New Delhi: Cities across India on October 12 witnessed an unprecedented show of solidarity with an octogenarian Jesuit priest who has been arrested and jailed for alleged Maoist links.
From New Delhi to the North East, from Bengaluru to Patna, and from Kochi to Mumbai, hundreds of people from all walks of life, who are saddened, shocked and indignant, stood up against the arbitrary arrest of the 83 year old Jesuit priest.
In New Delhi, some 200 people gathered at downtown Jantar Mantar to observe the National Day of Solidarity for Father Stan Swamy.
Prominent human rights activists such as Shabanam Hashmi, Harsh Mander and Apoorvanand Jha addressed the gathering. According to them, the government has exposed itself by arresting a Jesuit priest who has worked for the rights of poor tribal communities for more than three decades.
Medha Patkar of Narmada Bachao Andolan (save Narmada campaign), who joined the program through Zoom meeting, said her heart beats for Father Stan, who “worked for Atmanirbhar Adivasi” (self-reliant Tribal).
The one-hour meeting was opened by Father Stanislaus D’Souza, who took over as the head of the Jesuits in South Asia two days ago. The participants included Archbishop of Anil Couto of Delhi.
A press release from the director communications at Jesuit Conference of South Asia noted that the National Investigation Agency, India’s counter-terrorist task force, October 8 arrested Father Swamy from his residence near Ranchi, capital of Jharkhand state, in “a false and fabricated case to the Bhima-Koregaon” violence on January 1, 2018.
The agency then took the 83-year-old priest to Mumbai the next day where a chargesheet was presented at the Sessions Court that sent him to judicial custody until October 23. He is presently lodged in Taloja Jail in the western Indian city.
The press release says Father Swamy has one “tremendous work among the marginalized, downtrodden and vulnerable people” of Jharkhand.
He has consistently worked on the various issues of the Adivasi communities on land rights, forest rights, labor rights, and representation of the community members in Jharkhand, the Jesuit press release explains.
“He has been vocal about the indiscriminate arrest of thousands of young Adivasis by the investigating agencies labeling them as Naxals (Maoists),” it further says.
The Jesuit activist then filed a public interest litigation in the Ranchi High Court to get the under-trial prisoners released on a personal bond and to conduct a speedy trial.
“It is ironic that Father Stan Swamy, who had been struggling for the release of tribals false implicated on various cases is himself arrested in a false and fabricated case,” bemoans the statement.
At Guwahati in Assam, the gateway to northeastern India, an ecumenical program was organized to show solidarity with Father Swamy. The participants demanded immediate release of the Jesuit priest all Intellectuals and activists who have been arrested for standing with the poor and the marginalized.
Intellectuals, editors, politicians from the Northeast also had a virtual meeting that attracted over a hundred participants to express their solidarity with Father Swamy and other human rights activists who appear to be arbitrarily implicated by the law enforcement agencies, in what is being seen in liberal circles as an effort to intimidate those who speak up.
The presences of heads and representatives of all major Churches at this time of uncertainty sent out a very positive message and strengthened our solidarity, said Allen Brooks, spokesperson for Christians in the region.
In Bengaluru, capital of the southern Indian state of Karnataka, large number of people cutting across religions, formed a 3-kilometer human chain against what they described as “the illegal treatment and arrest of Father Stan Swamy.”
The silent human chain extended from the city’s Brigade Road to the Shantinagar Bus Depot. The protestors alleged that Jharkhand state has falsely accused and implicated the Jesuit activist to “stall the judicial process to give justice to the innocent Adivasis in the region.”
“We request the government to not only not take any action but encourage Father Stan Swamy because he is working for the poor. Ultimately, the poor are our backbone,” said Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore, who joined the solidarity program.
The prelate says the aged priest was working under the constitution.
Latha Paul, lecturer in the department of social works Bengaluru’s St Joseph’s College, said around 1,000 people had formed the human chain. “We want to make the point that Father Stan Swamy should be released immediately,” she added.
A press release by the organizers of the protest in Bengaluru pointed out that Father Stan Swamy “has always cooperated with the investigating agencies and has always provided detailed statements.”
In Kochi, Kerala, various Christian denominations on October 11 demanded the release of Father Swamy, who was arrested in what they called “in gross violation of human rights and democratic norms.”
In a statement, the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council expressed shock at the arrest of the Jesuit priest.
The Kerala bishops “like to remind the government that the Catholic community has always been working for the development of the poor and the downtrodden. It is through hardworking, sincere and committed persons like Fr Stan Swamy that the Catholic Church has worked for the welfare of the poor in this country.”
Father Jacob Palackappilly, the council’s deputy secretary-general and spokesperson, urged the NIA to allow Father Swamy to go to his residence saying it is difficult to comprehend “the plight of the octogenarian with several morbidities has to undergo such difficulties during this pandemic in which even a normal healthy person would hesitate to travel or would never travel risking one’s life.”
In Patna, Bihar, many social and human rights organizations joined a protest rally to express solidarity with Father Swamy.
Some hundred people waved posters and chanted for the release of the priest, who they said was legally ‘abducted’ by the NIA on trumped up charges.
The participants gathered in front of the Buddha Smriti Park and demanded the Jesuit’s unconditional release. They raised slogans against the “misuse of NIA, arrests of alleged urban Naxals, human rights violations and bid to tarnish the image of Christian missionaries.” They also sought “restoration of minorities’ democratic rights.”
The participants included several renowned activists such as Padmashree Sister Sudha Varghese, noted journalist and PUCL activist Nivedita Jha, members and associates of the Bihar Dalit Vikas Society.
In Trichy in Tamil Nadu, Father Swamy’s home state, Jesuit priests and staff of St. Joseph’s College observed a silent protest condemning the Jesuit’s arrest.
The protesters questioned the need for the NIA to take the aged priest to Mumbai amid the global pandemic, notwithstanding the Jharkhand government’s directive that those above 60 years of age must not venture in public.