If you raise questions, you are anti-government, anti-national: Adivasi-rights activist Stan Swamy on the Bhima-Koregaon crackdown

Gladson Dungdung
03 September, 2018

On 28 August, the Pune Police raided the homes of nine prominent human-rights activists and intellectuals across the country. These included the trade unionist and lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, the journalist and activist Gautam Navlakha, the lawyers and activists Vernon Gonsalvez and Arun Ferreira, the lawyer Susan Abraham, the Maoist ideologue and writer Varavara Rao, the writer and professor Anand Teltumbde, the journalist Kranthi Tekula, and the Jesuit priest and Adivasi-rights activist Stan Swamy. Five of them were also arrested through the course of the day, and booked under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which disallows bail. They are currently under house arrest, following a Supreme Court intervention.

On 31 August, Maharashtra’s additional director-general of police, Parambir Singh held a press conference to outline the police’s case against them. He stated that the police had seized “thousands of password-protected messages” and “sahitya”—written material—from the devices of another group of activists arrested on 6 June, which provided “incriminating material” that led to the 28 August arrests. Singh also claimed that the activists arrested worked as overground cadre of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), plotted to overthrow the government, plotted to assassinate Modi, organised Dalits and Adivasis, and incited the violence that took place in Bhima Koregaon, a town in Pune, in January.

The basis for these arrests and raids is a first information report filed by Tushar Damgude, a businessman in Pune, on 8 January this year. Another FIR was filed on 1 January, by Anita Sawale, also a Pune resident, holding two Hindutva leaders—Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide—responsible for the violence. During the press conference, Singh refused to answer any questions on the earlier 1 January FIR.

While Stan Swamy was not among those arrested, Singh has said those whose homes were searched remain suspects, and are being observed and investigated.  Swamy, an 81-year-old Jesuit priest, resides is a single room at the campus of Bagaicha, a social research and training centre, in Ranchi, Jharkhand, which he helped establish in 2006. He regularly shares his writings and updates on Bagaicha’s advocacy work with Jharkhand’s Adivasi and rural communities.

In an interview over the phone, the journalist Chitrangada Choudhury spoke to Swamy about the police’s action against him, and his work in the Adivasi areas of Jharkhand over several decades. “We directly confront the government in the courts on issues of Adivasis,” Swamy said. “Because we ask questions, we are being harassed.”

Chitrangada Choudhury: In his press conference, the Maharashtra Police ADG Parambir Singh mentioned your name, in the context of a letter allegedly written by the lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj to a Maoist named “Comrade Prakash,” which he said the police extracted from a seized device. According to Singh, Bharadwaj wrote in the letter that she had asked you for funds to help send students from Jawaharhal Nehru University in Delhi and the Tata Instiute of Social Sciences in Mumbai to interior rural areas as per Prakash’s directions, but you did not give any clear assurance on this. [Bharadwaj has since denied writing any such letter.] How do you respond to this charge?

Stan Swamy: I categorically deny having ever received any request from Sudha Bharadwaj for funds, or having ever given her any funds.  It is an absolutely false charge. My primary concern has always been the constitutional rights of Adivasis and Dalits. If you take up these issues, these are the things you have to face. The mahaul [current environment] in Jharkhand, adjoining states, and the country is that if you raise questions and find facts, you are anti-development. If you are anti-development, you are anti-government. If you are anti-government, you are anti-national. That is the logic being followed here.

CC: The police also made this broad charge against all of you that you are working against the lawfully established government. 

SS: The work that we are involved in is a counter-action to the government. We advocate equality, while working in a society where five percent of the population owns a majority of the country’s wealth. If the government introduces a dynamic of inequality through its actions, we work to counter that. There is no shortcut or magic in the work we do. All I can do in this case is to make my work clear, and deny the police fabrications. 

CC: What happened on the morning of the raid? What did the police tell you about their case against you?

SS: I had just woken up. Around 6 am, a big force of 25—30 people knocked on my room [in Bagaicha]. They said they had to search my room. I asked for a copy of the search warrant. They showed me a paper in Marathi, which I do not understand. I asked for something in Hindi or English, but they did not have that. They entered my room and went through my things. They took my laptop, my mobile phone, a tablet, and also cassettes of instrumental music, which I listen to in the mornings, like Illayaraja and AR Rahman. After seizing these, they wanted me to sign on a panchnama [record of observation], which was also in Marathi. I refused to sign on something I do not understand. By then, a lot of my friends and two lawyers had arrived. The police assured my lawyer that I would be given a translation in Hindi, which I got yesterday.

CC: Did the police say what was their case against you?

SS: They only mentioned that my name is in the FIR with regard to the Bhima Koregaon incident. [Swamy’s name does not feature in this FIR.] They did not tell me anything else. The search warrant was in Marathi, which I do not understand. Other than taking away my things, they did not make any inquiry, nor did they interrogate me.

CC: What has happened since? Has the police placed restrictions on you?

SS: There are no restrictions right now, but the damage to my reputation has been done. The local media can be very biased and bought-out. Several newspapers here carried big headlines the following morning saying, “Stan Swamy Accused in Plot to Assassinate Modi,” “Stan Swamy’s Home and Office Raided.” There was total confusion about what I am being accused of. Some of my friends and well-wishers asked me to leave Bagaicha and go away somewhere. But I firmly refused. I packed and kept one change of clothes and said I cannot go anywhere. If they [the police] come, I am ready to be arrested, and to clear my name. This is why I have urged the National Human Rights Commission to investigate the arrests of human-rights workers and make an independent assessment of what exactly it is that we are being accused of, to clear this cloud of suspicion that hangs over us.

