Prominent human rights defender and champion of the rights of Dalit and indigenous communities, Fr. Stan Swamy died in custody in India on 5 July 2021.
Stan Swamy founded the Vistapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan (VVJA), an all-India platform to secure and protect the land rights of Dalit and Adivasi peoples, and was a prominent advocate against their forced displacement, primarily linked to infrastructure projects and the mining of mineral-rich lands. He spoke out against the systemic discrimination and violence directed at the Adivasi community and he notably documented and advocated against the mass arrest of Adivasi youth, frequently accused by the authorities of being “Naxalites” or “Maoists” and of inciting terrorism and violence. It is this work that is his legacy, and also the reason for the reprisals against him. He supported and inspired the most marginalised and vulnerable communities in Jharkhand State to seek redress against violence and discrimination, and his persecution, arrest and ill-treatment in custody resulting in his death were direct reprisals for his peaceful work.
On 8 October 2020, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in Ranchi, Jharkhand, arrested Stan Swamy for alleged links to the incident of caste-based violence that broke out during the Elgar Parishad commemoration at Bhima Koregaon, Maharashtra State, on 1 January 2018. Together with 15 other prominent human rights defenders, 13 of whom remain in pre-trial detention at this time, he was falsely accused and jailed in a case that has become widely known as the Bhima Koregaon-16 case or the BK-16 case1.
At the time of his arrest, Stan Swamy was already suffering from Parkinson’s disease, significant loss of hearing in both ears, and other serious underlying health issues. However, in his own words, his bodily systems “were very functional”. Over the subsequent nine months in detention, poor prison conditions, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the absence of adequate medical attention resulted in his deteriorating health. Initially, jail authorities denied him warm clothes and a sipper cup which he needed due to the effects of advanced Parkinson’s disease. On 22 October 2020, a special NIA court denied his interim bail plea filed on medical grounds, despite the Covid-19 pandemic and national moves to reduce congestion in prisons, as well as the Supreme Court of India’s own directives in this regard. In the second week of May 2021, his lawyers again petitioned the court for his release on medical grounds. At this point he was suffering from Covid-19 symptoms, but this request for bail was again denied.
When his condition became critical, Stan Swamy was eventually transferred from Taloja Central Jail to the Holy Family Hospital on 28 May 2021. There he tested positive for Covid-19 and remained in critical condition. He continued to be denied bail, despite his perilous health condition and lived in constant fear of being returned to Taloja Central Jail. Multiple requests for him to be transferred to his home state of Jharkhand so that he could be with his community were also denied. On 4 July 2021, Stan Swamy suffered a cardiac arrest, and died the following day, on 5 July 2021. His mental and physical suffering and eventual death are the direct consequences of his incarceration and denial of timely and effective medical treatment by authorities.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, stated in 2021 that Stan Swamy’s death ‘will forever remain a stain on India’s human rights record’2. Despite his passing, Stan Swamy’s spirit, courage and kindness continue to inspire Dalit and Adivasi communities to demand their rights.
1The 15 other human rights defenders arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case are; Mr. Varavara Rao, Ms. Sudha Bharadwaj, Mr. Vernon Gonsalves, Mr. Gautam Navlakha, Mr. Arun Ferreira, Mr. Sudhir Dhawale, Mr. Rona Wilson, Ms. Shoma Sen, Mr. Anand Teltumbde, Mr. Mahesh Raut, Mr. Surendra Gadling, Mr. Hany Babu, Mr. Sagar Gorkhe, Mr. Ramesh Gaichor, and Ms. Jyoti Jagtap. At the time of writing, Mr. Varavara Rao and Ms. Sudha Bharadwaj have been released on temporary bail but could be recalled to prison at any time.