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Stan Swamy’s arrest: Will Indian Catholic Church find its prophetic voice?

Stan Swamy (Stanislaus Lourduswamy) is an Indian Jesuit, 83 years old, and has been working for the integral development of the Adivasis (a term they prefer and it means ‘original dwellers:’ however, ‘tribals’ is a term used more commonly in India by the people and governments) in various part of north India. Native of Tamil Nadu, he opted to serve the northern missions and joined Jamshedpur Jesuit province. For nearly two decades he has been at Ranchi, one of the epicenters of the life and the world of Adivasis, Catholics and the non-Catholics alike.

Belgian Jesuit missionaries began to work in this area and around 1880 they initiated giving legal knowledge and assistance to Adivasis. Once they began to win the land-related cases against the landlords in the local courts (that area was under the British, like large parts of India), thousands of Adivasis began to embrace the Catholic faith. Though lesser known, the flourishing of this mission is comparable to that of St. Francis Xavier. Constant Livens (1856-1893), called as the Apostle of Chota Nagapur, worked in this area only for seven years before he succumbed to tuberculosis, and, the cause of his beatification is on.

Also, significantly, in what may be known today as the safeguarding of ‘land rights,’ Jesuit missionaries played an important role in the enactment of Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act (1908) and other similar measures across the country. Briefly put, according to these century-plus old ‘British’ laws, Adivasis retain ownership rights on land, and the non-Adivasis are prohibited from owning or buying the land from them in the ‘scheduled areas’ where the Adivasis are a majority. These laws have largely helped them to hold the land, and, revised and diluted though, the land laws are still in force today. In this current age of privatization and the MNCs, both the federal government and corporate firms seek to change the land laws so that under the guise of development, the land of the Adivasis, rich in minerals and other natural resources, can be usurped. This long introduction is intended to help the readers understand what Stan Swamy does and why he is arrested. Stan Swamy empowers the Adivasis, helps them assert their dignity and rights and activate their agency, and stands with them as they oppose the ‘developmental’ processes that eventually would destroy their culture and life.

Stan Swamy was arrested on 8th October, 2020 by National Investigation Agency (NIA is an immensely powerful federal agency) at Bagaicha in Ranchi, a Jesuit research and training center founded to educate and empower Adivasis, and since then he has been in the news, in India and in several parts of the world. Global and local press covered the news, and several TV channels held discussions and debates on him. Condemning the act and calling for Stan’s release, many Press Notes were released: they include those issued by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI), several States Bishops’ Councils, Jesuit offices and institutions, prominent politicians and intellectuals, and most recently, the UNHCR. Demonstrations were held all over India–still they are being held–and they have been peaceful, and some of them were attended by large numbers in spite of the Covid19 fears and restrictions. Holding StandwithStan banners, the protesters (including laity and clergy and religious, archbishops and bishops, politicians and parliamentarians, scholars, rights’ activists, writers, poets, historians, Adivasis, and commoners) appealed for Stan’s immediate release.

In spite of the fact that he has been cooperating with the investigating agencies (they took away his laptop and other documents earlier, and in July and August 2020, in five sessions, he was questioned for 15 hours) and would continue to cooperate, in spite of his advanced age and the ailments he struggles with, in spite of reminding them of the Covid-19 travel restricts that are in force, NIA officers took Stan away on 8th and flew him to Mumbai on 9th October. A special court ordered that he stay in custody till 23rd October. On 22nd October his bail-plea was rejected and, his jail-stay extended. He is kept along with other fifteen (these are human rights activists, lawyers, writers, journalists etc., and they can be aptly called co-pilgrims, in my view) who are being investigated.

