New Delhi: On 24 June 2008, Damodar Turi, a Jharkhand land-rights activist and a Dalit was arrested by the Ranchi police and accused of sedition and waging war against India.
State coordinator of a coalition of anti-displacement movements across Jharkhand called Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan, Turi was 28 when he faced charges of being a terrorist under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967, a vaguely worded law that places the burden of innocence on the accused and allows prolonged incarceration without bail.
“The police alleged that I was a Maoist and claimed to have recovered Maoist literature and pamphlets from my home—an allegation with no truth,” Turi, now 39 years old, told Article 14. The authorities also accused the Andolan of being a front organisation of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) party.
Turi spent nine months in prison before a judge granted him bail, for which his family had to raise Rs 20,000. On 12 December 2019, over 11 years after he was arrested, a Ranchi court acquitted Turi, saying “the prosecution failed to bring home the charges levelled against the accused”.
While he faced these allegations, Turi recalled, among the people who stood by him were Father Stan Swamy, an 83-year-old Jesuit priest and one of Jharkhand’s most prominent human-rights activists.
On 8 October, Swamy was himself arrested under the same law that he defended Turi against, the UAPA, and became the 16th and oldest on a list of professors and human-rights defenders to be arrested by the National Investigative Agency (NIA) jailed as suspects in what has come to be called the Bhima-Koregaon case.
Swamy’s profile is similar to those of the others arrested: all were involved in advocating for justice for oppressed communities (here, here and here). Turi’s 16-year-old relationship with Swamy is testimony to some of that work.
‘An Ally Of The Oppressed, From Street To Court’
Turi first met Swamy in 2004, after he had come to Ranchi from his native village in the coal-rich district of Dhanbad for higher studies.
Swamy by then had spent several decades in the erstwhile state of Bihar, now Jharkhand, and was a leading advocate on issues related to Adivasi and Dalit rights, land and forest rights, forced displacement due to mining and industrial projects, the right to food, and death from hunger.
Swamy was also a co-founder of Bagaicha, a research and training institute housed in a verdant campus on the outskirts of Ranchi. It addresses issues of socio-economic marginalisation in the state.
After his release on bail in 2009, Turi recalled how most of his fellow prisoners were “Adivasis, Dalits, OBCs (other backward classes), the poorest of the poor, mostly unlettered, who neither knew the intricacies of the law, nor could afford the big lawyers who could successfully argue for their release”. The latest data, released in August 2020, from the National Crime Records Bureau data confirms Turi’s contention: a disproportionate number of Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims are in prison.
As armed conflict between Maoist rebels and paramilitary forces intensified across central and eastern India, the problem of indiscriminate arrests worsened.
Swamy, along with other prominent citizens, such as former Supreme Court justice and minister V R Krishna Iyer, social activist and former minister Swami Agnivesh, film director Girish Karnad and writer Mahasweta Devi released an open letter to the government in 2013, urging them to address growing alienation in this conflict zone and the swelling ranks of undertrials, held in preventive detention with little access to a fair and timely trial.
“Justice is in everyone’s interest,” they wrote.
The Poorest Of The Poor, Packed Into Prison
Sushil Barla, a former Congress party leader from southern Jharkhand’s West Singhbhum district, who collaborated with Swamy over the years on multiple social campaigns around displacement and the impact of armed conflict, said his forested iron-ore-rich district was particularly impacted by the poor being incarcerated using anti-terror laws.
“Big mining companies and big contractors have been operating here for years, paying levies to the Maoists. No one takes action against that,” said Barla. “But if a poor villager has given a meal to the armed rebels out of fear, or someone asks questions about the rights of Adivasis, that person is booked as a Naxali, and locked away for years.”
With no substantive response from central or state governments, Swamy and Turi put together a research team to map the state of undertrials in Jharkhand’s prisons. Travelling across the state, and filing right-to-information requests with the police in each district—most went unanswered—the team released a report in 2016 with the life histories of 102 UAPA undertrials statewide.
The undertrials were overwhelmingly Adivasis and Dalits, whose cases languished in the criminal-justice system for up to 10 years. For example, the report had the story of Shobha Munda, a woman with eight pending cases in a court in the southern Jharkhand town of Ghatsila. She had not been able to appoint a “reliable lawyer” for her defense, though she had been in jail for “not less than four years already”, the report said.
About 59% of households of undertrials in the report earned less than Rs 3,000 per month and were forced to sell assets, such as goats, to meet bail conditions or legal expenses.
“As a society, we do not ask, why are India’s prisons filled with its weakest sections,” said Turi. “We tried to draw attention to that.”
