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Stan Swamy's fight for the powerless till the end

A collection of writings by the late Jesuit activist Stan Swamy reveals his unflinching commitment to the truth, against all odds

Posters outside the church holding a memorial mass for Stan Swamy in Mumbai on 6 July.  (Getty Images)

In the last months of his life, Stan Swamy was in the news for all the wrong reasons—starting with what he firmly maintained was his wrongful arrest and detention as a co-accused in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence case, to being denied a sipper tumbler in prison, which he requested because he suffered from Parkinson’s disease. Yet, from the snippets of his life that surfaced on media, it became evident that the 84-year-old was made of steel; his resilience and fortitude shone forth in his measured speech and unruffled presence.

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When an ailing Swamy died on 5 July, still waiting for a judicial reprieve, waves of outrage erupted among sections of the media and civil society. A month on, a volume of his writings, published by the Indian Social Institute in Bengaluru, with which Swamy worked for several years, connects the dots of injustice the activist battled all his life.

I Am Not A Silent Spectator, available on the institute’s website, includes autobiographical essays, tracing Swamy’s long involvement with the Adivasis of central and eastern India, alongside reflections on the theory and practice of social work. While the National Investigation Agency’s probe into his alleged involvement with Naxals is a recurring theme, there are also pieces about reconciling Marxism with being a man of God.

Swamy draws lessons from seemingly insignificant vignettes. During a visit to Hong Kong, for instance, when he tries to get an old watch fixed, the owner of a posh store scoffs at him for not buying a new one. Swamy finally achieves his mission with the aid of a friend who takes him to a hole-in-the-wall establishment, which repairs the timepiece without fuss. For him, the mini-saga clarifies the contrast between capitalism and socialism in action.

Running through all the essays is the thread of service—to the Dalits of Tamil Nadu, the Adivasis, the Tamil plantation workers in war-torn Sri Lanka—that became central to Swamy’s life. He remembers his days in a Ho village, learning the community’s language and customs. He explains the lived experiences of Adivasi society that led to the Pathalgadi Movement, a quest for their rights—he was a lifelong crusader. And he writes, with clear-eyed earnestness, about his quest to help Adivasi youth by setting up Bagaicha, a research centre on the outskirts of Ranchi.

Particularly harrowing are Swamy’s accounts of repeated harassment by Jharkhand government officials and the police, presumably for his resolve to protect the interests of Adivasis against the mining mafia and land sharks, and to fight for justice on behalf of undertrials, many of whom were accused of being Naxal militants

Particularly harrowing are Swamy’s accounts of repeated harassment by Jharkhand government officials and the police, presumably for his resolve to protect the interests of Adivasis against the mining mafia and land sharks, and to fight for justice on behalf of undertrials, many of whom were accused of being Naxal militants. Long before the octogenarian was thrown into a crowded jail during a raging pandemic, the police repeatedly confiscated his meagre possessions—one time, not only his phone, laptop and papers but also furniture, mattress, pillows, leaving him with nothing but a bare cot. At Maharashtra’s Taloja jail, when he felt cold and asked for a “full-sleeve sweater, thin blanket and two pairs of socks”, the prison guards sent back these items three times.

Despite all the hardships, Swamy’s last letters to friends are full of fervent requests to help Mohd. Shabir, the co-inmate who looked after him at Taloja, and use the prize monies given to him for the education and upkeep of children whose parents continue to languish as undertrials. Stan Swamy’s loss may always be felt but the richness of his life and legacy are for us to cherish and aspire to.

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