Divyani Motla

Toronto’s Indian diaspora recently protested against the custodial murder of Father Stan Swamy and demanded an immediate release of all political prisoners.

In the midst of thunderstorms and rain, Toronto’s Indian diaspora and allies came together on July 15th to protest against the institutional murder of Father Stan Swamy. Father Stan was a 84-year old Jesuit priest and long-term activist for adivasi (indigenous) rights. He passed away on July 5th 2021. His death was one of the many institutional murders that the Indian state has committed under the draconian UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) law.

Father Stan, along with fifteen others, was taken into custody under false allegations in relation to the Bhima-Koregaon caste-violence case. He was denied bail repeatedly in spite of his failing health in the middle of a pandemic. Solidarity marches and hashtags like #ScrapUAPA and #StandWithStan have been trending since his arrest, owing to his lifelong work with the adivasi and Dalit communities in Jharkhand. The death of Father Stan has left people not only devastated but furious over the continued violence against India’s indigenous peoples. The United Nations has called it “a stain on India’s rights record”.

At the Toronto demonstration, slogans echoed this angst and frustration, with placards reading “Scrap UAPA” and “Release All Political Prisoners”. Several attendees gave emotive speeches, reminding everyone that what we are fighting in India today is a fascist Hindutva regime, one that has been trampling citizens and minorities ruthlessly since it came to power in 2014.

Along with community members, activists and leaders from several organizations joined the protest, which was led by the South Asian Dalit and Adivasi Network (SADAN). This included the International Socialists, Canadian Jesuits International, and Canadians against Oppression and Persecution (CAOP), all of whom stressed the importance of solidarity in the struggle against anti-indigenous state violence, both in Canada and India. Members of the Canadian Council for Indian Muslims (CCIM) emphasized the longer genealogy of Hindutva violence on India’s minorities, reminding everyone of the Islamophobic CAA-NRC and the continued occupation of Kashmir. Justice for Indian Farmers, a Toronto-based community organization supporting Punjab’s farmers, connected Father Stan’s murder to the recent violence against farmers protesting India’s neoliberal Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (FTPC) Act.

“The diaspora has power, and it will not sit silently”, announced a member from the Dr. Ambedkar International Mission. They went on to highlight the fear that grips adivasi and Dalit communities in India, the violence of the Savarnas (upper-castes), and the plight of community members imprisoned without any bail or trial.

In one of his last interviews, Father Stan exclaimed, “my life is hanging by a thread!” His words reflected not only his pain and frustration, but also of those communities he has worked with tirelessly for decades. It is that work and commitment that we remember, which will continue to inspire us and many more in the decades to come.  

We still have a long way to go. The Indian government continues to commit atrocities against countless others who have been arrested either under sedition charges or the UAPA. Judicial courts may have acquitted Narendra Modi and his cabinet, but they still stand on trial in front of the Indian people for their constant violation of human rights, for murdering their own citizens, and for selling the entire nation to corporations.

Below, we’ve published a statement issued by SADAN, and collectively signed by several organizations in Canada, on Father Stan’s institutional murder.

Statement on the Custodial Death of Father Stan Swamy and Demand the Repeal of Draconian Laws and Release of Bhima Koregoan Detainees

We are saddened to learn about the death of Father Stan Swamy, 84-year-old Jesuit priest and defender of indigenous (Adivasi) peoples’ rights in police custody on July 05, 2021. He spent nine months in jail under the anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), denied bail and medical care in prison, and only transferred to a hospital when his condition became critical on May 29.  Stan Swamy has been a dedicated advocate for the rights of Adivasi people in the State of Jharkhand. He founded the Vistapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan, an all-India platform to secure and protect the land rights of Dalit and Adivasi people. He was a prominent advocate against the forced displacement of Adivasi communities. He spoke out against the systemic discrimination and violence directed at the Adivasi community. He notably documented and advocated against the arrest of Adivasi youth, who are frequently accused of being “Naxalites” or “Maoists.”

