Teacher, companion, motivator: Adivasi-rights activist Dayamani Barla remembers Stan Swamy

29 September 2021
Swamy on a visit to his native village of Viragalur near Trichy, in Tamil Nadu, in the early 1980s.
COURTESY JOSEPH XAVIER/INDIAN SOCIAL INSTITUTE BANGALORE
Swamy on a visit to his native village of Viragalur near Trichy, in Tamil Nadu, in the early 1980s.
COURTESY JOSEPH XAVIER/INDIAN SOCIAL INSTITUTE BANGALORE


To understand the life struggle of Stan Swamy, it is necessary to understand the history and struggle of the Adivasi community in Jharkhand and the country. There is a need to understand the traditional rights that Adivasis have on natural resources such as water, forest, and land. It is only then that we can appreciate what Swamy stood for and fought for. Swamy was a Jesuit priest and an Adivasi-rights activist who was arrested in 2020 and booked under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act, 2019. He was denied bail and died on 5 July 2021. In my many years as an activist in Jharkhand, I closely knew Swamy. We began to interact often after I met him at a program related to Adivasi-rights in Ranchi around 15 years ago.

Jharkhand is a tribal state. The tribal community of Jharkhand has a special history of clearing the forests and bushes, then setting up villages, protecting the forest and land while also fighting dangerous wild animals like snakes, scorpions, tigers, bears and lions. The tribal community’s history, language, identity, socio-cultural and economic values rest upon this heritage. History is witness that the struggle against the plundering of the natural heritage of the tribal community has been going on since the 1700s–1800s. There is an unbroken chain of heroes of the Jharkhand tribal community from 1855 to the early 1900s, such as Sidhu-Kanhu, Chand, Bhairav, Phoolo-Jhano, Sindhraya, Birain, Veer Budu Bhagat, Telang Khadiya, Kanu Mundu, Donka Munda, Birsa Munda and Jatara Tana Bhagat, who fought against exploiters, including the British.

After India’s Independence, in the name of development, the natural resources of Jharkhand started being exploited indiscriminately. The indigenous farming communities of the state have been uprooted from their forests, land, villages and homes in the name of development. Their history and identities have been erased. Even after the formation of the Jharkhand state in 2000, the forcible eviction of the tribal community from their villages has been increasing rapidly. The Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act, 1908 and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act, 1949, which gave land rights to Adivasis and restricted the transfer of tribal land for industrial use, were the fruits of the heroic struggles that were begun by Sidhu-Kanhu and Birsa Munda—these acts are being violated openly. The tribal society has been continuously agitating against the poison of displacement. 

In 1970, Swamy was ordained as a Jesuit priest in Manila, Philippines.. COURTESY JOSEPH XAVIER/INDIAN SOCIAL INSTITUTE BANGALORE In 1970, Swamy was ordained as a Jesuit priest in Manila, Philippines.. COURTESY JOSEPH XAVIER/INDIAN SOCIAL INSTITUTE BANGALORE
In 1970, Swamy was ordained as a Jesuit priest in Manila, Philippines.
COURTESY JOSEPH XAVIER/INDIAN SOCIAL INSTITUTE BANGALORE

Born in 1937 in Trichy, Tamil Nadu, Swamy stood with and worked for Adivasis, farmers, and the exploited and downtrodden communities of Jharkhand. He studied sociology, and after completing his PhD abroad, he came back to India and worked at a research institute, the Indian Social Institute in Bangalore. In 1965, in the battle-hardened land of Jharkhand, Swamy moved to Chaibasa in state’s the Kolhaan division to work with a Jesuit organisation. During his time in Chaibasa, he became closely involved with Adivasi issues and gradually became a part of the struggle to protect the rights of the tribal community of Jharkhand.

Dayamani Barla is an Adivasi-rights activist based in Jharkhand.

Keywords: Stan Swamy Adivasi rights Adivasi community Jharkhand
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