Catholic Church in India pays tribute to Jesuit priest who died in detention

Social activist and Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy several days before his arrest. (YouTube screen grab/Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha)

Catholics in India paid tribute to Father Stan Swamy, the Jesuit priest who died in detention early this month, by marking July 28 this year as “National Justice Day” in honor of the late priest.

The observance was spearheaded by Father Stanislaus D’Souza, president of the Jesuit Conference of South Asia, who called on Jesuits in the region to pay their “deep respects” to Father Swamy “and carry forward his legacy.”

Father Swamy’s death was “not an end” but a “moment of awakening in the journey to affirm our faith in the Constitution of our country,” said the Jesuit superior.

He said Father Swamy “stands tall today as an icon of justice to the marginalized. In his death, he has risen in the hearts of many as a cult figure.”

“Through his lifelong accompaniment of the Adivasis, Dalits, and marginalized communities and by his martyrdom, he has given us a new ethical mandate to be compassionate, to be the voice of the voiceless and defenders of human rights, speaking truth to power,” said Father D’Souza.

In a statement, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, called on dioceses across the country to do “what is most suitable” to “keep alive in our hearts the desire to work for the poor and neglected.”

Father Swamy, 84, died on July 5 at the Holy Family Hospital in Mumbai where he was brought after suffering from complication of COVID-19 while in detention. 

The priest has been in detention since last year after he was arrested for terror-related offenses under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

Indian authorities alleged that the priest supported the cause of banned communist groups through his civil rights organizations.

Authorities tagged the priest’s Persecuted Political Prisoners Solidarity Committee, a human rights organization, as a front organization of Maoist and extremist groups.

The Bagaicha, an organization established by Father Swamy to empower the Adivasi tribal group, was also tagged as a communist front.

Father Swamy is the oldest person in India to face terror-related charges and he has joined 15 others including human rights activists, journalists and scholars arrested in connection to a 2018 incident of caste-based violence known locally as the Bhima Koregaon case.

On Oct. 26 last year, the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences called for his immediate release; following a similar statement issued by Indian bishops.

India’s National Crime Records Bureau showed that as many as 5,922 people were held under the country’s Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act between 2016-2019, with only 132 convictions.

The draconian law has come under severe criticism from international observers in recent years, as has India’s human rights record since the Bharatiya Janata Party came into power.

In a recent “Freedom in the World Report 2021” by Freedom House, the country was downgraded from “free” to “partly free” for the first time. - Radio Veritas Asia