Who is a political prisoner? Time to define one

Stan Swamy, the elderly Jesuit who died in custody | Kobad Ghandy, accused of being a Naxalite, spent over a decade in prison

THERE has been a great deal of anguish, angst and anger expressed at the death of Stanislaus Lourduswamy (1937–2021), popularly known as Stan Swamy, an Indian Roman Catholic priest, a member of the Jesuit order, and a tribal rights activist for many decades.

Swamy was the oldest person to be accused of terrorism in India. His supporters say that his death was hastened by the conditions in the prison where he was incarcerated. The repeated denial of bail resulted in deterioration of his health and he finally died of COVID-19 complications on July 5, 2021. Knowing that the end was near, he had asked to be allowed to die in his home in Ranchi rather than in jail.

Swamy was arrested on October 8, 2020 and charged by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for his alleged role in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence and links to the Communist Party of India (Maoist).

His death has drawn focus to the cruelty of the system which denied the right to die with dignity to a senior citizen who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. However, the imprisonment of Stan Swamy and other political prisoners, including poets, journalists, bloggers, women activists, students, Dalits and Muslims, raises crucial questions. It is not just a humanitarian issue but a political one.

At least one veteran human rights activist, Sumanta Banerji, says we should not merely condemn the State but firmly demand it be accountable. He suggests human rights activists demand: (i) punishment  of the NSA  officials  who  framed  Stan  Swamy  in  a  false  case; (ii) penalizing of the  jailor  and  warders of Taloja  jail where he  was  deprived  of  medical  facilities  that  led  to the deterioration  of  his  health by  putting  them  behind  bars  and  imposing  fines; dismissal  of  the  concerned judges  for  gross  misconduct  in  denying  bail  to  the bedridden  octogenarian and  their  permanent  ouster  from  judicial  ranks.

Banerji, now well past 80, was himself a Naxalite prisoner. We were both active in the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), being its secretary at different times. The post-Independence human rights movement began with the demand for release of all political prisoners arrested during the Emergency in 1975.

The political prisoners included people of divergent political views ranging from Kuldip Nayar, the veteran journalist, to Prabir Purkayastha, a student of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Vijay Prasad, a Delhi University student and a socialist by conviction, Shankar Guha Niyogi, the legendary trade union leader, and hundreds of Naxalite prisoners to members of the RSS who had opposed the Emergency.

The 1970s saw a rise in the number of political prisoners all over the world. One writer has described the decade not as a Golden Space Age but as “a new era of barbarism.” In an article published in the Saturday Review in June 1974 titled “Geography of Disgrace” based on an Amnesty International report, the author estimated that there were between one million to two million political prisoners all over the world. By “political prisoners” he meant those incarcerated solely because of their political views.