What caused the global outrage over Father Stan Swamy's death?

India Jul 25, 2021

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Father (Fr) Stan Swamy, 84, a Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist, passed away on Monday, 5th July 2021. He was arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in October 2020, citing his alleged involvement in the Bhima Koregaon violence of 2018. Since then, he had been in Taloja jail and as an octogenarian, was the oldest person to be accused of terrorism in India.

Who was Fr. Stan Swamy?

Stan Swamy was based in Jharkhand and had worked there safeguarding the rights of the Adivasi communities on land, forest and labour. He had raised objections against the non-implementation of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution concerning tribal rights and had also questioned the irrational arrest of many young Adivasis who had been labelled as “Naxals” by the state. Likewise, Swamy was a dissenting voice against the government policies and unlawful practices against the Constitution.

What happened at Bhima Koregaon?

An event, Elgar Parishad, was organised in Pune in December 2017, where a large gathering of Dalits commemorated the 200th anniversary of their victory in the Battle of Bhima Koregaon. The battle took place in 1818 between the Dalit dominated British Army and the Peshwa army, in which the British defeated the Peshwas.

However, what followed the celebrations in Elgar Parishad were violent clashes leading to casualties.

The Pune police investigation into the case then led to arrests of several activists on the grounds of their suspected role in inciting violence and their alleged links with the Maoist community. They were charged under the draconian UAPA.

Why was Stan Swamy arrested in the case?

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) conducted several raids and questioned Swamy multiple times in connection with the case while claiming to recover several accusatory documents from his residence and his alleged link with the Maoist. Swamy, on the other hand, denied all the allegations.

He was finally arrested in October 2020 and directly sent to judicial custody without even being taken into custody for interrogation.

Why the global outrage over his death?

Various national and international activists and organisations, including the UN Rights Body, have condemned his death and have been demanding action against the authorities, claiming it a case of custodial death.

Swamy's interim bail pleas on the grounds of suffering from Parkinson's disease were denied by the court. He had to wait for over a month after requesting a straw and sipper as external aids.

He had also filed an appeal in the High Court (HC) against the rejection of his medical bail. The HC directed him to be shifted to a private hospital, where he tested positive for Covid-19. By then, he had become too fragile and eventually breathed his last on July 5, 2021.

The debate surrounding Custodial death

All this has sparked the debate around the ambit of Custodial death. The current definition includes any physical torture on prisoners by the police or prison authorities. Therefore, technically, Swamy’s death does not qualify for the same. However, the lawyers are now demanding the need to broaden the definition of Custodial Death. It is being contended that since Swamy was battling a life-threatening disease, the denial of bail by the NIA and courts is a gross violation of human rights.

The legal status of the Human rights of prisoners

The death of Fr Stan Swamy has  once again brought to light the controversial UAPA and the human rights of an undertrial prisoner. Article 20 and 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantee the human rights of an undertrial.

The DK Basu judgement of 1997 has also laid out several commandments safeguarding the rights of undertrials and convicts. But the non-execution of the same points towards the gross injustice and violation of the rights of prisoners.

What lies ahead?

What is most intriguing at this point is the state of the other accused serving jail terms in the same case, some of whom have also applied for medical bail but hitherto, in vain. Whether the unfortunate demise of Fr Stan Swamy would pave the way towards the reformation of the distortions in the justice system, only time will tell.

This article has been written by Khanak Sharma for the Paradigm.

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