By Vatican News staff reporter
The Catholic bishops of Asia have expressed their sorrow at the death of jailed Indian Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy, hailing him as the “latest saint of modern India’s poor”.
“His last month in custody on a hospital bed till the last moments is the most heart-wrenching tragedy of an innocent man persecuted for doing good,” said Myanmar Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon, president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference (FABC), in a statement.
The ailing 84-year-old human rights activist who suffered from Parkinson’s disease and other age-related conditions, including hearing impairment, died on Monday in Holy Family Hospital in Mumbai, bail denied.
He was arrested on October 8 from Bagaicha, a Jesuit social action centre on the outskirts of Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, on charges for alleged links with Maoist insurgents who were said to have been behind the violence in Bhima Koregaon village in Maharashtra state in January 2018. He was arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) that is tasked with fighting terrorism and sedition under the controversial Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The following day, he was lodged in Taloja Central Jail.
In the nearly 9 months of detention, his repeated pleas for bail were rejected. Yet, charges against him have never been proven. He championed the rights of indigenous and marginalized people of Jharkhand through legal means, not violence. Fr. Stan has denied all charges in the Bhima Koregaon case saying it is “a place that I have never been to in all my life.”
Following a deterioration of his health condition, the Bombay High Court ordered he be shifted to Holy Family Hospital on May 28. He tested positive for Covid-19. The staff of the hospital, run by the Ursuline Sisters of Mary Immaculate, ensured every care to make the last month of Fr. Stan's life comfortable.
“Latest saint of modern India’s poor”
In his tribute, Cardinal Bo wrote, “The custodial hospitalization restrained his movements, but in his death, his legacy is set free now, inspiring thousands in every part of India and the globe. His mission will continue and will never succumb to evil.”
The Asian Catholic bishops’ president pointed out that Fr. Stan followed the nonviolent path of Mahatma Gandhi, who was also “arrested and incarcerated under sedition laws by British officials”. With his “great love for those in the margins,” Fr. Stan “is the latest saint of modern India’s poor”. He said the Jesuit priest “redefined his priesthood, extending his altar to the streets and hills of those obnoxious corners of injustice, breaking the bread of good news of human dignity and justice especially among the indigenous (tribals, Adivasi) people.”
“In his death,” the cardinal said, the Jesuit rights activist “has shone a damning light on the injustice that is becoming a norm in the world: Tribals and indigenous people are expendable to corporate interests and their political enablers,” he said, noting the trend is also elsewhere in Asia. The Asian bishops’ president concluded expressing the commitment of the Asian Church to Fr. Stan’s “dream of a new world of justice and peace”.
Fr. Stan’s ashes to Ranchi
The Jesuits of India and South Asia bade Fr. Stan goodbye at a funeral Mass in St. Peter’s Church, Bandra, in Mumbai, an event streamed live on YouTube due to the Covid-19 protocols.
Fr. Joe Xavier, who saw to the legal matters of Fr. Stan, announced at the end of the Mass that in keeping with prison, court and Covid norms, Fr. Stan’s body would be cremated. His ashes would be sent to Jamshedpur Jesuit Province, to which he belonged, and to Ranchi, where he served the poor.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) has also expressed worry over the circumstances of the death of Fr. Stan. In a statement on Tuesday, spokesperson Liz Throssell said, “High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet and the UN's independent experts have repeatedly raised the cases of Father Stan and 15 other human rights defenders associated with the same events with the Government of India over the past three years and urged their release from pre-trial detention.” The UN rights chief “has also raised concerns over the use of the UAPA in relation to human rights defenders, a law Father Stan was challenging before Indian courts days before he died”.
The UN rights office pointed out that “in light of the continued, severe impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is even more urgent that States, including India, release every person detained without a sufficient legal basis, including those detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views”.
Soon after Fr. Stan's arrest last year, Bachelet’s office expressed concern over “vaguely defined laws” that are “increasingly being used to stifle these voices”. Bachelet urged the Indian government to “release people charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for simply exercising basic human rights that India is obligated to protect.”