Post Mortem

Why are messengers of justice threats?

By Nagaland Post | Publish Date: 10/23/2020 12:44:15 PM IST

 The arrest of the 83-year old Jesuit Stan Swamy had to come sometime because he has fought for justice all his life, and people in power consider demands of justice to the poor an anti-national act. So he and many others are being punished for their stand on justice. Every government that only pays lip service to democracy finds a threat in the poor who demand their right to be human and in those who support their rights. They are a threat to people in power though the Supreme Court has interpreted Article 21 of the Constitution on right to life as every person’s right to a life with dignity. That value is a threat to the rulers who work for the profit of a few. However, his arrest shocked those who know this messenger of justice because one did not expect even the present government to arrest an 83-year old ailing person at night and take him to Mumbai where COVID-19 is raging. 

He is only the last in a series of persons to be accused of anti-national activities for demanding justice for the marginalised. Others include Gautam Navlakha the journalist who analysed situations from the point of view of the poor, Dr Anand Teltumbde the Ambedkarite intellectual and 13 others who have been arrested on charges of being urban Naxalites who conspired to create violence at Bhima Koregaon on 1st January 2018. Dr Saibaba an intellectual who is confined to the wheelchair, 59-year old Sudha Bhardwaj who is sick and was studying the situation of the tribes in Chhattigarh, a pregnant student of Jamia Millia Islamia who opposed the CAA and others who have been speaking the language of the poor have been jailed for their ‘crimes’. That Navlakha, Teltumbde, Stan and others have not been in touch with each other is irrelevant to those who accuse them of conspiracy to create violence at Bhima Koregaon and overthrow the government.

That Stan Swamy was targeted is not surprising. During the four decades when I have known him and twenty years of association with him I have seen his total commitment to the cause of the tribes, Dalits and other marginalised communities. Equally strong in him is his conviction of the need for peaceful agitation. He encouraged the communities of the poor to demand their rights and joined them whenever they struggled to protect their dignity but he applied the brake wherever he saw the possibility of violence. In the 1980s he struggled with the bonded labourers who were demanding their freedom in Tamil Nadu though many of them were bonded to the family of a powerful politician. He has taken a stand even against the church for example on the side of the Dalits in Villupuram in 1978 and in Thanjavur in 1990 who were demanding caste equality and human dignity. 

For the last quarter of a century he has been with the tribal communities of Jharkhand who are displaced, deprived of their livelihood, impoverished and made to pay the price in the name of national development. Stan felt that they were bearing the burden for the development of another class and for corporate profit. He joined them in their demands for justice and supported their struggles but kept cautioning them against violence. One, therefore, finds it difficult even to laugh when he is accused of encouraging violence. But the attack on him had to come because he has fought for the tribal cause all his life. Recently he had committed the ‘crime’ of approaching the Jharkhand High Court asking for the release of  around 3,000 tribal young persons who have been arrested and have been languishing in jail for months for demanding that the State implement the provisions of the Fifth Schedule, Forest Rights Act and other legal provisions in favour of the tribes. It was important to take Stan Swamy away from Jharkhand before the court took up the case. So this sick man who has been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for three decades and many other morbidities after it, who had cooperated fully with the NIA during fifteen hours of questioning, was arrested at night and taken to Mumbai at the risk of being exposed to COVID-19. The main accusation is that he and others encouraged violence by the Dalits of Maharashtra who celebrated on 1st January, 2018 the second centenary of the victory of the Mahar Regiment-led army over the dominant caste-led Maratha army on 1st January 1818. That was an affront to the ruling powers who would like to see the tribals, Dalits and women remain subordinate. Some anti-social elements subverted the celebrations by organising violence at Bhima Koregaon, the site of the celebration. 

That became an excuse for the State to repress people who were sympathetic to the cause of these and other oppressed groups. At first the journalist Gautam Navlakha, a strong nationalist whose nation is primarily the poor was arrested and accused of being an ISI sympathiser. Then followed Varavara Rao, Dr Anand Teltumbde, and others on accusation of being urban Naxalites.  Stan Swamy is only the last of them. They are accused of being co-conspirators in a plot to overthrow the government though most of them have never been to Bhima Koregaon or have not been in touch with each other. These facts are irrelevant to the Government or its intelligence agencies. They only know that people who question injustice or demand justice for the marginalised should be punished. It is a crime in the country that declares all citizens equal before the law. The Constitution that upholds these values seems to be a threat to the ruling powers so those who want to see its provisions implemented are punished. 

These actions of the powers that be have implications for the Northeast too. That human rights have become a red flag in this region can be seen from the arrest at different times of Jiten Yumnam in Manipur, Lachit Bordoloi and Akhil Gogoi in Assam and others elsewhere for demanding that human rights be protected or for opposing the CAA. 

The continuing existence of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is a glaring example of violation of human rights in the region. Similarly, what has happened to the tribes in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Orissa on whose side Stan Swamy has struggled can reach the Northeast not in the distant future. Our studies show that the tribals who are 12.9 percent of Assam’s population are more than 40 percent of the 19.2 lakh people deprived of sustenance in the State in the name of development 1947-2000. They are 70 percent of people displaced in Manipur where they are 40 percent of the population and 100 percent in Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. 

If the States continue to follow the policies that destroy their livelihood, what has happened in Jharkhand may be repeated in this region and those who demand justice for them will be called anti-national. It is, therefore, important for human rights activists of the Northeast to demand that all the arrested persons be released forthwith and justice be done to the Dalits, tribals and women for whose cause these intellectuals and activists have dedicated their lives. 

Walter Fernandes

Dr Walter Fernandes is Director, North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati.


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