“Adivasis lost a great servant,” tribal rights activist Father Stan remembered

Father Stan Swamy was arrested by the National Investigation Agency in October 2020 and died on July 5, 2021, while waiting for interim bail on medical grounds. | Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Stanislaus Lourduswamy, popularly known as Stan Swamy, was an Indian Roman Catholic priest, a member of the Jesuit order, and a tribal rights activist for several decades. Arrested in the Elgaar Parishad case in 2020, Father Stan Swamy breathed his last in a Mumbai hospital. Doctors at Holy Family Hospital, Bandra, informed the Bombay High Court that Swamy passed away around 1.30 p.m. In this obituary, Father Stan is remembered by those who knew and worked with him for decades.

Sami Ahmad | TwoCircles.net 

Support TwoCircles

During his life, Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist Father Stan Swamy fought for the rights of more than 3000 undertrials in Jharkhand, and in a tragic irony died as an undertrial on July 5, 2021, at the age of 84.

Arrested in the Elgaar Parishad case, Father Stan Swamy breathed his last in a Mumbai hospital. Doctors at Holy Family Hospital, Bandra, informed the Bombay High Court that Swamy passed away around 1.30 p.m.

Incidentally, July 5 is observed as ‘Sankalp Divas’ (The Day of Resolve) in Jharkhand to commemorate one of the biggest public protests in India against the government land acquisition for building a dam. The day is celebrated as on July 5, 1995 the then Prime Minister PV Narsimha Rao and Chief Minister of Bihar couldn’t reach the spot to inaugurate the Koel-Karo hydroelectric project. It saved around 200,000 people from displacement.

The protest against the Koel-Karo project to dam the two rivers Koel and Karo, is one of the most significant cases of Father Stan’s fight for the rights of Adivasis. The spots for this project were part of the undivided Bihar that included the present Jharkhand. On February 1, 2001, eight people, including seven Adivasis and one Muslim were killed in police firing at Torpa in Khunti district. The people had assembled to oppose this project.

Father Stan fought cases of hundreds of Adivasis, Dalits and the marginalized in Jharkhand for the protection of their forest, land and human rights. He fought for the rights of the youth accused of being Maoists or Naxals and during this fight, he lost his freedom and life.

Father Stan was active in fighting against the dreaded POTA (Prevention of Terrorist Act) under which several innocent Muslims were arrested on fabricated charges.

Father Stan was a nemesis for the corporate houses, who were accused of taking over the rich minerals of Jharkhand and thereby dislocating the Adivasis living in and around the forests. Jharkhand contains around 40 per cent of India’s minerals while almost the same percentage of its population lives below the poverty line.

Father Stan would ensure every year to visit the place of firing, named Shahid Sthal, on February 1. Dayamani Barla, an Adivasi social activist, recalls how Father Stan would always call her and enquire how she is commuting to the place. “He would arrange an autorickshaw for me,” she said. Barla runs a small organization called Adivasi Moolnivasi Astitva Raksha Manch (Adivasis, Original inhabitants Existence Protection Forum).

Talking to TwoCircles.net, Barla recalls her two decades of association with Father Stan Swamy and said, “He always asked me to address him as Dada (elder brother) and not as Father.”

She recalls two instances when Father Stan staged a legal fight for the victims of a fake encounter.

On June 8, 2015, twelve people accused of being ‘Maoists’ were killed in an ‘encounter’ by the security forces at Bakoria in Satbarwa block of Palamu district of Jharkhand. Father Stan as Vice-President of People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) exposed the false claim of the police and his team fought for justice to the victims which resulted in an order of CBI enquiry by the Jharkhand High Court, which was later was upheld by the Supreme court in 2019.

“It was Father Stan’s untiring legal fight that finally proved that the encounter was staged,” Birla said.

Born as Stanislaus Lourduswamy on April 26, 1937, in Tiruchirappalli, Tamilnadu to a Christian farmer family, Father Stan came to Jharkhand as a trainee in 1956 and stayed there for a couple of years. He shifted to Bengaluru and worked at Indian Social Institute in 1975 and stayed there till 1990. He returned to Jharkhand in 1991 and started working among the Adivasis. He worked as a teacher and trainer in Jharkhand’s Chaibasa before settling in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand. He went to the Philippines and received a Master’s degree in Sociology.

