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Saint or sinner?

One can understand, to an extent, that politicians would want to shut out those who seem inconvenient to the well-settled interests to which they are committed. But the courts, that are the guardians of the constitutional rights of citizens? Well, we expect something different from them.

Valson Thampu | New Delhi |


Some say Father Stan Swami is a ‘torch-bearer of the Indian Constitution’. The government says he is an instigator of violence, an anarchist who conspires, in tandem with the Maoists, to overthrow the government. As per Aristotle, the truth should lie in between. What lies in between in this case is that he was a sympathiser with the cause of the Dalits and the Adivasis. He sought to empower them to demand and claim their rights. Here’s something more about the man. Stan is an 83year-old Jesuit priest. He is enfeebled by Parkinson’s disease. Jesuits are the most scholarly religious order in the Catholic fold.

They are pioneers in quality education in India. Tens and thousands of India’s top-notch leaders, bureaucrats and experts in diverse areas of service have been educated in Jesuit-run educational institutions. The Jesuits as an order – founded on 15 August 1534 have advocated justice rather than violence throughout their history. Commitment to justice is basic to the vision of education they practise. Whether the pursuit of justice has anti-national implications is something I am not competent to settle. I leave that to the venerable judges of this country.

Fr. Stan is accused of plotting insurrection. Surely, there must be some shreds of evidence for it? If there is, it would be instructive to let the people of India know about it. Everyone stands to gain from knowing how a frail old man in poor health can be so mighty and menacing as to destabilize the mighty Union of India. At this point, I am tempted to compare Stan with Swami Agnivesh, who died last year. Like Stan, Swami Agnivesh too was in disfavour in the corridors of power for being a sympathiser with the cause of the adivasis, who had been, especially in Jharkhand, struggling to secure the rights enshrined in the Constitution of India.

While on a visit to Pakhur in Jharkhand, he was set upon by goons, and nearly lynched. He was eighty years old at that time. He never recovered from that physical and mental trauma. Unlike Stan, Swamiji was not cast into prison. He was fortunate enough to die in a hospital, rather than in a jail. The question still remains: why was it that Stan was arrested, and Swamiji wasn’t? It is better to die, says Stan, than to languish in prison. All right, let us buy the argument that an 83year old man is a terrible threat to the State of Jharkhand and to the Union of India. Still, we wish to know if there is a single speech that Stan made advocating violence.

A single conspiracy in which he was involved. A single publication by him, inciting insurrection. Any complaint of any kind filed against him anywhere in the last half a century? Well, any instance even of Fr. Stan having raised his voice in saying or responding to anything in any context? Not long ago, violence was unleashed on Christian missionaries serving in Dang, Gujarat, in its Adivasi dominated areas. Why was this done? Not because the missionaries were inciting antinational activities or hatching conspiracies. They were targeted because they were educating and empowering the people. Prior to the commencement of their mission, there were only a handful of undergraduates in this region. In less than four decades their number swelled to over ten thousand.

As a result, the tribals began to resist the expropriation of their land and attempts to dislodge them from their traditional habitats, legally and otherwise. This Dalit-and-adivasi empowerment seems ‘anti-national’ and anarchic in the eyes of vested interests. It is not unlikely that Stan seems guilty of such presumptive intentions of violence. This is not for the first time that a people’s cry for justice is misrepresented as their war-cry against the State. Think of the tens and thousands of citizens of India, who have benefited greatly from the education received from Jesuit-run schools and colleges. They have no excuse for not knowing what the Jesuit order stands for, or how the Jesuits live and serve the people.

They also know that not only the Jesuits but also Christians as a whole are mandated by Jesus Christ to be committed to the poor and the under-privileged. Jesus came to be in solidarity with them. He lived in their midst, much like Fr. Stan having lived amidst the disposed and the exploited. This is the essence of the biblical faith. Seen in this light, Fr. Stan is paying the price for living his faith. One wonders if Article 25 of the Constitution, which guarantees to all citizens the right to ‘practice, preach and propagate’ his faith, is still operative in India; and if it is, to what extent and where?

Oh, yes! The Supreme Court did say that the ‘right to propagate’ one’s faith does not include the ‘right to convert’ people from other faiths. Fair enough! Fr. Stan is accused of the intention to convert. Is there a charge-sheet against him for doing so by ‘force or fraud’? Has even a single person been identified as converted by this wily old man? If there is any credible material available on this, it should be made public; so that the rest of us who still care for justice and fairness can live less tormented by an uneasy conscience in respect of Fr. Stan.

The most distressing aspect of the matter is that the courts in this country continue to deny bail to him. One can understand, to an extent, that politicians would want to shut out those who seem inconvenient to the well-settled interests to which they are committed. But the courts, that are the guardians of the constitutional rights of citizens? Well, we expect something different from them. Legal literalism – going by the name of the law invoked – could fall short of the basics of justice. The fact that someone is arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, infamous for its draconian provisions, does not mean that the honourable judges need to shut their eyes to the merits of the case and its humanitarian face.

Surely, the law doesn’t allow the judges to do that. Well, in that case the law concerned needs to be looked at seriously.  Anything less is tantamount to the abdication of the duty to give effect to the spirit and provisions of the Constitution of India. It is no credit to any country that venerable people languish in its jails for seeking to do what they deem is not only just but also their spiritual duty.

(The writer is former Principal, St. Stephen’s College and a former Member of the National Integration Council)