Is India’s social justice paradigm under threat?Stories of Fr. Stan Swamy and Sudha Bharadwaj (George Abraham)

In a letter written by Fr. Stan Swamy SJ, from the prison, said, “Dear friends: Peace! Though I do not have many details, from what I have heard, I am grateful to all of you for expressing your solidarity support. I am in a cell approximately 13 feet x 8 feet, along with two more inmates. It has a small bathroom and a toilet with an Indian commode. Fortunately, I am given a western commode chair. Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves, and Arun Ferreira are in another cell. During the day, when cells and barracks are opened, we meet with each other. From 5.30 pm to 06.00 am and 12 noon to 03.00 pm, I am locked up in my cell with two inmates. Arun assists me to have my breakfast and lunch. Vernon helps me with bath. My two inmates help during supper in washing my clothes and give massage to my knee joints. They are from very poor families. Please remember my inmates and my colleagues in your prayers. Despite all odds, humanity is bubbling in Taloja prison.”

One may genuinely wonder why this 83-year-old Jesuit Priest afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, who has dedicated his entire life for the upliftment of the poor, is languishing in jail! What horrific deed has he committed to warrant such a treatment from the authorities?  It says a lot more about today’s political climate in India than the fate of one single old frail man who had to approach the Bombay special court for permission to use a straw and sipper cup because of his disability. The National Investigation Agency (NIA), which arrested Mr. Fr. Stan, has sought 20 days’ time from the court to respond!

There is truly little doubt that his arrest is a political witch hunt. He is known for his staunch defense on behalf of the indigenous tribal people across the tribal belt and advocated fiercely for their land rights. His work in terms of educating people about their rights and helping to pass laws to protect the land rights of the tribal population is quite phenomenal. Article 13 (3) (a) of the Indian constitution empowers the tribal people to assert their traditional self-rule in those areas inhabited by them. These constitutional provisions are remarkably like the treaties governing Indian reservations in the United States.

For long, the Modi Government has wanted to diminish these rights in favor of corporates or other vested interests. In May 2016, the BJP Government passed two legislations that enabled the transfer of tribal land to commercial interests.  That legislation set in motion a struggle (Pathalgadi movement) between the tribal people and the government, resulting in a brutal crackdown by the authorities. Moreover, the movement was branded as anti-national, and hundreds of people were arrested and charged under the sedition laws.

The government went another step further and linked the movement to ‘Maoists,’ which is labeled as anti-national and dedicated to the overthrow of the elected governments. Fr. Stan, who has been a vocal critic of the government policies and defender of the tribal rights over these lands, was also charged with plotting the government’s violent overthrow.  To bolster their case, NIA, in their charge sheet, accused Fr. Stan as responsible for the violence in Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra in 2017. He was not present in the rally celebrating British and Dalit forces’ victory over Brahmin Peshwas.

Historically, the BJP/RSS strategy resisted real enlightenment for the oppressed people. The feudalistic and casteist mindset under which they operate detests any individual or group that educates and inspires people from those impoverished conditions of their rights and privileges. Their anti-conversion campaign is often seen as camouflage to prevent the Tribal population like this one in Chhattisgarh ever learning of their true worth as human beings but condemning them forever in a subservient role to the upper echelons of society. What Fr. Stan has done was to help this vulnerable population demand equal justice and freedom from servitude.

Unfortunately, it is a Jesuit priest, and any person in India, whether journalists, writers, artists, religious leaders, students, or even politicians, can be branded as anti-nationals or terrorists if they dare to speak out against Prime Minister Modi or the BJP government’s crony capitalist policies.  A common tactic is to brand all peace activists as a front inspired by ‘Maoists’ or Christian missionaries. By arresting Fr. Stan, they are also conveying a message that even a Church can be branded as anti-national to the great delight of the Sangh Parivarorganizations.

This branding is quite expansive now as we learn that 13th February 2021 marks the civil rights lawyer and activist Sudha Bharadwaj’s 900 days in detention. She took cases that many other attorneys refused to touch and represented workers wrongfully dismissed by companies, illegally evicted villagers from their land, and women who alleged sexual assault by security forces.

According to a Washington Post report, Police raided her house and took computers and phones, and demanded passwords for email accounts. Then they arrested Bharadwaj under an anti-terrorism statute accusing her of a plot to commit violent actions. Since 2018, Sudha and 15 other activists, writers, and lawyers have been arrested under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and accused them of having links with the ‘Maoist’ group.  In a charge filed remarkably similar to Fr. Stan’s, it has been alleged that she and other human rights defenders conspired to incite Dalits in Bhima Koregaon village in Pune, Maharashtra. It fits a pattern now where many people across the country are getting arrested who are either critics of the government policies or outspoken advocates for India’s most disadvantaged, whether they are indigenous tribal peoples or Dalits.

Born in Boston to a distinguished economist, she went to IIT Kanpur to study Mathematics. Later, she moved to an iron mining ore town in Chhattisgarh and supported worker’s rights and safety while challenging land acquisition by major corporations and seeking justice for extrajudicial killings by police officers.  Bharadwaj has denied the charges and said it was “totally concocted’. Obviously, these arrests appear to be an affront to the rule of law and infringing of the citizen’s constitutional rights.  It has been said that a right without a remedy is no right at all.

According to press reports, Sudha’s health situation continues to deteriorate in prison. The 59-year-old suffers from diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, making her susceptible to Covid-19 in the cramped prison. Her bail plea is being rejected, and she has been denied books and Newspapers in jail. Her father passed away during her time in jail. In January, the UN Human Rights office expressed serious concern about the human rights defenders’ detention and urged the Indian authorities to immediately release the detainees. According to Michele Bachelet, the UNHCHR commissioner expressed concern over using ‘vaguely defined laws’ to silence activists and government critics.

These two cases illustrate that India’s social justice paradigm is in danger. The regressive forces are busy staging a counter-revolution to destroy the social justice pillars: Freedom, Equality, Justice, and fraternity. Fr. Stan Swamy and Sudha Bharadwaj represent that social justice paradigm created and nurtured by modern India’s founding fathers.  To those NRIs who demonstrated in the Streets in the U.S fighting for the release of Arnab Goswamy, an arrogant exclusionist, may I say that your silence on the detention of Stan Swamy and Sudha Bharadwaj is quite deafening!

(Writer is a former Chief Technology officer of the United Nations)