He worked for Jharkhand Organization for Human Rights (JOHAR). He established ‘Bagaicha’, a literally garden for socio-cultural activities where Adivasi traditions were relived. He was one of the founders of Visthapan Virodhi Janvikas Andolan (VVJA, an All India platform for different movements for the displaced people). He was also associated with JOAR (Jharkhand Organization Against Uranium Radiation), a movement protecting the rights of the affected locals.

From the same ‘Bagaicha’ in Ranchi, Father Stan was arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on October 9, 2020 in Bhima Koregaon case and flown to Mumbai. He was accused of instigating caste violence in Bhima Koregaon village near Pune in 2018, a place Swamy said he “had never visited. He was also accused of being part of the gang which planned the assassination of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Father Stan denied the allegations in a video statement telling the NIA that the documents they were referring to were fabricated and planted in his computer, which was seized by NIA.

Father Stan was suffering from Parkinson’s disease and age-related ailments. He caught Covid-19 while in jail. He could not listen without the help of an earpiece. He was unable to hold things. He could not sip without a sipper. He was frail but the government thought him to be a threat to the security of the country.

“He was put in jail at the time of Covid-19 when the government was asked to decongest the jails,” rues Dayamani Barla.

Damodar Turi has worked with Father Stan to fight for release of Adivasis, who were jailed on false charges.

Talking to TwoCircles.net, Damodar cites one example of Jitan Marandi who was sentenced to death by a Giridih court in Jharkhand in 2011. “Father Stan fought for Jitan’s life and won from his freedom from Ranchi High court,” Turi said.

Damodar said that the police picked Jitan Marandi while they were searching for Jitan Manjhi, who was alleged to be a Naxal commander.

James Herenz, who works for the Right to Food campaign, told TwoCircles.net that, “It is tough to come up with an exact number of Adivasis whose land was saved on account of Father Stan’s struggle, as the number is quite high.”

Herenz said that Father Stan trained Adivasis to fight for their land rights as guaranteed in the Indian constitution and laws. “He asked for implementing the PESA, The Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act which makes it compulsory to seek consent of the Gram Sabha for any land acquisition,” he said.

Herenz also refers to the 5th Schedule of the Indian constitution which asks to form a ‘Tribal Advisory Council (TAC)’. “It was not implemented and Father Stan always questioned it,” he said.

It was only recently that the TAC was formed by the Hemant Soren government of Jharkhand.

Professor Dr Hasan Raza remembers Father Stan for his support to the anti-communal fight. He said that Father Stan was “a left-leaning person but a moderate and democratic person.”

“He was polite but brave and clear in thought. He used to attend the meetings of the United Milli Forum. He had strong grip on Adivasi issues and talked in an informed way. He was a man of documentation,” Dr Raza said.

Father Solomon who also worked at ‘Bagahicha’ told TwoCircles.net that Father Stan was focused on the socio-economic situation of the tribals, and conducted “rigorous research about them.”

Father Solomon remembers Father Stan as a person who believed that “people who are organized can negotiate with the government for their rights, particularly those who have lost their land after being dislocated.”

Social activist Chandra Bhushan Choudhary recalls that Father Stan used to ride a bicycle to connect with the students and have conservations with their parents to make them aware of their rights as Adivasis in Chaibasa.

“He learnt ‘Ho’, the Adivasi language, and studied the Adivasi society. He was quite impressed with their liberal thoughts on marriage,” Bhushan said.

Bhushan said that the “fate of Father Stan is a symbol of what the country is going through.”

“Father Stan was never connected to Bhima Koregaon yet he was framed with false charges,” Bhushan added.

Chief Minister of Jharkhand Hemant Soren, who had opposed the arrest of Father Stan, expressed his deep grief on his death. “He devoted his life for the rights of Adivasis,” Soren said.

For Barla and many like her, Father Stan is a “martyr.”

“Adivasi community lost its great servant,” Barla added.