Article: Father Stan Swamy: A soft-spoken man with a fire within

(The Wire)

Mari Marcel Thekaekara

I write this seething with rage. Livid about the injustice, the cruelty, the sheer inhumanity of the senseless death of a simple, committed human being who gave his life for the people he loved and worked for all his life. I’m ashamed of my country being turned into a Banana Republic, slowly but surely.

Father Stan Swamy fought the good fight till his very last breath. He died on Monday, July 5, 2021, after several months in prison. His lifelong battle for the poor and dispossessed was not in vain, although seeking power or glory was the antithesis of everything he stood for. Ironically, this simple, quiet intellectual’s death made it to the headlines of almost every major newspaper in the country. He would have hated being in the limelight. He lived for the Adivasis of Jharkhand, never for himself.

For people in this country who care about the fate of the poorest, about human rights or even about justice in its most basic form, something died inside us. Beginning with the criminal incarceration and inhumane treatment of an 84-year-old man, and ending with the death of this utterly decent, unusually good man. “A rare gift from God,” as someone aptly described him. I’m not prone to superlatives. But this was truly a very good man.

For my husband Stan, its even more deeply personal. Father Stan, his namesake, invited him to Jharkhand in 1974 when he was a mere 21 year old. Father Stan introduced him to the Ho tribals near Chaibasa and offered him food, shelter and a space to work. He was a teacher and mentor to my husband. So the loss goes deep. But the lessons lasted a lifetime, inspiring my husband to continue working with Adivasis even after he left Jharkhand.

I met Father Stan over 40 years ago when I went to Chaibasa, in then Bihar, as a trainee journalist to write an article about Adivasi exploitation for a student magazine. Even 40 years ago, it occurred to me that he was one of the gentlest, most soft spoken men I had ever met.

So how could such a person be accused of being anti-national or a criminal? The charges against him were serious. He was denied bail in spite of being old, 83 at the time of arrest and with an advanced case of Parkinson’s disease. His hands trembled uncontrollably, making eating a meal or drinking a cup of tea an ordeal. How could this frail 83-year-old pose such a threat that he was thrown into jail and his lawyers had to beg for a sipper mug for him to drink his tea? He was a threat because he dared to challenge the unjust arrest of young Jharkhand Adivasis and demand their release.

With several degrees under his belt – theology, philosophy and a masters in sociology – the man was definitely a scholar with a propensity for learning. He could have continued on the high road of academia. Instead, he opted for the poorest state in the country – Bihar. Here, in a small Adivasi village Baraibir, near Chaibasa, he lived with the Ho tribe to learn their language and customs. He was mesmerised by the Adivasis’ philosophy and way of life. He was also horrified by their gross exploitation by merchant communities.

To the uninitiated, the word ‘activist’ is a vague, incomprehensible term. In reality, this is what thousands of activists do. This is what Stan Swamy did in Ranchi, which led to his imprisonment and draconian charges against him.

Since the 1970s, all over the country, activists have moved from social work as practised by wonderful souls like Mother Teresa, the giving of food, clothes and alms, to educating people about their rights. So the post ’70s period saw activists focusing on fighting injustice. Notoriously, many traders offer Adivasis small loans or food on credit. Slowly the debts grow and they then move in like vultures and take away their valuable farm land. The money owed may be paltry but the village people are intimidated. Hence, they lose everything without a fight and are reduced to penury. Activists try to stop this exploitation by educating village communities, by starting farming collectives, agricultural cooperatives, seed banks. All these sound innocuous. They ought to be part of larger development policy and strategy. Yet caste and class create an invincible combine, so that mostly, law enforcement agencies side not with the oppressed but with the oppressors.

Teaching young farmers to stock their seed, to avoid distress sales by forming cooperatives, to avoid crippling high-interest loans, affects the profits of the wealthier merchants who always gain hugely during distress sales.

An outsider activist who educates young Adivasis to resist exploitation and creates curbs on the cumulative wealth of the greedy shopkeeper poses a threat to the status quo. People like that are unwelcome. They are hated.

Stan Swamy was a soft spoken and gentle human being. But the fire that burned inside him for justice for his beloved Adivasi community in Jharkhand was a raging inferno to the people who wanted him dead.

Father Walter Fernandes, a fellow Jesuit, pointed out, “Prophets are a threat to the powerful. Stan is a witness to it. He was a threat to the powerful state and the corporate sector that want tribal land and bonded labourers. Stan fought for their rights. He paid the price.”

Father Cedric Prakash, also a Jesuit priest and rights activist, ended on a note that resonates: “Your departure will not go in vain! There will be many more Stans who will now rise up. …You will never die. You will live forever.”

Mari Marcel Thekaekara is a freelance writer based in Gudalur, Tamil Nadu. — Courtesy The Wire

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