And Stan Swamy did. This death in judicial custody diminishes highest institutions of the justice system.
The death of 84-year-old Father Stan Swamy in judicial custody Monday brings to an end a stark tale of injustice — one that has left the highest institutions of India’s justice system diminished. The Jesuit priest known for his advocacy of tribal rights in Jharkhand was arrested in October last year by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and charged with conspiracy in the Bhima Koregaon case. In the nearly nine months of his incarceration, till his death, the ailing activist came up — again and again — against the heavy hand of the state, an unresponsive judiciary and a broken prison system. Think, for example, of the response when Swamy’s lawyers asked for a sipper and a straw for him, as Parkinson’s disease had made it impossible for him to drink water from a glass. The court adjourned the case for three weeks. Think, again, of the NIA’s opposition to the four bail pleas that Swamy filed, first in the special NIA court, and later in Bombay High Court. When Swamy asked the special court for bail on the grounds that an overcrowded prison would make him more vulnerable to the coronavirus, the NIA replied that “the accused under the garb of the current situation on account of the global pandemic Covid-19, is trying to take an undue benefit of the situation…” And yet, in all these months, the NIA did not seek a day’s custody to interrogate Swamy.
Think, also, of his last appearance, via video-conference, before Bombay High Court on May 21. He described how his stint in Taloja jail had further enfeebled his ravaged body. “I will probably die here, very shortly if things go on as it is”, he said, asking to be allowed to return to Ranchi on medical bail. The Bombay High Court is yet to begin hearing the second of Swamy’s bail pleas filed on merit. Swamy’s case, of course, is not alone. Several others accused in the Bhima Koregaon case remain in prison, their trial not begun. From professor Hany Babu to Telugu poet Varavara Rao, several have struggled to find basic medical attention in derelict prisons amid a pandemic. There are far too many instances of the judiciary’s lack of urgency, its reluctance to stand up for the liberty of citizens, faced with a state that does not flinch from using draconian laws like a blunt instrument against public intellectuals, students and dissenters. The recent Delhi HC order granting bail to Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Tanha could have been an exception in the way it raised the bar for the draconian UAPA to deny bail but, ironically, the apex court stayed that order and slapped the bench on the wrist for going on about the law.
It was for the courts to decide if Swamy was guilty of the grave charges he was held under. It was for the NIA to prove its case against him. However, in failing to protect the life of a fragile, ailing undertrial, and his right to due process, the state and the judiciary don’t just shrink the space for dissent and dissenters but also invite the damning verdict of history. If in Covid management the courts have been bright points of light, on this, there’s a dark blot.
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