Fr. Stan Swamy’s death in judicial custody this Monday has highlighted the very issue he fought against – inequality and injustice in India. After all, the deliberate inhuman treatment of the ailing and aged priest is a sharp contrast to the backdoor privileges jailed politicians, influential businessmen and godmen enjoy. Life in jail for these VIP prisoners is merely a temporary change of address with all the luxuries thrown in. Yet Parkinson’s stricken Fr. Swamy was unable to secure a straw (or sippy cup) despite his inability to hold a cup. So getting bail because of his failing health was definitely way out of his league!
According to the keepers of the Indian judicial system, the human rights activist who rallied for the Adivasis was a seditionist and deserved to languish in jail. So, the Jesuit priest, who is perhaps the oldest person to be arrested under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, died fighting for bail on medical grounds. He had been on ventilator support since Sunday following a significant deterioration in his health. Although he knew his end was near and said so, apparently his captors didn’t see it coming or expect the global attention it would get.
Ironically, the government’s attempts to muzzle him through imprisonment have backfired in a way. The drummed up charges and merciless incarceration made headlines… but his demise cast the spotlight on his work as well as India’s abysmal human rights record once again.
Nonetheless, the critical question here is whether any of this really matters… and to whom.
The Indian government dug its heels in justifying the charges amid UN condemnation. Either to save face or because they don’t really care about what happened. Harsh and life-threatening conditions for political prisoners and detainees is not new for India, it’s a way of life. As is violence and discrimination against minority groups by politicians, law enforcement officials and the general public.
Many Christians in India see Fr. Swamy’s incarceration and death as targeting their community. Priests and nuns who have worked for the upliftment of the Dalits and tribals have always been in the hot seat not just for raising their voice against injustice but also because of their historical association with conversions.
Right-wing Hindu groups have gone after them with a vengeance while the allied BJP-led government has watched quietly from the sidelines. Take the case of the nuns who were accused of conversion and forced off the train in Jhansi in March. Or Dalit Christians who became ‘ghar wapsi’ (‘homecoming’ – reconversions facilitated by Hindu groups like the VHP and RSS) targets in Kerala and other parts of the country.
Dalits and Adivasis, the lowest rung of the social and economic ladder in India, are exploited by everyone. Belonging mostly to the ‘untouchable caste’, many have been rehabilitated by missionaries over the decades and became Christians. Their conversions have become a contentious issue.
Ironically, these radical Hindu groups that have accused Christian activists of having a conversion agenda, launched an aggressive and violent campaign to bring the converts back to Hinduism by force if necessary.
Fr. Stan Swamy’s death is likely to have little or no impact, on this growing Hindu nationalism movement and the subsequent politicization of it, Or the fate of the marginalized Adivasis for that matter.
Public fury will ebb as politicians deftly turn attention to other issues. Global condemnation will also die down. After all, India is an emerging economic powerhouse that no country or international group wants to offend.
Rest in peace Fr. Swamy, death has freed you from an impossible situation. Sadly, yours is yet another exemplary life that has been sacrificed on the ever-growing altar of injustice.