There was hardly a whimper in response to the sudden arrest of Father Stan Swamy on unproven charges of links to Maoists and sparking violence at Bhima Koregaon. His months-long incarceration under the UAPA, inhuman treatment, and tragic death is a dangerous trend that we Indians cannot ignore, for anybody could be next, writes ANINDA DEY.
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The incomprehensibility of an 84-year-old priest afflicted with Parkinson’s, struggling to sip water without a straw, unable to bathe without assistance and yet having conspired with the banned CPI(Maoist) to foment violence at Bhima Koregaon, Maharashtra, would always haunt India.
The tragic and painful demise, which some called the ‘institutional murder’ of Stanislaus Lourduswamy, popularly known as Father Stan Swamy, is also the death of India’s collective conscience. It portends a dangerous future for free speech, dissent, and, most importantly, rights activists.
Dead Reaction to Swamy’s Death
An individual such as Stan Swamy was bound to be in the government’s crosshairs and painted as “anti-national”. But it is a nation riven by communalism, casteism, bigotry and hyper-nationalism that prefers to remain silent when a person fighting for the marginalised, oppressed and the poor is arrested and dies in custody.
Swamy’s death should have galvanised the entire country against a tireless crusader for the Dalits and Adivasis arrested under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, and incarcerated for months in the crowded Taloja Central Jail (Mumbai) during the pandemic.
Also read: The life and death of Father Stan Swamy
Despite his increasing frailty, he got denied bail multiple times and this did not even cause a whimper—except human rights activists, a few journalists, columnists, newspapers and Opposition leaders.
Instead of coalescing around Swamy’s death and protesting his inhuman treatment and the arbitrary UAPA charges slapped on him, the majority of Indians preferred to be casual. They indirectly condoned his incarceration under unproven charges of Maoist links and incitement to violence.
The dead reaction to Swamy’s death, aided by a callous administration, also shows how a big section of the population tacitly approves every arrest under the UAPA.
You Could be Next
India’s amended primary counter-terrorism law—under growing scrutiny because of overreach and arbitrary application—can designate even an individual as a terrorist. As happened to Swamy, an individual arrested under the Act can be denied bail indefinitely.
Section 43D(5) of the Act makes bail virtually impossible if the court is satisfied that a “prima facie” case exists against the accused. Besides, the law extends the duration of pre-charge sheet custody from 90 to 180 days, denying bail for six months.
We should have been alarmed at Swamy’s arrest. What guarantees that the National Investigation Agency (NIA) will not handcuff another citizen fighting for the oppressed and minorities or dissenter under the UAPA? Nothing!
In our collective amnesia, we conveniently forgot that one of them could be a dissenter or protester tomorrow and face government aggression and languish in prison for months without interrogation or trial, just like Swami. The NIA never interrogated him even once while Swami remained in judicial custody in Mumbai.
In a video recorded two days before his arrest, Swamy made a chilling remark: “What is happening to me is not unique. It is a broader process… We are all aware how prominent intellectuals, lawyers, writers, poets, activists, student leaders… are all put into jail because they have expressed their dissent or raised questions about the ruling powers of India.”
Even Civil Society was Inactive
What prevented a group of eminent lawyers or citizens from challenging section 43D(5) of the UAPA is beyond comprehension. Instead, a fragile Swamy, undergoing treatment at Holy Family Hospital, Mumbai, filed a plea challenging section 43D(5). It reiterated that the right to personal liberty is a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution.
“Presumption of innocence is a fundamental tenet of our criminal jurisprudence and is a human right…when such harsh conditions are imposed in respect of grant of bail even before the trial is conducted, the same inverts on its head the presumption of innocence,” the plea pointed out.
Our apathy to Swamy’s stellar record in fighting for the weak, his shocking arrest and subsequent death is deplorable. His illegal confinement should have triggered a massive movement against state excesses committed under the UAPA, which has an abysmally low conviction rate.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, only 132 of the 5,922 arrested under the UAPA between 2016 to 2019 got convicted. It is a dismal conviction rate of 2.2%. Despite it, there was a massive rise in the number of cases registered and arrests made under UAPA from 2015 to 2019. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, cases grew from 897 to 1,226 and arrests from 1,128 to 1,948.
The conviction rate under the sedition law (section 124A of the Indian Penal Code) is lower still. In February, then-Union Minister of State for Home G. Kishan Reddy informed Rajya Sabha that out of 96 persons arrested for sedition, only two got convicted and 29 acquitted.
Arbitrary Use of UAPA and Planting of Evidence
The figures clearly show the government slaps UAPA charges at will despite the low conviction rate. But Indians are so glued to the idea of a strong state that they consider every dissenter anti-national and unpatriotic who should be thrown in jail unless s/he falls in line.
Supreme Court Judge Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud’s statement on 12 July that “criminal law, including anti-terror legislation [UAPA], should not be misused for quelling dissent or harassment to citizens” could not have come at a more crucial time.
Swamy’s death was a defining moment that should have rattled the conscience of the whole nation, not a select few, also because it exposes the dangerous trend of planting evidence.
Massachusetts-based digital forensics firm Arsenal Consulting revealed recently the laptop of Bhima Koregaon case co-accused and lawyer and human rights activist Surendra Gadling was hacked and incriminating evidence planted in it, way back in 2016-18. The same hacker had hacked the laptop of Rona Wilson, a co-accused in the case, in the same period.
The hacker planted 14 incriminating letters in Gadling’s laptop and 30 files, including ten letters, in Wilson’s computer. The letters are part of the evidence against Gadling and Wilson.
Our insensitivity towards Swamy’s death and his causes also stems from frivolous yet pervasive concerns such as the ‘threat to Hinduism from Muslims’, ‘the media, both Indian and global, seeking to destroy the country’s image’ and the increasing number of ‘anti-nationals and ‘traitors’ conspiring to destabilise the world’s largest democracy.
These unproven fears and concoctions dominate the discourse inside homes and on broadcast and digital media. The noble causes and death of social and human rights activists such as Swamy, the urgent need for a free press, the threat to freedom of expression and speech and human rights, and heavy-handed laws get relegated to the backseat.
A Pew Research Center report released on 27 February 2020, showed freedom of religion was the top priority for Indians in 2019, not support for free media, freedom of speech, or a fair judiciary.
Collating data from a survey conducted across 34 countries and 38,426 respondents, the report revealed that freedom of religion, at 78%, was the top concern of Indians as against only 37% for free media, 32% for freedom of expression, 35% for human rights organisations to function without government interference, 58% for a free judiciary and a shocking 25% for a censorship-free Internet.
In India, two basic tenets of democracy—individual rights and freedom of expression—are under serious threat, but people are comfortably numb. So, it is perhaps too much to expect a modicum of sympathy for Swamy, who, in his own words, was “not a silent spectator, but part of the game, and ready to pay the price, whatever be it”.
Gentle and soft-spoken, yet resolute and fearless, Swamy dedicated his life to the uplift of tribal people and launched a crusade for their rights. In another country, he would be a celebrated national hero. But not in India.
John Stuart Mill, one of the most famous English philosophers and political thinkers, once aptly remarked, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing.” Sadly, India has only a few good men left like Swamy and fewer who celebrate a rare person like him.
(Aninda Dey is an independent journalist. The views expressed are personal.)