The allegation is that they all have links to the Bhima-Koregaon incident. On 1st January 2018 and a day prior to it, a group of Dalits assembled there to celebrate the victory of their ancestors over persons of higher castes, in an event  that occurred two hundred years ago. The celebration turned violent, resulting in a death and some getting injured. The allegation is that these sixteen, directly or indirectly and through their writings or speeches and support, incited violence and therefore are culpable. Stan Swamy denied either visiting Bhima-Koregaon or knowing of the event or supporting it in any way (similarly, the others denied, and termed it a fabricated case to implicate them since they question the governmental policies). Another allegation is that, again like the others, Stan has links with the Maoists aka Naxalites. As armed guerrilla groups they promise to empower the poor by fighting inequalities and injustices and using force and violence. Some portray them as anti-nationals. Stan rejected the allegation that had such links and said that he always upheld Indian Constitution, worked to secure human and land rights to the Adivasis under the laws of the land, and when protesting, always used Gandhian non-violent means.

What was Stan working for and why is he possibly arrested? Let us read his views that offer insights into his life and mission (the quote is from Stan’s article titled Does Raising Questions on the Rights of Adivasis make me a ‘Deshdrohi’?, re-published in The Wire.in on 9th October, 2020. Deshdrohi means ‘anti-national’):

Over the last two decades, I have identified myself with the adivasi people and their struggle for a life of dignity and self-respect. As a writer, I have tried to analyze the different issues they face. In this process, I have clearly expressed my dissent over several policies and laws enacted by the government in the light of the Indian constitution. I have questioned the validity, legality and justness of several steps taken by the government and the ruling class.

He raises questions that make those who hold authority, power and wealth uncomfortable. He speaks of Indian Constitution which provides special status and privileges to Adivasis, of Supreme Court Judgements that favor the causes of the Adivasis, and, files cases in the courts seeking the release of thousands of Adivasi youth who languish in jails for the lack of support and legal help. Put it simply, Stan Swamy empowers the Adivasis and it annoys the powerful, the landed, and the corporates. In a video message, accessible at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwbGbD4UlzA, he released days before his arrest, he said that he was conscious of what he was doing, and the price he has to pay for his stand:

What is happening to me is not something unique happening to me alone. It is a broader process that is taking place all over the country. We are all aware how prominent intellectuals, lawyers, writers, poets, activists, student leaders- they are all put into jail just because they have expressed their dissent or raised questions about the ruling powers in India. So we are part of the process. In a way, I am happy, to be part of this process because I am not a silent spectator but a part of it, part of the game and ready pay the price whatever it be.

While Stan Swamy may be glad that many in India and outside seek his release, he also knew that the Indian Catholic Church has a long way to go before it can find its prophetic voice. The question is, is it fair to say at this juncture that Indian Catholics are living fully conscious of the Stan-moment and that it is helping them to find their prophetic voice? Historically, through its varied ministries and the stand it took when required, Indian Catholic Church stood for human dignity, human rights and for upholding Constitutional values. In that sense, Stan Swamy’s arrest and the Church’s response is not unique: yet, it is a very special moment since it comes at a time when India is going through unprecedented changes, at a time when the nation’s taken-for-granted diversity and plurality are threated, and, arguably, it finds itself at crossroads worried that the very idea of India is at stake.

While the Church is what it is for the faithful (Scripture and the Sacraments spiritually nourish them and make their lives grace-filled), for the rest of Indians, Church is what it does through the works of charity and service. Education, healthcare, and social services are usually admired and appreciated by most. However, public reaction will vary when the Church’s personnel, especially priests and religious, focus on activities that promote human dignity and human rights. Such activities can disturb the mindsets of those who uphold and perpetuate hierarchy and benefit from the unjust social structures. Empowering the Adivasis, Dalits and others is risky, and Stan Swamy has been doing it for decades.

