Thousands of people have expressed profound grief and rage at the custodial death of Father Stan Swamy. Few of them knew him personally or were beneficiaries of his work. Yet they see his death as the manifestation of something bigger. Even a turning point.

Fr Stan’s work is an open book to anybody who has cared about rights of the oppressed and the marginalized. His over four decades of peaceful, selfless devotion to Adivasis and their land rights in Jharkhand is testimony of one man’s devotion to the most fundamental values of our Constitution – liberty, equality, fraternity and human dignity.

Yet this gentle 84 year-old man, who had no material possessions of any consequence, was frail and ailing, and one who had no political ambition, was perceived by the State as a grave threat to it. He was incarcerated under the draconian UAPA law for over 7 months. Denied bail. Denied even a straw or a sipper. Denied the most routine of preventive health and hygiene measures during an ongoing pandemic. No charges were ever framed against him. He did not get a trial.

Troubling questions that must be asked:

- Who benefited from his being in jail? Which corporates got land-related contracts from the Jharkhand government?

- Why was the case transferred from the Maharashtra police to the NIA, when the government changed?

- Why was he not jailed in the city of his residence?

- Why did court after court ignore his requests for medical attention and bail? Or fail to see the lack of incriminating evidence?

- Why did the jail authorities deny him the most basic of facilities, given his failing health and the ongoing pandemic?

- What does the Prime Minister have to say? The one who projected himself as the beacon of human rights and free speech at the recent G7 summit? What action will he take?

- What responsibility does the Union Home Minister take? The one who wrote in a recent op-ed, “Nobody will dare interfere in citizens’ fundamental rights in future”?

- What fate awaits the remaining Bhima Koregaon detainees? And hundreds of others detained under the UAPA law, without trial, without bail?

- What place does this draconian law have in a democratic society?

- Why have international human rights organisations related to the UN and the powerful democratic countries like the US, UK, etc. been near-silent on this flagrant display of abuse of power?

India’s freedom struggle had a similarly poignant moment, when in 1919, to curb the fervour of nationalism embracing India, the colonial powers passed the Rowlatt Act, giving the government sweeping powers to arrest anybody without any reason whatsoever. This act brought Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement into the national mainstream. A simple peaceful protest in Amritsar led to the cruel massacre in Jallianwala Bagh which stirred the conscience of millions of Indians.

The resolve for freedom strengthened. And from the ashes of Jallianwala Bagh, were born revolutionary leaders like Bhagat Singh, Azad, Bismil, Rajguru and many others.

Will Fr Stan’s cold-blooded murder be another such moment? A rallying cry against fascism? A clarion call for citizens to scream ‘Enough! We want our Republic back’?

For we must ask what the revolutionary singer and poet, Bob Marley, asked:

How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look?