Dear Rachael Maskell MP,
I am William Nicholas Gomes; I am your constituent and a human rights activist and freelance journalist.
I am writing about the Indian Jesuit priest and human rights defender, Fr Stan Swamy SJ, who has been taken into custody by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) of India for alleged Maoist links. Fr Stan is 83 years old and in poor health. For 50 years, he has worked tirelessly for India’s poor and marginalised, especially its indigenous people.
The NIA had been probing him for over a year now in the Bhima Koregaon case in which violence had erupted between the Dalits and the so-called upper caste groups affiliated with the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party and its fraternal organisation.
Father Swamy had been targeted by the Authorities in his life-long fight for the rights of the indigenous people. It is best exemplified by his association with the Jharkhand Organisation Against Uranium Radiation (JOAR), a campaign against Uranium Corporation India Limited in 1996. The campaign successfully stopped the construction of a dam in Chaibasa which would have displaced thousands of Adivasi families in Jadugoda’s Chatikocha area. Father Swamy had worked relentlessly for the displaced people of Bukaro, Santhal Parganas and Koderma and continues to work for them today.
Father Swamy had invested his life in ensuring the rights of the Tribal people over their lands and forests, as guaranteed by the Vth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. The Schedule stipulates special powers of Governance in scheduled areas inhabited by tribal people. Along with the mandatory ‘Tribes Advisory Council’ (TAC), composed solely of members from the Adivasi Community to govern such areas, the Schedule allows for greater self-governance in these areas. It makes the Adivasi people owner of their lands and forests. However, the Schedule is often held more in the breach than practice, and Father Swamy had fought against this travesty all his life. He had long battled against non-implementation of Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 that adds to the Adivasis’ right of self-governance.
His struggles, along with the assertion of the tribal people, led to the Pathalgadi Movement in 2017. The Movement revived as an ancient and historic tribal ritual of erecting a stone to mark tribal lands, brought him in direct conflict with the State Government. It set in motion the process culminating in his arrest.
Father Swamy took on the cause of the rights of those under trial in Jharkhand. This is seen especially in the youth arrested on charges of being Maoists or having links with the Maoists. In a book titled ‘Jail Mein Band Qaidiyon ka Sach’ (Truth of the prisoners incarcerated in jails), he exposed the arbitrary detention of Adivasi youth and their socio-economic conditions. He exposed the fact that most of the youth were very poor with their family incomes beings less than Rs. 5000 a month. In almost 98% of the cases, in which more than 3,000 youths were arrested on charges of having links with the Maoists, the charges were fabricated. The youth had nothing to do with the Maoists.
His activism invited the ire of the then State Government led by the Bhartiya Janata Party. It led to a witch-hunt against Father comprising raids, fabrication of cases et al. The State Government then booked him for sedition. They raided him twice along with the Pune Police in August 2018 and January 2019.
I am concerned about the apparent harassment of Fr Stan who, between July and August 2020, was interrogated multiple times for over 15 hours by the NIA about the Elgar Parishad event that preceded the violence between Dalits and Marathas at Bhima Koregaon near Pune on 31 December 2017. The NIA falsely accuses him of having personal links with the banned extremist groups of Maoists and Naxalites.
Fr. Stan is the most recent of 16 people to have been detained in connection with this incident. Others include well-known human rights lawyers Arun Ferreira and Sudha Bharadwaj, and writers Vernon Gonsalvez and Varavara Rao.
Fr. Stan has always denied having ever been to Bhima Koregoan and strongly rejects any suggestion that he is linked to Maoist forces. He believes that the state is harassing him because of his opposition to certain government policies and his struggle for the rights of the Adivasis. He has meticulously documented the suffering of hundreds of Adivasi youth, who were falsely imprisoned for exercising their right to defend their land.
In a video statement made two days before his arrest, Fr Stan said:
“What is happening to me is not unique. Many activists, lawyers, writers, journalists, student leaders, poets, intellectuals, and others who stand for the rights of Adivasis, Dalits, and the marginalised and express their dissent to the ruling powers of the country are being targeted and put into jail.”
There has been swift and strong condemnation of Fr Stan’s arrest.
The Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India:
“…makes a strong appeal to the concerned authorities to immediately release Fr. Stan Swamy and to permit him to go to his residence.”
Fr George Pattery SJ, President of the Jesuit Conference of South Asia, has also called for Fr Stan’s release adding:
“We are shocked and dismayed to know that Fr Stan Swamy SJ, who has been working all his life for the uplift of the downtrodden and other vulnerable people, has been taken into custody by the NIA.”
A petition calling for Fr. Stan’s release has collected more than 47,000 signatures in 3 days.
In the House of Commons on 6 July, Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP, the Foreign Secretary said:
“this Government (is) absolutely committed to the United Kingdom becoming an even stronger force for good in the world: on climate change, as we host COP26; as we champion 12 years of education for every girl in the world, no matter how poor their background; and on human rights, where we will defend media freedoms and protect freedom of religious belief; and, with the measures we are enacting and announcing today, hold to account the perpetrators of the worst human rights abuses.” (Hansard vol 678, col 663)
In light of this, I urge you to write to Mr Raab asking him to investigate this matter urgently; and to call on the Indian government to safeguard Fr Swamy’s health and well-being; finally, to release Fr Swamy immediately and return him to his community.
I would also like to request you to ask the British High Commissioner to the Republic of India to visit Fr Stan Swamy and the immediate raise concern to the Indian government.
Please let me know of any response you receive from the FCDO.
Thank you for your consideration.
William Nicholas Gomes