Did We Fail Fr. Stan Swamy: Carrying His Legacy Forward

Introduction

The 84 year old, Fr. Stanislaus Lourduswami SJ, fondly known as Stan Swamy, was arrested by the National Investigating Agency (NIA) from the Jesuit social center he founded, Bagaicha, Ranchi, on 8 October, 2020, and sent to Taloja jail, near Mumbai. He was charged with sedition, supporting the banned Maoist organization, waging war against the State, attempting to overthrow the Government and inciting violence at Bhima Koregaon on 1st January, 2018. He applied for bail in the lower court, but it was rejected and while his bail application was being heard in the Bombay High Court, he passed away on 5th July, 2021, due to post-Covid complications.

As we reflect on the life and mission of Fr. Stan Swamy, we need to ask what made the life and mission of Stan Swamy a threat to the political elite of the country, especially the ruling establishment? In other words, what made Stan Swamy a prophetic voice that the corridors of power feel the need to silence or eliminate, by branding him a terrorist and an enemy of the State, notwithstanding his advanced age and age related ailments?

We need to introspect whether we as Christians failed Fr. Stan Swamy. Many Christian groups raised their voices against the arrest and incarceration of Fr. Stan Swamy. However, to the extent Christians failed to raise their voice against the unjust treatment meted out to an 84 year old Jesuit priest, we have failed him and his cause. Now, that he has returned back to the Lord, there is no doubt that we need to carry forward his legacy so that his noble mission among marginalized communities, especially the tribals in India continues in the years ahead.

The Life of Stan Swamy

Fr. Stan Swamy was born in a remote village in Tamil Nadu in 1937. At the age of 20, with a desire to work for the most marginalized tribals in the country, he joined the Jamshedpur Province of the Jesuits in 1957. By the time he was ordained a priest in 1970, the social movements in India and liberation theology in Latin America influenced the thought of Stan Swamy.  Liberation theology advocates a radical following of Jesus Christ by immersing oneself in the lives of the poor and marginalized and empowering them to challenge the structures of oppression and exploitation. In 1974, the 32nd General Congregation invited Jesuits “to promote faith that does justice”. Inspired by this mandate, Jesuits throughout the world were engaged in the promotion of justice and human rights. In India, Jesuits were engaged in the promotion of the rights of Dalits, tribals, women, minorities and informal labour. Stan Swamy, in particular, worked for the promotion of the rights of tribals, especially in central India

While he was in Indian Social Institute, Bangalore, Stan Swamy designed the popular courses on social analysis, which pointed out to the structures of caste and class that prevented upward social mobility of marginalized people. He trained social workers and village animators, and those who attended these courses were so enlightened and transformed that today many of them are prominent members of civil society and human rights defenders in different parts of the country.

With the formation of the new Jharkhand State carved out of Bihar in 1999, Stan Swamy decided to empower the tribals of Jharkhand with awareness of their rights. In 2006, he established a Jesuit social centre, known as ‘Bagaicha’ in Ranchi, where he resided till his arrest on 8 October, 2020. While in ‘Bagaicha’, he campaigned for the implementation of the 5th Schedule of the Constitution, which endows special rights for the tribals. He also campaigned for the implementation of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) 1996, the Forest Rights Act 2006 and the Land Acquisition Act 2013. He vociferously defended the Supreme Court judgement in 1997 which admitted that the “owner of the land is also the owner of the sub-soil minerals”.

Due to greater awareness of their rights enshrined in the Constitution and progressive laws, the tribals of Jharkhand began opposing the Government attempts to parcel off tribal land to corporates in the name of ‘development projects’ without consultation with the affected people. About 3000 tribal youth were arrested on various charges to curb the opposition of the tribals against Government plans of handing over tribal land to corporates. Stan Swamy responded by making a study of some of the cases and based on the findings of the study, he filed a case against the Jharkhand State in the Ranchi High Court in 2017 demanding speedy disposal of the cases filed against thousands of tribal youth. This brought him in conflict with the State, but he refused to be a silent spectator and was ready to pay the price. In the final analysis, he did pay the price for opting to stand with the poor and the exploited tribal people when he died in judicial custody on 5th July, 2021. But while the State tried to brand him a violent extremist and Maoist, all men and women of good will across the globe hailed him as a martyr and prophet of the marginalized.

Authenticity of Jesuit Life

The life of Stan Swamy is an illustration of a genuine attempt to live an authentic Jesuit life. He was a man on a mission to journey with the struggles of the tribal people of Central India. Therefore, in spite of coming from a remote village in Tamil Nadu, he immersed himself into the culture, life and struggles of the tribals in Jharkhand. Stan Swamy is a contemplative in action, one of the characteristics of Jesuit life, which is a practice of constant discernment of choices made in mission through an interplay of experience, reflection, decision and action. This contemplation led him to be in solidarity with tribals, whom he believed were most in need. Jesuits are called to enter into solidarity with the poor, the marginalized and the voiceless, in order to enable their participation in the processes that shape society.

Stan Swamy believed that the tribal people of the country were the most marginalized section of society in India as they had the worst socio-economic indicators compared to other marginalized groups in the country. In spite of the progress made by India over the last seven decades, there has been little progress made in tribal regions of central India due to large scale displacement of tribal people on account of mining and other development projects in the region, which is rich in sub-soil minerals. The tribals have made huge sacrifices in terms of their land, livelihood and culture in order to accommodate India’s development, but they have realized they have only been exploited and not been made part of India’s development story. Therefore, in the last three decades, they have been resisting and opposing the development plans of the Government, largely in a peaceful manner, but some tribals have used violent means as well.

