*Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ
It is Holy Saturday 2021! Christians, in an age-old custom, wait devoutly, in patient silence but with deep hope! The tomb which contains the body of Jesus will be thrown wide open in a few hours, revealing the Resurrection of Jesus, his triumph over death and the promise to mankind of eternal life. In some cell, in the Taloja jail (near Bombay), Jesuit Fr Stan Swamy nearing the 180th day of his incarceration, is still carrying his cross, still making that steep and difficult climb to Golgotha(the site where Jesus was crucified as per Christian belief) – but still in patience but with hope, awaiting his Easter!
On 22 March, Sessions Judge Dinesh E. Kothalikar of the Special NIA Court, denied Fr Stan Swamy bail. In the detailed court order of 34-pages Justice Kothalikar says that based on the ‘material available on record’, Fr Stan seemed to be a member of a banned Maoist organisation. “Prima facie it can be gathered that the applicant along with other members of the banned organisation hatched a serious conspiracy to create unrest in the entire country and to overpower the Government, politically and by using muscle power,” adding, “The material placed on record thus prima facie denote that the applicant was not only a member of banned organisation CPI (Maoist) but he was carrying out activities further in the objective of the organisation which is nothing but to overthrow the democracy of the nation,”
The ‘material’ that the court referred to includes around “140 e-mails between the applicant (Swamy) and his co-accused,” the fact that Swamy and others he communicated with, were referred to as “comrades”, and that Swamy had received Rs Eight lakh from one comrade, Mohan, allegedly for the furtherance of Maoist activities. When Swamy’s lawyers challenged the so-called material evidence, the Judge said that raising questions on the authenticity of the evidence in the case would amount to interference with the court proceedings. “It is well known that the present proceeding is sub judice. Therefore, making any comments as to the evidence to be placed before the Court would amount to interference in the administration of justice. In fact, such action is required to be deprecated.”
In the arguments earlier, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) had opposed Swamy’s bail plea saying probe had revealed that Swamy was a staunch supporter of organisations such as ‘Vistapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan’ and ‘People’s Union for Civil Liberties’, which according to the NIA were working as “fronts of the CPI (Maoist)”. Swamy’s lawyer Sharif Shaikh had argued that the NIA had failed to establish Swamy’s connection to the Elgar Parishad-Maoists links case. Fr Stan did not participate in that particular Elgar Parishad and has never visited Bhima-Koregaon all his life
Fr. Stan, was arrested from his residence in Ranchi on October 8, 2020, for ‘apparently’ being part of the Bhima- Koregaon conspiracy case. The case relates to alleged inflammatory speeches delivered at the ‘Elgar Parishad’ conclave held at Shaniwarwada in Pune on December 31, 2017, which police suspect triggered violence the next day near the Koregaon- Bhima war memorial located on the outskirts of the city. The police had claimed that the Parishad was backed by outlawed Maoist groups; till today nothing has been proved on that count. Fr Stan strongly denies all the fabricated charges made on him. The main suspects named originally for causing the violence, belonged to the Sangh Parivar. Several months later human rights defenders were arrested for their ‘alleged’ involvement in the violence. Fr Stan was the sixteenth and last person to be arrested – also making him the oldest person who is incarcerated under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in the country till date. All the ones arrested are well-known for their unstinted commitment to human rights of the poor, the marginalised and the excluded; some of them are highly-rated academics and intellectuals who have contributed significantly to the cause of the Dalits and Adivasis of the country.
Fr. Stan’s Swamy’s advocate had argued that the practice of taking hash values of electronic records was not followed by the investigation officer, making them open to fabrication. He had also told the court that the typed letters suffer many legal shortcomings and that the prosecution cannot connect them with the accused based on short names or alphabets used to denote sender and receiver. Early in February, Arsenal Consulting, a US-based digital forensics firm, released a damning report which posed serious questions about the credibility of the letters that were allegedly found in the computer and other gadgets of Rona Wilson, prisoners’ rights activist, who like Fr Stan, is in jail after being arrested in the Bhima-Koregaon conspiracy case. The report said that a cyber attacker had gained access to Wilson’s computer at least twenty-two months before his arrest and at least ten incriminating letters were placed on it through this attack. While Arsenal Consulting has not attributed the attack to any particular entity, in its report they have stated that the attacker responsible for compromising Rona’s laptop had extensive resources including time and it is obvious that their primary goals were surveillance and incriminating document delivery.
