take forward the legacy of Fr. Stan in hits mission of justice and reconciliation,” Father Cutinha wrote.
Fr. Swamy’s commitment
Father Swamy has denied all charges against him saying Bhima Koregaon is “a place that I have never been to in all my life.” However, sensing his imminent arrest, he had released a video message explaining his situation. He said that what was happening to him was not something unique or happening to him alone. “It’s a broader process that is taking place over the country.” Prominent intellectuals, lawyers, writers, poets, activists and student leaders, he said, “are all put into jail just because they have expressed dissent…”.
This however did not dim his resolve to pursue his convictions. “I am happy to be part of this process because I am not a silent spectator,” he said in the video. He explained that with the creation of Jharkhand state in 2000, there were issues, such as displacement and land alienation because of mining, factories townships and dams”, in which the people who owned that land were not consulted. He engaged young activists to resort to the country rulings or laws that empowered the indigenous people in issues regarding their lands and territories.
Born on April 26, 1937, Father Swamy joined the Jesuit on May 30, 1957. He was ordained a priest on April 14, 1970. He took his final vows as a Jesuit on April 22, 1981. He died on July 5, 2021, thus becoming India’s oldest prisoner charged with terrorism to die in custody, awaiting bail.