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Is Stan Swamy's death a turning point for Indian Church?

The late Jesuit priest was aware of the implications of his work among Jharkhand's downtrodden

Is Stan Swamy's death a turning point for Indian Church?

Students take part in a protest in New Delhi on July 6 after Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy, who was detained for nine months without trial under Indian anti-terrorism laws, died on July 5. (Photo: AFP)

Stanislaus Lourduswamy SJ, 84 — Stan Swamy to friends and foes alike — died in hospital on July 5 of Parkinson’s disease and other comorbities. He had been imprisoned in Taloja jail in Mumbai since October 2020 as a so-called “urban naxal” but in reality incarcerated for his work in Jharkhand with poor tribal people. His death indicts us all.

Every government is uneasy with dissent and protests, but autocratic governments fear these most of all.

The last few years in India have seen a growing intolerance of dissent from its present regime, and a savage repression of students, activists, intellectuals — in fact, anyone who dares question the government or even poke fun at it.

The UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act), like many of its predecessors — POTA, TADA, etc — is a blanket legislation, vaguely framed and meant to constrain dissenters and protesters by dumping charges of sedition and terrorism upon them, thus keeping them in jail indefinitely and without trial.

Stan Swamy, an elderly and softly spoken Jesuit priest, was arrested under UAPA and held for nine months without trial and without bail. He finally succumbed to infections contracted while in prison and died in hospital on July 5.

He was not alone in his imprisonment — there were 15 others: intellectuals, writers, activists, poets. All of them had “offended” the regime in power and were labeled “terrorists” or “urban naxals.” None of them faced trial, all of them were refused bail.

Those who oppose such an ideology are meant to be eliminated. Some have been murdered, most have been incarcerated

Why such repressive action in a nation which has had a long tradition of open debate and free speech, of which it is legitimately proud?

The answer must be sought in the ideology of the regime in power, the BJP-RSS. It pretends to be Indian and chants “Hindu, Hindi, Hindustan” at every opportunity. In reality, its inspiration derives from European fascism of the 1930s, its idols are Mussolini and Hitler, and its public resolve is to create a uniform, nationalist state, inimical to minorities, through lies, manipulation and violence.

Those who oppose such an ideology are meant to be eliminated. Some have been murdered, most have been incarcerated.

Stan Swamy was one of these. He himself was aware of the implications of his work. He had consistently fought for the rights of tribal people in Jharkhand and elsewhere, a people who stood to lose their landsto major corporates abetted by the government.

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“I am not a bystander,” Stan had said more than once. “I am willing to pay the price for my stance.”

What is the message that Stan Swamy gave to the Church to which he belonged?

Over the last two centuries, the work of the Church in India has followed a well-worn path. Through its schools, parishes, hospitals and orphanages, Christian mission has emphasized service to all and sundry, but especially to the poor and the outcast.

Each form of service both built up the Christian community and ensured its favor with the wider non-Christian milieu. For these services were appreciated. In times of natural calamity, Christian relief services were usually the first to offer succor.

But the times have changed even though many wish they hadn’t.

The services offered by the Church avoided a critical look at society and sidestepped any public engagement for social change which would invite hostility. Thus, Christians rarely challenged political parties, or attempted to redress the legal system, or even allied themselves with other groups working for social change.

For numerous other groups have also challenged India's caste-ridden and exploitative society, one of the most unjust societies in the world.

The service approach is at best palliative, not prophetic. It seeks to heal the wounds and offer remedial relief. It does not ask who causes the hurt or why people are wounded.

And what does it mean to be prophetic? In a line, “to speak truth to power.” The official Church is uncomfortable with doing this. It is afraid of the repercussions.

The demands of truth, justice, equity and righteousness are common to all

But should the Church take up such issues alone? There are several groups in the country who are as concerned about the rampant injustice, the persecution of minorities, the oppression of women, Dalits, tribal people.

And through the dialogue of work, Christians are urged to work with those others who share the same objectives even though they may not always share the same methods, or values. 

Sadly, Christians are loath to work with others. This may be in part because of the leadership of their priests, who often have a dogmatic approach to all collaborative work. And Catholics, particularly, are usually obedient to whatever their priests say. Whence their hesitation and reluctance.

Is the death of Stan Swamy perhaps a turning point in the Church’s presence in this country? It’s too early to say.

Still, the witness of men like Stan Swamy, A.T. Thomas, Herman Rasschaert and Joseph Idiakunnel — and women like Gladys Staines, Rani Maria Vattatil and Valsa John Malamel — points to another road for the Church than the usual one of schools and parishes.

The persons mentioned above were all ordinary men and women who worked with the poor and the marginalized, and they witnessed to these with their lives.

They were not confined by the boundaries of race or religion in their outreach, but included all within the embrace of their humanity. 

Being a martyr, for Christians at least, has hitherto been associated with witness to a certain faith. No longer. The demands of truth, justice, equity and righteousness are common to all, and all of us are called to witness to these values in solidarity with men and women everywhere.

This is the new road which Stan Swamy and his companions point out to us, and maybe it’s a dangerous road. But with courage and in companionship, we are invited to walk this way together.

Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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