On January 1, 1818, the British-led army of 800 Dalit soldiers defeated a 2,000-person battalion composed almost entirely of high-caste Brahmin elite. The battle was one of the many confrontations that ultimately led to the British overthrow of the ruling Peshwa. Today, thousands of Dalits gather annually in the village of Bhima Koregaon, in the modern-day West Indian state of Maharashtra, to commemorate the anniversary of the group’s victory there.
In the months leading up to the 2018 battle bicentennial, high-caste Maratha and right-wing Hindu groups began to voice displeasure with the planned celebration, arguing it was an anti-national act to celebrate the victory of the British. On the first day of the year, hundreds of thousands of celebrators and protesters arrived. Clashes broke out between Maratha and the lower-caste Mahar, killing one person and injuring five.
Initially police investigated Hindutva leaders as possible instigators of the violence. But within six months, they identified new culprits: human rights activists and attorneys who had organized a public meeting that they called Elgaar Parishad on December 31, 2017, in the city of Pune.
Over the course of the next couple years, the police arrested 16 human right defenders, social activists, attorneys, and church leaders—including Father Stanislaus Lourduswamy, the oldest person to be accused of terrorism in the country.
A priest who stood up for the rights of tribal and Dalit youth in East India, Father Stan Swamy insisted he had never attended Elgaar Parishad, yet he remained under police custody for months. Then, last summer, he died while still incarcerated. He was 84.
A fight for justice
At the time of his death, Swamy (also known as Father Stan) had devoted more than three decades to working for the welfare of his country’s most vulnerable. Born in the southern state of Tamil Nadu in 1937, the Jesuit priest spent much of his ministry working in Jharkhand fighting on behalf of tribals and Dalits, especially when their interests intersected with issues of land, forest, water, and labor rights. He questioned why the government had not implemented constitutional provisions for the well-being, protection, and development of the local tribals, Dalits, and natives.
Father Stan helped the natives earn livelihoods, said Damodar Turi, a community activist who worked alongside the priest for 16 years. And he would liaison for them when the local government seized their land despite laws designed to protect it. Father Stan also intervened to help women in these communities, fighting against discrimination, dowries, and honor killings.
In 2017, Swamy began advocating on behalf of roughly 3,000 tribal and Dalit youth whom the government had started arresting indiscriminately around the time that the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Jharkhand in 2014. He and other activists sued the government, challenging its authority to detain the youth. That case is ongoing.
While Father Stan faced the ire of the local BJP government and was implicated in a case of sedition in July 2018, even more controversy had begun to stir.
About a week after Elgaar Parishad, a local businessman filed a formal complaint arguing that human rights activists and attorneys who had taken part in the event were at least partially at fault for the 2018 bicentennial’s violence. (Citizens must file formal complaints for the government to open a case.)
Over the next few years, Swamy endured two police raids. One was conducted by officers from Maharashtra, the state where the bicentennial had occurred, roughly 1,000 miles away, and the other by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), India’s counterterrorism task force/
In July 2020, members of the NIA interrogated Father Stan about his role at Elgaar Parishad. That September, the NIA requested he present himself in Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra, for further interrogation. Swamy offered to proceed with the interrogation via videoconference but refused show up in person due to health reasons, citing advanced Parkinson’s, old age, and various ailments, as well as the exorbitant rise in pandemic cases and the country being on red alert.
Swamy knew his work for the tribals and Dalits had made him a target. His lawsuit against the government, he said in a video message, had become “a bone of contention with the state.” He said, “They wanted to put me out of the way, and one easy way was to implicate me in some serious cases,” even though Bhima Koregaon was “a place I [had] never been to in all my life.”
“He was definitely a ‘thorn in the flesh’ for the [BJP] government, and they found it convenient to get him away from there because he was one of the few who was empowering the tribals and actually pleading their case in the court of law,” said Father Frazer Mascarenhas, a fellow Jesuit, who was appointed a custodian of Swamy while he was in the hospital.
In the video, Father Stan also said government officials questioned him about email extracts reportedly found on his computer that linked him with the Communist Party of India, a Maoist organization that the government has deemed a terrorist group. He denied these claims.