On October 08, 2020, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in Ranchi, Jharkhand, arrested Stan Swamy for alleged links to the violence in Bhima Koregaon on January 01, 2018. Fifteen other prominent human rights defenders have been falsely accused and jailed in this case. Months before his arrest Stan Swamy was interrogated for nearly 16 hours by the NIA ostensibly linked to the case. We stand by Stan Swamy and other defenders accused and held under trial in this case and believed they are deliberately targeted for their human rights work. At the time of his arrest, Stan Swamy already had Parkinson’s disease, significant hearing loss in both ears, and other underlying severe health issues. Initially, jail authorities denied him warm clothes and a sipper cup that he needed due to Parkinson’s disease. Bail was effectively out of reach due to the UAPA, and courts declined to intervene despite his age, illness, and the threat of Covid-19. Throughout his time in detention, Stan Swamy’s health gradually regressed. In the second week of May 2021, the defender’s lawyers again petitioned the court for his release because he suffered from Covid 19-like symptoms. At a hearing on May 21, 2021, Stan Swamy explained to the judge via video link that his bodily systems “were very functional when he arrived at the prison.” Still, over the seven months he had spent in jail, “there has been a steady, slow regression” of his health. This request for bail was again denied.

Stan Swamy was eventually transferred from Taloja Central Jail to the Holy Family Hospital on May 28, 2021, when his condition had worsened severely. He tested positive for Covid- 19 on May 30. Throughout June, he remained in a critical condition and was moved to the Intensive Care Unit. On Sunday, July 04, he suffered a cardiac arrest and was moved to ventilator support. In the days prior, he had expressed deep concern and worry regarding the bail hearing scheduled for July 06, 2021. As a result, the hearing was brought forward to 2.30 pm on July 05. Unfortunately, Stan Swamy died an hour before his hearing at 1.24 pm on July 05. His death in custody and the continued incarceration of other defenders is a tragic indictment of India’s human rights record. This must be a wake-up call for the international community to finally put human rights at the center of all aspects of their bilateral relationship with India.

The undersigned organizations wish to draw attention to the health and safety of Indian human rights defenders in prison, detained on politically motivated charges, and at grave risk due to Covid-19. The human rights crisis unfolding in India, including the jailing of defenders, has been met with relative silence from the international community. However, the use of counter-terror legal provisions to incarcerate defenders has taken a serious turn with the impact of Covid-19. As India struggles to cope with a new and deadly wave of the virus, jailed defenders are at serious risk, many of whom have tested positive for Covid-19 or are showing symptoms. The denial of medical bail, basic medical facilities, communication, or access to families, even amid the current surge in cases and deaths in India, is an act of cruelty and a violation of their right to life and dignity.

In India, voices of dissent and those speaking out on human rights run the risk of being jailed and denied bail under regressive counter-terror legislation, including the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The UAPA permits a detainee to be held in judicial custody without charge for up to 180 days and restricts recourse to bail, allowing authorities to keep defenders in jail on politically motivated charges for prolonged periods. The easy denial of bail facilitates police and prosecutorial abuse of the law to enable prolonged pre-trial detention, contrary to general Indian criminal law and international human rights law. For instance, the Delhi Police filed terrorism charges under the UAPA against human rights defenders targeted for peaceful protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Most of them were already being investigated for similar offenses under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The imposition of the UAPA ensured that bail remains out of reach for the defenders even where courts granted bail for offenses under the IPC.

The arrest of activists accused of violence in the Bhima Koregaon case mainly concerns because a digital forensics investigation found that some of the ‘evidence’ relied on by the prosecution had been planted through malicious software onto defender Rona Wilson’s computer and that there was no evidence that Wilson interacted with these files. A total of 16 human rights defenders have been arrested since 2018 under the UAPA, linked to the anti-Dalit violence in Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra state on January 01, 2018. In light of questionable evidence, these defenders should not be in jail in the first place and certainly not amid a pandemic where their health and lives are at risk.

Thank you for your support and solidarity.

1. South Asian Dalit Adivasi Network Canada (SADAN)

2. Canadian Council for Indian Muslims (CCIM)

3. Dr. Ambedkar International Mission, Toronto

4. Canadians Against Oppression and Persecution (CAOP)

5. Shri Guru Ravidas Sabha Ontario

6. Canadian Jesuits International

7. International Socialists

8. Jamhoor (www.jamhoor.org )

9. Asian Canadian Labour Alliance

Top - Home