How Does an 83-Year-Old Jesuit End Up in Prison?

Catholic priests and nuns in Secunderabad, India protest against the arrest of Father Stan Swamy in October. Credit Noah Seelam/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Catholic priests and nuns in Secunderabad, India protest against the arrest of Father Stan Swamy in October. Credit Noah Seelam/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

What I remember most is the way my grandfather struggled with everyday things. Eating, drinking, even smiling in response to a joke or a favorite song. The disease froze his muscles, turning the majestically expressive face of an aging patriarch into a mask.

Several years after his Parkinson’s diagnosis, the illness had the opposite effect on his hands: It condemned them to an almost permanent frenzied motion. Watching him was like observing a drawn out earthquake. He couldn’t hold a glass of water without dropping it. His touch became a gentle tap … tap, tap … tap.

For Father Stan Swamy, an 83-year-old Jesuit priest jailed by Indian authorities in October, it was the other way around: first the tremors, then the diagnosis. His friends told me that for several years after his hands started shaking he could still have his tea in a regular cup — provided the cup was heavy enough to counteract the tremors.

When a heavy enough cup was not available, the priest would quietly forgo his tea. As his condition worsened, Father Swamy came to rely on a solution my grandfather knew well: a straw and a toddler’s sipper cup.

Placed carefully between his lips, and then instructed to suck on the straw or the sipper cup’s spout, my grandfather could, with some effort, have his dinner. His illness transformed that bendy plastic tube and the brightly colored cup into objects with almost magical power. How strange, then, to watch them transformed in recent months into Kafkaesque objects of state oppression, as the news in India turned to Father Swamy and to his straw and sipper.

Before he was arrested in October under India’s antiterrorism laws, Father Swamy spent decades championing the welfare of the Indigenous tribespeople who account for around a quarter of the population in Jharkhand, one the country’s most resource-rich yet impoverished states.

Often desperately poor, they live on land frequently scorched by recurring drought, but pregnant with valuable minerals. And this, Aloka Kujur, a local activist and longtime friend of Father Swamy explained, placed them in the way of big money mining projects.“ He told people about the rights they have over their land. People who had no idea what their rights were,” said Ms. Kujur.

He alerted them when they weren’t being compensated for land that had been taken without their consent to build mines. He also went to court on their behalf, seeking the release of hundreds of young people whom he argued had been unjustly labeled Maoist rebels and jailed without trial.

But back to the straw and sipper. On Oct. 8, as Covid-19 spread through the Indian countryside, federal agents arrived at Father Swamy’s home in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand. They instructed him to pack some belongings, and later escorted him on a flight to Mumbai, where he was imprisoned under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, a broadly worded antiterrorism law that gives Indian authorities wide powers of detention and investigation.

Somewhere along the way, he was separated from his straw and sipper cup.

Father Swamy’s lawyers argue that the case against their client is shakier than the octogenarian’s grip. His was the 16th arrest linked to violent clashes that broke out on Jan. 1, 2018 in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.

That day, thousands of Dalits — lower-caste Hindus formerly known as untouchables — had gathered to mark the victory of Dalit soldiers in the British Army over an upper-caste force. But the commemoration was interrupted by a mob brandishing saffron flags, the standard of the Hindu nationalists who, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, now dominate India’s politics.

The mob’s objection? That the Dalits, who see the battle as a milestone in their still ongoing struggle against an oppressive caste system, were commemorating a victory by British colonizers. At least one person died in the resulting violence. Several were injured. The elderly priest was not even there.

Apart from Father Swamy, among those arrested in connection with the violence are an eminent scholar of the caste system, a professor of linguistics and an 81-year-old poet. They have been accused of conspiring with banned Maoist militants to incite the unrest, charges they deny.

The other thing they have in common: They have spent their lives raising their voices for lower-caste Hindus, minority Muslims, poor tribespeople and other vulnerable Indians. It is work that has taken them down what on Mr. Modi’s watch has become an increasingly perilous road: challenging the Indian state.

“We are all aware how prominent intellectuals, lawyers, writers, poets, activists, student leaders — they are all put in jail just because they have expressed their dissent or raised questions about the ruling powers of India,” Father Swamy explained in a video statement recorded before his arrest, his voice soft and breathy, as if he has just run 10 miles.

India’s National Investigative Agency, whose agents arrested Father Swamy, insists otherwise, casting him and his fellow accused as members of a complex transnational conspiracy. In a recent statement about the case, it advertised the filing of a charge sheet that ran to more than 10,000 pages.

More striking — and more telling of the attitude of the authorities — was a much shorter document, running to about a page and half, released to the press on Nov. 29. It was issued weeks after Father Swamy’s lawyers went to court asking that he be provided with the inexpensive objects he needs at mealtimes. “When Stan was arrested, one of his associates handed over his clothes and the sipper to the N.I.A. officials,” said Mihir Desai, one of his lawyers.

But then, about a month after his arrest, the lawyers learnt that Father Swamy hadn’t been reunited with his straw and sipper. Reliant on his increasingly unstable hands, he was struggling.

The lawyers went to court on Nov. 6, asking that the priest be given what he needs.

The N.I.A. took 20 days to respond, a delay that the agency attributed to legal procedure. It also denied keeping Father Swamy’s straw and sipper. Agents had “conducted his personal search in presence of independent witnesses and no such straw and sipper were found.”

Yet in the intervening period, nobody thought to provide Father Swamy with any old straw and sipper. “He didn’t have any favorite sipper. He just needed to be given a sipper. It can’t take weeks,” Mr. Desai told me.

The N.I.A.’s explanation? In a nutshell: not our problem. After being arrested by its agents, Father Swamy had been handed over to prison authorities in Mumbai. The matter was thus “between him and the jail authorities,” the agency said.

Father Swamy, who remains in prison as the N.I.A. continues its investigation in the case, did eventually get a straw and a sipper at the end of November after a court directed the authorities.

Soon after, an Indian news agency quoted an unnamed jail official: “We know he is a patient, he suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Why would we not provide him things which he requires?” Yes, why?

Nikhil Kumar, a former bureau chief in South Asia for Time and CNN, is a writer in New Delhi.

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