Harsh Mander 

The true character of a state is perhaps best exposed by its choice of enemies. In its latest strike, the entire might of the state has converged on an 83-year-old Jesuit priest, who has devoted his life to struggling with the most oppressed among the Indian people — the Adivasis — against corporate and state power. The government leaves no doubt about who it despises and fears. And who it stands with.

Father Stan Swamy has been jailed, after investigation, first by the Pune police, and then by India’s premier counter-terror task force, the National Investigation Agency, on grave charges of treason and terror, of being a Maoist, being actively involved in violent Maoist enterprises, and receiving its funds, part of a larger sinister Maoist Bhima-Koregaon conspiracy.

Anticipating his arrest, he recorded a statement two days before the police picked him up. What is happening to him, he reflects, is not unique. Prominent intellectuals, lawyers, writers, poets, activists and student leaders have been arrested — all for one reason. That they publicly dissent with the policies of the government. “I am happy to be part of this,” he declares, because “I am not a silent spectator”.

All those who know him are struck by the stubborn and steely strength of conviction of this ageing priest, his indomitable courage and his love for the poor. One of his influences is the Brazilian Catholic Archbishop Helder Camara, who said, “When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist”.

I met him two years earlier, as part of a solidarity delegation during a journey of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat to Jharkhand, shortly after he had first been raided and investigated for this conspiracy by the Pune Police in August 2018. We met him in Bagaicha, the centre near Ranchi he had established for research and training Adivasi youth.

He spoke to us of his work and struggles. Jharkhand, he said, is a rich land comprising of very poor people. From coal to gold, we have it. Those who exploit Jharkhand return enriched, but the Adivasi residents only become even more pauperised. He has carefully documented the monstrous profits made by big corporations, and the inestimable price that people dependent on the land and forests pay. “If you have sensitivity and a conscience,” he said, “you have no option but to take sides with those who are suffering, and resisting.”

He spoke of the manner in which land was acquired at dirt prices for the Adani power plant in Godda, and how the bulldozers destroyed the standing crop. Adani Power signed in 2016 an agreement with Bangladesh to build a 1,600 MW power plant in Godda. Jharkhand. The coal would be imported from Adani’s mines in Australia. He told us how environmental clearances were hastily rammed through, farmers did not get their due and how forests were ravaged.

It is adversaries as powerful as these that Swamy and the young Adivasis, who he stands in unflinching solidarity with, are fighting. Is it a surprise then that he is seen as a dangerous enemy of this government? In his words to us, “If you question this form of development, you are anti-development, which is equal to anti-government, which is equal to anti-national. A simple equation. This is why the government calls me a Maoist, although I am completely opposed to Maoist methods, and have nothing to do with them”.

It is not just Swamy. He researched and found that large numbers of Adivasi and Dalit youth had been jailed for years, again charged as Maoists — in Jharkhand, there were more than 3,000. They had fought their illegal and brutal displacement, but by peaceful means, and by appealing to a range of constitutional provisions, laws, and the Samata judgment of the Supreme Court that the owner of the land will be the owner of minerals therein, all of which the government had disobeyed. With Sudha Bhardwaj, he co-convened the Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee and filed a petition in the Jharkhand High Court seeking their release. Both of them are now in jail, with little prospect of an early release. Join the dots.

In the first raid on his centre, around 40 police-persons overran his green campus. They spent three hours searching his small and sparsely furnished room and confiscated his laptop, phone, music cassettes and documents. The next day, local newspapers announced that he was part of a plot to murder Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The second round was by personnel of the NIA, who interrogated him for 15 hours. After his arrest, he was flown to Pune. He was sent into a crowded jail, unmindful that with his age and illnesses, he would be especially vulnerable to COVID-19. At 83, his body has begun to show the ravages of age and a life of austerity. Parkinson’s disease has set in. His hand trembles as he picks up a cup. But his spine — both physically and metaphorically — is upright and unbending.

In the video he recorded before his arrest, he declared quietly, “I am ready to pay the price, whatever it is.” In another country or another time, he would be a national hero, celebrated as a role model for young people. He is older than the republic which he fights to defend. For him, the love of his country and the love of his religion is the love of its poorest people.

Mander is a human rights activist and writer

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