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JOSEPH

Months before he was killed in custody 84-year-old Jesuit priest  Stan Swamy, who fought for the rights of the adivasis had written his own epitaph: “In the current system, justice is beyond the means of those who have been falsely accused.”  Nine months ago, in October 2020, when he was arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), though he was suffering from different ailments, including Parkinson’s,  Stan Swamy could carry out essential chores  such as eating, drinking and bathing on his own. But within weeks, in inhuman conditions in custody, his health deteriorated fast and in spite of repeated pleadings before various courts  he did not receive proper medical care on time.

Condoling the demise of Stan Swami, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarai Vijayan said: “It is unjustifiable that a man who fought all his life for our society’s most downtrodden had to die in custody. Such travesty of justice should have no place in our democracy.”

Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren said: “The Union Government must be answerable for absolute apathy and non-provision of timely medical services, leading to his death.  Following the arrest of Fr. Stan on October 8, 2020 from his home in Ranchi, Chief Minister Soren had said that the sole intention of the Union government in arresting Stan was to suppress every voice of dissent.

Even a very  casual examination  of the life and activities of Stan Swami and the actions of the Jharkhand police when  the BJP-led government ruled the state and  the National Investigation Agency (NIA) will reveal that they were hell bent on fixing Stan Swami by hook or crook.

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Fr. Stan hailed from a village, Virahalur, Trichy in Tamlil Nadu. His working life was spent mainly at three places, Indian Social Institute, Bengaluru, JOHAR, the Jesuit Organisation for Human Rights Centre in Chaibasa, and Bagaicha, Ranchi, Jharkhand.

Fr. Stan became the Director of the Bengaluru Institute in 1975, till then the darkest period in the history of independent India. For 11 years Fr. Stan, as a trainer at the Institute, motivated thousands of people, especially youth, through the institute’s training programmes to understand and question the oppressive socio-economic conditions under which the Dalits and Adivasis lived in India.

In the late 1980s, Fr. Stan became the Director of Jharkhandi Organisation for Human Rights Centre, popularly known as JOHAR, a word of greeting among the Adivasis. In the 12 years he headed the organisation, Stan became part of the life and struggle of the Adivasis. In the 1990s, as India opened its economy, a number of multinational companies eyed the mineral rich Adivasi lands. In the name of development, Adivasi lands were illegally taken over displacing thousands of  adivasis.  Fr Stan not only supported their struggle but actively participated in their protest activities.

“Every mine that is dug not only destroys the green forests, fertile lands and water bodies but also displaces entire village habitations,“ Stan pointed out in support of the Adivasis. In 2000, Stan moved to Ranchi and in 2006 after the formation of  Jharkhad, Bagaicha, Ranchi was established primarily for training, research and advocacy focusing on identity, dignity, justice and empowerment of the Adivasis.

Panchayats (Extension in Scheduled Areas)  Act 1996 (PESA) empowers gramsabhas to take responsibility for development of villages. Fr. Stan criticised successive Jharkand governments about the non-implementation of the provisions of PESA, which adversely affected the lives of the adivasis.  Jal, Jungle and Jameen belonged to the adivasis, Stan staunchly believed.

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Consequently Stan actively participated in the adivasis’ struggle against the Netrahat Field Firing Project and the Koel Karo dam project that were to displace thousands of adivasis. He wrote extensively against these projects in newspapers.

Now we come to the most grievous crime Stan committed. During 2014-15 the Jharkhand Government indiscriminately arrested thousands of adivasi and youths. Stan convened a meeting of people of goodwill to discuss the nature of the intervention required to rescue the youths from incarceration. There was very good response, especially from the legal community. Sudha  Bharadwaj, who has been arrested by the NIA and has been charged under various sections of the draconian Unlawful Activities Act, 1967 (UAPA ),also took part in the discussions.

The discussions led to the setting up of a forum named Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee (PPSC) to approach the courts on behalf of the Under Trial Prisoners (UTPs). Thereafter, based on the available data on the arrested Dalit and adivasi youths, Stan filed a petition under public interest litigation (PIL) in the Jharkhand High Court. The High Court on the basis of the evidence provided in the petition directed the government of Jharkhand to furnish complete information about under trial prisoners in Jharkhand. The state is yet to submit its report!

However, to teach Stan a lesson in good behavior the Jharkhand administration  registered a criminal case against him on the basis of a Facebook comment he made on the Pathalgadi movement. Pathals are stones erected at village entrances according to ages old Adivasi custom.  Adivasi villagers in the Khunti district inscribed on the pathals various advasi rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India and the PESA. The government labeled all those who supported the Pathalgadi movement as anti-nationals.

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An FIR was registered against Stan and 19 others for supporting the Pathalgadi movement in 2018.  A year after the FIR was registered a Khunti court declared Stan a ‘proclaimed absconder” under section 82 of the Criminal Procedure Code and ordered attachment of his properties.  Stan was away in Bengaluru for medical treatment.  In October 2019 the police took away two tables, a steel shelf, three plastic chairs,  a mattress and a pillow from Stan’s room.

Stan challenged the allegations in the High Court where the prosecution described him as a “dreaded criminal.” The High Court on December 6, 2019 declared that proper procedures were not followed in the cases against Stan and absolved him of all charges. And at the end of December 2019 the new Jharkhand government headed by Hemant Soren decided to withdraw all cases related to the Pathalgadi movement.

But the Union government, for well-known reasons, wanted to fix Stan and other civil and human right champions in the country and implicated them in the Bhima-Koregaon conspiracy case. The, police, the courts, the media, all have become collaborators in the great design to develop the nation by depriving the adivasis and the dalits of their Jal, Jungle and Jameen.