India: The Compassionate Revolution of Saint Stan Swamy (1937 – 2021)

If the word ‘saint’ has a designation today, it will be through this activist who was courageous, thoughtful and kind-hearted in an oppressive regime.

Father Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest, died in judicial custody on Monday. He spoke sweetly of, and gazed gently at, this world. Father Swamy was already suffering from Parkinson’s disease when he was arrested, and in jail he got infected with COVID. The judiciary and the National Investigative Agency (NIA), which today has the primary function of suppressing political opposition, delayed his medical care. He had to petition the courts to request a straw to drink water from (due to his Parkinson’s), and this request too was not heeded for weeks. They denied him water!

But we knew when the police began interrogating him in Jharkhand that his execution had begun. 

Now, we should remember the scene of contrast. Those who committed the most vile act of terror in the history of independent India, the demolition of the 16th century Babri Mosque in 1992 never had to languish in custody while they were under trial. Rather, they were rewarded with cabinet ranks and other state honours – and a predictable refusal by the CBI to appeal their acquittal. Here, too, the Congress party set a precedent by rewarding all those guilty of the genocide of 1984 and not punishing those responsible for the demolition of the mosque and the pogroms which followed when they held power. 

India’s anti-terrorism law (the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act as it is called) violates the fundamental principles of the constitution of India. The UAPA was made stringent by the Congress when in power. The ruling BJP later modified the laws further in order to allow the state to declare an individual as a terrorist without proper investigation, and the Congress was in favour then. 

However, it will not be an honest account of what happened to Father Stan Swamy nor will it be a modest tribute to him unless we understand that what killed him is still killing, imprisoning, and maiming hundreds of political activists and intellectuals in India.

In 2017 one of us (Divya Dwivedi) edited a special issue of the Unesco journal Revue des Femme Philosophes (Women Philosopher’s Journal). It was titled “Intellectuals, Philosophers, Women in India: Endangered Species”, and the title anticipated these unfolding events. The issue had contributions from many intellectuals, writers, and journalists including Romila Thapar (interviewed by Siddharth Varadarajan, published by The Wire), Ravish Kumar, Shahid Amin, T. M. Krishna, Perumal Murugan, Hartosh Bal and Anand Teltumbde who is now in prison under similar charges as Father Swamy, and is suffering from ill health. The arrests began in September 2018. Then a new current of politics which brought students, the poor, workers and intellectuals together emerged in the protests against CAA. And soon it became clear as the protests gathered strength that repression will follow. It sent many young women and student activists to prison. 

We are reminding you here, because the ‘active forgetting’ that we practice today in all domains of life is the technique of cultivating calloused hearts. When we forget the crimes that have been committed, we inadvertently welcome their returns—nostalgia realised through active forgetting.

The events around Father Stan Swamy’s judicial murder have something to do with remembrance of an event and with the very meaning of remembrance, which is to ensure that what is remembered is the duct to something better. In January 1818, an army made up of lower caste people and British troops defeated the army of a Brahmin empire in central India in the battle of Bhima Koregaon. The humiliation of this event is at the heart of the upper caste militias which sprung up later in modern India. 

The annual commemoration of this battle by the activists and intellectuals calling for equal rights is called “Elgar Parishad”. Elgar means loudness – to remember the events of one’s oppression through the victory in 1818 in a deafening clamour such that world awakens. In 2018, the celebration march at the location of the battle, Bhima Koregaon, was brutally suppressed by the government and Hindu right-wing organisations. Soon, arrests followed, of many who spoke at the Elgar Parishad remembrance event and those who were connected with it. They were all charged under the anti-terrorism laws. 

Later an independent forensic investigation by an American organisation found that the evidence was planted in the computers of the accused. Today we learn that Father Swamy too was a victim of this pathetic trick whose ultimate aim has been to suppress the political awakening of the lower castes, erase their icons, intimidate their mobilisation, in short, to suppress any challenge to the idea of India as an upper caste controlled country.

We can see the familiar fear and aggression of any regime of a minority of oppressors when the people they oppress arise in protest as is evident in the arrests and repressions using the muscle of the television news rooms. But the confusion for the rest of the world lies in the term “Hindu majoritarian”, which they read about in relation to the authoritarian government. They do not realise that the “Hindu religion” as it is presented and the “Hindu majority” associated with it are constructs of the early 2oth century to mask the fact that India is divided into the ruling oppressive minority of 10% or less, essentially ‘upper’ caste, and the vast majority who had been living under slavery and discrimination for millennia. 

Today, those who deploy the word “Hindu” in politics mean the supremacy of this caste minority. The present Hindu nationalist regime is enabled by a colluding Election Commission, judiciary and police. But the most important role is played by the big media, which is inventing demons out of the activists, intellectuals, and the poor to be slayed by the new Aryan incarnations. Today, events like the commemoration of Bhima Koregaon challenge the feeling of absolute dominance enjoyed by the upper caste minority. The worry of the upper caste supremacist militias that India might have an egalitarian future was revealed in Sukanya Shantha’s report ‘Elgar Parishad: NIA Claims Arrested Accused Were Attempting to Create a ‘Dalit Militia’. This honesty of the upper caste militia and their workers is absent in our public sphere, which should be the cause for our greatest concerns. That is, the repressed question – the question of egalitarianism – will entomb us in this stasis. 

However, as more and more lower caste activists and intellectuals are writing, speaking and organising tirelessly, in India and from ‘exile’ in Europe and America, the repressive efforts by the present upper caste supremacist organisations are like pouring the flowing lava back into the mouth of volcanoes.

Father Stan Swamy was also punished for his religion and his tireless efforts in helping the lower caste majority and Adivasis. The oppressed had been finding a minimum of dignity, education and community through conversions to Christianity, and also into Islam and Buddhism. In recent years, religious conversion and therefore arguments for religious freedom have been treated as crimes on par with terrorism and are now opposed by the illegal force of the militia, such as the terrorist organisation Bajrang Dal, linked to the upper caste supremacist paramilitary RSS. Often Christian priests are abused, nuns are raped, and many are killed. The most notorious of these crimes took place in 1999, when an Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons were burnt to death by Bajrang Dal.

It should not be forgotten that severe caste discrimination is practiced in the minority religions in India including Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism. That is, egalitarianism through the annihilation of caste cannot be imagined as a religious project. 

If the word “saint” has a designation today it will be through the revolutionary of compassion, Stan Swamy. These days, the miracle is to be courageous, thoughtful and kind-hearted in an oppressive regime. Stan Swamy performed this miracle every day for thousands of days. Saint he is, and he will re-join the struggle for respect, dignity and equality in that capacity. 

But what about us? As long as we remember to ask the question – When will we become an egalitarian polity through the annihilation of caste? – these events will not appear confusing. If we are honest in our remembrance and open ourselves to the thought of equality, we will soon have the redemption of democracy. 

Opinion Article by Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi. This article first appeared on The Wire

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