Stan Swamy’s death in custody: Time for a national introspection

A file photo of Father Stan Swamy (Photo: PTI)
A file photo of Father Stan Swamy (Photo: PTI)


We should be ashamed of the mistreatment of an activist whose alleged guilt was far from proven

In Jean Anouilh’s 1959 play Becket, the annoyed monarch Henry II complains about a meddlesome priest, saying, “Will no one rid me of him? A priest! A priest who jeers me and does me injury!"

Father Stan Swamy, who died while in custody at 84, was one such meddlesome priest. He was persistent, calm yet stubborn, compassionate towards those who had rights but who were deprived of power, and steadfast in supporting their struggles. He worked quietly among India’s original inhabitants, who only wanted to be left alone, but who lived on lands rich with mineral resources that a modernizing India wanted, and by living there they were delaying India’s aspirations, and the meddlesome priest championed their cause.

He worked for decades in Jharkhand. In 2016, Stan Swamy published a study which found that some 97% of undertrials he interviewed said allegations of their links with Maoists were false, and 96% earned less than 5,000 per month, an indication that some of the poorest Indians were being arrested on questionable charges under increasingly draconian laws.

Stan Swamy was driven to do what he did because of a religious calling. Religion sets rules of behaviour for adherents and seeks to sway those not yet within its fold to join the flock. Christian priests like Stan Swamy have been unpopular among insecure Hindus who disparage them as missionaries “harvesting souls" by “offering rice bags". In the 1970s, former Jana Sangh leader Om Prakash Tyagi had introduced a private bill in Parliament to outlaw what he called “fraudulent conversions". At the time, another Jesuit priest in Mumbai had said: If someone is willing to give up deeply-held faith for a loaf of bread, it is for the keepers of that faith to introspect why the faith is failing the people. At its best, faith can lead people to aspire to high ideals so that they live by ethical principles. At its worst, it can drive people into frenzy. Intolerance of meddlesome priests can turn murderous; think of the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons in 1999 in Odisha.

The Jesuit Order, to which Stan Swamy belonged, has a strong tradition of liberation theology, particularly in Latin America, an ideology that shows priestly commitment towards collective social concerns (as opposed to individual needs). Irate Latin American dictators had labelled such priests ‘communists’. Some were persecuted, some jailed, and some even murdered.

To be sure, the principles that inspire people to do good are universal; they are found not only in religions, but are rooted in constitutional values, laws and civilizational norms. And in defending the rights of India’s dispossessed, Stan Swamy was not importing an alien ideology or theology; he was articulating the principles of the Indian Constitution. He wanted the Indian state to respect the dignity of the Indian people. “What is happening to me is not something unique," he said. “It is a broader process… We are all aware how prominent intellectuals, lawyers, writers, poets, activists, student leaders… are all put into jail because they have expressed their dissent or raised questions about the ruling powers of India…. I am happy to be part of this process. I am not a silent spectator, but part of the game, and ready to pay the price, whatever be it." He did pay the price; the state failed him.

Context-less headlines refer to Stan Swamy as an accused in the Elgar Parishad case. But, as we now learn from shocking allegations, the evidence the state says it has on some of the Bhima-Koregaon accused may in fact have been planted in the defendants’ computers through sophisticated tools of technology. Some supporters of the government have called him a Marxist, Maoist, terrorist, an anti-national and an enemy of the state. Kapil Mishra, the Bharatiya Janata Party politician who has been accused of making incendiary hate speeches connected with the mob violence of 2020 in Delhi, said in a tweet that he was sad that Stan Swamy died a natural death, adding that he deserved punishment by the law for heinous crimes against humanity and the nation. That tweet has disappeared. A key point to note is that the state hadn’t even made its case against Stan Swamy before a court; it kept arguing against his bail pleas.

The law must take its own course, we are told each time an Anand Teltumbde, Arun Ferreira, Umar Khalid or a Sudha Bharadwaj, Vara Vara Rao, Gautam Navlakha, Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling, Disha Ravi, Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, Siddique Kappan, G.N. Saibaba or Safoora Zargar, among countless others, is jailed. But the rule of law rests on due process. India has repeatedly turned the process into a punishment. Until recently, that meant innocents lost years of their lives to incarceration, denied the right to meet ailing or dying relatives, kept in soiled beds, denied a cup with a straw, and if someone sent them such cups, jail authorities would disallow it.

India has now crossed a threshold: a callous state is leading the country in its plunge into an abyss. No charge against Stan Swamy was proven. He was neither granted bail, despite his failing health, nor tried. Don’t blame the system—it is the people running it who didn’t care, failing both him and India.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at

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