Father Stan Swamy, 84, a courageous and dedicated campaigner for the rights of India’s indigenous Adivasi community, has died from Covid-19 complications. He had been imprisoned on terrorism charges since October 2020.
A powerful voice of the voiceless has been silenced. Father Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest and activist who spent decades campaigning for the land, forest and labour rights of India’s oppressed and marginalised indigenous tribes – known as Adivasis – drew his last breath in a Mumbai hospital on 5 July.
Father Stan was a champion of the poor and downtrodden. A farmer’s son from Tamil Nadu, he studied theology as well as sociology and soon showed an interest in working for marginalised communities. It was in the state of Jharkhand that he made his mark while campaigning for the rights of indigenous tribes.
He travelled to the most remote tribal villages to campaign for Adivasi rights. He criticized the authorities for not living up to their constitutional obligations, and big corporations for taking over tribal lands to build factories and mines – often without any compensation for the local tribal people.
His tireless campaigns put him at odds with the authorities who are now being accused of causing his death. Father Stan was arrested in October 2020 on terrorism charges for his alleged role in an outbreak of caste-based violence in the state of Maharashtra. He was also accused of conniving with violent Maoist groups, a charge that he repeatedly denied.
Father Stan spent seven months in prison, despite his advanced age and deteriorating health. He suffered from advanced Parkinson’s disease, but appeals for bail on medical grounds were rejected. In May, Father Stan contracted Covid-19 and was hospitalised. A few weeks later, he passed away.
As his arrest was looming last autumn, Father Stan gave a video interview in which he noted that many people who have expressed dissent or questioned India’s ruling powers end up in prison:
“What is happening to me is not unique. Many activists, lawyers, writers, journalists, student leaders, poets, intellectuals and others who stand for the rights of Adivasis, Dalits and the marginalised and express their dissent to the ruling powers of the country are being targeted,” he said.
Describing the numerous arrests as a broader process, he said that he was happy to be part of that process: “I am not a silent spectator, but part of the game, and ready to pay the price whatever be it.”
In the end, Father Stan Swamy paid the ultimate price for his activism. His death has caused outrage among human rights activists, lawyers, writers, and opposition politicians who are accusing the Indian government of ‘judicial murder’.
Human rights activist Harsh Mander described Swamy as “devoted to selfless defence of Adivasi rights, gentle, brave. Even from prison he grieved not for himself but injustice to poor prisoners. A cruel state jailed him to silence his voice; the judiciary did nothing to secure his freedom. A tragedy for the nation.”
Father Stan will forever be remembered by India’s marginalised communities. His death is a huge loss to the world in general, and to India’s Adivasi community in particular. May he rest in power – and in peace.