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Remembering Indian Jesuit Stan Swamy, who died a prisoner

He had the courage to question, to act when he did not get the right answers. He paid the price with his life.

Stan Swamy in 2020

Stan Swamy in 2020 (wikipedia)

Published: July 05, 2022 03:36 AM GMT

Updated: August 01, 2022 10:46 AM GMT

The celebrated Greek philosopher Aristotle developed the methodology of asking a question to ultimately arrive at the truth. Jesuit Father Stan Swamy, whose first death anniversary is on 5 July 2022, was no stranger to philosophy or the scientific method.

For years, he coached generations of young women and men, in social analysis. He taught them to ask questions to understand what is happening in society.  Besides, he had the courage to question; and he asked the most difficult and uncomfortable questions.

Father Stan questioned the Church: he did not flinch from doing so. It was not easy at a time when questioning the system to which one belonged to, was not easily welcomed. But Father Stan, as a young priest, was shaped in the letter and spirit of Vatican II. He often questioned why some of the key directions of that pathbreaking council were not being implemented in the Indian Church. The 1971 Bishops Synod on ‘Justice in the World’ mandated the Church everywhere to work towards a more just social and economic order.

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Archbishop Helder Camara of Brazil was a great inspiration to Stan. He was a bishop who was committed to the poor and the marginalized. Camara once said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

Stan would often refer to Camara and to this quote. Interestingly, the Catholic Church will be celebrating 2025 as a Holy Year. In a message released recently by the Vatican, Pope Francis would like that the whole of 2023 be dedicated to the serious study of the Vatican II Documents. Stan studied these documents and lived them.

Father Stan questioned the Jesuit Society; he loved the society and his loyalty was unquestionable. He was also pained because he felt that the Jesuits were not sufficiently internalizing the faith-justice mandate of the 32nd General Congregation which said, “the mission of the Society of Jesus today is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement; for reconciliation with God demands the reconciliation of people with one another.”

He constantly expressed his anguish about whom Jesuit educational institutions were catering to. Given what was happening in India and in keeping with the Ignatian vision of the "magis," he felt that the Jesuits as a body had to be more responsive. His vision and mission as a Jesuit could never be faulted. Ever since his incarceration in October 2020 and on his death, the Jesuit Superior-General Father Arturo Sosa has been sending out strong messages of support for the work of Father Stan.

On Jan. 15, 2021, on the hundredth day of Stan’s incarceration. Arturo said: "Father Stan dedicated his whole life to the poorest in the world, the indigenous Adivasi and the Dalits. He is the voice of the voiceless. He has stood before the powerful and told them the truth, he is committed to defending the human rights of minorities.".

Father Stan questioned the development model that was being flaunted by the rich, the powerful and other vested interests. In an article written on the Indian website Scroll, a short time after Stan’s death last year, Harsh Mander wrote: “Stan Swamy said to us, ‘If you question this form of development, you are anti-development, which is equal to anti-government, which is equal to anti-national. A simple equation. This is why the government calls me a Maoist, although I am completely opposed to Maoist methods, and have nothing to do with them.’”

Father Stan questioned why the Adivasis (tribal people) were being denied their legitimate constitutional rights. His consistent question was: “how long will the Adivasis be victims of systemic oppression?”

Just before his arrest, he said, “Over the last two decades, I have identified myself with the Adivasi people and their struggle for a life of dignity and self-respect… 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. If this makes me a ‘deshdrohi’ (terrorist) , then so be it. We are part of the process. In a way I am happy to be part of this process. I am not a silent spectator, but part of the game and ready to pay the price whatever be it…. I/we must be ready to face the consequences. I would just add that what is happening to me is not unique. Many activists, lawyers, writers, journalists, student leaders, poets, intellectuals and others who stand for the rights of Adivasis, Dalits and the marginalised and express their dissent to the ruling powers of the country are being targeted. Grateful to all who have stood in solidarity with me all these years.”

Father Stan questioned the entire system: the police, the National Investigation Agency, the corporate sector, and the government because of their corrupt, anti-people, anti-poor and other draconian policies. In an article in News click (18 June 2019) Stan wrote: “Several intellectuals, artists, writers, journalists, legal professionals, poets, Dalit & Adivasi rights activists, human rights activists have now become suspects in the eyes of the ruling class. They are now invariably called ‘Maoists’, ‘Naxals’, ‘urban Naxals’ etc. Cases, including serious cases such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act [UAPA], and Sedition have been foisted on them. Several of them have already been jailed, others are being harassed with raids on their workplaces and residences”.

Father Stan had the courage to question — and to act when he did not get the right answers. He paid the price for it with his life! May we have the courage to emulate him!

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