MUMBAI, India – Catholic leaders in India are protesting the arrest on Friday of 83-year-old Jesuit Father Stan Swamy on charges of collaboration with Marxist militants.
Swamy is a noted human rights activist who has long spoken out against the mistreatment of India’s tribal community in in Jharkhand state.
The priest was arrested on Thursday evening in Ranchi and remanded by a special National Investigation Agency (NIA) court in Mumbai until a hearing scheduled for Oct. 23.
Swamy has been accused by the government of having ties with Maoists who have been linked with instigating a riot in Pune – located in the western state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is also located – in December 2017.
Swamy runs Bagaicha, an NGO that works with Tribal people in Jharkhand, and there is a school for Tribal children and a technical training institute housed in his residential compound in Ranchi, the state capital.
“No warrant was presented,” a colleague on the campus told local media. “NIA people were rough and arrogant. They said he [Swamy] was accused and a senior officer wants to meet him at the NIA office in Ranchi.”
Swamy is the oldest person ever to be charged with terrorism-related offenses in India.
Jesuit Father George Pattery, President of the South Asia Jesuits, told said the religious order condemned the arrest “in the strongest terms.”
“It is very unfortunate and a very illegal way of doing things and cannot be tolerated. I think it is an arrest without a warrant and cannot be accepted,” Pattery told Crux. “He has dedicated his entire life for the Tribals and their cause.”
India’s Tribal community are the country’s indigenous peoples, often traditionally living in forested areas and not fully part of the country’s Hindu caste system. Like Dalits – the former “Untouchables” in the caste hierarchy – the Tribal community suffers discrimination and marginalization in the country.
The Tribal population makes up around a quarter of the population in Jharkhand, and the Marxist rebels in the state draw most of their members from Tribal groups. Human rights activists are often accused by the authorities of supporting the rebels when they advocate for justice for the Tribal community.
Swamy has diligently documented the abuses and illegal activities of the authorities in Jharkhand. The priest has consistently denied having any ties to Maoist groups.
“[Swamy] fought for them, he worked for them, he lived with them and there is no other witness like him for the tribal community. I can add nothing to that. There is no other person today in our context who identifies so much with the tribal community,” Pattery explained.
In a separate statement, Pattery said the Jesuits were “shocked and dismayed” to learn Swamy was taken into custody.
“He has been already interrogated for several hours spread over several months. He has consistently cooperated with the agency concerned. He is willing to be further interrogated at the place he is residing or online,” the statement said.
“Considering this, his age (83) and his poor health, it was not necessary to take him into custody for further interrogation to Mumbai. We hereby demand the immediate release of Stan Swamy,” Pattery said.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) also expressed its “deep sorrow and anguish” over Swamy’s arrest.
Archbishop Felix Machado, secretary general of the CBCI, said the Jeusit “has spent a major portion of his life giving yeoman service to the tribals and the downtrodden in the state of Jharkhand.”
“According to our reports Father Stan has for decades been working to protect the rights of the Adivasis [the Tribal population], especially their land rights. This could have worked against the interests of certain people. When questioned during the months of July-August 2020 by authorities, Father Stan Swamy has fully cooperated with Investigating Agencies and has provided detailed statements, claiming to be innocent in the case,” Machado said.
“It is difficult to comprehend the plight of an octogenarian with several morbidities, like Father Stan Swamy to have 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,” he continued.
“The CBCI makes a strong appeal to the concerned authorities to immediately release Father Stan Swamy and to permit him to go to his residence. The Catholic Community has always been lauded by all as body of loyal, law abiding and service minded citizens of Mother India. The community has always been contributing to nation building and continues to collaborate with the government in working for the common good of all Indians and the progress of our nation. We earnestly urge that the rights, duties and privileges of all citizens are duly safeguarded, and peace and harmony prevail among all,” the archbishop added.
“The Catholic Church is very grateful to all people of goodwill, people from all walks of life, belonging to all religions, and all institutions that have come out in an overwhelming support for Father Stan Swamy’s immediate release and safe return to his residence,” the statement concluded.