Indian Catholic Priest’s ‘Custodial’ Death Stirs International Outcry

Jesuit Father Stan Swamy, who was a prominent advocate for for human rights, had been detained under India’s anti-terrorism law since October 2020.

Jesuit Father Frazer Mascarenhas speaking at Fr Stan's funeral on July 6, 2021.
Jesuit Father Frazer Mascarenhas speaking at Fr Stan's funeral on July 6, 2021. (photo: Screenshot)

MUMBAI, India — Jesuit Father Stan Swamy, under detention on terrorism charges widely regarded as fabricated, passed away peacefully on July 5 at ICU of the Holy Family Hospital in Mumbai where he was being treated since May 29 on court orders.

The arrest of the 84-year-old priest from his base at Ranchi in eastern Jharkhand state on Oct. 8 by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), under India’s anti-terrorism law, had already provoked international protests. 

His death aggravated this indignation, with the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights joining India’s opposition parties, media and a wide spectrum of activists in condemning the “custodial death” of the Jesuit who fearlessly stood up for the marginalized indigenous “tribals” in the mineral-rich Jharkhand region.

In fact, the protest began immediately after the announcement of the Jesuit activist’s death was made in dramatic manner by the Mumbai High Court. The court had moved forward its hearing on his repeated application for bail after he suffered a heart attack and slipped into coma early on July 4. 

“We record with heavy heart that Dr Ian Dsouza, medical director of Holy Family Hospital, informed us that Stan Swamy passed away at 1:24pm today,’’ stated judges Justices S.S. Shinde and N.J. Jamadar, who were hearing the imprisoned priest’s bail petition.

“With all humility at our command, this is a shocking news. We passed that order, to take him to the hospital of his choice. We have no words to express our condolences,” the judges observed.

Mihir Desai, a veteran lawyer who had been pleading Father Swamy’s case, initiated the protests right then in the courtroom. 

“We have no grievance against the hospital,” Desai said. “However, we cannot say the same thing about the National Investigation Agency and State authorities. I am seeking a judicial inquiry into this as there was a delay of 10 days in taking him to the hospital from jail.”


National and International Concerns

From there, a floodgate of protests opened. 

“We … are writing to you in deep anguish expressing our intense grief and outrage at the death of Father Stan Swamy under custody,” leaders of India’s all major opposition parties wrote in a July 6 letter to Ram Nath Kovind, India’s ceremonial president, urging his intervention to hold accountable “those responsible for Swamy’s detention and inhumane treatment.”

“The numerous appeals made to shift him out of the over-crowded Taloja jail that had seen a huge rise in COVID cases went unheeded,” the opposition leaders stated in their letter.

Liz Throssell, a representative for U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, said in a July 6 press briefing that the commission was “deeply saddened and disturbed” by Father Swamy’s death. 

“High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet and the U.N.’s independent experts have repeatedly raised the cases of Father Stan and 15 other human rights defenders associated with the same events with the Government of India over the past three years and urged their release from pre-trial detention,” Throssell said. 

India’s anti-terrorism agency NIA had charged Father Swamy of being part of a political conspiracy with Maoist rebels to destabilize the federal government. 

Soon after his arrest Oct. 8, 2020, in Jharkhand, he was airlifted to Mumbai and placed in the same Taloja jail where the 15 other social activists, academics and lawyers have been under detention from 2018 onwards facing the same charge. The charge was based on documents that were planted on a laptop computer by an unknown hacker, according to an investigation conducted by a U.S.-based forensic analysis firm.

The families of the 15 fellow detainees in a statement described his death as “Institutional Murder of a Gentle Soul.”

"While we grieve at the passing away of Father Stan Swamy, we unequivocally hold the negligent jails, the indifferent courts and the malicious investigating agencies firmly responsible for his unfortunate death," the statement said. 

Responding to the criticism, the India’s federal government defended Father Swamy’s legal treatment. 

“Because of the specific nature of charges against him, his bail applications were rejected by the courts,” a spokesman for India’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement, adding that all actions undertaken against Father Swamy were “strictly in accordance with the law.” 


Media Outcry

Rajdeep Sardesai, one of India’s leading television anchors, said the Indian state has “blood on its hands” regarding Father Swamy’s death in custody. 

Deploring the inhumane treatment meted out to the jailed Jesuit, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, Sardesai noted that the Jesuit priest was “repeatedly denied bail while his health deteriorated. Was this frail man a terrorist and a threat to the state?”

In a scathing editorial on the death of Father Swamy titled “A Death Foretold,” The Hindu, a national daily English-language newspaper, charged that “a pattern of institutional oppression” was visible in the events that resulted in his death.

“The call for accountability for Father Swamy’s death rings painfully true,” the editorial concluded. 

The Indian Express, in a commentary titled “Who is guilty — Stan Swamy or those who kept him behind bars?”, asserted, “The impunity of the state and its agents in destroying lives at will must be reined in.”

In fact, Father Swamy had foreseen what was in store for himself and others in the video he published a week ahead of his arrest in 2020.

“What is happening to me is not something unique, happening to me alone,” he said. “It is a broader process that is taking place all over the country. We are all aware how prominent intellectuals, lawyers, writers, poets, activists, student leaders — they are all put in jail just because they have expressed their dissent… 

“I am ready to pay the price whatever may it be.” 

A staunch crusader for justice, the ailing Father Swamy also wrote a passionate letter from the jail in January marking his 100 days in prison, highlighting the cases of poor people languishing in jail who begin their trials without even knowing their criminal charges. 

The All India Catholic Union demanded an inquiry into the death of Father Swamy in custody, the denial of timely treatment, and action against those who apparently tried to frame him with the dubious terrorism charge. 

At the same time, the national lay Catholic network hailed his heroic life: “In life and in his martyrdom, Father Stan Swamy has become a beacon for all who struggle for human rights, especially the rights of the tribals and other marginalized people, and a role model for young men and women across the nation.”


Funeral Service

Three Jesuit priests who led Father Swamy’s funeral service at St. Peter’s Church in Mumbai on the afternoon of July 6 recounted his simplicity, commitment to the poor and his Christian witness.

“One day I could not carry the holy host to the hospital, and when I was about to leave, Father Stan asked me ‘Where is the Communion?’” recalled Jesuit Father Frazer Mascarenhas during the funeral service. 

A former principal of St. Xavier College in Mumbai, Father Mascarenhas had been authorized by the court to meet Father Swamy regularly in the Holy Family hospital since his court-ordered his “outside” treatment there. “We organized Communion from the hospital chapel.”

Father Swamy’s body was cremated soon after the funeral on July 6.

“The ashes will be soon taken to Jharkhand state soon for a couple of memorial services at Jamshedpur [Jesuit provincial house] and Ranchi,” Father Mascarenhas told the Register.

The burial, he added, will be at the Bagaicha center in Ranchi, the base from where Father Swamy conducted his advocacy for the marginalized and oppressed tribal people.