Fr Stan, too, was interrogated over a period of time. During the raids conducted at his residence in Ranchi, the NIA was unable to find anything incriminating against him. His computer was taken away. In today’s world almost any so-called “incriminating” evidence can easily be planted on anyone’s computer or other electronic gadgets. The judge, however, refused to take into account the Arsenal report of alleged tampering with the computer of Rona Wilson, a co-accused of Fr Stan.
Stan’s lawyers also asserted that 83-year-old, besides his advanced age, suffers from Parkinson’s disease and he has lost the ability to hear; and suffers from other physical ailments. On his age and health condition, the judge cited previous Supreme Court judgements to hold that given the seriousness of the allegations made against Swamy, the “collective interest of the community would outweigh Swamy’s right to personal liberty and as such the old age and or alleged sickness of the applicant would not go in his favour.” The Judge was too afraid to cite the Supreme Court’s judgement on Arnab Goswami, (the blue-eyed boy of the ruling regime)- which ruled in favour of an individual’s personal liberty!
The judge also disregarded the fact that Fr. Stan was not a flight risk and would not jump bail. In his plea Fr Stan said that his name was not even part of the original FIR but was added in the remand application in 2018 by the police as a ‘suspected accused’. The court, however, held the fact that though Fr Stan had not been named in the initial FIR, did not entitle him to any relief. Judge Kothalikar, in a highly questionable order, accepted the prosecution’s submissions saying they had “substance”. He said, “Upon cumulative consideration of all the aforesaid circumstances as well as the law on the subject, I conclude that the applicant has failed to make out a case for grant of bail;” adding, “there are reasonable grounds for believing that the accusation of commission of the offences punishable under chapters IV (punishment for terrorist activities) and VI (terrorist organisations) of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) against the applicant is prima facie true. Considering the express bar imposed by Section 43D 5 (no person accused with chapters IV and VI shall be released on bail) of the UAPA, the applicant cannot be released on bail.” Eminent citizens, from all over have protested this deplorable judgement; several thousands have also signed an online petition condemning the judgement.
Just before the order denying him bail, in a communication from jail, Stan said, “Dear one and all, Pardon me for clubbing all of you together as I have one and the same message to give to you soon. Practically everyone writing to me expresses the wish that I be released from prison ‘at the earliest/ immediately/without any further delay ‘or some such wish. Apart from the fact that the wheels of justice turn very slow, all 16 of us are implicated in serious cases such as sedition and UAPA, where it is very difficult to get bail. Still our lawyers are trying their very best. So, we await ‘the ides of March’ Whereas arrests under sedition are increasing, conviction is just 3 percent. As for UAPA, 5,922 arrests were made during 2016 – 2019, and only 132 were convicted (source TOI 11-02 – 2021). Our prisons are bursting at the seams. Consequently, we have a scenario of deprivation of even the basic amenities to prisoners. So much for now. Ever in solidarity, Stan.”
Even from prison Fr Stan has retained his positivity and sensitivity for others. All his life he has been labouring for and accompanying the Adivasis and other excluded groups in their quest for justice, equity and dignity. He has always worked within the Constitutional and democratic framework of the country. That anyone could even think that he was trying to “overthrow the democracy of the nation” is not merelyoutlandish but a sheer travesty of justice. The truth is, the way democracy is being dismantled in the country today by the fascists, is there for everyone to see. The learned judged (who will certainly be given some promotion!) will have neither the honesty nor the courage to look into the obvious.
In a strongly-worded statement (dated 31 March 2021), in solidarity with Fr Stan, from the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat (SJES)of the Society of Jesus, the Secretary Fr Xavier Jeyaraj, voicing the sentiments of Jesuits and many others across the world, writes, “The Society of Jesus strongly denies and condemns such a statement by the learned court. We stand united with Stan and many other human rights defenders at this crucial juncture. We commit ourselves to continue our effort, both nationally and internationally, to bring truth and justice to light and advocate for the rights of vulnerable people in a peaceful, non-violent way. As Jesuits who have walked the difficult path of being ‘at the crossroads of ideologies, in the social trenches’ (Pope Paul VI, Dec. 3, 1974) for the past 5 centuries, we have faced innumerable such situations in many parts of the world. We are conscious of the consequences of our option”; adding, “during this time of Holy week, the words of St. Paul make a lot of sense to us: that we “always carry in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4: 10). We believe that “justice will prevail and all the morally upright will be vindicated” (Ps. 94: 15). We appeal to all governments, international bodies and civil society groups and organizations to call on Indian State to repeal UAPA and release Stan and all other human rights defenders immediately.”
Meanwhile, Stan continues to carry his cross!
*(Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights & peace activist/writer. Contact: [email protected] )