Stan Swamy has been supporting peaceful resistance of tribals to anti-tribal policies of the Government using the rights of tribals enshrined in the Constitution and the progressive laws enacted by Parliament that protect the rights of tribals over their ‘water, forest, and land’ (jal, jungle, jameen). Stan Swamy extensively studied all the legal remedies available to tribals to protect their land and wrote dozens of books in English and Hindi with the goal of conscientizing the tribal people about their rights and entitlements through talks, courses and publications. His analysis of the social reality in Jharkhand not only exposed the destructive nature of the ‘development model’ of the State, but also proposed a people-centric development model that takes tribals into confidence. In order to empower the tribals to assert their rights and protect their land, he was instrumental in forming networks of social organisations, academicians and social activists, who shared his vision of empowerment of tribal people. This approach has been in line with the Jesuit mandate which requires collaboration and networking to be an integral part of its mission.

The Legacy of Stan Swamy’s Prophetic Mission

The question that is often in the minds of people is why a Jesuit priest, like Stan Swamy, is engaged in secular activities like getting involved in the struggles of tribal people, rather than limiting himself to spiritual ministries, which are not controversial. While it is true that priests normally perform the religious rituals of the particular religion, Stan Swamy believed in living his faith and acting out in real life the symbolism of the rituals he celebrated.

First of all, every Christian is called to radiate the life and message of Jesus Christ. A subaltern reading of the Bible reveals the journey of an exploited people towards the promised land. In his time, Jesus opted to accompany the outcasts of Jewish society, which brought him in conflict with the powerful elite, resulting in his death by crucifixion. A radical following of Jesus involves an option for the poor and the oppressed in society, giving them hope of liberation from exploitation. This also implies living an authentic life of simplicity with minimum possessions. Stan Swamy’s option for tribals of Jharkhand must be seen in the light of his faith in a God, who identifies Himself in the weak, the least the last and the lost, giving them hope of a new life where peace, justice and love reigns.

Secondly, Stan Swamy’s spirituality was rooted in the social teaching of the Church. Affirmation of the dignity of every human being, option for the poor and working for the common good are important principles of the Catholic Social teaching. These principles are very much part of Stan Swamy’s humanistic spirituality. Working for the good of all sections of society is an essential feature of his humanism devoid of man-made divisions of caste, class, gender, religion, ethnicity, culture, race, etc.

Thirdly, the Jesuit mandate to communicate a “faith that does justice” became part of his life and mission. His option for the liberation of the tribal people from State repression and corporate greed resulted in him being in conflict with the State and Corporate interests. Consequently, he had to pay the price by being charged with false and fabricated cases and remain incarcerated in jail till he died in judicial custody.

Fourthly, Stan Swamy’s mission with the tribals of Jharkhand was rooted in a radical interpretation of priesthood, as a man at the service of others. Merely presiding over rituals remain meaningless practices if they do not motivate to reach out in love and service to the needy. He believed that his life was at the service of the tribal people with whom he lived and worked.

Finally, the spirituality of Stan Swamy was all embracing. Though he was a Catholic priest, he did not want to be limited by his religious affiliation, but he was a person who embraced all people irrespective of their caste, class, gender, ethnicity or religious traditions. He was aware that he had to have an inclusive and pluralistic approach in a country that cherishes it diversity in religions, cultures, ethnicities, languages, etc. ‘Bagaicha’, the social centre he founded, does not have religious symbols in it as he wanted all sections of society to feel comfortable in the place. Instead, it had a large stone on which is engraved the names of tribal martyrs of different tribes, religions, etc. The place also has a large statue of Birsa Munda, a popular tribal freedom fighter. These tribal symbols creates a revolutionary ambience that motivates all those who come to ‘Bagaicha’.

Taking the Legacy of Fr. Stan Swamy Forward

The arrest, incarceration and death of Fr. Stan Swamy in Taloja jail caused outrage among large sections of the people of Jharkhand and civil society in India and the world. While the State attempted to brand him a ‘terrorist’ waging war against the State, public opinion in India and abroad recognized him as a powerful advocate of the rights of tribals in Jharkhand State. This is due to the prophetic life and work of Stan Swamy for over five decades. However, the predicament of Stan Swamy poses difficult questions on the role of the Christians in India. Many Christian institutions in India have been providing quality education, healthcare and social services to the people of the country. Most of these services have been provided with some amount of patronage from the State. A large number of services has been catering to the elite in the country. This same middle class and elite undermine democracy and prefer greater comforts at the cost of marginalized sections of society.

In the context of the rise of right-wing political elite backed by corporate power, will Christians be able to make radical choices in favour of the under-privileged class of people in the country? Are Christian institutions ready to raise their voice against injustice done to victims of violence and be ready to pay the price for it? Are Christians ready to take the risk of opposing State repression against tribals, Dalits and minorities? The prophetic witness of Stan Swamy urges all of us to remain true to our faith in God and engage in a radical service of the most marginalized of our country. Can Christians take the legacy of Fr. Stan Swamy forward?

Dr. Denzil Fernandes SJ, is the Executive Director, Indian Social Institute, New Delhi. With  Ph.D in Social Sciences, from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, he has authored books and written articles especially in the areas of Politics, Labour Economics, Development Economics, Migration. He served as HoD, Department of Dalit Studies, Indian Social Institute before taking up the responsibility as Executive Secretary.

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