Stan Swamy: Killed by callousness

Will activist’s death shake judiciary out of its slumber?

Politics

July 5, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Stan Swamy: Killed by callousness

Stan Swamy died on July 5, 2021, after seven months in jail (Image/Twitter)

The blame for death of Father Stan Swamy, who passed away in a hospital in Mumbai on Monday, lies not just at the prosecution and government’s doorstep, but also the judiciary that ignored several pleas by his lawyers about his failing health and risk to life. His internment as well as his death are murder of human rights and a reflection on the state of affairs in the world’s largest democracy.

On Monday, doctors of Holy Family hospital in Mumbai where tribal rights activist and Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy, one of the accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, was being treated, told the Mumbai High Court that he had suffered from a cardiac arrest early this morning and did not regain consciousness subsequently. He was declared dead about nine hours later. The doctors also told the court, which ironically had been hearing an urgent plea for bail on grounds of Swamy’s failing health, that the cause of death was “definitely pulmonary infection and Parkinson’s disease among others”.

However, Nihalsing Rathod, a Mumbai-based advocate who represents several accused in the Bhima Koregaon case disagrees with the doctors. “Stan Swamy’s death is not a death due to cardiac arrest. There are several persons responsible for it. We need to understand that in what circumstances he has died. He was 84-year-old and despite knowing that he had many illnesses and problems and given that evidence was not of such a nature that could have been tampered by a person of his age, there was no need to arrest him in the first place. He was a person with established credentials and a proven record. The prosecution that was fabrication of the entire case against him and the jail authorities that did not allow allopathic doctors to treat him despite several requests, all these people are responsible for his death,” says Nihalsing.

Swamy was arrested on October 8 last year. He was one of the 16-odd eminent scholars and social activists arrested in Bhima Koregaon case, arrested in the past three years and where the accused have all been charged with sedition and terror under the stringent UAPA law that makes it extremely difficult for judges to grant bail.

Swamy had sought interim bail on grounds of the Covid-19 pandemic, citing several health issues including the Parkinson’s disease. Besides, he had also applied for bail on merits before the special court of the National Investigation Agency (NIA), that abruptly took over from Pune Police, the investigation of the case in January last year. In his bail plea, Swamy had said that he was arrested for challenging the indiscriminate arrests of thousands of young adivasis labeled as “Naxals” and that there was no proof of his involvement with the banned CPI (Maoists), as alleged by the central agency. However, the special court disallowed his pleas.

Indeed, the arrest and repeated denial of bail to the accused in the Bhima Koregaon case is a sad commentary on what is wrong with Indian judicial system today as basic protections and rights guaranteed to the citizens have been trampled upon freely by the police and prosecuting agency, while the judiciary – be it the special NIA court or even the Supreme Court have largely stood by and watched the flagrant murder of human rights of the accused who have already spent nearly three years in jail, charged with terror but without evidence.

Indeed, judiciary at levels failed Stan Swamy as earlier this year a report in the Washington Post had revealed that an American digital forensics consulting firm had found that fabricated evidence was planted in the gadgets, including a laptop and pen drive, belonging to Rona Wilson, one of the accused, which were seized from Wilson’s house in April 2018 and which led to his arrest two months later.

Jail as a default mode

The revelations in the American newspaper were precisely what the defence lawyers had been saying in the case ever since the arrests were made. Yet, the judiciary continued to turn a blind eye to the near lack of evidence against the accused or worse, fabricated evidence and refused to intervene and end the mockery of justice, the Constitution and basic human rights that the Bhima Koregaon case has come to represent.

Indeed, many activists and political leaders, while mourning Swamy’s death, blame the judiciary for failing to spot what the case really has been all about. Vendetta against eminent personalities launched by an extremely insecure federal government only because they opposed the policies of the government.

The use of UAPA has risen sharply ever since the Narendra Modi government took office in May 2014. The government has freely invoked the most serious and stringent of laws available just to silence dissent – be it from social activists or journalists. With the stringent provisions of these laws, unfortunately, most judges are happy to use jail as the default mode, instead of paying heed to long-standing instruction by the Supreme Court highlighting bail as a basic right of every prisoner, even to those who are gravely ill, as was the case with Swamy.

Before he was shifted to a hospital on May 30 following directions from the Bombay HC, Swamy had appeared before the High Court through videoconference from Taloja jail. He had then told the court that when he was brought to the jail, his core systems were still functional but there has been steady regression since then and he was unable to perform his daily chores, including eating and walking without assistance.

Swamy’s death puts huge question mark on the status of other prisoners, several of whom have long been complaining of failing health in the jail and near total absence of medical care. Rathod says that whenever the prisoners wanted to see doctors, instead of providing qualified allopathic doctors, the jail warden would let them be examined only by an ayurvedic doctor and this has led to worsening of health condition many of the accused.

So far only one accused, noted poet Varavara Rao, 81, has been granted bail in March and that too on medical grounds as his health had sharply deteriorated. His bail is currently for six months. Several other accused have contracted Covid-19 in prison, while the health of noted scholar Sudha Bharadwaj has deteriorated sharply while in jail.

Defence lawyers, however, don’t expect a dramatic change in the attitude of the prosecution or even the trial court, in dealing with the bail petitions in the case. “Whether the death of Stan Swamy will have an impact on the release of other activists, that time only will tell, but I am not sure if it will bring any change in the mindset of the jail authorities, the prosecution or even the trial court. After all, it is not the first time that someone has died in prison awaiting trial. There may be several other undertrials like this. The irony is that Stan Swamy has spent his life fighting for rights of prisoners. He died of prison neglect,” says Rathod.

Indeed, more than prison neglect Swamy died due to collective neglect and failure of all the safeguards that had been put in the Indian Constitution. With Swamy, some part of Indian democracy, too, has died.

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