Under the rule of Narendra Modi, the Indian state has launched a sweeping authoritarian clampdown on political dissent. One of the manifestations of this onslaught has been the jailing of opponents on trumped-up charges of terrorism and conspiracy. The authorities refer to the victims of these judicial frame-ups as “urban Naxalites,” in reference to the Maoist revolutionaries who remain active in certain parts of the country.
One of those targeted was the priest and campaigner Father Stan Swamy. On July 5 last year, Swamy passed away after contracting COVID-19 in an overcrowded prison during the disastrous second wave of the pandemic in India. He had spent nine months in prison on fabricated charges of involvement in a supposed plot to “assassinate the prime minister,” along with fifteen other human rights defenders, academics, lawyers, artists, and social activists, known collectively as the Bhima Koregaon 16 or BK-16.
There have been tributes to Swamy from his colleagues, students, and many other people whose lives he touched. Alongside Swamy’s own memoir, I Am Not a Silent Spectator (2021), these tributes offer a moving account of his life as one of modern India’s most remarkable citizens in its many different aspects. This article will discuss Swamy’s inspiring record of combing social research and activism through the space he established at Bagaicha in Jharkhand state.
The Bagaicha Movement
The word “bagaicha” refers to a tree-filled space or orchard, in particular the mangroves that form part of the common land where villagers gather under their shade to hold people’s courts and resolve matters of interest to the community. In 2000, the Indian authorities carved Jharkhand out of the existing state of Bihar in northern India. Swamy and his like-minded Jesuit colleagues established the Bagaicha institute at Ranchi, the new state’s capital. They recognized the necessity of having a “bagaicha” in the heart of the capital where social activists could voice their concerns about issues affecting the lives of the Adivasi people.
The term “Adivasi” in this article refers to the indigenous peoples of mainland India. The Indian state defines most Adivasi communities as “Scheduled Tribes.” These communities made up about one-quarter of Jharkhand’s total population of 33 million at the time of the last census in 2011. The vast majority live in villages. The aim of Swamy and his associates in establishing the Bagaicha institute was to support the preservation of Adivasi lands and ways of life — especially the practices of local self-governance and maintaining common lands.
Jharkhand’s rich mineral resources have made it a prime target for industrialists and mining companies. The opening of the Indian economy to the neoliberal globalization project from 1991 onward ramped up these pressures. The Union government in Delhi may have granted statehood to the Adivasis in Jharkhand, yet it simultaneously started to break its promises. The Adivasis saw their lands handed on a plate to companies interested in mining their natural resources.
The Adivasi people had experienced this before. They were among the first groups in India to resist capitalist takeover by the British colonial state, under the leadership of strong figures such as Birsa Munda (1875–1900) and Komaram Bheem (1900–40). Since then, movement after movement has sprung up in the Jharkhand region to resist the political regimes of the day, all of which have continued to collude with capitalist interests while betraying the assurances given to the Adivasi people that the freedoms won at independence in 1947 would be theirs too, as equal citizens of the world’s largest democracy.
On paper, the Indian state has passed a number of visionary laws to safeguard the rights of Adivasis. However, politicians and bureaucrats at both national and state levels have either blatantly ignored their legal obligations or systematically bypassed the new policies.
A Democratic Space
Bagaicha thus became a space for people to discuss the structural roots of the Adivasis’ problems and collectively develop solutions for their communities. Swamy was also mindful that Bagaicha’s own processes should reflect its broader aims, for example in terms of gender. Even though Adivasi societies have encouraged women’s participation in various ways, a sexual division of labor prevails.
In a 2021 interview, Aloka Kujur, a social activist from Jharkhand, summed up Swamy’s feminist approach: “He was a person who saw women as human beings.” Kujur recalled how Swamy encouraged women’s voices and writing in the field of struggle and in matters of governance (which have traditionally been male spaces, even in Adivasi societies). He would personally ensure there were inclusive arrangements for women participating in work outside Bagaicha or at resistance sites, such as safe travel, good sanitary facilities, and childcare.
The award-winning activist Dayamani Barla has also shared memories of Swamy’s mentorship of her own activist work and the support he gave her when she stood for election to the Jharkhand Legislative Assembly. In Bagaicha today, men are encouraged to take up administrative roles alongside women.
