A prophet is a threat to the powerful

A tribute to Fr Stan Swamy

[ Dr Walter Fernandes ]

No prophet is recognized by the powerful. Prophets are killed because they are a threat to the powerful. That was the message of the Gospel read at masses in Catholic churches on Sunday, 4 July. Stan Swamy was bearing witness to it on the same day by being critical and he left us today, 5 July, a martyr of the powerful for the cause of justice to the tribal communities.

I worked with Stan for 40 years and witnessed his commitment to an India of equality, a land in which the tribals, Dalits and women could claim equality. That is the India that the constitution demands, not the India that the powerful seekers of corporate profit want. So the state that is supposed to uphold the constitutional values but gives priority to the interests of this sector called him antinational and arrested him. He is one of many persons who pay this price in different ways. Sixteen human rights activists, journalists, intellectuals and social activists are accused of being organizers of the violence at Bhima Koregaon, though they have never visited the place and most of them have never met each other. But a conspiracy theory had to be created to push them out of the way. They include committed human rights activists like Sudha Bhardwaj, who could have become a rich lawyer but chose to put her legal expertise at the service of the working class. They include journalists like Gautam Navlakha, intellectuals like Varavara Rao and Prof Sai Baba, and a host of others. Common to them is not a conspiracy hatched against the state as the powerful would like us to believe, but work for an inclusive India in which every citizen is equal.

┬áThat was the crime of Stan Swamy, and he paid for it with his life. During the four decades I worked with him, I saw him sticking his neck out on behalf of the people in the periphery. He was in the middle of the struggle of bonded agricultural labourers in Bangalore in the mid-1970s. In 1978, and many times after it, we saw him joining the Dalits at Villupuram and Tanjore and elsewhere, demanding their right to be human. In many of these cases, the fight was within the church and many of its leaders thought that he was a divisive influence in the church. But Stan’s struggle was for justice to the poor and for an inclusive India in which all people are equal. So he was often disliked even in the church. But many others supported the causes he took up, even when they disagreed with him on details. In all these instances, Stan insisted on non-violence when many victims of injustice were demanding a violent reaction. Such a person is accused of being a Naxalite.

During most of these four decades, his priority was the rights of the tribal communities of Jharkhand and its neighbouring states. The corporate sector wanted their land and the tribals as cheap bonded labour. But Stan wanted them to be citizens of an inclusive India in which they too got the benefits of development and enjoyed democratic rights. That was not acceptable to the powerful and he was accused of being antinational. He certainly was antinational if we want India to be a land for the profit of a few and the bondage of the majority. He fought for tribal land. He went to the high court, seeking the freedom of more than 3,000 tribal young persons of Jharkhand who are jailed because they demanded the rights that are theirs under various laws, such as the Prevention of Tribal Land Alienation Act and the Panchayat Extension to the Scheduled Areas Act. These laws are made and not implemented and Stan demanded that the young persons who demand their implementation be freed and that their voice be heard. He was arrested a few days before this case came up for hearing in the high court.

That is the fate of people who fight for the rights of people in the periphery. The powerful cannot accept their demands to be equal citizens in an inclusive India. Stan is not the first to be punished for joining their peaceful struggle. In October 1995 AT Thomas was killed by the dominant farmers in Jharkhand because he joined the struggle of the Dalits for land rights. Some years later, Sr Sunita Mary was killed near Indore because she was working for the freedom of the bonded labourers. One can mention many more such persons in India and abroad. In every case, they are a threat to people whose riches and power depend on the poverty and cheap labour of the weak. All those who are in jail as urban Naxalites supporting violence in Bhima Koregaon belong to the category of people who stood for the rights of people who are deprived of their liberty in order to ensure the freedom of the powerful to exploit the weak.

Where do we go from here? Will Stan’s death and the sufferings of dozens of people go in vain? It should not happen. The time has come for persons concerned with justice to look at the legal system that jails innocent persons but is not held accountable for that injustice? Those who are accused of conspiracy in Bhima Koregaon are bound to be freed eventually because they are jailed on flimsy accusations. It has been happening to many others. A Muslim from Kashmir was acquitted a week ago after spending 11 years in jail in Gujarat on false charges of terrorism. Two other Muslims were acquitted in June after spending 12 years in jail. The lives of these young men have been destroyed, but the state that jailed them unjustly is not made to pay for it.

Stan Swamy has laid down his life for the cause of the tribal communities struggling for their rights. Let this sacrifice of Stan and others paying the price in jail not go in vain. It is time the human rights activists and all people of goodwill, including the media, came together to demand an inclusive India in which all people are equal. Together they should demand a legal system that holds people who perpetrate such injustice in the name of the law responsible for their actions. That would be a good way of paying tribute to Stan Swamy. (Dr Fernandes is Director, North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati. He can be reached at walter.nesrc@gmail.com)