84-year-old Indian activist, priest and political prisoner Fr. Stan Swamy died at a hospital on Monday, July 5. He died shortly before his plea for medical bail was heard by the Bombay High Court. Swamy, who was arrested on October 8, 2020 in the controversial Elgar Parishad case, had been admitted to the Holy Family Hospital in the city of Mumbai on May 28 after his health deteriorated. Swamy had spent decades working for the welfare of tribal communities in India.
A special court had denied him bail in March 2021. Incidentally, last month, the National Investigation Agency (NIA), which is probing the case, had filed an affidavit before the High Court opposing Swamy’s bail plea. It had said that there did not exist “conclusive proof” of his medical ailments.
Swamy was arrested under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act which renders chances for bail very difficult. During his time in jail, his health deteriorated drastically, a fact which was repeatedly stressed by his lawyers and well-wishers. In November, Swamy, who suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, had to approach the courts to even access a straw and a sipper. Shortly after being admitted to Holy Family Hospital at the end of May, Swamy reportedly contracted COVID1-19.
The Elgar Parishad case began with right-wing violence on January 1, 2018, a day after a gathering of progressives celebrated the anniversary of the historic battle of Bhima Koregaon that took place 200 years ago. The violence led to the death of at least one person. Soon, investigating agencies announced a probe which implicated progressive activists and accused them of working with the banned Maoist guerillas to destabilize the country. Over the past two-and-a-half years, 16 activists and academics, including Fr. Swamy, have been arrested in connection with the case. Many of those in prison are above the age of 60 and suffer from various health issues.
In February, 82-year-old Varavara Rao, a poet and another accused in the Elgar Parishad case, received medical bail after his health deteriorated greatly while in prison. He had contracted COVID-19, urinary tract infection and was suffering a number of other ailments. In July 2020, his family had expressed the fear that he was suffering from brain damage. Media reports have quoted the families of other accused talking about the horrible conditions in jail, and the poor health they are in.
The Elgar Parishad case itself has been severely criticized, especially after a Washington Post report which alleged that incriminating evidence had been placed using malware in the laptops of one the accused, Rona Wilson.
Political parties, activists demand justice
Political parties, activists and rights organizations demanded justice for Fr. Stan Swamy and the punishment of those responsible for his death. Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury expressed pain and outrage, and called for accountability to be “fixed for this murder in custody.”
Deeply pained & outraged at the death of Father Stan Swamy.
A jesuit priest & social activist he tirelessly helped the marginalised.
Draconian UAPA custody, inhuman treatment since October 2020 with no charge established.
Accountability must be fixed for this murder in custody. pic.twitter.com/iQ8XrfRb9n
— Sitaram Yechury (@SitaramYechury) July 5, 2021
The Communist Party of India (Marxist), in a statement, said, “Those responsible for foisting false cases on him, his continued detention in jail and inhuman treatment cannot escape accountability. It is incumbent that all those jailed in the Bhima Koregaon case and other detenues under politically motivated cases, misusing draconian laws like UAPA, Sedition etc, be released forthwith.”
Calling it a “custodial killing”, Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation leader Kavita Krishnan tweeted:
It’s over. Modi & Shah have accomplished the custodial killing of the gentle Jesuit social worker Fr Stan Swamy, who spent his life serving the oppressed. I hope the judges who denied him bail never get to sleep at night: they have blood on their hands. https://t.co/yp8Wi3SEh1
— Kavita Krishnan (@kavita_krishnan) July 5, 2021
Senior advocate Prashant Bhushan said that it was “nothing less than murder” by the state of “one of the gentlest and kindest men I have known. Unfortunately our judicial system is also complicit in this,” he added.