Of Father Stan Swamy, humans and other species

Stan Swamy 3

A few years ago, on a visit to La Paz, the Bolivian capital set high in the Andean mountains, I spotted a board inside a restaurant that said ‘All Humans are Equal’ in Spanish.

During the week I spent in the city, I saw the same sign at a few more eateries, enough to prompt me to ask a Bolivian friend to help me solve the puzzle. Why constantly state something obvious – that all humans are equal?

He shrugged and said, “It needs to be proclaimed again and again only because there are too many in this country who still don’t believe it”.

He may have been as well speaking about India too, a country where the idea of an entity called the human being, with universal attributes and rights, has never really taken hold historically. In the worldview of the deeply hierarchical, caste-ridden Hindu society there are some who are ‘superior’ while the rest are ‘inferior’. And between them is shunyata, a completely unpopulated void.

Getting back to the episode from La Paz, it has been playing over and over again in my head since early July when I heard about the death of Father Stan Swamy, the Jesuit priest, in police custody on trumped up charges. For here was a rare Indian, who dedicated his life to realize in practice what seems a simple concept to proclaim –  the equality of all human beings.

It was a quest that led him to work for decades among Adivasis in the state of Jharkhand, who are among the most exploited and oppressed people in India, not just in modern times but for millennia. The Adivasi or indigenous people of India have been subject to a long process of conquest, co-option and displacement by migrant/invading populations streaming into the Indian subcontinent, from mostly west and central Asia, for over the last 5000 years or more.

Today, India is home to about 700 indigenous groups with a population of 104 million, who constitute 8.6 percent of India’s population of 1.25 billion people. A bulk of them are right at the bottom of the country’s social and economic ladder, subject to routine violence, with the worst nutrition and health indicators and make up a disproportionately high number in the country’s prisons.

While the denial of fundamental rights to these communities does not disturb most well-off Indians at all, for Stan taking up their cause became a lifelong mission. He joined them in their struggle to peacefully resist the takeover of their lands for mining and other projects and assert their cultural and political autonomy – and paid a very heavy price.

Though Stan Swamy was elderly and ailing with Parkinson’s disease the Indian government found him intimidating enough to brand him a ‘Maoist’ and arrest him under an anti-terrorist law. Denied bail repeatedly and even basic facilities he contracted Covid in the crowded prison he was locked up in and died in a Mumbai hospital on July 5.  His death, called an ‘institutional murder’, sparked widespread condemnation both within and outside India.

The gentle Jesuit priest’s struggle and martyrdom would have found resonance with many in Bolivia, as also other Latin American nations, where the struggle of indigenous people goes back to the ‘discovery’ of the Americas by Christopher Columbus over five centuries ago. The event paved the way for the region’s conquest by the Spanish crown – depriving millions of native people of their land, resources, traditions and ability to survive itself.

The takeover of Latin and North America became the template for the subsequent occupation of large parts of Asia and Africa, including India, by European powers. The motive of all such colonialism was extraction of natural resources and exploitation of cheap labour, to feed the insatiable demand of their growing industries and rising public consumption.

Even after their freedom from Spanish rule in the early nineteenth century, the pattern of dictatorship by tiny ruling elites did not change very much in many Latin American nations.  In Bolivia for example, which became independent in 1825, control over the levers of power went to the white, landowning settlers, while for the indigenous populations, who made up over 62% of the population, colonial-style subjugation remained.

They continued to be deprived of citizenship rights and the basic rights to own property, vote or even formally register their marriages. The very legal existence of native communities was not recognized till the adoption of a new Constitution in 1938. The relentless movements of the indigenous people and others led to the revolution of 1952, establishing their universal right to vote and citizenship.

However, it was only after the election of Evo Morales in 2006, the first indigenous president of Bolivia and the drafting of the 2009 Constitution, that all the native populations of the country and their history were given formal recognition.

It is not surprising that Stan Swamy himself was strongly influenced by the liberation theology movement, that emerged within the Catholic church in several parts of Latin America in the 1960s, as a reaction to the poverty and social injustice in the region. Proponents of the philosophy, partly influenced by Marxism, believed the purpose of religion was to liberate the oppressed materially and politically here on Earth instead of merely promising them a better life in the Heaven above.

While he may have started with liberation theology, at some stage I believe Stan went even beyond these ideas in his spiritual journey. Living with the Adivasis he got drawn to the value system of many indigenous people like them around the globe that maintains that the Earth belongs to not just humans but other species also. Bolivia incidentally was where the Universal Declaration on Rights of Mother Earth, which espouses this principle of sharing the planet with all living beings, was adopted in 2010.

Despite several similarities, the situation of indigenous people in India is not the same as in Bolivia or other parts of Latin America. To begin with, the history of their domination by other populations is far older. This may sound a bit simplistic, but what Columbus and the Europeans following him did to the Americas in 500 years was carried out by similar characters coming to India over 5000 years or more.

Over the millennia, while a section of indigenous people got enslaved in the bottom rungs of the Hindu caste order as Dalits or ‘untouchables’, others – the current day  Adivasis – were pushed further and further into hostile terrain.  The forests, high mountains or coastal areas where Adivasis live now are under sustained attack yet again because these habitats are also home to valuable minerals and natural resources, much sought after by global and domestic investors.

India’s Adivasis have been however deprived not just materially but also robbed of their cultural identity to a much larger extent than in Latin America.  For example, they are classified officially as Hindus, with their own religions remaining unrecognized and even their claim to being indigenous denied.

While India signed the International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention of 1957 and voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, it did so on the condition that  all Indians be considered to be indigenous. The specious argument was that the term cannot have any  other meaning in the Indian context.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), that is the mentor of the current Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is particularly sensitive to claims by the Adivasis or Dalits of being the ‘moolnivasi’ or original people of India. Allowing the term ‘indigenous’ for these large sections of the population would defeat the RSS’s claim of Hindus being the native people of India and all others belonging to faiths or of ancestry from outside the subcontinent.

It would also strengthen demands of Adivasis for the right to self-determination, control over local resources and even reclaiming of territories lost to land grab by more powerful mainstream Hindu communities.

Given all this, it is not difficult to see why Stan was an obvious target for persecution by the current Indian establishment. Apart from championing the cultural autonomy of Adivasis and opposing corporate loot of their lands he was using the pacifist tactics of Gandhi, another saintly champion of the oppressed murdered by Hindu chauvinists.

The combination of liberation theology, non-violent methods and Bolivian-style ‘Mother Earth’ worldview had made Stan Swamy a kind of ‘Red Green Gandhi’. There was no way he could be allowed to operate freely or, as it turned out finally, even to breathe and live.

What next?  Despite the global and national outrage at Stan Swamy’s death in custody those in power in India today can be expected to brazenly defend their actions, as they have done in the case of countless other state-sponsored atrocities before. Nothing much can be expected from India’s dominant Hindu upper castes either, whose entire history is one of living off resources stolen from indigenous populations and others they have subdued by force, cunning and propaganda.

The Adivasis Stan lived and fought for, have responded to his murder by adding his name to those of 52 tribal martyrs on a huge stone slab at Bagaicha, the social action centre and home he spent most of his time. They have acknowledged that he had in the end become an Adivasi himself.

As for Stan’s thousands of admirers, the challenge is clearly to join the Adivasi people in their fight to be treated as equal human beings and also upholding their traditions, far superior to those of the ‘civilised’. Of living in peace with Nature, sharing its fruits with all other living creatures, and never taking more from the planet than what one is capable of giving back.

Satya Sagar is a journalist who can be contacted at [email protected]

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