I have been having a bad day at work with too many things to do. But the day just got infinitely worse with the news of the passing away of 84-year-old tribal activist Stan Swamy.
Swamy’s passing can be explained in many ways. He was old and ailing. But the circumstances under which he ultimately died makes it even more sad. Arrested last year in connection with the Elgar Parishad case, which many consider to be nothing more than a witch hunt by the Maharashtra police at first and subsequently by the NIA, Swamy was in the custody of the state when his end came. And the state, together with our judiciary whose doors the infirm Swamy repeatedly knocked for help, let him down very badly.
The final days and months of Swamy will remain a reminder to the many things that are so horribly wrong with our system.
Picked up and whisked away by the NIA from his Ranchi residence on October 8 last year – his friends say he was treated very rough at the time of his arrest – Swamy despite his advanced age and failing health - found himself in jail. He repeatedly petitioned for help – small mercies in fact – but repeatedly came up against a wall. His health deteriorated further during his incarceration and he struggled to get even such things like a sipper that could have allowed him to drink with relative ease. His pleas grew desperate with time and he moved the courts again and again. Only recently, he again petitioned that he was finding it increasingly difficult to carry out his normal chores. But steeped in red tape, the courts were slow to respond.
In fact, the news of his death reached on Monday while a court was hearing his fresh petition for medical bail. Swamy – loved and feted by many for his grass root activism among the most deprived tribals of Jharkhand – passed on to another world, leaving us all ashamed. Our judiciary must also consider whether it has been found to be inefficient, unresponsive, and possibly impotent when it mattered the most.
Consider this: Swamy while alive moved the NIA court twice for bail. On both occasions they were rejected. He then went to the Bombay High Court which did not grant him bail, but ordered the constitution of a medical board. The doctors recommended immediate medical attention for Swamy. Still, the high court did not find enough merit to grant Swamy medical bail. Instead, he was sent to the Holy Family hospital on condition that he will bear his expenses. In doing so, the court overruled his lawyer’s plea that the expenses be borne by the state since Swamy was in its custody.
While in Taloja jail, the ailing activist suffering from Parkinson’s disease had also displayed symptoms of Covid. The jail reportedly only had an Ayurveda doctor who also prescribed allopathic medicines on a case-to-case basis. He ultimately tested positive and his health deteriorated two days after being hospitalised. He never recovered.
Arresting an old and seriously ailing man is a controversial measure. But there cannot be any two opinions that Swamy was finally done in by our insensitive system. At his last bail hearing, he could barely speak and barely follow the proceedings.
His final wish was that he be sent back to Ranchi where he can die among his people. That was also not to be fulfilled.
Now that Swamy is gone, there obviously will be calls for accountability. Among everything else, one needs to ask how did an aged prisoner with serious known co-morbidities contract Covid in jail? Did the state actually have any right to keep him in custody when it couldn’t guarantee him the right to life? Amid calls for a judicial enquiry now being demanded by his lawyers, the state certainly requires to do serious soul searching if it has to even keep up its pretensions that it serves the people.
A lot already has been said about the Elgar Parishad case and the manner in which more than a dozen people – from academics to well-known lawyers – have been jailed. Years have gone by with the investigating agencies far from producing credible evidence against them. Yet, the accused, including some very respectable people, continue to languish behind bars on being booked under draconian laws that make securing bail well neigh impossible.
We were witness to another instance of insensitivity by the state only recently when the father of Natasha Narwal jailed over Delhi riots died while she was in prison. She too had been booked under UAPA and struggled to secure bail. She was let off on interim bail when her father died. But imagine the trauma she would have undergone on not being able to meet her father one last time. By the time the courts granted her a regular bail, it was late.
Any post-mortem of how the state and courts failed Swamy will also certainly be a case of too little, too late. But it is something that we must undertake. And we can only hope and pray that there will be at least some in the system who would be adequately ashamed and spurred into action to restore its sensitivity. Until then, the state must live with blood on its hand. And we with our collective shame.