The outcry over the arrest of the Jesuit priest Stan Swamy exams the anti-terrorist measures of the Indian authorities

NEW DELHI (RNS) – Faith was never only sacramental to the 83 year old Jesuit priest, Rev. Stan Swamy, but rather a means to strengthen the poor and the marginalized. This stance, captured in his motto “Faith That Does Just”, has led to his arrest by the National Investigative Agency, India’s counter-terrorism task force.

On October 8th, NIA investigators arrested Swamy at his home in the east Indian state of Jharkhand for alleged links with Maoist rebels. Investigators confiscated his phone and escorted him to Mumbai, where he was taken into custody. An application to release Swamy on bail on medical grounds was denied by the NIA court.

It was not Swamy’s first encounter with security forces. His home has been ransacked twice in the past two years and interviewed for 15 hours over five days earlier this year.

The priest denies the current allegations as do the leaders of the Jesuit order.

“What happens to me is not unique,” he said in a video taped hours before his arrest. “I’m not a silent spectator, I’m part of the game and ready to pay the price, whatever.”

Swamy is one of 16 people arrested by the ruling government of the Bharatiya Janata Party for inciting caste-based violence in the village of Bhima Koregaon, Maharashtra state. These include prominent intellectuals, writers, poets and cultural activists who have repeatedly been denied bail under India’s anti-terror law.

In 2018, Swamy established the Solidarity Committee for Persecuted Prisoners to request the release of 3,000 innocent men and women who languished in prison after being branded Maoists. He spoke and wrote extensively against their arbitrary arrests and called for speedy trials.

Swamy, who has worked for marginalized communities and disenfranchised groups in rural India for over 50 years, says he has no connection with the Bhima Koregaon incident or any Maoist ties. He believes he is the target of an alleged witch hunt against political dissidents.

“I have dedicated my life to the development of my poor Adivasi sisters and brothers,” he told the NIA court on October 9, referring to members of India’s indigenous tribes. “I just wanted them to get justice, according to the constitutional rules and rulings of the Supreme Court.”

Swamy’s arrest amid the raging COVID-19 pandemic and despite his deteriorating health has sparked outrage from activists, civil society groups and global legal organizations.

On October 20, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, appealed to the government to protect the rights of human rights defenders like Swamy and their ability to do their jobs.

As social media campaigns for Swamy’s release escalated, a multi-faith group sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asking him to call on India to release all prisoners of conscience.

The priest has Parkinson’s disease and has hearing aids in both ears. He twice requested basic amenities like warm clothes and a straw and a sipper so he could drink water.

Yet Swamy’s beliefs and caring for others have inspired many. In a letter from prison about Diwali, the Indian festival of lights (November 14th), Swamy wrote with the help of another inmate: “My inmates all come from very poor families … despite all the adversities, humanity gushes in Taloja prison. ”

Tribal activist Dayamani Barla says the priest’s resilience comes from his work with vulnerable communities and from designing models for sustainable development in remote villages.

“The gospel was undoubtedly Father Stan’s reference work, but he was more than a priest to us,” says Barla. “He understood our pulse and helped us to enforce our self-administration.”

Since the 1990s, Swamy has been an important voice in the defense of the Adivasi and low-caste groups in remote Jharkhand. He led the local Pathalgadi movement to empower the village communities to protect their land from private mining companies.

He learned the indigenous languages, cultures and customs (even though he was from a village in southern India) and the locals sought psychological and spiritual support from him as they opposed land grabbing, riot abuse, and anti-terrorism laws shifting Adivasis in the name of development .

“If something deserved large-scale protests, Father would stand by us,” said an Adivasi worker in Jharkhand. “If it meant mobilizing peacefully for a just cause, he helped us re-strategize.”

“He spared no one,” said Rev. Cedric Prakash, a Christian rights activist and director of the Center for Human Rights, Justice and Peace. “If he felt something was wrong, it didn’t matter if it was his fellow Jesuits, the church, the corporations or the government.”

When Swamy’s friend and Jesuit colleague, Rev. Joseph Xavier, visited him three days before his arrest, he saw him “ready to pay the price as a true follower of Jesus”.

“When we talk about Stan,” said Xavier, “we are talking about all human rights defenders who have been convicted of standing up for truth and justice despite all odds.”

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