Father Stan Swamy, activist raided in Bhima Koregaon probe, irked govt with report on jailed tribals in Jharkhand

Manmohan Singh | Aug 28, 2018 | 6 min read


By Manmohan Singh


The raids and arrest of human rights activists across the country on Aug 28 included the name of Father Stan Swamy in Jharkhand, though he was not arrested despite being named in the FIR. “The police came to my house with something written in Marathi and didn’t even bother to provide the copy of this FIR in which they have named me,” Swamy said at a press conference at his residence in Bagaicha, in the Namkom area of Ranchi on August 28 to express support for those arrested/raided by Pune police.

“I neither have any connection with Elgaar Parishad nor the violence that took place in Bhima Koregaon in January.” Dubbing the police action against eminent scholars and social activists as a ‘naked dance of power’, Father Swamy, said that while he personally knows Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves, he has no connection with the others who have been arrested. “Freedom of dissent is being suppressed by the government, which bodes ill for the future of the country,” he added.

But who is 82-year-old Father Stan Swamy? Few outside the tribal belts of Jharkhand are likely to have heard of him, even though he has been a controversial figure and a major headache for the Jharkhand government especially in exposing its claims about its anti Naxal operations. The most spectacular expose being in 2015 when he released a report claiming that almost 98 per cent of the 3000 odd tribal youth who had been branded naxals and thrown in Jharkhand’s jails, some for over three years without trial, had never been part of the Maoist movement.

Swamy’s work in empowerment of tribals for the last 30 and more years through his NGO, Bagaicha in Ranchi has not endeared him to the powers that be. Working tirelessly for implementation of PESA (Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act in the scheduled areas, his efforts culminated in the Pathalgadi movement in 2017 in Khunti, Simdega, Seraikela and Gumla districts of Jharkhand.

The government’s response was to try and suppress the movement by booking around 20 leaders, including Father Stan Swamy, under charges of sedition. Leading to well-known intellectuals and activists like Vasvi Kido and Santosh Kido describing it as a witch hunt and an attempt to malign the image of the church in Jharkand. It is hardly a secret that chief minister Raghubar Das and the BJP in general are keen to check the church’s influence among the tribals.

The fact is Father Swamy has not been arrested even once during his many decades of work among the tribals and other displaced persons. Not even on the sedition charge in connection with the Pathalgadi campaign which was filed on July 30, 2018. “Swamy has been implicated because of the title ‘Father’ in his name,” said Vasvi Kido, former journalist, social worker and author of a book in Hindi on the history of displaced persons, and long-time associate of Father Swamy. “He hardly visited any of the villages where pathalgadi was done.”

Father Swamy, who arrived in the Chaibasa are of undivided Bihar in the 70s, made his name during the 1996 campaign led by Jharkhandi Organisation Against Radiation (JOAR) against the Uranium Corporation of India Limited’s (UCIL) Jadugora mines in East Singhbhum district of Bihar. Says Girija Shankar Ojha, a senior journalist based in Ranchi who has been covering Father Swamy’s movement since 1996: “Father Stan became a popular name when JOAR - an organisation formed by Ghanshyam Biruli and others - successfully forced UCIL to stop displacement of people in the Chatikocha area of Jadugora, for construction of a new tailing dam.

Swamy was based in Chaibasa and I was sent to interview him in Jadugora. Few people in Bihar then knew about the ill-effects of radiation that the tribals were being exposed to. It was heartening to see someone being this vocal about issues concerning tribals. It was due to his efforts and JOAR, that UCIL started to use covered transportation for uranium ore and erected fences around the tailing dams. Later, Swamy went on to work for displaced people in Bokaro, Santal Parganas, and Koderma.”

It was the start of Father Swamy’s continuing battle for the rights of people displaced due to industrialisation, construction of dams and mining activity. “He has been a solid pillar for displaced people for almost three decades,” said Vasvi Kido. “The way the police arrived at his doorstep, didn’t even bother to provide a copy of the FIR or a search warrant in Hindi was high-handed. Isn't it strange that someone who has been working for the betterment of society for such a long time has become a target of government’s crackdown at such an advanced age?” Vasvi said.

After 2010, Swamy turned his attention towards the plight of tribal youth arrested on charges of Naxal-related activities. Swamy wrote a book on the subject titled Jail Mein Band Qaidiyon ka Sach, pointing out that the average monthly income of 97 per cent of these tribal households being less than Rs 5,000, they simply can’t afford to hire lawyers to take up their cases.

“It was after the report was published and his focus on alleged excesses being done in the name of curbing rebel activity in Naxal-infested zones, that Father Swamy appeared on the radar of the administration and police forces,” said Sunil Minz, a long-time associate. “In 2015, when the government changed both at the centre and state, the administration tried to suppress the report, but major national dailies carried the essence of the report.”

Swamy has been working to get these youth out of jail ever since. He has paid bail and arranged for lawyers to fight cases like that of Biren Guria, 43, a farmer who was picked up by a Central Reserve Police Force patrol team in 2011 from his village in the Saranda forest range, West Singhbhum district. Guria’s only fault was that he conversed with the patrol team in Hindi, while all the other villagers could speak only their native language, Ho. Guria was flown to Chaibasa headquarters along with 11 other villagers and charged with being ‘hardcore naxalites’. “Swami took up Guria’s case, and presently he is out on bail,” said Vasvi. “The police have charged him with supplying ration to Maoist rebels in the area. It hard to understand how a family which is dependent on forest produce for sustenance, would be supplying rice, lentils and oil to Naxalites.”

How Father Swamy’s name came to be included in the list for the latest round of raids and arrests is not clear. But Father Swamy, in his press conference cautioned that “using raw power for silencing voices of those who are raising important issues, is something even media persons should be wary of.” Demanding the government drop all such false cases against social activists, Swamy urged the National Human Rights Commission to intervene urgently in the matter and order transparent, effective and impartial investigation into the simultaneous multi-city raids and arrests. “In fact, the Pune police is yet to provide me a copy in Hindi of the list of items taken from my house,” Father Swamy said.  



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