By Vatican News staff reporter
Christians and citizens of India joined hands on Wednesday to observe National Justice Day as an expression of their solidarity with late Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy, a human rights activist who died in custody.
Legacy of Fr. Swamy
The observance was called by the Jesuit Conference of India. “To pay our deep respects to Fr. Stan Swamy, SJ, and carry forward his legacy, we, the concerned citizens of India, stand in solidarity to observe 28 July 2021 as a National Justice Day,” said a press release by Jesuit Father Stanislaus D’Souza, Provincial and President of the Jesuit Conference of South Asia (JCSA).
Fr. Swamy, who championed the cause of indigenous and marginalized people of eastern India’s Jharkhand state, died on July 5 in custody in a hospital in Mumbai, having been denied bail. He was being treated for Covid-19, which he contracted while in detention in Taloja Central Jail, near Mumbai.
The ailing 84-year-old priest, affected by Parkinson’s disease, hearing impairment and other age-related health issues, was arrested on October 8 from Bagaicha, his social action centre on the outskirts of Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, on charges of alleged links with Maoist insurgents who were said to have been behind the violence in Bhima Koregaon village in Maharashtra state in January 2018.
The National Investigation Agency (NIA), which is tasked with fighting terrorism and sedition under the controversial Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), arrested him and lodged him in Taloja Jail the following day.
Father Swamy denied all charges against him, saying Bhima Koregaon is “a place that I have never been to in all my life.” He became the oldest prisoner charged with terrorism to die in custody in India.
In a statement on the death of the priest, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), lamented that in the nine months that he was jailed, his “case did not even come up for hearing.” “Under the Indian criminal law, one is innocent until proved guilty,” the cardinal said.
Don’t be a silent spectator
“Amidst growing inequalities, violence, atrocities, discrimination and exclusion in our country, ‘not to be a silent spectator’ is the message that Swamy left for us,” said the statement by Father Stanislaus. He said the late Jesuit inspired people “to sing the values of the Preamble to the Constitution of our country” – Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity – amidst the adversities, as “the caged bird can still sing and sing in chorus.” “As a Jesuit,” Father Stanislaus said, “he committed himself to walk with the excluded, whose dignity is violated, in a mission of Reconciliation and Justice.”
The Jesuit Provincial said Father Swamy’s “death is not an end”; rather it is “another moment of awakening in our journey to affirm our faith in the Constitution of our country.”
Sensing that his arrest was imminent, Father Swamy had released a video stating his stand and mission. He said that what was happening to him was not something unique or happening to him alone. “It’s a broader process that is taking place over the country.” Prominent intellectuals, lawyers, writers, poets, activists and student leaders, he said, “are all put into jail just because they have expressed dissent…” This however did not dim his resolve to pursue his convictions. “I am happy to be part of this process because I am not a silent spectator,” he said in the video.
An icon of justice
Bagaicha, Father Stan’s social action centre in Ranchi, has a stone slab inscribed with the names of all the indigenous rights activists who have been killed fighting for their people’s rights. On July 18, the Jesuit priest’s name was engraved on the martyr’s memorial.
Father Stanislaus pointed out that Father Stan has “joined the company of Adivasi martyrs and all those who sacrificed their lives to protect the secular and democratic fabric and diverse cultures of our nation.” He described the priest’s death as a “moment of deep consolation,” as he has been able to unite “people across cultures, religions and nationalities to walk boldly and courageously in the path of justice to human family and creation.”
“Stan Swamy stands tall today as an icon of justice to the marginalized,” the Jesuit Provincial of India stated, adding, “He has given us a new ethical mandate to be compassionate, to be the voice of the voiceless and defenders of human rights, speaking truth to power.”
Free rights defenders
Father Stan and his work continue to receive broad support and appreciation within the country and abroad. In a statement on July 15, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor said the custodial death of Father Stan, despite many requests for his release as his health deteriorated in prison, will forever remain a stain on India’s human rights record.
Father Stanislaus said that Father Swamy’s “prophetic spirit” urges us to “demand justice” for him and “all the accused in Bhima Koregaon case. He urged India’s Union Government “to free the human rights defenders and the under-trial prisoners languishing in jails in appalling conditions and, above all, to defend democracy, to repeal Sedition Law, Unlawful Atrocities (Prevention) Act, and repressive State laws and to restore citizens’ right to dissent. On this day, we give to ourselves this mandate”.
In conclusion, Father Stanislaus invoked God’s power with the prayer of India’s renowned Nobel Laureate poet, Rabindranath Tagore: “Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.” (Source: JCSA)