Indian Jesuit sees state attempt to silence activists

Veteran activist priest denies being part of plot to kill India's prime minister
Indian Jesuit sees state attempt to silence activists

Jesuit Father Stan Swamy, whose residence in Ranchi was raided on Aug. 28, faces charges of supporting anti-national activities and terrorism. (Photo supplied)

Indian Jesuit Father Stan Swamy says police raids on his residence and those of eight other activists were part of a state attempt to intimidate and silence those working for the rights of poor and marginalized people.

Special police teams from Maharashtra state on Aug. 28 arrested five activists on charges of supporting terrorism and anti-national activities.

"All the activists targeted in this multi-city operation have been tirelessly involved in fighting for the rights of the poorest marginalized sections of society against serious state violations and unscrupulous corporates," said 82-year-old Father Swamy.

The priest, based in Ranchi in the eastern state of Jharkhand, said in his Aug. 29 statement that the charges against him were not explained to him and he "still does not know exactly the basis on which the raid was conducted."

Police told media that the raids were linked to a public meeting held in Pune city on Dec. 31, 2017, before violent clashes occurred between Dalits and higher-caste Maratha people in the Bhima Koregaon area and several other parts of Maharashtra in early January.

"If the police are trying to implicate me in an incident that happened in Pune, I was not present in Pune," said Father Swamy, who has been leading campaigns for tribal people's land rights in Jharkhand, where he has been based for five decades.

Police investigating the January violence arrested five people in June and linked them with a banned Maoist movement. Police later told media about a plan hatched in Pune to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a bombing.

"Why should I plot to kill the prime minister? Let the prime minister be hale and hearty and this is my prayer," the octogenarian Catholic priest told a press conference.

The latest raids have been condemned by several groups who claim the police have been used to silence rights advocates and suppress a possible uprising by poor tribals and Dalit people.

In Mumbai city, 35 civil society organizations including Mumbai Catholic Sabha and the Justice and Peace Commission joined a press conference to condemn the raids.

Senior lawyer Mihir Desai of the People's Union for Civil Liberties demanded the unconditional release of all those arrested on "fabricated charges" and compensation for the raids and arrests. He also called for an investigation to find out who ordered the police action.

The arrested activists were Varavara Rao from Hyderabad, Gautam Navlakha from Delhi, Vernon Gonsalves from Mumbai, Arun Ferreira from Thane and Sudha Bharadwaj from Faridabad.

Archbishop Felix Toppo of Ranchi told ucanews.com that Father Swamy and others had been targeted for their "firm stand" to fight injustice against the poor.

Father Swamy has been at the forefront of tribal protests against a Jharkhand government move to amend a state law that had clauses to protect tribal land.

The governments in New Delhi, Ranchi and Mumbai led by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party had framed Father Swamy in the Pune case to silence the priest and scare away others from such movements, church leaders said.

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