Growing calls for release of priest arrested in India on terrorism charges

Growing calls for release of priest arrested in India on terrorism charges

Jesuit Father Stan Swamy in an undated photo. (Credit: Jesuit Conference of South Asia.)

There are growing demands in India for the release of Father Stan Swamy, who was arrested on Oct. 8 on terrorism offenses.

MUMBAI, India – There are growing demands in India for the release of Father Stan Swamy, who was arrested on Oct. 8 on terrorism charges.

Swamy is a noted human rights activist who has long spoken out against the mistreatment of India’s tribal community in in Jharkhand state. He was arrested in Ranchi and remanded by a special National Investigation Agency (NIA) court in Mumbai – on the other side of the country – until a hearing scheduled for Oct. 23.

On Wednesday, Jharkhand’s chief minister Hemant Soren said the priest’s arrest was an attack on civil liberties, federalism and the democracy itself.

“Today it is Stan, tomorrow it could be your turn. Today our state is being exploited and hassled, tomorrow it could be your state. It is the responsibility of all to protect the country from this dispensation,” he said.

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.

The 83-year-old priest has diligently documented the abuses and illegal activities of the authorities against the Tribal community in Jharkhand.

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 consistently denied having any ties to Maoist groups.

In his remarks, Soren said the Jesuit has done all he can to help “Tribals, Dalits and the downtrodden for decades, and is now being hassled and ill-treated for amplifying the voices of the subaltern people.”

Sashi Tharoor, a member of the Indian parliament, also called for Swamy’s release.

“Here is a man who has studied to bring about social change and has spent decades in Jharkhand working on Dalit rights. He deserves respect and encouragement and instead, we see him in Jail,” Tharoor said.

On Oct. 17, a “Silent Walk of Protest” was held in the city of Kolkata in support of Swamy.

“We are in solidarity with the cause of Father Stan for which he stood, namely the poor, the Tribals, the marginalised, human rights, and injustice meted out to them – therefore to restore their human dignity, to empower them,” said Archbishop Thomas D’Souza of Calcutta, who participated in the protest.

“Swamy is a champion for human rights and the dignity of the poor and Tribals. Hence, we stood in solidarity, to tell him that he is not alone, we are with him,” the archbishop told Crux.

“Secondly, we wanted to show our  displeasure in the way Father Stan was treated: The inhumane way the octogenarian Father Stan was arrested – despite his own requests that he could not travel – he was forcibly taken. There was neither compassion nor humanitarian treatment given to him despite being so elderly. Where is the respect given to the elderly in our country? … We appeal to the government and make demands to the government that Father Stan be released,” D’Souza said.

The vice-chancellor of St. Xavier’s University, Jesuit Father J. Felix Raj was one of the leaders of the rally.

He told Crux the Kolkata protest would inspire many others to raise their voice, adding that Swamy has a spirit like Mother Teresa, the saint who famously worked with the “poorest of the poor” in the city until her death in 1997.

“Both Mother Teresa and Father Stan Swamy were committed religious faithfully following the Ignatian spirituality of finding God in all things and all things in God,” he said.

“They had dedicated their lives to God and people. Mother’s preferential option was to work for the dying and destitute, while Father Stan’s was to work for the oppressed Dalits and Tribals. Both were fearless, bold in taking steps in their work. They found their strength in God,” Raj continued.

The priest said that as “a prophet is not accepted in his own town or country, both were blamed, found fault.”

“Mother was misunderstood and was accused of converting. Father Stan was accused of joining hands with Maoists and terrorists. The enemy is from within. Our own countrymen, leaders who have their vested interests, silenced these prophets,” he claimed.

Raj noted both came from far away to help others – Mother Teresa was originally from Albania, and Swamy was born in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

“They made people of other lands, different cultures and languages, their own,” he said.

“Father Stan’s work for the Dalits and Tribals was issue based – he made extensive research on various issues, had sufficient supporting documents and evidence. That is why he could boldly question the government and officials and fight for the people,” Raj explained.

“It is essentially a fight between the poor and the rich for justice. He took sides with the oppressed and fought for them. His arrest, his sufferings are the consequence of his stand for truth and justice. This happens to all who are on the side of truth,” he added.

“But truth will finally win.”

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