Monday (July 5) will go down as another dreadful day in the history of the world’s so-called largest democracy.
It was then that an 84-year-old Roman Catholic priest, Stan Swamy, died in the custody of the Indian state while waiting for bail. He had been moved to a hospital after contracting COVID-19 and passed away from cardiac arrest.
Swamy had worked among the tribal people in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand and was vocal against the repression of Adivasis (Indigenous peoples) facing eviction from their traditional lands. These forced removals have been perpetrated by the extraction industry with the backing of the government.
He was arrested under trumped-up charges after being accused of terrorism. This was for merely standing up for those marginalized.
Swamy's health deteriorated in the jail during pandemic and yet authorities remained adamant in not releasing him on humanitarian grounds.
He was one of several scholars who were arrested on malicious charges to suppress any voice of dissent at the behest of the current right-wing Hindu nationalist regime led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
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.
A half century later, the history of Singh was repeated in the form of what many have called an “institutional murder” of Swamy. It is pertinent to mention here that an 81-year-old Telugu poet and political activist, Varavara Rao, continues to be incarcerated under brutal conditions even after he tested positive for COVID-19.
Like Swamy and Singh, Rao also dared to question power and stand up for the underdogs.
No karuna for dissident seniors
All this only reflects poorly on India’s democracy and flies in the face of Modi's call for fighting corona with karuna (compassion).
After all, his government remained indifferent to a petition seeking the unconditional release of political prisoners due to the spread of the virus in Indian jails.
Rather than trying to get to the bottom of the problem of social unrest caused by systemic injustice and inequality, the state is going after veterans—such as Swamy and Rao—to instil fear in the minds of political dissidents. And to achieve that end, Indian officials can go to any length.
It’s a shame that Indian society claims to be respectful of its seniors, but remains insensitive to these horrific stories.
The tales of these two men show that the Indian system’s brutal side remains unchanged even as the disparity between the rich and the poor has grown over the past 50 years.
There is no respite to the most underprivileged and underserved, despite tall claims of development and progress.