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Activists condemn Father Stan Swamy’s arrest; calls it malicious

Jasmine Mary Ekka

ByJasmine Mary Ekka

Oct 15, 2020

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An eighty-three-old Swamy, who claimed he has never been to Bhima Koregaon, was arrested from his home in Ranchi on Thursday evening and taken to Mumbai where he was produced before a court on Friday and remanded to judicial custody till October 23.On Thursday evening, detectives from India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) which deals with anti-terror crimes, arrived in an SUV at a red and white building on the outskirts of Ranchi in India’s eastern state of Jharkhand.There they picked up Father Stan Swamy, an ailing 83-year-old activist, and Jesuit priest. Seized his mobile phone, they asked him to pack a bag. They then drove him to the airport and boarded a flight to Mumbai, where Father Swamy was remanded to judicial custody until 23 October. Now, he is the oldest person to be accused of terrorism in India.The National Investigation Agency arrested him in connection with a 2018 incident of caste-based violence and alleged links with Maoists. The rebels, who are active in several eastern and central states, claim that they are fighting for communist rule and greater rights for tribal people and the rural poor.In a video recorded days before his arrest, Father Swamy said detectives had questioned him for 15 hours over five days in July. They had produced “some extracts” allegedly taken from his computer that pointed to his links with Maoists, he said. He disowned them, saying they were “fabrications” that were “stealthily” put into his computer. His advanced age, health complications, and the raging pandemic would make it difficult for him to travel to Mumbai, he told the detectives. He hoped “human sense would prevail”, he said.Between June 2018 and now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP government has jailed 16 people in connection with the 2018 violence in Bhima Koregaon village in Maharashtra state. They include some of India’s most respected scholars, lawyers, academicians, cultural activists, and an aging radical poet, who then contracted Covid-19 in prison.They have all been repeatedly denied bail under a sweeping anti-terror law, which many observers believe is now being mainly used to crackdown on dissent.Father Swamy had been in the sight of the investigating agencies for some time. In the past two years, they had raided his house twice, he said in the video, to “somehow prove” that he was linked to “extremist Leftist forces”. But people who know the soft-spoken, low profile activist say that he has devoted his life to the upliftment of tribal people ever since he moved to Jharkhand in 1991.Jharkhand was carved out from Bihar in the year 2000. Previously, it was a part of the southern half of Bihar. After independence, people of Jharkhand state received a little socioeconomic benefit, particularly tribal peoples. To protect the rights of indigenous tribes or Adivasis, Jharkhand is a tragedy. The region has long been a hotbed of Maoist violence and recurrent drought – more than 5% of its working-age population migrates every year in search of education or work.Jharkhand is home to 40% of India’s precious minerals, including gold, silver, copper, uranium, mica, bauxite, graphite, and coal. But development has been uneven and has come at the cost of its tribespeople, who comprise more than a quarter of the state’s 30 million residents.India’s tribes suffer from a “triple resource crunch”, says historian Ramachandra Guha, living as they do in the “densest forests, along with its fastest-flowing rivers and atop its richest veins of iron ore and bauxite”.Just like their counterparts across India, they remain an “invisible and marginal” minority. Despite affirmative action and improved access to welfare, most of them continue to eke out a miserable existence in heavily forested, mineral-rich states.And it was for them that Father Swamy has tirelessly fought for, his associates say.He moved to the high court seeking the release of 3,000 young men and women who have been languishing in prison after being branded as Maoists. He trekked to remote tribal villages to inform them of their rights. He told them how mines, dams, and townships were being built without their consent, and of how they had been deprived of land, often with no compensation. He regularly wrote articles on how big corporations were taking over tribal land for factories and mines. He openly sympathized with a 2018 rebellion of tribespeople, asserting their rights over their resources and common land.Since Independence, more than 1.7 million Indians have been displaced after their land was taken for power stations, irrigation projects, and factories. There have been protests against Father Swamy’s arrest.”This is absolutely appalling. The repression on human rights defenders has never been more extreme in India,” said Sangeeta Kamat, a public policy professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.Ms. Kamat said it was comparable to 1975, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency, curbing civil rights and imposing censorship.” This is far more dangerous as it’s an undeclared Emergency,” she said.Despite his deteriorating health, Father Swamy never missed an opportunity to speak up for tribespeople. He has survived a bout of cancer and three surgeries. His hands shake uncontrollably while doctors have not yet been able a make a diagnosis and food is always served to him. He sips his tea through a straw from a cup placed in front of him. A few years ago, he participated in a march to protest against a spate of lynchings, trying to hold a placard with his shaking hands. “Such is his spirit and commitment,” said Siraj Dutta, a local activist.Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan said the arrest of Swamy, who has been supporting tribal agitations for land and their rights inside the forest, was a move to muzzle the dissenting voices.“It’s unfortunate that tribal rights activist and Jesuit priest Fr Stan Swamy was arrested and jailed. He has been working among the tribals for decades. It’s against the principles of Indian Constitution to arrest those who raise their voice against the butchering of democratic rights of the tribals,” Vijayan said in a Facebook post.A large number of protestors formed a 3 km Human Chain In Bengaluru Against Cleric’s Arrest Over Bhima-Koregaon.”We want to make the point that Father Stan Swamy should be released immediately,” said Latha Paul, lecturer in the department of social works at the city’s St Joseph’s College.The Jesuit fathers and staff of St. Joseph’s College observed a silent protest on Monday condemning the arrest of Rev. Fr. Stan Swamy.Jean Dreze, a Belgian-born Indian development economist who has known Father Swamy for over a decade, described him as a “gentle and honest man, always on time, secular and committed to his causes”.”He might have helped people with association or sympathy with Maoists, which is not uncommon in a place like Jharkhand. That doesn’t make him a Maoist. His arrest is part of a larger effort to undermine the opposition,” Dr. Dreze said. “He is now being treated like the people he has been trying to defend all his life.”

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