Around 6 AM on August 28, 2018, a loud knock on his window woke up octogenarian social activist and Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy. As Swamy came out of his room he saw some 25 armed policemen frantically searching his residence and questioning his associates. The police team from Pune in Maharashtra, assisted by another from the local thana of Ranchi’s Namkum locality, told Swamy that his name was part of an FIR filed in Pune concerning his alleged role in inciting the communal violence that broke out following an Elgar Parishad program at Bhima-Koregaon on January 1 that year.
In simultaneous raids across the country on that day, Varavara Rao (in Hyderabad), Sudha Bharadwaj (in Faridabad), Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves (in Mumbai) and Gautam Navlakha (in Delhi) – all civil rights activists who worked with Adivasis, Dalits and other marginalised communities – were taken into police custody. The five, continue to be incarcerated under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) along with several other activists, arrested for their alleged role in what has come to be known as the Bhima-Koregaon Elgar Parishad case. Swamy, however, was not arrested at the time but the cops had seized a slew of material from his residence-cum-school in Ranchi’s Bagaicha, including his laptop and mobile phone.
Over two years later, late evening on October 8, sleuths of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) came knocking at Swamy’s door again. The activist’s close aides tell Outlook that the NIA team had no warrant but took Swamy away claiming that a senior official of the agency wished to speak to him. Swamy was taken to the NIA camp office in Ranchi’s Dhurva; some of his associates followed. “At about 10 PM, an NIA officer informed us that Stan had been placed under arrest and that we should bring him his clothes, medicines and other essentials. It was only at this point that the arrest memo was shown to us,” one of Swamy’s aides who was present at the NIA camp office tells Outlook.
Swamy was arrested under sections 153 (A), 505 (1) (B), 117, 120 (B), 121, 121 (A), 124 (A) and 34 of the Indian Penal Code and sections 13, 16, 17, 18, 18 (B), 20, 38, 39 and 40 of the UAPA. In the wee hours of October 9, when some of Swamy’s aides reached the NIA camp office to hand him some medicines that they had forgot to get the previous night, they were informed that the activist had been whisked away to the Ranchi airport. He was flown to Mumbai and produced before a special NIA court which sent the 84-year-old tribal rights’ activist into judicial custody till October 23. The NIA claims that Swamy was part of the banned Communist Party of India-Maoist, and was “actively involved in its activities” and also received funds for Maoist activities.
Swamy’s is the 16th arrest in the Bhima-Koregaon case. Others who have been arrested in the case, so far, include Varavara Rao, Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Gautam Navlakha, Anand Teltumbde, Sudhir Dhawale, Mahesh Raut, Prof. Shoma Sen, Rona Wilson, Surendra Gadling, Prof. Hany Babu, Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor and Jyoti Jagtap. Swamy, who suffers various medical complications, is the oldest accused to be arrested and charge-sheeted in the case.
While Swamy was being presented in the Mumbai court on Friday, his comrades and supporters organised a protest in Ranchi. Over 2000 public-spirited individuals have condemned his arrest and the overall manner in which the NIA is investigating the Bhima-Koregaon case. “The inhuman and insincere act of the NIA authorities in arresting Stan Swamy stands out for its sheer vindictiveness, for Stan fully cooperated with the investigating officers of the NIA when they questioned him at his residence in Bagaicha for over 15 hours (from 27-30 July and on 6 August). Stan has consistently denied any link with extremist leftist forces or Maoists. He had also clearly told the NIA that some so-called extracts allegedly taken from his computer shown to him by the NIA were fake and fabricated and that he disowned them. It is deeply worrying that the NIA arrested an 84-year-old with several health ailments during the COVID pandemic and made him travel to Mumbai,” the signatories said in their statement.
The statement adds, “We firmly believe that the Bhima-Koregaon case, being driven by the Modi government, is a baseless fabrication. The central government, in the guise of the Bhima-Koregaon case, is trying to build a false narrative of a national Maoist conspiracy against the State that involves these activists. The main objective of the case is to target and harass activists who work for the rights of Adivasis, Dalits and the marginalised and raise questions against the anti-people policies of the government. The Bhima-Koregaon conspiracy case exposes the extent to which the central government is willing to undermine constitutional values and suppress dissent. The arrest of Stan Swamy is also an attack on all those working for human and constitutional rights in Jharkhand.”
The signatories have also expressed their displeasure at the silence of the Hemant Soren-led JMM-Congress coalition government of Jharkhand on Swamy’s arrest. In 2018, when Swamy was raided in connection with the Bhima-Koregaon case, Soren – then in Opposition in the state – had slammed the police action. However, since Swamy’s arrest by the NIA, Soren has maintained a deafening silence while the activist’s supporters have urged him to speak up. A group of Swamy’s associates have sought time from the chief minister to discuss the arrest but haven’t yet received an appointment, say sources.
For Swamy, perhaps, his arrest came as no surprise. Two days ahead of his arrest, the tribal rights’ activist had prepared a statement to be released in the eventuality of him being forcefully taken by the NIA. He had also recorded a video detailing why he believed the government was demonising and arresting activists like him. “The nature of the present NIA investigation of me has nothing to do about Bhima-Koregaon case, in which I have been booked as a ‘suspected-accused’ and consequently raided twice (28 August 2018 and 12 June 2019). But, it had everything to do to somehow establish (i) that I am personally linked to extremist leftist forces and (ii) that through me Bagaicha is also related to some Maoists. I denied both these allegations in strongest terms,” Swamy had said in his statement.
The 84-year-old had added that subsequent to his last interrogation by the NIA on August 6, the agency wanted him to appear at its Mumbai office for further questioning. Swamy says he had informed the NIA that “I fail to understand the need for interrogating me further given the fact I have been subjected to that for 15 hours already” and that he was “not in a position to undertake the long journey given my age and the nature of the epidemic ravaging the country”. He had also informed the agency that should it wish to interrogate him further, it could do so through video-conference.
Swamy had also prepared a note, titled “What is the crime I am supposed to have committed”, in which he detailed the various causes he had fought for through decades of his work as an activist. These include; questioning “non-implementation of the 5th Schedule of the Constitution”, why the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act mandating rights of tribals for self-governance through gram sabhas was being ignored and why the Supreme Court’s Samatha judgment of 1997 granting Adivasis control over “excavation of minerals in their lands and to help develop themselves economically” was not implemented in letter and spirit by successive governments. The activist also says he had protested against the “half-hearted” implementation of the Forests Rights Act, 2006 and against the erstwhile BJP-led Raghubar Das government’s decision to set up ‘land banks’ in Jharkhand; a move Swamy had dubbed as “a plot to annihilate the Adivasi people”.
In August 2018, shortly after his home was raided by the Mumbai and Ranchi police teams, Swamy had told this writer, “If the price for fighting for our underprivileged fellow citizens, our rights and the survival of our democracy is to be defamed by our elected representatives, or worse, be silenced, so be it. This is a fight to the finish and at stake is humanity, democracy and above all, the values that this country stood for and must stand for. No price is too high to pay, not even our lives.”
Two years later, as he was taken away by the NIA in a stealth operation, the 84-year-old Swamy hadn’t lost any of his grit and the courage of his conviction towards the causes he has always fought for hadn’t dimmed the slightest. He had signed off his statement with a couplet by Kahlil Gibran – “life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one” and said that if the NIA arrested him, he would be “ready to face the consequences”.