As told to Anumeha Yadav
I am the national coordinator of the Visthapan Virodhi Janvikas Andolan, a coalition of anti-displacement movements across the country. I live in Jharkhand. Father Stan Swamy, who passed away on July 5, was one of the founders of this broad coalition of people’s movements.
I was jailed for my activism for nine months. The police charged me with the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 in a case in 2008. I was later acquitted by the court. Father Stan fought for my release. I was arrested a second time three years ago.
On February 15, 2018, the Jharkhand police arrested me from the site of a seminar organised in Ranchi on democratic rights. I was being hounded for organising an event four months earlier in Giridih to mark 50 years of Naxalbari and the centenary year of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution. Note that this was no clandestine event, the state authorities had given us permission for the event almost 15 days in advance, which was withdrawn just a day before the event to throw a spanner in the works. The police kept me in solitary confinement for this crime in a cell without a window for over three months. Father Stan stood by me and my family through all of this, and advocated for my civil liberties.
Meeting Father Stan
I was born as one of three children in Jitpur panchayat in Tundi in Dhanbad. My father worked as bandhua mazdoor, a bonded labourer, on the farms of upper caste landowners in Dhanbad, a coal-rich region of Jharkhand. After my father worked as a bonded labourer his whole life, the landowner had provided our family a small homestead plot. My father managed to educate me in a government school in the village and in 2003, I left Dhanbad to enroll myself in college in Ranchi.
I first met Father Stan in 2004. I had come in contact with anti-displacement activists in Ranchi when I moved there for higher studies. Their work resonated with me.
After Jharkhand was carved as a new state out of Bihar in 2001, the promise was that the indigenous tribes and people, the Adivasis, and Moolvasis like me, would be able to govern themselves. We were told the region’s socio-economic development would be aligned to our traditions. The Bharatiya Janata Party formed the first government in the new state in 2001.
Jharkhand accounts for more than 40 percent of India’s mineral wealth. This region is abundant in water resources, forests, and mineral riches. One of the first steps the then government took was to sign Memorandums of Understanding with large corporations to give our resources away to companies.
In the past, as part of Bihar, the Jharkhand region saw vast displacement. Lakhs of Adivasis and the poor living in forests and villages were displaced in the establishment of coal mines, bauxite mines, hydel projects such as Masanjore dam, the Tata factory in Jamshedpur and dam in Chandil. These policies led to being forced to leave and labour in tea estates or as domestic workers in metropolitan cities.
With the new government signing these MoUs, we again faced the possibility and a threat of large-scale displacement of the poor and those depending on forest and common lands by these projects.
Working together with Father Stan Swamy, and Ranchi’s other progressives, intellectuals, our coalition got information through Right to Information applications of 74 such MoUs to alienate people’s land without their knowledge and consent. Working with Father Stan on this shaped my understanding of how the government even after the formation of a new state planned to sell mineral resources coal, iron, ores to corporates for quick profits, and how this would make the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, the Moolvasis homeless, forcing them to move away.
This is how we constituted Visthapan Virodhi Janvikas Andolan, or VVJA, to wage a struggle against displacement.
A life devoted to the people
From 2004, when Father Stan was 67 years old, until now, I saw that his role and focus remained to save and conserve the forests, land, the community hills, which are the source of our livelihood, and our culture. To take part in this struggle, Father Stan wrote articles regularly; he thought about Jharkhand’s indigenous tribes and communities everyday, and he remained with us in every struggle.
For some years now, in Jharkhand as well as other states, the Adivasis who reside in forests and interior villages where the land holds mineral reserves are being coerced to give up their land or face arrests. Also, successive governments have registered false cases against intellectuals, writers, poets, social activists, to put them in prisons, intensifying the challenges for us.
In 2014, and later in April 2017, the Home Ministry the Visthapan Virodhi Janvikas Andolan as a “Maoist” front in its , but we are neither an NGO, nor any front. We are a broad-based people’s movement against displacement. We advocate against forced displacement. In fact, we have faced state violence in the form of false arrests of our members.
Father Stan Swamy co-founded and lived and worked at Bagaicha, a research and training institute in Namkum on the outskirts of Ranchi since 2006. For the past few years, successive governments in Jharkhand have incarcerated youth who resist land acquisition. They were mostly Dalits, Other Backward Castes, and Scheduled Tribes. Over 16 to 18 months from 2012 to 2014, Father Stan tried to reach out to and investigate the conditions of undertrials, their families, and tried to secure bail for them and I worked with him on this.
We submitted applications to all 26 jails of Jharkhand under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI). The total occupancy in Jharkhand prisons was 128 per cent of the actual prison capacity. Interviewing men and women who were alleged to be “extremists” under Section 17 of the Criminal Law and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, we that Adivasis and Moolvasi constituted nearly 70 percent, about half were in the age group of 29-40 years, and about 22 present belonged to the 18-28 years age-group. Nearly all of them were landless or simple agriculturists, with 59 percent earning less than Rs 3,000 per month. They struggled to meet bail conditions or legal expenses.