Research Guides Swamy’s Action
A believer in research as a guide to action, based on the report’s findings, Swamy went on to file a public-interest litigation (PIL) in the Jharkhand High Court in 2017.
He and the Chhattisgarh-based human-rights lawyer and trade-union activist Sudha Bharadwaj—now in prison—became co-convenors of the Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee, an alliance of lawyers and activists to draw attention to the issues of impoverished undertrials, solitary confinement and the targeting of defenders like Turi.
Hearing Swamy’s PIL in 2018, the Jharkhand High Court called for detailed information on undertrials languishing in the state’s prisons. The court issued repeated notices to a reluctant state government. In one hearing, the judge told the state’s home secretary that his salary would be deducted if the government continued to ignore the court’s notices.
Advocate Shiv Prasad, one of the lawyers for Swamy’s petition, told Article 14 that the state government provided incomplete and delayed responses, forcing the petitioners to file objections.
Last year, the court merged Swamy’s petition with three other petitions on prison reforms. There has been no hearing since October 2019.
Multi-Party Support For Swamy
In mid-2018, when the first nine arrests in the Bhima-Koregaon case took place, the police accused Bharadwaj and others of plotting to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi and delivering speeches, sending emails and circulating pamphlets that sparked violence in January 2018 against Dalits in the town of Bhima-Koregaon, 28 km northeast of Pune city.
On 28 August 2018, the Pune police raided Swamy’s single-room home on the Bagaicha campus and seized his computer, cell phone, books and some classical music cassettes. They raided him again on 12 June 2019. Sixteen months later, on the night of 8 October, Swamy was arrested by the NIA, to whom the Centre unilaterally transferred the case early this year.
Swamy’s arrest evoked sharp criticism from politicians of diverse political backgrounds, including Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and members of Parliament (MPs) Kanimozhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Shashi Tharoor of the Congress. The arrest sparked public protests in Ranchi and protests from civil society groups and prominent citizens nationwide (here and here).
Jharkhand’s leading Adivasi activists Dayamani Barla and Gladson Dungdung said Swamy’s arrest was meant “to terrorise other activists” and only strengthened their resolve to speak up for their rights. Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) MP Supriya Sule, in whose home district lies Bhima-Koregaon, said: “We should be giving such people respect and learning from them, not putting them in jail”.
The Bhima-Koregaon Model
In a chargesheet filed on 9 October 2020 in a court in Mumbai, the NIA alleged that Swamy “is a member of the CPI Maoist”, “was in communication with Maoist cadres” and received Rs 800,000 “to further the activities of the party.”
The chargesheet said that “the majority of material seized from him is press releases and propaganda material of the banned party and literature.” The NIA chargesheet also alleged that the Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee, which Swamy helped found with Bharadwaj, “is a frontal organisation of the banned party”.
Swamy and his 15 co-accused are charged under 10 sections of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967 (UAPA), whose legal processes, as a July 2020 Article 14 analysis showed, render a person’s guilt or innocence irrelevant. On 22 October, a court in Mumbai rejected Swamy’s application for bail on medical grounds.
Swamy’s arrest follows the pattern of staggered arrests in the Bhima Koregaon case, with the first set of arrests taking place over two years ago in June 2018 and no sign of a trial.
The NIA’s chargesheet makes broad-brush charges against all the accused, saying they “abetted violence, brought into hatred & incited disaffection towards the Government established by law and promoted enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, caste and community.” It added: “the tentacles of conspiracy were not only spread throughout the country but also extended beyond India.”
In 2018, following the raid on him, Swamy told this reporter in an interview that his primary concern has always been the constitutional rights of Adivasis and Dalits.
“All I can do is to make my work clear and deny the police fabrications,” said Swamy. Before her arrest, Bharadwaj too denied the charges in September 2018, calling the letters “concocted.”
The others arrested in the Bhima-Koregaon case are lawyers Surendra Gadling and Sudha Bharadwaj, academics Anand Teltumbde, Hany Babu and Shoma Sen, authors Sudhir Dhawale and Gautam Navlakha, academic and poet Varavara Rao, community organiser Mahesh Raut, activists Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves and Rona Wilson, and cultural artistes of the Kabir Kala Manch troupe Jyoti Jagtap, Sagar Gorkhe, Ramesh Gaichor.
‘I Am Ready To Face What Comes’
In a video statement, which Swamy recorded in early October before his arrest, he said that over 15 hours of questioning in July and August, he had told his NIA interrogators that he had no knowledge of the material they had put before him, claiming to have seized it from his computer.
He said, “I asked them who has written these letters and to whom?” Referring to arrests of activists, intellectuals and student leaders across the country, he calmly said, “I am part of this process…I am ready to face what comes.”
