The circumstances leading to the death of Stan Swamy have shown once again how in India today fascist autocracy has been baring its fangs keeping a facade of democracy. Stan Swamy, an 84 year old octogenarian Jesuit Father and a tribal rights activist who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological condition ,for last few years was arrested by the National Investigative Authority (NIA) under the UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act), on 12 October 2020 from his residence at Ranchi and since then had been in jail custody for the last eight months. While in detention in in Taloja Prison in Navi Mumbai which like all other prisons suffers from chronic overcrowding, he got infected with corona virus and also fell victim of age-related amnesia. On 4 July, as he fell unconscious, was he taken to the nearby Holy Family Hospital, where he was put on ventilation. Incidentally, the next day had been fixed for court hearing of his case. But he longer needed the much awaited bail as he passed away on 5 July.
Just two months back he was seen on the social media, making a fervent appeal with folded hands for an interim bail to a High Court judge. He had reportedly urged that without immediate medical attention, his life would end. However, both his appeals for a bail and specialised medical attention at a suitable hospital outside jail were turned down as the NIA was reportedly not convinced about seriousness of his illness despite the fact he was incapable of taking solid food and could only have fluid with the help of straws and sipper cups. But as he was not given the straws and sipper cups, he practically went without food. Also, as his vision was poor, he was using high-powered glasses. But when he was taken into custody, the glasses were missing for reasons unknown. The authorities did not arrange a fresh pair of glasses knowing fully well that he remain almost blind without spectacles.
Democratic-minded right-thinking people round the world have been dumbfounded to have witnessed the whole sequence of events that adds a vicious chapter in the history of human rights violation. UNO, European Union and other organisations as well as individuals, both in the country and outside, have unequivocally expressed indignation at the sort of cruelty and inhuman treatment meted out to Swamy. Even there is a globally accepted convention that during any war, any injured or ailing enemy soldier in captivity ought to receive necessary medical attention for their safe-keep. Soldiers taken captive during Second World War were also allowed access to what would ensure their health and hygiene. But in ‘civilized’ India, suspect in custody is denied rudimentary care and virtually pushed to death. The family members and friends of those co-accused with Father Swamy in the Bhima Koregaon-Elgar Parishad case have called the death of Father Stan Swamy “an institutional murder” and said that they feared the health and lives of others lodged in jail as well. Thus, Father Swamy’s pathetic death in custody leaves a host of questions to be answered.
Arrest of Father Swamy under UAPA was stated to have been to “prevent unlawful acts”. Draconian though it is, this was a law that had been as per procedure passed in the Parliament. It might give an autocratic right to the administration to detain anyone without trial but is it that UAPA also confers on the authorities the right to transgress the rudimentary norms of legal procedures and deny the detainees their basic rights to life or a least humane approach? Suspects are not proved guilty. Why then they should be treated like declared criminals sentenced jail term? What is then the propriety of law and civility? NIA arrested Swamy only a day before filing its chargesheet. This showed it didn’t need him for custodial interrogation. Therefore, investigative integrity wouldn’t have been threatened had Swamy received bail. NIA stoutly opposed bail pleas of an 84-year-old with serious medical conditions, and one who was jailed when a pandemic was raging. Is this not a grave injustice? The principle remains – granting of bail depends on the judge who hears the case. As a result, bail becomes the mark of the civility of the criminal justice system. When the system ensures that an octogenarian is denied bail repeatedly despite being sick and infirm, does it not advertise its own uncivility? Rightly observed one media that “the law on bail cannot be an excuse to strip prosecutors and judges of their own humanity. Unfortunately, with an overzealous prosecution, a timid judiciary and an indifferent citizenry that has normalised judicial delays as a matter of course, this is exactly what has happened in this case. There is no milder way of putting this – irrespective of any crime he may or may not have done which will now forever remain inconclusive.”
Evidently, in so far as legal procedures are concerned, let alone legitimacy as per prescripts of jurisprudence, none was followed in this case. Neither was Swamy subjected to proper examination, nor was a charge sheet filed, or evidence of his guilt submitted before he was arrested. All this bid evil for the country and its functioning of the executive administrative as well as legal apparatus. Though the bourgeois government parrots an oft-repeated phrase that India’s democratic and constitutional polity is complemented by an independent judiciary, a range of national and state level human rights commissions to monitor violations, a free media and a vibrant and vocal civil society, it cannot be ruled out that many others in the country would not meet the same fate as Father Swamy. Reminded of the lines of Rabindranath Tagore’s famous poem ‘Question’:
“I have witnessed how perfidious aversion in the villain shadow of night
Strikes the helpless,
I have witnessed how the irreparable crime of the mighty condemns
The verdict of Justice to shed mute and secret tears.
I have witnessed striplings and boys – maddened – rush
And fruitlessly dash their heads against a rock before dying.
Throttled, my voice and my flute is deprived of songs,
The new-moon prison
In a chasm of nightmare has blotted out my world.
Therefore, tearful, I ask :
Have You ever forgiven them, have You loved them –
Those who pollute Your air and extinguish Your light ?”
A consensus of viable resistance to autocratic policies of the ruling dispensation by conscientious citizens can alone prevent recurrence of such occurrences.
(Source: NDTV 06-07-21, Indian Express 06-07-21, scroll.in 06-07-21, Times of India 07-07-21, ABP 08-07-21)