When it comes to labor rights at Bagaicha itself, the service workers are permanent employees and Adivasis are given preference. They receive a gratuity payment at retirement and provision for holidays to go back to their villages during the planting and harvesting seasons. All workers participate in significant events, such as International Indigenous People’s Day and International Women’s Day, in Bagaicha and elsewhere.
Swamy sought to foster broad awareness of the constitutional guarantees and other legislative provisions that were designed to protect what the Adivasis call “jal, jangal, jameen” (water, forests, lands), as well as the culture and language in predominantly Adivasi regions. He gave support to the Pathalgadi movement that developed among Adivasis in Jharkhand in 2018. Along with other activists, journalists, and writers, he urged the government to enter into dialogue with the people instead of repressing the movement by force.
However, the authorities charged Swamy and nineteen others with sedition merely for suggesting in Facebook posts that “the state government might do well to go to the people and have dialogue with them.” These charges were ultimately dropped, showing that the government was trying to intimidate the activists.
There was hardly a forum, demonstration, or dharna (sit-in) organized by Adivasis and other marginalized groups in Jharkhand where Swamy was not present. He also wrote for academic journals, and occasionally for newspapers, on the subject of Adivasi rights, highlighting the land grabs perpetrated by mining corporations with government assistance. Swamy’s commitment to building alliances and communities of practice at the local, national, and global levels made Bagaicha a focal point for researchers from across India, and outside the country too.
At the time of his own arrest in October 2020, Swamy had been working on a public interest litigation (PIL) case he filed after Bagaicha conducted research into prisoners awaiting trial in Jharkhand (known as “undertrials” in the Indian legal system). Undertrials currently account for three-quarters of all those being held behind bars in India. In 2015, after learning about the wrongful arrest of a close associate, Swamy became aware that such spurious cases were increasingly common. He conceived of a research study to investigate the arrests as well as the condition of undertrial prisoners across Jharkhand.
Swamy and his colleagues discovered that it was very difficult to obtain precise information about the demographic makeup of undertrials or their conditions in which they were being held. They were denied entry to jails and their requests to talk with higher officials such as the Inspector General of Prisons went unanswered. However, they eventually found two informants who helped them contact several prisoners who were on bail and some who were still incarcerated.
One of the informants was a cultural activist known to Swamy, whose name was the same as that of one of the killers of a politician’s son. The police had used the murder as an opportunity to incriminate the activist based solely on his name. The other was the cofounder of an Adivasi rights organization in Jharkhand, the Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan. The police claimed that he was a supporter of the Maoists, and he was imprisoned for approximately eleven months.
The Bagaicha research on undertrials showed that many of those arrested were socially conscious people who were aware of their rights and had been raising their voices against, for example, exploitation by mining companies. Just 3 percent of the 102 undertrials who took part in the study had any connection to the Communist Party of India (Maoist). While the first information reports (FIRs) filed by the police claimed that they had caught most of the detainees in their “dens” in the forests of Jharkhand after chases, the research team found that many had actually been arrested at their homes, often during the night.
The prisoners were often the main breadwinners in their families. However, it was impossible to obtain bail for those who had been charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or Section 17 of the Indian Penal Code, both of which are supposed to deal with subversive or terrorist offenses against the state. The lower courts would invariably deny bail to those accused under these sections and the case had to be taken to the High Court.
However, most family members of those arrested lack knowledge of legal procedures, and many of them were not in a position to approach a lawyer or bear the expense of legal procedures, including lawyers’ fees and bail bonds, which require access to significant financial means and a warrantor. The families faced a choice between selling their meager belongings or leaving their loved one to languish in jail for months or even years.
Swamy was greatly disturbed by the skewed demographics of Jharkhand’s undertrial population, drawn primarily from marginalized communities, and the state’s machinations to put innocent people behind bars. He filed the PIL case in 2017, but it has moved slowly through the courts, and the outcome is still pending. The communities of practice that Swamy helped forge are ensuring that the work goes on.
