This article recounts the case of Stan Swamy SJ and the human rights defenders in the current Indian context and concludes some lessons learned from the Jesuit international campaign [i] carried out in coordination with our colleagues in India, from October 2020 until today.
Background: Stan Swamy SJ and the human rights defenders of the Bhima Khoregoan case
As it is known, Stan Swamy SJ was an 84-year-old Indian Jesuit who dedicated more than 40 years of his life to defending the rights of indigenous communities (Adivasis) in Jharkhand and other neighboring states in India. Jharkhand is a state in western India, populated by indigenous communities. It has 39% of India’s mineral resources, but 40% of its population lives below the poverty line. Stan Swamy founded the Bagaicha Social Centre, where he advocated for the rights to land and resources of Adivasi communities recognized by the Indian Constitution and laws. Together with other organisations, he documented in a study how Adivasis claiming their rights were imprisoned without charge or trial and languished in prisons for years (the so called “undertrials”). He filed a public litigation against the state of Jharkhand on behalf of more than 3000 Adivasis seeking speedy resolution of their cases. Since then, he has been in the crosshairs of the Indian authorities.
On 8 October 2020, he was falsely accused of having links with Maoist extremist groups (banned in India), of conspiring against the government, and of being present at the Bhima Khoregoan incident, an event called by Dalit and marginalized community organisations, where violence broke out (some say by radical Hindu extremists), resulting in the death of one person and several others injured. On 9 October, he was imprisoned in Taloja Prison, Mumbai. He had previously been interrogated for hours on several occasions by the Indian National Investigation Agency. Fr Stan Swamy SJ denied all the allegations – pointing out that he was never in Bhima Khoregoan – and mentioned the reasons why he believed he was arrested in a video recorded two days before his arrest.
He is the last of the 16 detainees in the Bhima Khoregoan case. The others imprisoned include human rights defenders, lawyers, activists, academics and well-known members of Indian civil society, all of whom are known for their advocacy on behalf of marginalized communities. The accusations against the Bhima Khoregoan detainees are based on information extracted from the detainees’ seized computers. According to a report by US-based Arsenal Consulting, key evidence used to incriminate several of the activists and human rights defenders, including Fr Stan Swamy SJ, was deliberately planted on activist Rona Wilson’s laptop using malware. The Washington Post asked three malware experts to verify the validity of Arsenal’s report, and their credibility was confirmed. More recently, The Guardian published articles on the involvement of various governments – including India – in the purchase of Pegasus, an Israeli spyware – ostensibly for security purposes, but which in practice appears to have been used to spy on activists, journalists and rights defenders. A leaked list of tapped phones includes eight of the sixteen activists arrested in the Bhima Khoregoan case.
From October 2020 to May 2021, Fr Stan Swamy’s health deteriorated significantly because of his stay in prison. He was 84 years old, suffered from severe Parkinson, wore hearing aids and had undergone hernia surgery. His time in prison coincided with the Covid 19 pandemic which, in India, left more than 34 million cases and nearly half a million dead. In Taloja prison, in fact, there were several cases of Covid. Stan Swamy also contracted the disease.
His request for bail was denied three times. He passed away at Holy Family Hospital in Mumbai on 6 July 2021 in judicial custody. Family and friends of the Bhima Khoregoan accused have described Swamy’s death as “institutional murder“.
The Indian context: erosion of democracy and human rights
It is very important to contextualize what has happened to Fr Stan Swamy in the wider Indian context. As he himself pointed out in his video recorded two days before his arrest:
“What is happening to me (…) is a wider process that is taking place all over the country. We are all aware of how prominent intellectuals, lawyers, writers, poets, activists, students, leaders, who defend the rights of adivasis, dalits (untouchables) and express their disagreement with the ruling powers, are being targeted and imprisoned”.
Today, there are many voices denouncing the erosion of democracy and human rights in India, as well as the authoritarian drift of Narendra Modi’s ultra-nationalist government. Indeed, through various laws, the government of Narendra Modi stifles any dissent against its policies. In particular, through the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), amended under his rule, initially designed to combat terrorism, but which today allows anyone who publicly dissents from government policies to be imprisoned for terrorism or sedition offences, held without trial for years and denied bail. Thousands of people languish in Indian jails because of the arbitrary use of this law. This seems evident if we look at the number of detainees between 2015 and 2019 -5922 cases- and those actually convicted – around 2%. Numerous international voices and reports echo the harassment of activists and defenders and protesters by the state, such as the CIVICUS report[ii], punished for speaking up: the continued use of restrictive laws to silence dissent in India, which points to India’s slide towards authoritarianism through the identification of dissent with anti-nationalism and smear campaigns against human rights defenders. The Freedom in the World Report 2021 also notes that the Modi government and his BJP party have intensified violence against the Muslim population and harassment of journalists, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other critics of the government.
