‘Sad situation for human rights in India…Father Stan Swamy’s resolve inspires us’

On July 5, it will be a year since the death of 84-year-old priest and Jharkhand-based activist Stan Swamy while in judicial custody. Swamy was arrested in the Elgaar Parishad case by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in October 2020 and a chargesheet filed against him for his alleged links with banned CPI (Maoist). Swamy had denied the charges.

Father Frazer Mascarenhas, the former principal of St Xavier’s College in Mumbai and the Parish Priest of St Peter’s Church, in whose care Swamy was in his last days, in conversation with Sadaf Modak:

Q. You were with Father Stan Swamy in his last few days at the hospital. How has the past year been for you?

A. It has been a difficult year not only because he passed away, which was tragic of course, but also because the persecution of human rights activists has continued and worsened. Teesta Setalvad has been arrested, and the co-founder of Alt News Mohammed Zubair, has also been arrested on frivolous charges. The Supreme Court order on Zakia Jafri’s petition has been stunning. That a judge of the apex court can write that about a litigant whose efforts have led to so many perpetrators being convicted of the same tragedy is unbelievable.

It is a sad situation for human rights in the country. Father Stan Swamy’s death highlighted the beginning of the harsh treatment of human rights activists in the Bhima Koregaon case but it has been engulfing others, too, now. One would have hoped that his death would make people realise this is not the way forward. But the action against activists who defend human rights has not stopped, unfortunately, even after his death. His courage though, inspires all of us. In coming to terms with his passing, we are encouraged by his work. We are organising a programme in his memory on July 5.

Q. The Martin Ennals Award acknowledged Father Stan Swamy’s contribution and gave him a ‘special, posthumous homage’ last month. The trial against him stands abated but you have petitioned the Bombay High Court to have his name cleared. Can you tell us about the status of the case?

A. The petition was filed on behalf of the Society of Jesus, a worldwide organisation, and specifically on behalf of the Jamshedpur Jesuits, of which Father Stan was a part. They have nominated me as a member of his family to file the petition on their behalf.

The reason we filed the petition was to clear his name. There has been no trial against him and we feel his name should be cleared of those allegations. But also, the main reason for the petition is to throw light on the conditions in which he was held for so long and how it impacted his health, eventually leading to his passing away. The petition has not seen much progress. This and the fact that Father Stan’s bail petitions took so long to be heard, show that even the judiciary is not in a position or not interested — I do not know which one it is — to take up these cases and come to the aid of such persons. Activists, lawyers, others continue to be kept behind bars in inhuman conditions.

Q. In light of what you said on the state of human rights, do you see any challenges or apprehensions in speaking out?

A. Many of us are aware that those who raise our voices are also potential targets. This does not mean we should keep quiet when human rights and human welfare is at stake. We are apprehensive but it has not made us quieten our voices. I had even spoken about this with Father Stan. He was interrogated and arrested two years after the FIR was filed in 2018. I had asked him, how is it that the FIR did not make him want to keep quiet on the issues he fought for? He asked how he could betray those from the tribal communities who were relying on him to help them in the court cases where they were falsely implicated. He helped fight thousands of cases in Jharkhand, was part of an empirical study which at the grassroots level revealed the injustices to the tribal communities and that was the reason he was targeted. It is the same reason why those working with the underprivileged are being put behind bars. His colleagues at Bagaicha are continuing the work but are being harassed and inquired into by the same investigating agencies. Father Stan’s resolve inspires us and we are also inspired by what the divine tells us: that we cannot keep quiet, that justice is part of our whole existence.

Q. Post Covid-19, we have seen that many have suffered issues in learning and education. Many from financially strained backgrounds did not have access to virtual learning and there has been an impact in the quality of learning, dropouts from schools and higher education. As someone who worked in the field of education, how do you think it can be rectified?

A. This brings up two issues. Firstly, the Covid-19 pandemic was a calamity which could not have been avoided. But, remedial work is needed now. The Education Department here has highlighted this and suggested remedial measures to make up for the gap which has affected learning, as well as caused a psychological impact on students. This should be done.

Secondly, it raises the issue of the new National Education Policy (NEP). The Policy itself has mandated two tracks — formal and informal education. I cannot imagine that an Education Policy will have these types of grades, different for the poor and the rich. While the Right To Education Act mandated regular schooling at least till Class VIII for all, the NEP has provisions for open schooling and online schooling right from Class III.

This is tragic and unjust. It is being touted as a good use of technology but the pandemic highlighted that virtual, online education for the poor raises the issue of access and quality. It showed us that the policy will lead to further perpetration of injustice. RTE has provisions for regular schools, a ratio of 30 students per teacher and a number of quality measures. The NEP2020 has watered down the RTE. It is therefore regressive and unjust.

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