The Jesuit priest Fr. Stan Swamy died while in police custody in India on July 5. He had been arrested for terrorist activities, a charge both he and those who knew him categorically denied. A lifelong advocate for peace and nonviolent direct action, Swamy was best known for his devotion to human rights, especially for India’s adivasis (aboriginals), Dalits (formerly known as “untouchables”), and the rural poor.
Liberation theology, already well established in Latin America, had been applied to a Dalit theology by the time I moved to India in 1981. One of its principal proponents was Fr. Stan. He was a friend of Dom Hélder Câmara and Paulo Freire and had been deeply influenced by their work. My husband and I traveled to the south Indian city of Bangalore to meet him a few months after our arrival in India.
Bangalore was considered the “garden city” in those days, and we sat with Fr. Stan on the beautiful green lawns of the Indian Social Institute, a Jesuit-run research and training center, which he headed at that time. It was too comfortable for his tastes and he was frustrated at having to remain there. “I belong in the villages,” I remember him saying.
A few years later, at the age of fifty-five—a time when most people are starting to plan for retirement—Fr. Stan was reassigned to southern Bihar, one of India’s poorest areas. (It would later become the separate state of Jharkhand.) There he remained for the rest of his life, working tirelessly in extremely difficult circumstances with landless laborers and Dalit farmers.
In 2018, Swamy, along with several other activists, became the subject of a National Investigation Agency (NIA) probe into an incident that had taken place earlier that year in Bhima Koregaon, a village four hours south of Mumbai. In January, a demonstration commemorating the two-hundredth anniversary of a successful Dalit uprising turned violent. Upper-caste mobs were incensed because the event’s speakers had suggested that the same injustices against Dalits persisted today. At least one person was killed and much property was destroyed. Two well-known Hindu nationalists were charged with instigating the violence. One was arrested and later released; the other was never charged in spite of massive protests demanding his arrest. A few weeks later, a nineteen-year-old Dalit who had witnessed the violence died mysteriously; her brother, also a witness, was arrested on a charge of attempted murder. By the end of that year, nine eminent human-rights activists in their sixties and seventies had been imprisoned. In July 2018, it was Swamy’s turn, though he said he had never been to Bhima Koregaon in his life. He was questioned for several hours by local police and later again by NIA officials.
In a video he made following another interrogation in October 2020, Swamy calmly laid out the sequence of events. For him, what had happened had nothing to do with his movements prior to the Bhima Koregaon incident and everything to do with the systematic pillage of tribal (adivasi) lands by the government and corporations. Pointing to the role he had played over the past thirty years—in helping adivasis become aware of their rights, in filing public-interest litigations, and in fighting for the passage of pro-adivasi laws—Swamy concluded: “This created conflict with the state and they wanted me out of the way. One easy way to do it was to implicate me in some serious cases.”