The campaign for Stan Swamy SJ and human rights defenders in India
Following the arrest of Stan Swamy, the Society of Jesus in India mobilized in a campaign with various actions: mobilization, communication and public advocacy aimed at freeing Stan Swamy and those accused in the Bhima Khoregoan case. This campaign had to have an international component, hence the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat (SJES) had a role to play, in close coordination with colleagues in India. SJES also sought the help of Jesuit Missions UK in coordinating the meetings of the international group that was set up. The Jesuit organisations that were part of the international group were: Canadian Jesuits International, CLC/CVC; CPAL, Irish Jesuit International, JESC, Jesuitas Comunicacao, Jesuitenwelt Austria, Jesuitenwelt Germany, Jesuitenwelt Switzerland, Jesuit Missions UK and Justice in Mining. Some others like Visibles, Radio Ecca o Jesuit Network help to continuously spread the main messages and campaign claims.
Some of the main actions and milestones:
- Major mobilization in India and internationally, with position papers, letters and advocacy actions at national and international level. To name a few, the letters of the President of the Jesuit Conference of South Asia, the statement of the Indian Bishops’ Conference, various statements of the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat, the statements of support from Jesuit organisations, European Provincials, the Bishops of England and Wales, as well as numerous letters and statements from Indian civil society organisations and networks and political representatives in India.
- There have been numerous creative forms of protest: signature collections, songs, prayers, webinars, human chains, poems. Masses and prayers have been held in numerous places. Numerous letters to Indian embassies in various countries around the world, as well as protests and rallies in front of them.
– Numerous advocacy actions at various levels. Among others:
- United Nations: Press release of 20 October 2020 by High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
- On 3 November 2020, the Vice-Chair of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and the Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights defenders and minorities issued a statement raising concerns about the arbitrary detention and harassment of Fr Stan Swamy in response to his peaceful human rights work.
- European Union: At the EU level (apart from several initiatives by parliamentarians and government officers in Canada, USA, UK, Germany, Austria, among others):
- Letter of 21 Members of the European Parliament, including the presidencies of the main political groups.
- Call for EU to take a stand and press India to immediately end human rights violations, signed by seven international human rights organisations.
- Information requested from the Government of India and actions from the EU office and representatives in India, as well as actions by the EU Special Envoy for Human Rights.
- Actions with national governments in different countries (Foreign Affairs, Human Rights and international offices) of Canada, various Latin American countries, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Portugal, Spain, among others, as well as the Houses of Representatives (Congress, Senate) of the aforementioned countries.
- Rallies and protests in front of Indian Embassies in different countries (in 8 Latin American countries, United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Canada, United States…..).
- More than 1370 articles in India and nearly 200 articles in international media American Magazine, Avvenire, BBC, COPE, The Guardian, El País, the Tablet, Vatican News, among many others). Continuous impacts and appearances in media and websites of the Society of Jesus and the Church (websites of SJES, Jesuits Global, all the organisations participating in the group, as well as Alfa y Omega, Vatican News, Vida Nueva, Religión digital and others).
- Digital and social media campaigns (India/international).
- Specific milestones: Fr. Stan´s imprisonment date, International Human Rights Day, 100 days in prison, specific milestones based on events linked to the case such as when bail was denied or for other reasons, Fr Stan Swamy’s 84th birthday on 26 April, the EU-India human rights summit in Portugal in May, etc.
Many more actions and impacts are detailed on the Jesuit Conference of South Asia website.
Although the campaign has helped to raise awareness regarding Stan Swamy and human rights defenders and the erosion of democracy and rights in India and to initiate a global solidarity movement, it did not achieve its objective of getting Stan Swamy released on bail. Despite continued action and mobilization, Stan Swamy died in judicial custody and those imprisoned by BK remain in jail as of today. This fact forces us to reflect on what more can or should be done to achieve the intended objectives.
Conclusions and lessons learned
The following are some of the conclusions and lessons learned.
