The death of Stan Swamy and the crackdown on dissent in India

Martintxo Mantxo (A Planeta)

(Castellano)

As we reported in the previous article on political prisoners in India (For a 2021 without political prisoners – an international update of some of them), one of the most high-profile cases of repression against dissidents is associated with the events of Bhima Koregaon in 2018 (Read more about these prisoners) used to crush dissent, using the UAPA or Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.

On Monday (5 July) 84-year-old political prisoner Stan Swamy died in prison while awaiting bail. He had been taken to hospital after contracting the COVID-19 virus and died of cardiac arrest. Despite his condition, the authorities were adamant not to release him on compassionate grounds, so his death is seen by many as an “institutional murder”.

Swamy was a Jesuit scholar and priest with a well-known commitment to the disadvantaged, especially the Dalit (untouchable) and Adivasi (indigenous) people, who are facing eviction from their traditional lands. These forced evictions have been perpetrated by the extractive industry with the backing of the government. He was arrested and jailed on terrorism charges in October 2020 by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on the basis of false evidence: Swamy himself denounced that false evidence had been planted on his computer. An independent US-based digital forensics company soon showed that this had been done on a large scale to arrest people within the Bhima Koregaon case. Stan Swamy was also charged with allegedly belonging to banned Maoist organisations and fomenting violence on January 1, 2018 in Bhima Koregaon village in Maharashtra.

Koregaon Bhima was a Dalit celebration for the 200th anniversary of a battle in which Dalit fighters defeated the Peshwa Brahmin rulers of the Maratha empire. The celebration was severely repressed, adding to the long list of abuses and marginalisation of the Dalit people. One person was killed by the police and 300 were arrested.

The Koregaon Bhima case is notable for its subsequent use by the authoritarian Modi government to legally crush revolutionary dissent by accusing leaders of provoking violence, and for using human rights violations, disregard for norms and misuse of the law against those imprisoned. Sixteen prisoners were coincidentally prominent activists and still remained untried a few days ago. As we said in the previous article on political prisoners, Bhima Koregaon’s prisoners were subjected to the UAPA or Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, a law amended two years ago to enable the government to charge an individual as a “terrorist” without the need for a trial.

Like Swamy, 81-year-old Telugu poet and political activist Varavara Rao also remains imprisoned in brutal conditions, also for daring to question power and stand up for the powerless. He also tested positive for COVID-19 and is being held in detention.

As Prateek Goyal reports in News Laundry: “Maharashtra’s jails routinely provide TVs, refrigerators, air conditioners, mobile phones and home-cooked food to big criminals and politicians. However, they refused to give a drinking straw to Stan Swamy (…) The police also refused a request for 70-year-old Gautam Navlakha’s family to send him a pair of glasses”.

Gurpreet Singh recalls in Straight that “Swamy’s demise coincides with the looming 51st anniversary of the extra-judicial killing of an 82-year-old former Indian freedom fighter, Bujha Singh, who died in police custody on July 28, 1970. Singh participated in the struggle to rid India of the British occupation. More than two decades after the British left, he was murdered by police for his association with a revolutionary Communist movement, which was sparked by an uprising of landless tillers fighting against the rich and the elites since the 1960s. Following an uprising in the Naxalbari village of West Bengal by poor farmers, who claimed a right to the land, there was a campaign of police repression. People like Singh joined the radical movement. All reports indicate that he died in a staged shootout by Punjab police under a different regime”.

Singh draws an analogy between corona (coronavirus) and karuna (Sanskrit and Pali for “compassion”), to reflect on President Modi’s mismanagement of both the pandemic and politics, as he “remained indifferent to a petition seeking the unconditional release of political prisoners due to the spread of the virus in Indian jails”. For him, this lack of compassion for old prisoners like Swamy and Rao is aimed at creating a precedent and instilling fear in the minds of political dissidents. He also denounces the increase in the disparity between rich and poor over the last 50 years, while imposing lofty claims of development and progress.

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More on repression and injustice under the Modi regime: Current agrarian protests in India against new neoliberal legislation

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