The demise of 84-year-old arrested human rights activist, Father Stan Swamy, under the custody of National Investigation Agency, has led to wide criticism against the State and judiciary for denying bail to the most senior activist among the 16 Bhima Koregaon arrested persons. Father Stan Swamy, who was suffering with Parkison’s disease, had also contracted the novel coronavirus infection in the Taloja jail in Maharashtra. Amidst a plea for his bail in the Bombay High Court, in view of his deteriorating health, the 84-year-old died on Tuesday, July 6. Father Stan Swamy was arrested under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act by the NIA last year, in the Elgar Parishad case, accusing him of having links with Maoists.
In an interview with The News Minute, economist and activist Jean Dreze, who had worked along with Father Stan in Jharkhand, has termed his death as an “act of torture to death.” Excerpts from the interview:
Q. How did you know Father Stan Swamy? How was the association between you two? Ideologically were you two aligned? Could you share some anecdotes?
Stan Swamy is an eminent and valued citizen from Ranchi. He was always present when there were meetings or events related to human rights and social justice. Ever since I moved to Ranchi ten years ago, I have often met him at these events, and we have worked together on some of these issues. Whenever there were street protests against acts of repression and injustice, he was also there. In the chaotic environment of Jharkhand's social movements, he was a pillar of strength and wisdom. Stan had a special commitment to Adivasis and their right to land, natural resources and self-government. During the last few years, he also stood up on many occasions for the rights of undertrial prisoners in Jharkhand. On all these issues, we were on the same wavelength. Stan's high principles, wholehearted dedication and gentle personality were an inspiration.
Q. Human rights activists are pointing out that Father Stan’s death was custodial murder, executed by the judiciary. What are your views on this?
I would say that it was not just a murder but an act of torture to death. Stan was 84 years old and in poor health. He has advanced Parkinson's disease, debilitating arthritis and other ailments. In prison, he also suffered from other ailments including severe headaches, diarrhea and COVID-19. Taloja prison, where he was incarcerated, is a grossly overcrowded prison with thousands of inmates and no allopathic doctor. Sending him there was like a death sentence. There was no logical reason for it. Stan never tried to run away and always cooperated with the investigation agencies. There was no question of him tampering with evidence or indulging in unlawful activities. Denying him bail was an act of abominable cruelty, almost inexplicable except that this is the way most UAPA undertrials are treated. Bail is almost always denied.
Q, Many, including the opposition parties are terming Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act as a “draconian” act. Does UAPA have a place in an actual democracy?
Some provisions of the UAPA at least have no place in a democracy; for instance, section 43D(5) which makes it virtually impossible for an undertrial to get bail. That is like holding someone guilty until proven innocent, when the opposite is supposed to be a fundamental principle of the justice system. Having said this, I think that the problem is not just UAPA but the entire bail system in India. Bail should be the rule, not the exception. Instead, undertrials are routinely kept in jail for years on end for no good reason. About 70% of the prison population in India consists of undertrials, this is a gross injustice as well as an awful waste of public resources.
Q. Is dissent being violently curtailed in the present BJP-led government? And was Father Stan's incarceration without a trial an example of it?
This sort of repression did not begin with the BJP government. It has been a regular aspect of law and order in India ever since independence. However, the BJP government has taken repression to new heights, for instance by routinizing draconian measures such as the use of UAPA and sedition charges against dissenters of all hues.