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Thursday, August 05, 2021

The spirit of Father Stan Swamy lives on in the struggle for the rights of the poor and the exploited

Nayantara Sahgal writes: The love and compassion that inspired him to spend his life in the service of others inspires us to follow his example.

Written by Nayantara Sahgal |
Updated: July 12, 2021 8:05:53 am
Civil rights activist Father Stan Swamy (Photo: PTI)

Father Stan Swamy did not die in the normal course. He was killed. Here is how the story as we know it goes: His house is raided for evidence of sedition and subversion. No evidence of any wrongdoing is found. Next, this frail Jesuit priest in his eighties, in failing health and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, is arrested and put behind bars. What now serves as the law of the land informs us that he is a dangerous man, a terrorist charged with sedition. Stan Swamy becomes the 16th of the Bhima Koregaon prisoners. In jail, where there is no escaping the deadly Covid virus, his health rapidly deteriorates. The barbaric treatment in jail denies him, among other necessities, even a straw or a sipper to sip from. He is mortally ill and dying but not given bail. He dies in custody.

There is no mystery about this killing. Stan Swamy worked in Jharkhand for forest rights, land and other basic rights of the Adivasis. In India today, working for human rights is a criminal offence. Indian jails are filled with men and women, known and unknown, who have dared to fight for them.

There was no such thing as human rights until the end of the Second World War, when Nazi atrocities were exposed to a horrified world, and the United Nations moved to ensure that human beings were given inalienable rights. At Independence, India lost no time in establishing a democracy and writing a Constitution that guaranteed the liberty and equality of all Indians. Yet 70-odd years later, today’s India recognises no such guarantee. In this threatening political climate, Indians who have been schooled in democracy, continue to fight to reclaim their Constitutional rights for themselves and for the poor, the exploited and deprived across the land. Father Stan Swamy is the latest casualty in this heroic endeavour.

Today I salute the Jesuit priest whose life, spent in the service of suffering humanity, has taught us the true meaning of religion. Jesus Christ gave his followers no long list of commandments. He gave only one, which (in my words) commanded them: To love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy soul and all thy mind, and love thy neighbour as thyself. I am reminded of the Roman Catholic nun before him, who obeyed Christ’s command when she picked the dying and destitute off the streets and gutters, so that they could die in dignity. Mother Teresa’s India honoured and revered her. Today’s India has killed Stan Swamy.

“Love thy neighbour”, the unwritten command of true religion was exemplified by Mahatma Gandhi as expressed in the hymn, “Vaishnava Janato”. The Vaishnava is one who feels the pain of others — jo peed parayi jaane re. In 1948, when Gandhi was murdered by a Hindu fanatic, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, speaking to the nation, said, “The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere.” In today’s India, there is darkness everywhere. We are in an endless state of mourning and in grief everlasting, for the wanton destruction of human rights, for justice gone missing, for the trampling of the freedoms that were ours, and for our fellow Indians, who are being jailed, persecuted, lynched and killed on trumped-up charges.

Yet, the spirit of this Jesuit priest lives on. The love and compassion that inspired him to spend his life in the service of others inspires us to follow his example.

This column first appeared in the print edition on July 12, 2021 under the title ‘Death of a priest’. The writer is a novelist and a commentator

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