Wired published a report alleging that law enforcement used hacking tools to plant “false incriminating files on targets’ computers that the same police then used as grounds to arrest and jail” the human rights defenders and attorneys arrested in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence.
After Father Stan refused to travel to Maharashtra, on October 8, authorities arrested him at his home and flew him overnight to Mumbai.
Within weeks, Father Stan applied for bail on medical grounds and was rejected. In November, he sought permission to obtain a straw and sipper cup, as his advanced Parkinson’s left him unable to hold a glass securely. The government denied his requests for several weeks before f inally relenting.
“If things continue this way, then I might die soon,” Father Stan, who was barely able to speak, told the Bombay High Court via video conferencing in May 2021. “Please grant me medical bail so that I can be with my people … during my last days.”
Just a few days later, his health condition began to deteriorate. He tested positive for COVID-19 while in jail and was hospitalized, placed in the intensive care unit, and put on ventilator support. Father Stan suffered cardiac arrest and died on July 5, 2021, the day before his bail trial date.
Mascarenhas said that while in the hospital, Father Stan referred to the government’s treatment of him as “targeted maltreatment.”
The quest for justice
One year after his death, for several days at the beginning of July this year, Christians and Indians from all backgrounds gathered in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Jharkhand, and Bengaluru to commemorate Swamy’s life and contribution.
But his death and the larger Elgaar Parishad controversy have not gone unnoticed by leaders in India and around the world. In 2020, P. Chidambaram, a senior politician, questioned whether Father Stan and the 15 others arrested for their alleged role in the events surrounding the bicentennial violence were being treated justly.
Jairam Ramesh, a leading politician from the opposition Congress Party, had his own questions.
“There is no excuse, ever, for a human rights defender to be smeared as a terrorist, and no reason they should ever die the way Father Swamy died, accused and detained, and denied his rights,” wrote Mary Lawlor, a UN human rights expert, in the days following Swamy’s death.
Outside the country, in July of this year, a resolution seeking independent inquiry into Stan Swamy’s death was introduced by a California congressman. And in June, Father Stan posthumously received the Martin Ennals Award, an honor for human rights activists.
In the aftermath of his death, Swamy’s Catholic order has tried to clear his name.
“Father Stan Swamy didn’t die for nothing. We really want to fight this till the end,” Swamy’s attorney Mihir Desai, who demanded a judicial inquiry into his death, told The Wire. “This case is no more about just Father Swamy’s death. We want to expose the state prison and the investigating agency (NIA) whose criminal action has led to this.”
Father Stan’s quest for justice, human rights, and kingdom values cost him dearly, says Denzil Fernandes, executive director of the Indian Social Institute in Delhi.
“He is an example of people who are ready to risk their lives, to risk being jailed, yet they stand by the truth and not buckle down under pressure,” he said.
Swamy’s advocacy extended to Christians and non-Christians alike.
“Father Stan has always stood with the cause of humanity. Be it mob lynching against the Muslim community, or wherever human rights violation took place, Father Stan was always there,” said Dayamani Barla, a tribal leader and award-winning journalist. “Nobody ever perceived him as exclusively working for his community.”
Aakash Ranjan, a community leader who worked alongside Father Stan to offer food to the hungry, described him as “the backbone of all the movements in Jharkhand and a role model to us youngsters.”
Swamy’s words may be one way that he continues to encourage his colaborers even after his passing. While in prison, with help from others, Father Stan reached out to friends and coworkers through letters, which have since been compiled and added to his memoir.
In those letters, he shared about the hardships he had endured at the hands of the police and the country’s legal system. He noted that these trials nevertheless brought “a sense of brotherhood and communitarianism where reaching out to each other is possible even in this adversity.”
In the prologue of his memoir, penned in 2019, he wrote, “‘Why truth has become so bitter, dissent so intolerable, justice so out of reach?’ Because truth has become very bitter to those in power and position, dissent, so unpalatable to the ruling elite, justice, so out of reach to the powerless, marginalized, deprived people.”
“Yet,” he continued, “truth must be spoken, right to dissent must be upheld, and justice must reach the doorsteps of the poor. I am not a silent spectator.”