Friday, Sep 30, 2022

Who is guilty — Stan Swamy or those who kept him behind bars?

Alok Rai writes: The impunity of the state and its agents in destroying lives at will must be reined in. It cannot be legitimised by any electoral ‘mandate’.

In this Aug 28, 2018 file photo, civil rights activist Father Stan Swamy (PTI)

Ah, so the sly old seditionist has slipped away. On Monday afternoon, Father Stan Swamy died in state custody. But the canny state, which had recognised that he intended to use a sippy cup as a terrorist device, and so took its time giving it to him, that state can surely claim that this was no ordinary death. It was a seditionist act. They will stop at nothing, these dangerous Urban Naxals. They will do anything to malign the noble state.

First, there were all the people who were dying of the virus, dying on hospital floors, dying on city pavements, bringing the fair name of the country into disrepute. But there were proper “nationalists” around who sought to prevent the spectacle of the burning pyres, the car park cremations, from being photographed and becoming public knowledge. And now Stan Swamy’s gone and died. Surely he knew that dying like this will be showing the country in a bad light. And, this is my case, he knew it! He is on record as having said that it will not be long now — to the court that denied him permission to return to Jharkhand. Even if the state did not have evidence of sedition earlier, surely they have it now. Stan Swamy’s death was a seditionist act! Guilty as charged — though they might not, yet, have charged him with the “crime” of dying in state custody.

Of course, the 84-year old had already spent a considerable time in custody, since the time that he was picked up from that charitable mission where he was ostensibly providing welfare services for the poorest “tribals” — as we call the original inhabitants of this land. Well, it will now become that much more difficult for the state to gather evidence against him — can’t that count as obstructing the course of justice, perhaps even as destruction of evidence i.e. himself? But surely they must have some evidence already, because they arrested him in the first place, right? And now that they can’t gather any more evidence against him — or, at least, he can’t commit any more illegal acts — they must consolidate what they have already, and duly subject him to a posthumous trial. The “collective interest” which trumped his plea for bail on health grounds, demands no less. And surely his dying like this — in state custody! — this must be clinching evidence. If his life didn’t yield enough to convict him, surely the manner of his leaving it, does.

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But yes, since he is unlikely any more to be able to intimidate witnesses, or tamper with evidence — or, indeed, commit any more anti-national acts, having already committed the ultimate anti-national act — the honourable judges who denied him bail, should consider granting him bail now. Father Stan Swamy must be allowed to be free, in death.

At the online condolence meeting in the evening, there was much talk, particularly among Stan Swamy’s Jesuit colleagues, about the importance of “reconciliation”. Well, religious people have their ways, but those of us who are non-religious must resolve to remain unreconciled, carry forward the noble burden of “sedition” that Stan Swamy has left behind. It will not be easy.

First, there is the hard work of fighting for Adivasi rights — the rights of some of the most marginal sections of our society. These rights, to their land and their livelihoods, are under imminent threat from a corporate-driven model of vikas. But this fight will not be only against corporate greed. It will also be against those who carefully denigrate Adivasi into vanavasi, since the former name complicates the fanciful “Aryan” claim to being the original inhabitants of this ancient land. The whole invasion-conversion-based clutch of Sanghi ideologies rest on this necessary fraud.

And if that — being able to look at the innocent, bewildered faces of the dispossessed “tribals”, and not feel ashamed — wasn’t hard enough, Stan Swamy was engaged, right till the end, with the rights of the lakhs of prisoners who are held for years — unconvicted, untried, uncharged even — in fetid prisons. Stan Swamy’s heroic refusal to be sent to hospital has to be seen in this light: Either let me go and live out my last days among my people, in Jharkhand, he said, or send me back to jail. The judge chose wisely, in the collective interest. (May I please be allowed to secede from that “collective”?)


But, while this continent of misery — our own gulag archipelago — of the forgotten prisoners is scandal enough, there is yet another that I wish to flag in this moment of shame and sorrow. This is the question of accountability. There have to be identifiable people at every stage of this tale of horror. Name them — name the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, the jailers — and hold them responsible for their actions, and the consequences of those actions, the shattered hopes, the lives destroyed. Either Stan Swamy — that kind, gentle man — was guilty. Or the people and the processes that brought him to this end are guilty. This question cannot be left unanswered. The impunity of the state and its agents — destroying lives at will, the mere accounting of which will take years — this must be reined in, it cannot be legitimised by any electoral “mandate”.

Surprisingly, this apparently impossible problem admits of a really simple solution. State impunity rests on the legally untenable survival of the notion of sovereign immunity for the state and its agents. This notion derives from a pre-democratic, pre-republican, pre-constitutional age. Its only and limited contemporary role is in the matter of international interactions. In a constitutional republic, there can be no sovereign. The state, and its agents are all subject to the law, and the constitution. And, despite the existence of malignant legal draftsmen, even the law is subject to the law and the constitution. The ending of sovereign immunity will spell the end of malignant state impunity. The criminals who hunt under cover of immunity — in uniform and out of it, cloaked in the armour of office — will stand exposed. And, perhaps, become human, again.

This column first appeared in the print edition on July 7, 2021 under the title ‘Do not go gentle’. The writer taught in the department of English, Delhi University

First published on: 07-07-2021 at 03:21:35 am
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