CC: In July, the police of Jharkhand’s Khunti district also charged 20 people including you with sedition and anti-national activities. [The specific Indian Penal Code sections in the FIR relate to “inciting disaffection,” “waging war against the State” and “cyber terrorism.”]

SS: Yes, according to this government, the ongoing movement of Pathalgadi is a criminal act. And those who support it are criminals. [Pathalgadi is a movement for self-rule in several Adivasi villages in Jharkhand and Odisha.] I believe that the state’s failure to implement the Constitution is leading to this Adivasi assertion of their right to self-governance, through their gram sabhas and Pathalgadi.

The answer is not a war on Adivasis, and more guns and bullets against them, but to understand their grievances through dialogue. I wrote a post on Facebook about Pathalgadi, and I was booked for that. Following that FIR, I wrote an open piece in response, Am I a Desh Drohi (Anti-National)?,” where I publicly outlined my stance, saying that Adivasis were being oppressed and exploited beyond tolerance. My fellow accused and I are moving the [Jharkhand] high court now to quash this case. For example, the police has invoked Section 66A of the Information Technology Act [relating to sending offensive messages electronically], which the Supreme Court has already struck down. I had consulted [the lawyer] Prashant Bhushan about the case. He studied the FIR and told me that no police can take action on its basis.

CC: You have worked for several decades in Jharkhand on Adivasi issues. How did this association come about?

SS: I am from Trichy, Tamil Nadu. When I was a college student, it was clear to me that I want to spend my life in the service of other people. I asked myself where was I most needed, and I thought I will work in central India. Here, Adivasis lived on lands full of minerals. Others took these out and enriched themselves, but Adivasis did not get anything. Joining the Jesuits, I had to go through a long period of training, but the desire to go and work in these areas always remained in my heart. When I finished my masters in sociology from the Philippines and returned to India in 1971, I asked my superior’s permission to go away and understand the issues of Adivasi people. I lived for two years in a village in West Singhbhum, carried out research on their socio-economic conditions, and also saw first-hand how Adivasi people were terribly exploited when they took their produce to the market. In those two years, I also underwent a kind of awakening, looking at Adivasi values of equality, community, and decision-making by consensus.

I returned to the Indian Social Institute in Bangalore and spent 15 years there, including ten years as the director. When my tenure ended, I decided to return to Jharkhand, and explore if my research and training expertise can be of use to Adivasis. I helped to revive [the grassroots Adivasi organisation] JOHAR, in Chaibasa, West Singhbhum. Around 2000, when the new [Jharkhand] state was being formed, some of us came up with the idea of Bagaicha, a training centre [in the new state capital of Ranchi] for Adivasi youth, which would also carry out research, action and educate the marginalised about their rights. Working with noted intellectuals like [the scholar] Dr Ramdayal Munda, [the activist] Xavier Dias, and my Jesuit colleagues, I helped to set up Bagaicha in 2006. I have been here since.

CC: Bagaicha’s work has brought you in confrontation with the government several times.

SS: Yes, we have taken on the government in two broad ways. We raise constitutional and legal issues and [create awareness about] Supreme Court judgements that are pro-Adivasi, to try and get these implemented. But all governments violate the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution [pertaining to the welfare of scheduled tribes].

It is 22 years since the PESA law [Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas, Act 1996] came about, but the government is still to form its rules. [The PESA was enacted to allow self governance through traditional gram sabhas for people living in scheduled areas.]

The Forest Rights Act remains poorly implemented—over 16 lakh claims for forest rights have been denied, and where claims are accepted, it is for very small patches. Supreme Court judgments which advance Adivasi rights in mineral-rich areas are being thrown to the wind. Private companies are trying to dispossess Adivasis, and people are resisting. But political parties don’t oblige the people, they oblige the corporates because they need them during elections. There are still hunger deaths in the state, mostly of poor Adivasis and Dalits. We raise all this.

Then, we also directly confront the government in courts on issues of Adivasis. So many poor Adivasis are languishing in prison. We undertook research on this, and filed a case in the Jharkhand High Court earlier this year, asking for a speedy trial for them. The government has to respond in court, and it is stuck and is giving half-baked data. We have moved the NHRC on issues of fake surrenders [of Maoist cadre], and raised the issue of encounter killings by state forces and Maoists and their splinter groups. Because we ask questions on all these issues, we are being harassed.

CC: Adivasi communities in these areas, and those who work to defend their rights, have been in a state of siege for several years now.

SS: Yes, this [police search] is not the first time. Three years ago, one fine morning, the newspapers were reporting that “Stan Swamy shelters Maoists.” So I made a statement about Bagaicha, saying we are a registered body, and we are accountable. I met a senior police officer to complain about his junior who had said this about us to the media. He accepted that a mistake had happened. But there was no accountability for the damage Bagaicha suffered, no investigation into his junior’s conduct. Last year, the home ministry said Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan [a broad alliance of land rights and anti-displacement movements in Jharkhand] is a Maoist front. I issued a statement saying. that we are a broad-based people’s movement, and it is our constitutional right to dissent. The andolan has never taken recourse to violence, though it has suffered state violence. Then came last month’s FIR accusing me and 20 others of sedition. And now this raid.

CC: Is there anything different about what you are seeing and experiencing now?

SS: The situation has aggravated. Under the Congress also, Adivasis were being thrown off their lands and cases were filed against people like us. But things are certainly more aggressive now. The BJP government is realising that the next election is not going to be a walkover. So they are desperate that anyone who is bringing out facts, who is serving the people, who is organising the people, is put out of the way.

This interview has been edited and condensed.