04 Apr 2023  |   04:08am IST

A Requiem for Fr Stan Swamy

A Requiem for Fr Stan Swamy

Jairam N Menon

Authorities everywhere – from classrooms to corporate boardrooms to national capitals – love silent spectators. Silent spectators look after their own interests, and if they see something that is wrong, they may sympathise but turn their eyes away. They are susceptible to the usual blandishments - an out-of-turn promotion, a plum posting etc. If nothing works, they are easy to intimidate. Outliers, on the other hand, are different. They come with a spine of steel. Authority finds them hard to understand, let along manage.


For some seemingly perverse reason, they do not think about self-interest, and instead speak up for those who would otherwise have not been heard. The late Fr Stan Swamy was an outlier. In fact, he was one, many times over.

As a Jesuit, the impulse to take on authority – whether political or ecclesiastical, came so to speak with the cloth. The struggles in the latter part of his life are recorded in ‘I am Not A Silent Spectator’, a publication brought out by the Bangalore-based Indian Social Institute. It is the story of one man’s epic struggle against fearful odds for what he believed was right.

Fr Stan gained his apprenticeship, so to speak, fighting for the rights of the tillers of fields in rural Bangalore. The experience taught him what he would be up against – the combined might of politicians, the state, and the police. From the relatively placid environs of Bangalore, he moved to where the action is - the badlands of Jharkhand. It was here in the thickly forested, mineral-rich land that he found his true calling.  He came to grips with the situation there. Jharkhand is a state at war with its conscience. There is a treasure chest below the ground but tapping into this mineral wealth will mean uprooting the Adivasis and disrupting their lives. Enter Fr Stan. As he saw it, the Adivasis are the owners of the natural wealth under their feet. If they chose not to give it away, the matter should end there.

But the state does not easily take ‘No’ for an answer. They continued their efforts. Fr Stan ran the usual gauntlet of the state’s machinery. First, they try to bully you into submission. Then, they try blandishment, and when all else fails, they simply shut you up. American writer E E Cummings said, ‘To be nobody but yourself – in a world which is doing its best night and day to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.’ That was the battle that Fr Stan fought. 

The book, published posthumously, is a lucid narrative of the aggressive measures that the state government took and his own responses. In this unequal battle, the courts do appear to be sympathetic, but their writ does not run in the face of implacable authority. Let’s face it. Fr Stan did not have all the answers. His Achilles heel was perhaps to cling to a time that was long past and deliberately ignore the glimmer of possible progress.

Migration is sometimes inevitable when we have the good of the greater number in mind. Industrial projects do contribute to making society richer and possibly more equitable. When Arcelor Mittal finally withdrew from their 12 million tonne, $ 6.5 billion steel project, and when Korean steel maker Posco did the same, it put the lid on hopes of generating thousands of jobs in a region that is among the most backward in India. In choosing to remain unimpressed, Fr Stan could be guilty of thinking about the immediate term disruption at the cost of the long-term dividends. We will, however, leave the economic analysis for another day. We can question the priest’s economic naiveté but not his selflessness and courage.

Whether it was in Bangalore or Jharkhand, he knew well that he was not battling just the state police or the local mafia. He was battling the state, a formidable enemy who would stop at nothing. But he continued the struggle and paid a high price. Martin Luther King had said that it was ‘not prudent to do exactly as conscience bids, but God help me, I can’t do otherwise.’ Neither could Fr Stan Swamy.


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