On 21 May, 84-year-old priest Stan Swamy joined the virtual hearing for his bail plea before the Bombay High Court through video conferencing. Surrounded by a couple of prison officers at the Taloja Central Prison, he looked extremely frail, finding it difficult to hear and respond to questions posed to him by the court.
However, even in that condition, Swamy informed the court that he would rather choose to die in jail than go to JJ Hospital for treatment. He expressed strong mistrust in the treatment given to him at the government hospital, and wanted to be released on interim bail.
Swamy had reasons for losing faith in JJ Hospital. He was admitted there twice before, but he saw no substantial improvement in his health.
“I have been there twice. I am not for being hospitalised in JJ Hospital. It will not improve, it will keep going. I would rather die here very shortly if things go on as it is.”Stan Swamy
In his plea for seeking release, Swamy submitted before the court, when he came to Taloja Jail, whole systems of his body were very functional. However, during his eight months of incarceration, there has been a steady regression of “whatever his body functions were”.
On 30 May, he was shifted to Holy Family Hospital on the directions of the court. Now, a little over a month later, on 5 July, Swamy passed away due to a cardiac arrest after his health further deteriorated. The Bombay High Court was due to hear his medical bail plea on Tuesday, 6 July.
The Court Lacking in Empathy
On 21 May, when the Bench of Justice SJ Kathawalla and SP Tavade started to ask questions to Stan Swamy, the appalling health and living conditions of his life in jail were immediately revealed. The court was trying to contact and seek answers from a man who could not hear properly, required repeated assistance of the prison officers in even making sense of the questions being asked, and mustered efforts to string words together.
Even in that struggle to hear, think, and speak, Swamy yearned to be released. He pleaded the court to take his life and liberty seriously, to let him “die in the company of his own”.
It completely escaped the court’s empathy that the person before them is an octogenarian, suffering from a neurodegenerative disease, has been hospitalised for the past six months and can’t even perform the most basic day-to-day activities without assistance.
Swamy’s apparent condition inside the jail was also worded out by him during the hearing:
“Eight months ago, I would eat by myself, do some writing, walk. I could take a bath by myself. But all these are disappearing one after another. So, Taloja Jail has brought me to a situation where I can neither write nor go for a walk by myself. Someone has to feed me. In other words, I am requesting you to consider why and how this deterioration of myself happened. My deterioration is more powerful than the small tablets that they give.”Stan Swamy
Plea to Release Completely Sidelined
While hearing Swamy’s plea, while listening to his story, the court completely forgot that he has been persistently asking for interim bail. The court, albeit implicitly, restricted the scope of the hearing to address Swamy’s need for medical treatment.
Swamy’s lawyer, senior advocate Mihir Desai, sensed the mood of the court. It was Desai who had to explain to Swamy that the question of bail would be decided later. “Right now, it may not be possible to send you to Ranchi. If you could agree to get admitted to, say Holy Family Hospital, then we can see,” Desai told Swamy.
Desai was quick to sense the court’s empathy exhaustion. He realised that unless he explains the context and background of his client’s statements, the court may never get to understand it.
Therefore, Desai urged the court to pierce through the morbid thoughts of his client, to understand where the thoughts such as “I would rather die in jail” are coming from.
“Since he is a priest, he has this approach that ‘forgive them and let me suffer’, so if he agrees, grant me liberty to move.”Mihir Desai
Desai underlined Swamy’s state of mind, the motivations and the lack thereof of his sentences that were strung together with immense struggle and disdain. “Swamy seems to have taken the ‘forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing’ approach,” Desai told the court.
Therefore, Desai requested the Bench for liberty to approach the court again if Swamy agrees to be hospitalised.
To Legal System, He Was Just a UAPA Accused
The 21 May hearing before the Bombay High Court was testament to the fact that to our criminal legal system, Stan Swamy was just an accused under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
Such is the dominating and demeaning ideology of UAPA, that it dehumanises the accused of all other identity. Even a convicted criminal is much more than the crime he committed. However, an accused under UAPA is deprived of the most basic human right to live a dignified life — even when the charges are yet to be proved.
Despite his “steady regression” directly attributable to his incarceration, Swamy was unable to convince the court that he deserved to be treated like a human being; that his health was his fundamental right that the state must protect. Such is the injustice of the very foundation of UAPA, that an otherwise “innocent until proven guilty” was perverted to mean “not even human, guilty or not”.
The hegemonic ideology of UAPA sees process as punishment, a sanction not against the act but the thoughts of the one who dissented and those who might dare to dissent in future. It reduces the human rights protection to bare minimum, invisibilises the individual by colonising her identity, and normatively exhausts the judicial institution of its empathy.
Swamy continued to suffer and degenerate. And, on official records, he passed away an “accused charged under various sections of IPC and the offences under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act”.
(This article has been updated with the news of Father Stan Swamy's passing. It was originally published on 21 May.)
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