- Having a clear justice issue and speaking with a prophetic voice is extremely important for a campaign. In this case, there was a specific, concrete cause, a clear issue of the flagrant injustice of the imprisonment and degrading treatment of an elderly and sick Jesuit who had fought all his life for indigenous communities. We had also a clear objective: liberate him from prison to face the trial he himself wanted in order to prove his innocence. By positioning ourselves on Stan Swamy’s side, we also positioned ourselves on the side of the indigenous communities that he advocated and worked for. This, in addition to working together collaboratively, increased our sense of belonging to the apostolic body and the universal mission of faith, justice and reconciliation of the Society of Jesus.
- The very process of collaboration and networking, in which diverse organisations, identified and united to work for the same cause was a very important factor. We worked together in coordination with our colleagues in India, establishing a strategy with different milestones. We had regular meetings facilitated by Jesuit Missions UK. We devised some actions to take the case to the international sphere… networking allowed us to increase our capacities and to have a greater impact by contacting and obtaining statements from Jesuit provincials in Europe and Latin America or the United States, from bishops in different countries, to access the European Union and the United Nations and to obtain support from political representatives in different countries. It also allowed us to carry out the same action in different parts of the world and to scale our impact by linking them together. It is worth noting that the process grew as the campaign proceeded. It suggests that any campaign can start small but with perseverance, it gathers momentum and draws in others.
- The need for institutional support as well as grassroots support. From the very beginning, the cause had statements at the highest level from the Jesuit government and the Church, with statements and letters from the president of the South Asian Jesuit Conference, the Indian Bishops’ Conference, or from Father General himself in a live message. Also from the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat, with a statement and press release, as well as photos of representatives of the Curia holding “StandwithStan” signs. There was also strong grassroots support in India, both at the level of the Jesuit conference and from thousands of individuals, institutions and networks in solidarity with Stan Swamy and the human right defenders, including indigenous or Adivasi communities. In addition, the movement was supported by students, institutions, human rights and civil society organisations around the world.
- Increased capacities in advocacy and communication that allowed us to reach many more contacts of political representatives and media, as well as more impact on social networks… Working together allowed us to increase our capacities and our contacts. We also have good materials from India and very powerful letters and poems from prison from Stan Swamy himself, such as “I am not a silent spectator”, “a caged bird can still sing”; or the video of Stan Swamy himself recorded two days before his arrest. Advocacy is an inherently time consuming activity which requires a dedicated capacity to achieve. The risk in all advocacy is of willing the end without willing the means. It is in so many ways the classic Sisyphean task and, one could argue, that the Fr Swamy campaign exemplifies this. But the very act of coming together around this cause has created knowledge, enhanced skills and built capacity to advocate on other causes. There has to be a critical mass of “advocates or campaigners” within the network who can provide the leadership, resources and research to take it forward.
- Need for more sustained efforts and relationship building for advocacy and communication. Working with political representatives in advocacy is very laborious. In situations such as Covid 19, the difficulties increased as many people are working online and visits or contacts are complicated. Although there was a clear effort that produced results in terms of greater support and reaching spaces in the United Nations or the European Union, we believe that advocacy should be built on day-to-day relationships. Advocacy capacities and relations with political representatives, as well as with the media in Jesuit institutions and networks, need to be strengthened and anchored in the organisations.
- Local, national and global connections. Beginning of a global movement and sense of solidarity and justice. There was mutual enrichment and individual enrichment from working in relationship with a person like Stan Swamy, human rights defenders and Adivasi or indigenous communities in India. Very interesting local-national-global connections. Sense of belonging and privilege to be able to meet and work with Stan Swamy and to be able to show solidarity with him and colleagues in India. He enriched our institutions.
Finally, Stan Swamy’s death in custody sparked a genuine movement of appreciation for his life and work in India and around the world, as well as outrage at the injustice done, a symptom of the very serious erosion of democracy in India today. Today actions continue to demand reparations for Stan’s memory, the investigation and release of BK human rights defenders and political prisoners, and the rejection of the draconian UAPA and other laws.
[i] I am grateful to Paul Chitnis, director of Jesuit Missions UK for his comments to this article.
[ii] As cited by Prakash, Cedric, (2021, July), Voices for Justice and Hope in India, Promotio Iustitiae n. 131, pages 105-110, https://www.sjesjesuits.global/media/2021/07/PJ_131_ENG.pdf
[Image from CPAL]