Swamy’s lawyer Mihir Desai called the allegations against Swamy “absolutely ridiculous”. He told Article 14: “There are a bunch of so-called letters, which he has nothing to do with. And the chargesheet does not list any evidence for allegations such as Swamy receiving lakhs of rupees.”
Desai, who knows Swamy for over three decades added: “He is one of the most gentle men I have ever known. The only reason for his arrest is to show the might of the state.”
The Ranchi-based economist Jean Dreze, who has worked with Swamy for several years, echoed Desai telling NDTV: “He is an honest and principled man. When I looked at the chargesheet, and saw that among other things, Stan is accused of promoting enmity, that for me is enough to understand that this chargesheet is a morass of absurd accusations.”
Barla too criticised the charges. “Father Stan did not carry out conspiracies for the Maoist party. Rather he is the victim of a conspiracy to create a system in which mining companies get a free hand, and Adivasi voices, or voices for Adivasis, are silenced.”
Swamy first came to West Singhbhum from his home-town Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu, in the early 1970s as a Jesuit, guided by a desire to work among the poorest. As Swamy recalled: “Adivasis lived on lands full of minerals. Others took these out and enriched themselves, but Adivasis did not get anything.”
The experience of living among the tribal communities came to deeply shape Swamy. “I underwent a kind of awakening, looking at Adivasi values of equality, community, and decision-making by consensus,” he said.
A sociologist educated in the Philippines and Belgium, and influenced by the ideas of people like the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, Swamy worked for fifteen years at the Indian Social Institute in Bangalore through the 70s and 80s, including being its director for a decade. In this role, he helped train hundreds of social activists, social workers, and grassroots leaders, who passed through the institute’s programs.
Among them were lawyer V Suresh, PhD, the national general secretary of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, and Frazer Mascarenhas, PhD, former principal of Mumbai’s St. Xavier’s College, who met the NCP MP Sule to push for Swamy’s humanitarian treatment in prison.
“Stan’s modules at the institute opened our eyes to caste, and its relationship to politics, economics and power in Indian society,” recalled Suresh. “They pushed us to ask what is Indian society and how we should respond. And he was always a deeply democratic person who was never interested in pushing any ‘ism’ on you. Which is why I find the charge that he was recruiting Maoists so absurd.”
After retiring from the Indian Social Institute in the 1990s, Swamy chose to return to what was to become the newly formed state of Jharkhand. Working with colleagues like anthropologist and Ranchi University vice-chancellor, Ramdayal Munda, PhD, and labour activists like Xavier Dias, Swamy set up Bagaicha, to help socially marginalised communities understand how to use the law, and the impact of policies on constitutional guarantees of tribal autonomy.
Prakash Louis, PhD, a sociologist and long-time associate said: “Stan’s activism was not armchair philosophy, or an academic exercise. It was always about the dignity of human life, because he was a deeply humane person who felt it necessary to respond to injustice.”
In a resource-rich region ridden by armed conflict, such work actively invited hostility and democratic concerns were criminalised, said author and human-rights worker Gladson Dungdung. He recalled an incident in 2010 when Swamy and he went to meet a former director-general of police to discuss extrajudicial killings of villagers, as conflict intensified in the iron-ore rich Saranda forests of south Jharkhand.
“The officer simply tossed aside our concerns,” said Dundung, “And called Swamy an old Maoist and me a young Maoist.”
Similarly, in July 2018, after Swamy spoke in support of Jharkhand’s unfolding pathalgadi movement (erecting stone slabs in villages asserting constitutional provisions for tribal self-rule) in a Facebook post, he and 19 Adivasi activists were booked for sedition, mirroring the fates of thousands of villagers.
His colleagues at Bagaicha said that after the 2018 raid, he refused to leave Jharkhand for his native village in Tamil Nadu, saying he was willing to face whatever came.
Louis said that despite various health concerns, such as Parkinson’s disease, which had affected his movements, Swamy “had always sacrificed personal comforts and that zone of comfort, choosing to stand where the exploited are”.
Turi, the formerly incarcerated activist, concurred with that portrayal of Swamy.
“One sees that with just one term in office, even a sarpanch or a ward member makes so much money, gets a Scorpio, a Bolero (expensive vehicles), what to say of so many of our MPs and MLAs,” said Turi.
“Then you have people like Father Stan who lived in a simple room and has spent over 60 years of his life advancing the rights of the downtrodden. He was doing the work that successive governments should have done in the seven decades of our independence. And he has done it, knowing fully well that there is no reward in our country for leading one’s life like this.”