Why Stan Swamy may have survived old India

08 September 2021
The December 1985 cover story of Illustrated Weekly was about six foreign missionaries who were served deportation orders in Madhya Pradesh. After the magazine covered it, politicians intervened to prevent their deportation. In the corridors of power back then, there was a genuine appreciation for priests and nuns who serve among the oppressed in India’s underdeveloped regions. Stan Swamy, who recently died in prison, did not get the same appreciation from either politicians or the media.
COURTESY SNM Abdi
The December 1985 cover story of Illustrated Weekly was about six foreign missionaries who were served deportation orders in Madhya Pradesh. After the magazine covered it, politicians intervened to prevent their deportation. In the corridors of power back then, there was a genuine appreciation for priests and nuns who serve among the oppressed in India’s underdeveloped regions. Stan Swamy, who recently died in prison, did not get the same appreciation from either politicians or the media.
COURTESY SNM Abdi

Christian priests were targeted in old India too. On multiple occasions in the past fifty years, the union home ministry has handed orders to foreign missionaries asking them to quit India—often on short notice, and often based on trumped up charges. But in the past, if such injustices were brought to light, top politicians and bureaucrats politely frequently revoked the expulsion notice without any rancour. Better sense often prevailed at the highest levels of government.

There was compassion—a hallmark of any liberal democracy—rather than the religious hatred and sadism we see today. In the corridors of power, there was a genuine appreciation for priests and nuns who serve among the oppressed in India’s underdeveloped regions. Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest, a man who had done exactly that, was instead framed in a case under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967 and booked for sedition. He was denied bail and medical treatment. The octogenarian’s death in police custody embarrassed India on the international stage. There are no takers for our foreign ministry mewing the world over that Swamy was “dealt with in accordance with the law.”

In my four decades as a reporter—at three magazines and four newspapers—I have covered stories of several missionaries who did commendable work but who also faced the ire of local officials or politicians. And many of them were threatened with deportation. But the press, across its hierarchy, were eager to cover their ordeals. Leaders at the highest seats of power were willing to personally speak to the affected clergy. From my lens as a reporter, I can testify to the humaneness of previous regimes at least insofar as dealing with Christian missionaries who worked in some of the country’s most underdeveloped regions. Even the media, which was arguably just as close to power then as it is now, mirrored this humanity.

After independence, very few foreign priests and nuns were granted Indian citizenship. Mary Teresa Bojaxhiu—commonly known as Mother Teresa—was a notable exception. She acquired Indian nationality in 1951. The others lived in India, their adopted home, on the strength of a residential permit that had to be renewed annually. But a quit India notice, issued by the union ministry of home affairs, could cut short even a valid permit, compelling them to pack their bags and leave. As foreigners, they had little legal recourse, limited to petitioning the government to review their expulsion notice.

One of my earliest investigative pieces, titled, “Is Father Stroscio guilty?” was published in the Sunday magazine on 26 November 1978. It was my first cover story for the now defunct news weekly edited by MJ Akbar. I had not even turned 20 and was still studying in St Xavier’s College, Kolkata, but the magazine carried my pieces and ultimately gave me a job after graduation. The other report—“Are these men dangerous?”—about six foreign missionaries who were served deportation orders in Madhya Pradesh, ran in The Illustrated Weekly on 22 December 1985.

SNM Abdi , an award-winning journalist, is a former deputy editor of Outlook. He broke the Bhagalpur blinding story in 1980.

Keywords: Stan Swamy Christian missionaries Indira Gandhi Christians
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