(On the birthday of Fr. Stan Swamy, Cedric Prakash remembers him in a unique way)
It is your birthday today here on earth! You would have completed eighty-six years, if you were around. Well, that was not to be; on 5 July 2021 you were murdered by a brutal and fascist regime, which did not want a human rights defender like you to continue living. This is your second earthly birthday up above. Not sure how you will be celebrating it!
But here on earth, dear Stan, you are missed very much. Countless people remember you: your compassion and commitment; your courage to identify with them and their struggles. These are mostly simple, ordinary people; the Adivasis and the Dalits; the excluded and the exploited, the poor and the marginalised. You lived in their midst; you basked in their presence; you smelled of the sheep like a truly good shepherd. They celebrate you today and will always do so. There is certainly no doubt of that.
But I am writing this birthday letter based on the recent conversation I had with you. I can see you smiling (you always had that halting, tentative smile – slow, gentle but warm) and I can imagine others reading this and with a sneer saying “Conversation with Stan? There must be something wrong with him!” Well let them say what they want – but I will hold my ground! It was the night of April 13/14 (less than two weeks ago), Frs. Tom Kavala and P.M. Anthony invited me to spend the night in Bagaicha. This was your home – before the ‘powerful’ so unceremoniously took you away on 8 October 2021 like some kind of common criminal. I was given your room to stay in and your bed to sleep on. It was a totally unexpected privilege – something unforgettable which I will treasure all my life.
That day was a very tiring one for me. I fell asleep immediately. But I was suddenly wide-awake feeling as refreshed as ever; at first, I wondered where I was. The fact slowly dawned upon me – I checked the time: I must have been asleep for less than an hour. I began tossing and turning for apparently no reason. When suddenly I felt your presence in the room. Imagination? maybe – who knows! I am not wont to give in easily to the ‘supernatural’. But I did share my experience with some. I began asking you questions and well, you seemed to be answering them directly and bluntly (like the way you always did). We were having a conversation: something I was convinced that I had to put down in writing; so here I go:
CP: Hi Stan! How are you and how is life up there?
SS: It’s good here – I am certainly happy; however, when I look down at what’s happening in India and to my people, I feel very sad and upset and wish I was there with my people.
CP: Can you possibly do something from up there?
SS: What nonsense! Me from up here? Haven’t I left you and others a legacy? After my death there was some enthusiasm about actualising that legacy, but I see that not much has been done. I wonder why?
CP: Stan, the simple reason is that we are afraid. We lack your prophetic courage. We prefer to toe the line. We do not want to disturb the powerful – for fear of losing our privileges and possessions.
SS: Actually, it is much more than that. We have become highly institutionalised and most of our efforts (of the Jesuits and of the Church) are spent in managing/running our institutions, protecting our interests and trying to please the establishment (be it corporate or political). I have suffered much because of this. I have questioned our priorities, the people we cater to in our institutions and above all, of how we do not want to risk responding radically to the realities in the same way that Jesus would have done. Our commitment should stem from a Gospel without compromise, firmly rooted in the person and message of Jesus and the Constitution of India. Very often our action is relegated to social works in the project-mould, meant to adhere to ‘dos and don’ts’ rather than in the accompaniment of people. We indulge in cosmetics and acts of tokenism rather than being visible and vocal in speaking truth to power. We tend to run with the hare and hunt with the hound. As long as we are safe in our comfort zones, we do not want to rock the boat. We Jesuits easily forget that GC36 wanted us to row in the deep.
CP: Stan, you always said that Vatican II, GC32 and the likes of Bishop Helder Camara and Fr. Pedro Arrupe were among those who inspired you. Any comments?
SS: Yes, Vatican II and its direction to the Church meant much to me. If some more of us had tried to put its teachings into practice, we would have had a very different Church and world today. Bishop Helder Camara tried and he was branded a ‘communist’ (you know how easily they branded me too). For me, the 32nd General Congregation had a very clear mandate that “the mission of the Society of Jesus today is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement; for reconciliation with God demands reconciliation of people with one another.” Fr. Pedro Arrupe wanted every Jesuit to live this mandate; sadly, many of us were afraid to do so. It is obvious today too.
CP: What more do you think we should be doing today for a more humane and just society?
SS: There is indeed plenty that each one of you should be doing – both individually and collectively. Do so fearlessly. Give and do not count the cost. We have to be the voice for the voiceless for those who continue to live on the peripheries of society. We must collaborate and network with other like-minded individuals, groups and movements; to keep our institutions and spaces open for them and to join them in their initiatives.
CP: Yes Stan, but doing all that one will have to pay the price. It is not easy.
SS: Certainly! Haven’t I paid the price? I suffered so much during incarceration. That’s what life is all about. Just before my arrest in October 2020, I said “What is happening to me is not something unique, happening to me alone. It is a broader process that is taking place all over the country. We are all aware how prominent intellectuals, lawyers, writers, poets, activists, students, leaders, they are all put into jail because they have expressed their dissent or raised questions about the ruling powers of India. We are part of the process. In a way I am happy to be part of this process. I am not a silent spectator, but part of the game, and ready to pay the price whatever be it”.
CP: Wow Stan! Thanks for reminding me of those immortal words from you!
Morning soon dawned. No, it was not a dream. It was for real. You, Stan, challenging me and others to do much more: to live your legacy in more profound, tangible and meaningful ways. Yes, we do have a long, long way to go! But with your blessings and guidance from above, we will do our best! Thanks, Stan, for being YOU! Happy Birthday dear Stan.
(Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ)
(Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights, peace and reconciliation activist/writer. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org )