(This piece was originally published on 8 July 2021, and is being republished on the second death anniversary of Jesuit priest and Adivasi rights activist Father Stan Swamy.)
Video Producer: Karan Tripathi
Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam
On 5 July, 1:30 pm, Father Stan Swamy succumbed to his prolonged illness at Mumbai's Holy Family Hospital. Later in the evening, Dr D'Souza from the hospital appeared before the Bombay High Court and said:
With a very heavy heart I have to inform you that Father Stan Swamy has passed away.Dr Dsouza, Holy Family Hospital
At the tail end of Swamy's life, responding to a last-ditch plea to get him adequate medical treatment, the Bombay High Court had finally directed that Swamy be shifted to Holy Family Hospital.
However, the Bombay High Court's decision was too little, too late. Swamy had already stopped responding to the treatment given to him at Mumbai's JJ Hospital. And yet, even in his fragile condition, the National Investigating Agency (NIA) continued to oppose shifting Swamy to a private hospital. Even worse, the Additional Public Prosecutor still wanted Swamy to be the treated only at the Jail Hospital.
Sentencing A Pretrial Prisoner To Death
Stan Swamy was 83 when he had first moved a petition before the NIA Special Court on November 27, 2020, seeking bail on medical grounds.
The NIA court was informed that Swamy suffers from multiple ailments including hearing loss from both ears and arm injury. The court was also given evidence of Swamy's two hernia operations, intense abdomen pain from lumbar spondylosis, and tremors in both hands due to Parkinson's Disease - a neurodegenerative disease. However, the Special Court still denied medical bail to Swamy.
The Special Court sent out a message that an accusation under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) trumps serious concerns to one's life itself; even when the accusation is not proven.
In a judgment that runs into 74 paragraphs, not a single paragraph is dedicated to why Swamy’s serious health conditions and his old age should not be considered in deciding his release on bail.
UAPA FIR Becomes A Death Warrant
On 5 July, Stan Swamy breathed his last at the Holy Family Hospital. However, by virtue of being a "UAPA accused", he had died multiple times during his incarceration, psychologically and emotionally. The system broke his soul, and snatched away his will to live.
On 21 May, the 84-year-old priest, and a lifelong champion for tribal rights, 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.
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”.
However, Swamy was still not released on medical bail. How could he? A punitive criminal justice system that prefers incarceration over bail as a norm, refused to see him as anything but an UAPA accused. A case under UAPA is nothing less than a death warrant for the accused. Before the UAPA an its in-built mechanism to punish relentlessly, the ideas of civil liberties and right to life seem to matter very little.
The Irreparable Loss of Being An UAPA Accused
Those accused of offences under the draconian UAPA undergo irreparable loss over time, that even an acquittal or discharge would fail to mitigate.
For Pinjra Tod's Natasha Narwal, the loss came in the form of her father, Mahavir Narwal's death. The state exemplified its lack of humanity by depriving her of the opportunity to see her father just once before his demise. In Stan Swamy's case, the loss came in the form his own passing. What is left to lose, when the possessor himself has been lost.
Even convicts serving sentences for heinous crimes, are released on furlough and parole to maintain their roots in society. Proving someone's guilt under the criminal justice system doesn't deprive him of his constitutional right to a dignified life.
However, for the UAPA accused, for the likes of Stan Swamy and Natasha Narwal, even an interim bail on medical grounds becomes a contested space for exercising penal power. Process is used to punish, and both the state and the judiciary not only abdicates its duty to safeguard the fundamental right to life, but actively attempts to alienate the UAPA accused from it.
India's Supreme Court has said multiple times that bail is the rule and jail is the exception. However, how do we even begin to seek justice under a law that is designed to deprive us of the very protections we seek? Seeking any form of relief as an UAPA accused is a misnomer, it's like seeking light from the candle burning from both ends.
Stan Swamy's death, is a judicial murder. It's a murder in which every agency of the criminal justice system is complicit. How much more do we have to lose, how many more have to die, till our judicial conscience is awakened to recognise that UAPA must go.