By Vatican News staff writer
An elderly Indian Jesuit priest, who is in prison on charges of terrorism for championing the rights of Adivasis (indigenous people) and the marginalized in Jharkhand state, says he is overwhelmed by the humanity of his fellow prisoners.
In a letter to his friends, Father Stan Swamy says that his cellmates, who are from “very poor families,” help him with his daily needs. “I ask you to remember my companions and colleagues in your prayers,” Father Swamy writes.
Officials of the National Investigation Authority (NIA), a federal agency to combat terrorist activities, arrested Father Stan Swamy on Oct. 8 from Bagaicha, a Jesuit social action centre in the outskirts of Jharkhand capital, Ranchi, which works for the rights of indigenous people in Jharkhand. He has been accused of links with Maoist insurgents who are said to have been behind the violence in Bhima Koregaon village in the western state of Maharashtra in January 2018. He is being held in Taloja Central Prison in Navi Mumbai, Maharashtra.
The lawyers of the 83-year old ailing priest had applied for bail on humanitarian grounds under a provision by the Supreme Court to release prisoners in view of the Covid-19 pandemic. The NIA rejected his plea for interim bail on October 23, saying he was taking undue advantage of the pandemic.
“Humanity overflows in Taloja prison”
The frail priest suffers from Parkinson’s disease and hearing impairment, and has had two surgeries for hernia. He finds it very difficult to wash or eat on his own. His cellmates help him bathe, wash his linen and eat. For the Jesuit priest, these are signs that “despite everything, humanity overflows in Taloja prison.”
Father Swamy says that the prison also holds other activists in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case, such as Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira. The priest is NIA’s 16th, and oldest, arrest in the case. He meets them during prison recreation.
Given his Parkinson’s disease, Father Swamy had been using straws and sippers, as he is unable to hold a glass in hand. The NIA refused to hand the straws and sipper back to the priest after he was flown to Mumbai after his arrest and neither did prison authorities provide him with these simple assistive items, the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD) said, according to The Hindu.
Father Swamy sought the permission of the NIA court requesting the use of these aids, and the court on Nov. 6 sought 20 days to file a reply to the application. The matter will now be heard on November 26, according to The Hindu.
Meanwhile, the NPRD has sought the “immediate intervention” of the National Human Rights Commission’s (NHRC) to ensure that Father Swamy is provided with requisite age and disability appropriate accommodation; assistive aids, including straws and sippers; and human care assistance as required.
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Oct. 20 noted that “the 83-year-old Catholic priest Stan Swamy, a long-standing activist engaged in defending the rights of marginalized groups, was charged and reportedly remains in detention, despite his poor health.” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, urged the government to “release people charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for simply exercising basic human rights that India is obligated to protect.”
Below are some excerpts from Fr Stan Swamy’s letter written with the help of a fellow prisoner:
Dear friends: Peace!
Although I do not have many details, from what I have heard, I am grateful to all of you for the support and solidarity you express on my behalf. I am in a cell of approximately 4m x 2.4m, together with two of my cellmates. It has a small bathroom and an Indian dressing table. Luckily, I was given a western-style commode. Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira are in another cell. During the day, when the cells and wards are open, we meet.
From 5.30 in the afternoon to 6 in the morning, and from 12 noon to 3 in the afternoon, I am locked in my cell with my two companions. Arun assists me in eating breakfast and lunch. Vernon helps me take a bath. My two cellmates help me during dinner, washing my clothes and giving me knee massages.
They come from very poor families. I ask you to remember my companions and colleagues in your prayers.
Despite everything, humanity overflows into the Taloja prison.