Anger and grief spilled onto the worn pavements of Mumbai’s Bandra on Tuesday when people gathered to bid farewell to Father Stan Swamy, who died Monday afternoon. The Jesuit priest, who passed away at the Holy Family Hospital while in custody, devoted his life standing up for people. And so, on Tuesday, people stood for him.
“I just feel his soul needs to know we are here,” said Kashmira, a retired photojournalist. She stood outside the closed gates of St Peter’s Church, where Swamy’s funeral was held, for almost two hours; first waiting, then listening and watching the prayer meet on her phone.
“It is not a protest,” Kashmira said. “It is to show solidarity with the kind of work he did. Is this the way we're going to be treated if we do good work?”
Kashmira was one of a dozen people outside the church, who had all come in their individual capacities. Another group of 30-odd people outside were members of the church or social activism organisations like the Bombay Catholic Sabha, Hum Bharat Ke Log, and Jamaat-E-Islami Hind. They lit candles and prayed for Swamy.
“This should go down as a murder on account on judicial indifference and the vengeance on the part of the government,” said Raphael D’Souza, president of the Bombay Catholic Sabha. Members of this organisation had posters to honour Stan and hold the government and courts accountable.
“Sorry Stan, we failed you,” one poster said, “How many more deaths of Bhima Koregaon detainees? This must stop.”
“This is a murder. He has been sacrificed, others should not be,” said D’Souza. “We have been saying give the activists a trial at the earliest and let the truth come out. But neither the courts nor the administration is interested in doing that. They want the people to suffer behind bars in pathetic conditions. They want to spread fear among the social activists that if you raise your voice, this is what is going to happen.”
‘I feel like he is my own’
The sparse crowd can be attributed to a message circulated on social media by the Priests of the Society of Jesus and Father Frazer Mascarenhas, the parish priest at St Peter’s. The message cited Covid protocols and requested people not to come to the church; instead, they could watch the funeral mass on a YouTube livestream.
At the funeral, priests spoke about Swamy’s work with the Adivasi and tribal communities, the false charges against him, and in support of the other activists still awaiting bail. They also spoke about the help he received from fellow inmates and his final moments in hospital. Around 20,000 people were in attendance online.
After the mass, his mortal remains were taken to Shivaji Park for cremation. His ashes will be sent to Jharkhand.
But for those who held vigil outside the church, it was important to be there.
“The message being sent is that if you’re working for the marginalised and oppressed in the country, you’re going to be targeted,” said Feroze Mithiborwala, a social activist. “We know what the state of the country is right now. There is an institutional collapse in the way the judiciary is working, police is functioning and how investigations are being carried out.”
For Dolphy D’Souza, Swamy’s death highlights how “anti-people” the government is. “I don’t look at this as a minority issue: I look at it as an issue of equitable justice for all citizens of this country, including the most vulnerable that father Stan represented,” he said.
According to him, while the accused in the Bhima Koregaon case are either atheists or from different faiths, what was common was that they consistently mobilised, educated and empowered the vulnerable sections to organise and fight for their rights. This upset the powers, he said, and made them incarcerate the very people who were the voices of the voiceless.
A few local politicians were also part of the group. Ruben Mascarenhas, the working president of the Aam Aadmi Party in Mumbai, held up a poster that said “Ft Stan didn’t die, he was killed”.
“An example is being made out of Stan Swamy and a message is being sent out to anyone who questions this government or stands up on the side of the oppressed,” Mascarenhas said. “It’s sad that now people can’t even die in peace. The state has to ensure that even death is basically weaponised to fear.”
Others in attendance told Newslaundry how inspiring they found Swamy’s work. Some said they knew very little about him but wanted to show solidarity and pray for his soul. An elderly woman in attendance outside the church even went back home to charge her phone and then returned, hoping to take a photograph of the ambulance bearing Swamy’s body.
“For the Adivasis and the poor, he devoted his life,” said Sainath Shinde. “Wasn’t it just Jesus who did that? I am Maharashtrian but I feel like he is my own.”
“Ever since he was arrested, I was intrigued by his name so I read a lot about him,” Shinde added. “In Jharkhand, nature, forests and lakes are being destroyed in the name of development. This man got the Adivasis their rights and fought for them. In today’s age, we just read about people like him. Who does anything for others anymore?”
Primila, 63, who lives nearby said the government has “taken his life”. “Whoever has done this,” she said, “they’ll never be blessed by God.”
“He was the gentlest among us and the voice of the kindest,” said Preeti Sharma Menon, national executive member of the AAP. “They have not found anything to convict him on the UAPA. This huge miscarriage of justice will lie on the collective conscious of this country.”
She continued, “This is a national shame for us. That we allowed an 84-year-old man of God to be incarcerated during the pandemic and we have caused his death. This is nothing short of custodial death.” Menon added that India’s principle of “bail, not jail” clearly did not apply to the common man, only to the super elite.
Menon also criticised the Maharashtra government for not standing with the Bhima Koregaon accused, despite claiming to be a “secular government”. "They are not accused but, in fact, victims of a dispensation that is against minorities and the lower castes,” she said. “The entire case should have been dismissed by now.”
Dolphy D’Souza pointed out that it was unacceptable to forget the Congress’s role in bringing in the UAPA. “Blood is also on their hands, as much as it is on all the institutions responsible for the death of Father Stan,” he said. “Congress cannot, using pious condolence messages, wipe that out from the people’s imaginations. They didn’t take a stand, allowing this to happen. We are asking Congress to accept the challenge of having the obnoxious UAPA repealed.”
According to Salim Khan from the Jamaat-E-Islami Hind, it was clear that the National Investigation Agency had no case against Swamy. “He was just put behind bars for no reason. This is not a way the country should run,” he said. "The people who sacrifice their lives for the upliftment of the downtrodden, if we treat them like this, then how will others come forward? This has given a cruel face to our system which does not have any sympathy for age or sickness. The way he sacrificed his life always used to motivate us. He did not deserve this type of treatment.”
“Father Stan Swamy’s courage and resolve has been admirable and I’m sure it’s going to awaken more youth,” Mithiborwala said. “Social movements will only grow stronger in our resolve to resist the oppression from the Modi government."
But not everyone felt this way.
“It should wake people up but I don’t think the authorities will do anything about it. They just hear it and forget it,” said Karen D’Mello from the Congress, who was a civic body corporator in the same area. “I know the truth will prevail but when it’s too late. But we feel for him, so we are here.”
“Today has been a starting point of the martyrdom of Father Stan,” said Dolphy. “Hopefully this will lead to a larger movement across communities and religions to build up public opinion that no one else dies in the prison. Trials shouldn’t be endless. Bail is a norm but there is an obnoxious law called UAPA.”