Father Stan Swamy highlighted how in September 2016, the National Human Rights Commission acknowledged that 514 innocent Adivasi youth had been pressured and cheated by paramilitary and police officials to “surrender” as Naxalites promising them jobs and imprisoning them to apply for awards and promotions.
As part of the coalition, Father Stan pursued both these cases in court. His on the undertrials’ release is pending before the Ranchi High Court. In the case of forced, fake “surrender” of Adivasi youth as “Naxalites”, the administration of Chaibasa, Khunti, Gumla, and Ranchi districts did not submit responses in court and tried to delay and drag the case. There have been no hearings in the case since October 2019.
Jharkhand has special tenancy laws meant to protect the land rights of indigenous communities. Five years back, when the then Jharkhand government announced it will amend two tenancy laws to allow use of agricultural land of tribal people for non-agricultural purposes, Father Stan Swamy wrote articles, published booklets, and organised meetings along with Jharkhandi intellectuals and activists to advocate to save these special Acts.
The Chotanagpur Tenancy Act of 1908 restricts the sale of tribal land to non-tribals in 16 districts of Jharkhand. The Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act of 1876 prohibits sale of tribal land to non-tribals in the Santhal Pargana region. Later, the government had to withdraw these amendments.
Along with this, Father Stan advocated for and worked for the implementation of the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996, the forests rights laws, and the Supreme Court’s Samata judgement which accord primacy of the gram sabha, the villages assemblies, on decisions on land use. These are all laws and judgements which the government ought to have tried to save, but it did not.
Laws meant for special protections for Dalit, Adivasi and oppressed communities are like a kawach, a protective cover, for these communities. Every time the government tried to break these laws, Father Stan stepped up to write, to protest, to express his dissent, to secure the democratic rights of the oppressed.
In the 17 years that I knew him, I realised Father Stan lived for the Adivasi and Moolvasi communities of Jharkhand – thinking of, speaking and writing for them. He made his life’s mission to not only write and speak up for these communities, but to also experience what people are going through by actually living among them. This was his daily routine for the 17 years that I spent with him.
When the police harassed and arrested social and , a Santhal Adivasi, and tried to brand him a Naxalite, and later even arrested and imprisoned his wife Aparna Marandi who was attending to him in prison, Father Stan went to their village, their home, and raised questions about their arrests. He asked why, after Birsa Munda’s sentencing by the British, the same was being repeated in independent India, targeting an Adivasi who spoke up like this. He took part in several campaigns, public meetings and demonstrations for their release.
Who are these thousands of Adivasis and poor undertrials in Jharkhand? They are those who speak up to protect the natural resources, the jal jungle zameen in their villages? Who are the advocates to conserve the community’s resources and why do they do so? It is because they know that the state’s so-called “development model” has displaced lakhs and crores of Adivasis. It has captured their resources, and forced them out. They have been forced and coerced out of their homes.
Decades after Independence, the government has failed to create basic services and provisions for roti, kapda, makaan, for education and employment, and on top of it, the government tries to loot our livelihood resources and exclude us from them.
The people understand this and that is when they step forward, and then the governments start trapping them in false cases, charges, imprisoning them under black laws such as Unlawful Activities Prevention Act 1967 which allows prolonged incarceration without bail, to keep them locked up for years. The conviction rate in UAPA cases is extremely low at 2.2 percent between 2016-19 (), showing that these charges are largely without any evidence. It was against all this that Father Stan Swamy spoke up, wrote about, and tried to fight their battle through their legal and democratic protests.
The National Investigation Agency arrested 84-year old Swamy from Bagaicha in October 2020 while the country reeled under a pandemic and there were curbs on movement after the lockdown. Despite the Covid crisis raging in the country, the NIA officials took him from his home to a place he had never been to before.
We protested this wrong and struggled against his arrest. Eight months on, the State has killed Father Stan Swamy in judicial custody. The judges who knew of his condition as an elderly, ailing person with Parkinson’s disease, who denied him bail, and then tried to stall his case giving dates upon dates for delaying his hearing too are responsible for this.
In the days to come, more social activists and human rights defenders may face the same. This is a big challenge. But Jharkhand has a 400-year-old history of struggle of Adivasi Moolvasi to save land, water, forests and culture – from Birsa Munda’s movement, to Sidho Kano, Tilka Majhi, who revolted against British to protect our resources and culture, our livelihood. We have faced such challenges before and we are ready.
In days to come we will rise against this injustice, taking inspiration from Birsa, Sidho Kano, Tilka Majhi, Chand Bhairav. This fight will not stop – we will come together for activists like Father Stan, for human rights defenders, those opposing CAA-NRC and arrested in false cases, those whose lives are being destroyed as they are kept in prisons, the movement against all this will intensify.
If we, the Adivasis, the Dalits, do not protest and take part in movements, our jal jangal zameen, our source of livelihood will be looted. We have to advance because there is no place for us to retreat.
Damodar Turi is the national coordinator of Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan, a coalition to resist land alienation and forced displacement of poor and indigenous communities.