Father Stan Swamy: The Indian authorities target one of the country’s oldest human rights defenders

On 8 October, members of India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) arrested Father Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest and long-time activist on tribal rights in the country. While the targeting of those who stand up for human rights in India is nothing new, Father Swamy’s case has drawn particular international attention because, at 83-years-old, he is one of the country’s oldest human rights defenders (HRDs).

“The oldest person to be accused of terrorism in India”

Father Swamy has been working with India’s Adivasis (Scheduled Tribes) for over three decades. Even in his old age, and despite suffering from numerous health issues, he has continued to advocate for the group right up to the present day. In a video released just days before his arrest, Father Swamy said that he had filed a case in the Jharkhand High Court on behalf of 3,000 young Adivasis who had been imprisoned.

He was arrested at the Jesuit-owned Bagaicha social centre in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand state, and was subsequently informed that he would be remanded in custody in Taloja Jail near Mumbai until 23 October.

The NIA have alleged that Father Swamy has links to far-left Maoist groups in the region, charging him under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. According to the BBC, “he is now the oldest person to be accused of terrorism in India.”

The priest’s arrest has prompted international outcry, as well as from human rights organisations and HRDs across India. A Change.org petition calling for the charges against Father Swamy to be dropped has also gained over 57,000 signatures thus far.

No space for civil society

Father Swamy’s case shows that anyone who speaks out on any human rights issues must now contend with the Indian authorities ever increasing efforts to shut down space for civil society and fundamental freedoms.

This includes human rights defenders who work on FoRB. Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Atheist HRDs are consistently being rounded up and imprisoned, with the Chair of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights, Maria Arena, recently stating: “Journalists and other peaceful critics continue to be arrested under draconian counter-terrorism and sedition laws, while human rights defenders are unceasingly and severely targeted by the authorities.”

In one particularly high profile indicator of this shrinking space for civil society, last month the human rights organization Amnesty International was forced to halt its operations in the country due to “reprisals” from the government, accusing the government of pursuing a “witch-hunt” against human rights organisations.

The fact that the Indian government have been able to have this effect on an organisation as internationally renowned as Amnesty is devastating. It also points to an even more concerning picture for less well-known international human rights organisations and HRDs like Father Swamy and many others.

Part and parcel in the pursuit of a Hindu rashtra

It is no coincidence that this targeting of those who speak up for human rights comes at a time when their work is needed on an ever-increasing scale in the country.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has overseen a serious deterioration in the situation of human rights in general, and of FoRB in particular.

Under Modi, the BJP has furthered its pursuit of a Hindu rashtra (nation), in which the only way to be Indian is to be Hindu, and where religious minorities face wide-ranging discrimination and human rights violations. The abrogation of articles granting some degree of autonomy to the Jammu and Kashmir region in August 2019 and the introduction of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 in January 2020, which controversially excludes Muslims, are just two examples of BJP policies which have served to alienate religious minorities and embolden far-right Hindu nationalists.

As the BJP continues to pursue such a vision of India, it is unsurprising that those who have historically challenged the government and stood up for the vulnerable are being targeted. The international community must do much more to hold the Indian government to account for its repressive policies and severe human rights violations, including by calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Father Swamy and all those who have been imprisoned for standing up for the rights of the oppressed.

By Ellis Heasley, CSW’s Public Affairs Officer