A Mobilizing Mission
The Bagaicha movement sought to foster practices of teamwork, training people to understand the ways in which historical processes and social power structures shape their everyday lives. Swamy drew on the ideas of action-oriented thinkers in his work with Adivasis. He was greatly influenced by the historical jal, jangal, jameen movements of the Adivasis themselves, led by freedom fighters such as Birsa Munda and Komaram Bheem. The Marxist notion of class struggle and Paulo Freire’s use of cultural idioms and a community’s everyday language to mobilize its members also informed his approach.
Swamy recognized that social analysts who were unfamiliar with local metaphors and the ideological underpinnings of particular communities would be less effective in mobilizing people and providing them with frameworks for understanding their oppression. He worked closely with the organic intellectuals, people who clearly saw the structural bases for their situation of their community and could convey that understanding to others.
In India, the cultural hegemony of the savarna upper-caste groups, the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas, has severely constrained the ability of marginalized peoples to mobilize to end their oppression. Bagaicha’s work has required deep engagement with communities. Its trainers were urged to be mindful of the risk of becoming “brown saviors.” The Bagaicha approach focused on developing social consciousness among its trainees and helping them to understand power relations, rather than simply leading them, so that they could decide for themselves whether to take action to break free of the cycle of oppression and how they should do so.
The Society of Jesus has long provided space for individual Jesuits to follow their own convictions and conscience in their choice of ministry. Swamy took full advantage of this opportunity. Over time, his role in Bagaicha took precedence over his religious duties. He questioned everything: at meetings with students, he criticized the functioning of the Society of Jesus itself, arguing that it was not democratic despite the freedom to think it offered, and that it was not listening to people’s cries of grief.
His approach made many people uncomfortable. Some were quietly envious, and there were petty complaints over his refusal to follow Jesuit rituals. Yet Swamy stood by his convictions. His sense of social justice made him determined to continue whether or not others were willing to join him.
Swamy and his Bagaicha colleagues conducted induction courses in social analysis for Jharkhand Adivasi novices who were beginning their studies for entering the Jesuit order. These young men, usually between twenty and thirty years of age, were often unaware of how significant the Adivasi or caste (Dalit) element of their identities was. They might also be ignorant of the constitutional rights accorded to Adivasi communities. India’s national education system tends to avoid such matters.
The induction course encouraged the novices to ask questions and introduced them to the Bagaicha movement’s view that Jesuits have a duty as community leaders to promote social change, rather than simply playing the role of spiritual leaders and schoolteachers. The Bagaicha movement has also emphasized the importance of nonviolence and the need to remain committed despite the challenges facing its trainees.
For Swamy, there could be no question of leaving the social conditions experienced by the people around him for others to address. It was part of the mission to which he had devoted his life. Although historically Jesuits understood their “mission” to be a matter of propagating the Christian religion and its practice of charity, Bagaicha’s philosophy is rooted in the democratic ideals stated in the preamble of the Indian Constitution such as secularism, socialism, justice, fraternity, and liberty. It means joining hands with the struggles of people for their constitutional and human rights.
Carrying on Swamy’s Work
The Bagaicha movement that has emerged from Swamy’s work with Adivasis in Jharkhand is a powerful example of interdisciplinary, action-oriented, and community-based social research. This success carries a price: in the present climate of increasingly fervent right-wing Hindu nationalism, some people are reluctant to associate with Bagaicha, because they fear that it will bring them to the attention of the state’s surveillance machinery.
In Swamy’s own parent community, there was a fear that the Church’s activities might come to a standstill due to state-sanctioned misuse of the law. After Swamy’s death, the huge response both within the country and outside it made many Indian Jesuits more aware of their late colleague’s tremendous social contribution. There appears to be a change taking shape within the order, with some provincial superiors openly supporting Bagaicha’s approach.
Swamy’s colleagues at Bagaicha are determined to continue his work as they recognize that it is more crucial than ever. The Bagaicha research team is carrying on with the undertrial PIL, despite the dysfunctional state of the criminal justice system during the height of the pandemic. Their shock and grief at the loss of Swamy has not stopped them. This is their tribute to his legacy.
As we remember Swamy, the campaign for the release on bail of other undertrials, including the other BK-16 prisoners, continues. Many of the prisoners are older people, and several are also at risk due to medical conditions. The Indian authorities must not be allowed to subject them to the same fate as Father Stan Swamy.