04 Apr 2023 | 04:08am IST
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
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