The death of 84-year old Father Stan Swamy while still in custody and facing a trial that never came holds a mirror to the way India’s current system works. As it happened though, several other developments took place the very same day he died, adding to our understanding of the Indian system.
Father Stan spent a lifetime fighting for the rights of Jharkhand’s tribals. What the Jesuit priest got in return was to be put in jail for months on the charges of seeking to form a Muslim-Dalit alliance and conspiring against the Indian state in league with Maoists.
The state of the Indian criminal justice system was highlighted the very same day he died, when a Supreme Court bench found that it was a “shocking, distressing, terrible and amazing state of affairs” that Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which had been struck down by the court as “unconstitutional” as far back as in 2015, was still being used to by the police to charge over a thousand people for offensive online posts.
The government’s explanation: the fact that it was quashed was mentioned in a footnote to the section which investigation police officers preparing charge-sheets failed to read. The remedy suggested by the Attorney General: put the words 'struck down' within brackets right upfront in the section itself in future publications of the Act!
Again, the very same day, two central government ministries – Environment, Forest and Climate Change and Tribal Affairs – announced their decision to give more powers to tribal communities in managing forest resources. A “joint communication” of this decision to effectively implement the Forest Rights Act enacted as far back as 2006 would be formally signed the next day in Delhi with the two ministers, their junior ministers and an array of senior secretaries belonging to the Centre and those from the states attending. The tribal affairs minister, Arjun Munda, is a true blue tribal who hails from the same region in Jharkhand where Father Stan did a lot of his life’s work.
This decision by the government must have been in the making for a considerable amount of time. It must be purely coincidental that the news of Father Stan’s death and the government’s announcement of its move to help dispossessed forest dwelling tribals among whom the priest worked, occurred on the same day. It seems an abject lesson on how one arm of a huge bureaucracy does not know what another arm is doing.
Now let us get to the core wrongdoing that Father Stan was allegedly engaged in, for which he was arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and also charged with sedition. The charges were so serious that he was repeatedly refused bail sought on health grounds, despite being afflicted with Parkinson’s disease and despite his condition deteriorating with every passing month in jail. Till the end the charges were not even framed by a court, not to speak of being established through a proper trail.
The National Investigating Agency claimed that Father Stan and 15 others instigated the Bhima-Koregaon riots in Maharashtra three years ago, when lakhs of Dalits gathered to celebrate a historic victory of the community over a caste army. Also, critically, the 16 had alleged links with Maoist organisations which aimed to overthrow the Indian state and plotted to kill the Indian Prime Minister.
Now, a report from Boston-based Arsenal Consulting, an American forensic agency, stated that the incriminating evidence on the basis of which NIA made its case was planted through malware on the computer of one of the other accused, Surendra Gadling – a Dalit activist based in Nagpur – in jail for three years now. His computer was seized by the police and a copy of its hard disc drive was given to his lawyer, who in turn shared it with Arsenal.
Gadling’s computer was compromised through emails – received two years before he was arrested – on which others like Father Stan were copied. An earlier report by Arsenal claimed that documents had similarly been planted on the computer of Rona Wilson, also named for terrorist links. Arsenal says that it has also worked on other high profile cases like the Boston Marathon bombing.
Through 2018 and 2019, searches were conducted by the Maharashtra police at the Ranchi residence of Father Stan but nothing incriminating was found. Then the NIA took over the case and intensively interrogated Father Stan and further asked him to report to Mumbai. He refused as it was during the COVID-19 pandemic; he was subsequently arrested and lodged in the Taloja Jail near Mumbai.
Not incarcerating him in Ranchi near those who knew him, as directed by the Supreme Court for preventive arrests, but taking him to Mumbai, seems to have been done in order to intimidate him. How far this went can be gleaned from the fact that Father Stan had to move court just to get a sipper (Parkinson’s made his hands shake) which was done after unconscionable delay. The jail had just three ayurvedic doctors and Father Stan was a very sick man needing superior allopathic treatment which could have had a quick impact.
Having him close at hand did not prompt the NIA to seek custody of him to conduct further interrogation and a charge sheet quickly filed after his arrest. Maybe they knew he had nothing to reveal. And despite the fact that NIA expected to get nothing further by interrogating him, it effectively challenged his bail application on health grounds. And through his months in jail his health steadily deteriorated.
A vivid picture of the state of India’s criminal justice system is contained in what Father Stan himself had to say about the others he met in prison. Many poor under-trials did not know the charges against them, had no idea of the charge-sheet and remained in prison for years without the help of a lawyer. As for himself, he defined his spirit by saying: “A caged bird can still sing”.
The views are personal.