Did the Catholic Church find its prophetic voice? It depends. Several of those, be it laity or clergy, who are in solidarity with Stan and protest for his release may or may not share his spiritual-wavelength. Some support this ‘Adivasi rights activist’ out of kindness or sympathy or to save the Church’s honor. Some others, while supporting him, may have thought among themselves, ‘we will be with Stan this time but why did he go the ‘activist’ way; he should remember that he is a Priest first and should have been careful and prudent!’ Across the country one could hear some members of the clergy and the religious make such comments. At the same time, if some differed and disagreed with Stan’s views on ministerial priesthood, there are many who said ‘we should have been there where Stan was’ or ‘hereafter we will be there where Stan had been.’ Such expressions signify a shift and indicate that slowly Church personnel begin to find their prophetic voice. Even though all Christians by vocation are called to be prophets, when they and especially clergy and religious, consciously ‘grow-up’ into prophets the Church can gladly recognize it as a Kairos moment.

In other words, if a section of Indian Catholics, especially some members of the clergy and the religious, begin to wonder and say, ‘why I was not there where Stan was’ and ‘from now on how can I be there where he was,’ one can say that Stan-moment has generated inspiring and thought-provoking theological and spiritual discourses. While it is important to say I-stand-with-Stan, probably one needs more courage and spiritual stamina to say I-am-Stan or I-shall-be-Stan. Holding a poster with the former is certainly appreciable but moving to the latter needs deeper convictions and commitment and willingness to take risks in life, much like Stan himself.

In my view, as I hear and read and speak to others, Stan-moment has woke up and generated a very significant debate among large sections of Catholics in the country. It began to help Catholics to find their own voice. In light of Stan Swamy’s life and mission, the discourse began to focus on three fronts: a) the people we serve, b) the collaborators we choose, and, c) the powers that we are destined to face and confront!

Stan chose to serve the Adivasis, ‘most oppressed among Indian people’ according to Harsh Mander. Stan did not limit himself to minister exclusively to the Catholics or seek potential converts among Adivasis. He brought various sects of Adivasis together and helped them discover their God-given dignity and to claim their freedoms and rights. He wanted them to realize that God made us all for freedom and any chain that binds anyone needs to be broken. One may not have Adivasis in their neighborhood or in their constituencies but one can always find those who are in such similar situations. The overarching theme of solidarity that is brilliantly illustrated in Fratelli Tutti alludes to this. Stan-moment helps Catholics to become conscious of such people and contexts, what keep them there, and, what needs to be done to free them.

Stan’s collaborators were, in Pedro Arrupe’s words, ‘men and women for others’ involved in nation building:’ they share a vision and a dream that enable them to stand together in spite of facing trials and sufferings. There are millions of Indians who dream for a better tomorrow, not only for themselves but for the others, especially for the marginalized. Writers and journalists, activists and lawyers, intellectuals and student-leaders are today’s mystics and martyrs, and Stan’s life and ministry overlapped with theirs. They come from all castes and religions, languages and regions. Stan-moment galvanizes many Catholics to shed their inhibitions, leave the comfort zones and join the peoples’ movements that are in the forefront in spreading Gods Reign.

Stan-moment also enables more Catholics to open their eyes to see what is happening in the country, and, what is happening to the country. The phenomenon is not entirely unknown but we need someone to point it out so that the picture is clearer. Stan spoke of the ‘processes’ that are attempting to re-shape our beloved nation, relying on a blue-print that significantly differs from what Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Tagore had in their mind, and what Ambedkar and other drafters of the Constitution of India had envisaged. One needs stronger faith and hope than ever to believe that God is greater and more powerful than the apparently dark and powerful forces that encircle the country now, and, that surely, people’s collective will and imagination shall prevail.

God willing, Stan will be released eventually and, all will be fine. At the same time, if this Stan-moment can fire Catholic Church’s imagination and enable it discover its prophetic vocation, that will be an incredible blessing. Let us recall Gandhi’s iconic glasses at this time. Along with fellow Indians, Indian Catholics can consciously wear these glasses. They can help us see ourselves and others, India’s strengths and limitations, and our collective commitment for the betterment of the poor. Finally, let us note with gladness Indian motto, the Upanishadic verse which says, truth alone triumphs, and not falsehood. It is crucial to remember the second part of verse that is usually ignored. Let Stan-moment motivate us to believe that not only truth triumphs but frees us all as well!