Many Indian citizens across all religious and social lines are shocked that Father Stan Swamy died while in police custody in prison. The United Nations, the European Union and a host of other forums have stated that he was arrested under false charges. His death under the most inhumane conditions is a blot against Indian society.
Looking at this tragedy, this much is clear: Father Stan Swamy is a martyr and the Catholic church should proclaim him a saint.
The 84-year-old Jesuit Priest, Stan Swamy, was born in Tamil Nadu on April 26, 1937. For nearly a half century, he struggled for the basic rights of tribal communities, especially in the tribal belt of Jharkhand. Since India’s independence, the abuse of tribal rights in the name of development, big business and government policies has displaced millions of India’s 180 million tribals from their lands and livelihood. Following the example of Jesus, Fr. Swamy took up the struggle for the community’s rights to its land, forest and water.
Many view tribals as India’s original inhabitants. Nations like Canada, the U.S., and Australia struggle with the rights of peoples called “first nations.” Reports of new discoveries of tribal children buried in Canada horrify us. Yet India and the world have ignored the abuse of tribals’ rights, even in past centuries under British rule.
A judgment by India’s Supreme Court declared these native Indians as the purest and sincere of Indians, especially compared to those in society’s upper sections. Yet, the corporates of the world turn a greedy eye on ancient tribal lands rich in water, forests and minerals, and influence government agencies to encroach on those lands.
Over the decades, violent extremist groups have emerged among the tribals, influenced by Marxist ideology. Even the young have learned to fight and kill police. Yet, armed struggle for rights against a mighty State power was present even during Jesus’ time when militant Jews rose against Roman power.
Jesus took a non-negotiable stand against violence. Violence was not His answer for the assertion of one’s basic rights over State power. Instead, His call to non-violence showed that non-violent movements can change the world. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., prove the power of non-violent protests. Father Swamy’s name belongs in this non-violent legacy.
Two years ago, violence erupted at the Bhim Koregaon celebration of the victory of Dalits and the British Army over the upper-caste Peshwa rulers. The Indian State of Maharastra’s government characterized it as Maoist violence.
A thousand miles away, in the state of Jharkhand, the elderly, ailing Fr. Swamy was arrested because of his history with Dalit and tribal rights. This was a man who had committed himself to a life of poverty, chastity, charity and non-violence. He stood with tribals in their peaceful demonstrations, exhibiting boundless compassion for the injustice they faced. To date, the State has not produced any legal evidence demonstrating this saint’s involvement in any armed insurrection.
The callousness of our authorities, in the world’s largest democratic country, against an ailing man is unconscionable. As Father Swamy’s health deteriorated in prison, he was unable to hold a glass, and was not even allowed a straw to sip liquid. Although he pleaded for bail on grounds of his health, he was kept in prison throughout the pandemic and contracted COVID-19. In its final stages, the court allowed him to enter a private hospital, where he died of cardiac arrest.
Now, condolence messages are pouring in. Former Supreme Court Justice Lokur holds both the police and judiciary accountable for Swamy’s death. He’s right to do so. The Indian judiciary, the police and the investigating agencies face a severe moral crisis. They must review and discard the provision of the Unlawful Activities Prevent Act (an Indian anti-terrorism law) which allows imprisonment without trial and bail. Overturning India’s basic judicial right to bail before conviction contravenes its Constitution.
Will India’s Supreme Court review these provisions suo moto and undo some of the moral damage to the judiciary? What will the Vatican do? Will this finally awaken Indian officials as to how delicate our Democracy is with an encroaching China, aligned with Pakistan?
By following his Master, Jesus, Swamy is the latest Church martyr.
The Vatican has been perceived as compromising toward the persecution of Catholics in China and Hong Kong; but they must not be silent about this modern saint who, like Jesus, stood for the rights of the poor and oppressed. Sainthood must not be conferred only on priests and nuns who show piety and compassion, but also on those who speak up for justice and work on behalf of the oppressed.
There is far too much evil left unchecked in our world today. We need more heroes like Fr. Stan Swamy who gave their lives for the oppressed and exploited. May his death cause ten thousand to follow him.
Joseph D’Souza is the founder of Dignity Freedom Network, which delivers humanitarian aid to the marginalized and outcasts of South Asia. He is archbishop of the Anglican Good Shepherd Church of India and president of the All India Christian Council.