The death in custody of Father Stan Swamy has drawn reactions from different quarters. Those who were aware of the activities of the octogenarian social worker in the field of Adivasi rights and rights of the downtrodden have been incensed by his death. The utterly callous and inhumane treatment meted out to him by the law enforcement machinery and the jail administration has caused much anguish to concerned citizens.

But what has been most painful is the designated court’s persistent denial of bail to the seriously ill Jesuit priest, relying on the prosecution’s “grave and serious” charges against him.

The government, in the face of severe criticism at home and abroad – even from international bodies – has predictably taken the stance that there was no denial of Swamy’s constitutional rights and that the court had denied him bail as his alleged offences were serious in nature.

In addition to these two opposite views, a thoroughly indoctrinated band of internet warriors belonging to the extreme right has not shown the least qualm in calling his death “good riddance”, and using far worse and unprintable words and phrases while welcoming his death, and condemning Fr Swamy.

One thing, however, is quite clear. Many neutral persons have little clue as to what exactly is the reason for such a hullabaloo about the death of another “undertrial prisoner”. These citizens are blissfully unaware of either the historical background or the political undercurrents that led to a clearly preventable death and the related controversy.

It is in order, therefore, to place “the Elgar Parishad case” in the correct perspective and discuss Fr Stan Swamy’s unfortunate death, the questions it raises about the rights of an ordinary citizen under our Constitution, and how far these are safe in the hands of the system, including the judiciary.

Of late it has become fashionable to project every battle between an Indian (read Hindu) power and an invading or expanding foreign power as a fight to defend the motherland and a great show of nationalism.

The historical facts are quite different. Till the recent past India was a fragmented country of many kingdoms – long established or recent arrivals in the subcontinent – and the tussles between them were more to safeguard or expand their own frontiers, not for the sake of Mother India, a concept that did not exist. So, one Hindu king would fight another, with religion playing no part, and this was true of the many Muslim kings as well.

It was in such a scenario that the Dalits of the Bhima-Koregaon region took up arms against the Peshwas of Maharashtra, as they were extremely dogmatic Brahmins, and brutally persecuted the lowered castes, Untouchables and Indigenous Adivasis. The British, in furtherance of their own design, enlisted the support of the Dalits. In the battle that was fought on 1st January 1818 at Koregaon, the Peshwa Baji Rao II was defeated, and the British erected a victory pillar at the spot at a later date.

For the Dalits this was a matter of pride as it was their moment of triumph against the oppressor Peshwa. Therefore, every year the Dalits, mainly belonging to the Mahar caste, would celebrate 1st January as a victory day against the Peshwas.

This continued for years till some extreme radical Hindu groups emerged on the scene, who gave a weird twist to the whole matter. According to them, as the Peshwas, who were Hindus, fought against the British, any celebration of the former’s defeat is an anti-national activity. To them it does not matter that the Dalits were fighting their tormentors who happened to be Indians, and in this the British helped them.

On 1st January 2018 – as in previous years – thousands of Dalits congregated at Bhima-Koregaon to celebrate the occasion, while crowds were also mustered by radical Hindu groups to denounce the celebration. The latter, it was reported, resorted to pelting stones on the Dalits, and soon there was a violent clash between the two sides. A Dalit youth died in the violence and a few others were injured.

Following the clashes and the death of the youth, on 2nd January 2018 the Pimpri Police registered an FIR, which named the leaders of two outfits – the Samast Hindu Aghadi and Shiv Pratisthan Hindustan – for alleged incitement that led to the violence. One of the leaders charged was a former RSS worker. At that stage there was no talk of any Maoist link to the rioting.

The case was turned on its head and it acquired a sort of all-India dimension when on 8th January 2018 the Pune Police filed an FIR against some pro-Dalit and pro-Adivasi activists. It was claimed that these people had organised an event – Elgar Parishad – in Pune on 31 December 2017. At this meeting, several people, including Father Stan, Gautam Navlakha and Delhi University Associate Professor Hany Babu allegedly hatched a conspiracy to incite mob violence at Bhima Koregaon on the next day. The National Investigation Agency took up the case.

This initial allegation was later changed to add that the accused persons were also involved in a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister, and lastly it has been alleged that they are all linked to the banned Maoist outfit, also called Naxals, conspiring to forcibly overthrow the constitutionally elected government.

On 8th October 2020 the NIA picked up Fr Stan Swamy from his Ranchi home. He was taken to Pune and held in custody there on the above charges. The draconian UAPA was slapped on him, making it well nigh impossible for him to get bail from the lower court. The octogenarian priest-cum-activist was denied bail on several occasions.

Interestingly, the trial has yet to begin in the case, since the court has not been able to frame charges even after three years.

The inhuman treatment that Fr Stan received in the jail and how he could not take it any more and finally died while under treatment at a private hospital – which came only after the High Court intervened – is too well known a story to be repeated.

But why were such outlandish charges brought against an 84 year old, ailing man? Is it conceivable that he was a dreaded terrorist plotting to assassinate the Prime Minister?

The answer seems to lie in the long struggle of the man with a frail body but a will of steel for defending the rights of the Adivasis of Jharkhand. In the process he made some very powerful enemies who were looking for an opportunity to nail him by hook or by crook. Finally, they succeeded!

Stan Swamy’s death raises several disturbing issues related to the entire justice delivery system. This is not the only case where the police have given a spin to an incident and turned the case against the victims, rather than the perpetrators.

In this case too no one knows what happened to the original FIR filed by the Pimpri Police against some right-wing extremist outfits. Have any of the leaders of these groups been arrested? The answer is in the negative - and quite expectedly so.

The manner in which the allegations against the accused kept changing and or adding up raises a doubt in anyone’s mind about their factual basis. It seems that allegations of all kinds, from instigating violence between Dalits and others to hatching a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister to links with the Maoists, were being heaped on the accused simply to show how dangerous they were.

And yet, in three years charges are yet to be framed!

Swamy’s bail applications to the designated court were rejected because “the charges against the accused are serious.” But is that a sufficient reason for denying bail to an accused? One of Swamy’s co-accused, Varavara Rao (81) was permitted bail after his health deteriorated considerably.

The prosecution would obviously bring “serious” charges against an accused who it wants to try for anti-national activities. It is for the court to consider if granting bail to such an accused would cause any harm to the prosecution’s case, especially when a long time had passed without any charges being framed in the case.

Whether or not the country’s conscience has been sufficiently shaken by the death of Stan Swamy or not, it certainly brings into focus the failure of our system to protect the constitutional rights of someone whose only crime – besides allegations that await proving in a court of law – was that he had the spine to stand up to the tyrannical system that is used by the powerful to oppress the poor, and deny them even the meagre rights that the statute grants them.

Stan Swamy’s death while in custody is a huge blot on the country’s entire justice delivery system, which includes the judiciary.

While nothing is expected of this government, we must wait and see whether the judiciary does something to restore the people’s shaken faith in the Constitution and the rule of law.

Sandip Mitra is retired from the Indian Foreign Service