Jharkhand has been hogging national headlines following NIA’s arrest and detention of Fr. Stan Swami. Swami, a Catholic priest, past 83, had been a human rights activist for the cause of tribal development in Eastern India for over four decades.
Everybody talks of development. The government proposes developmental projects. Villagers talk of development or at least hope that some positive action will happen rather than be fed with the political gibberish of false promises.
Intellectuals and investigative media personnel expatiate on the need for a constructive roadmap for development projects. Human rights activists with their ear to the ground speak up and stand with people who, they feel, are victims of a hoodwinking development that serves the interests of the capitalist lobby.
No one wants to stonewall development projects proposed by the government. The nation needs proper infrastructures such as dams, waterways, roads, transportation, industry, and what have you. But the problem arises when such development, which is meant for people’s welfare, creates anti-people scenario. In the name of mining, people en masse are displaced. Deprived of their lifeline resources, they become victims of poverty and marginalisation. Then, the question that is asked is: ‘What type of development is that?’ For the sake of industry when vast acres of forests are denuded, causing drought or uninvited flood, at least the affected sit up and begin to ask questions which are uncomfortable for the rulers.
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Large scale labour migration from rural areas to cities is not a picnic. When agricultural areas are converted into townships with high rise mansions causing a long line of slum huts, only anti-people politicians and leaders can call it development.
Such are the areas where men of conscience speak up. Not because they are affected directly. But because an inner voice in them urges them to express solidarity with the victims of such anti-people development. The flood of anger and the burst of solidarity with the victims of rape and murder across India or against inhuman treatment of Dalits and Adivasis show that men and women with conscience stand up and speak up. There are also those who go a step further and stand with the victims crying foul against an unjust social system or an exploiting act of the ruling dispensation. That is where they themselves are victimized by the powers that are.
At the bifurcation of Bihar into Bihar and Jharkhand in 2000 all Jharkhandis and their well-wishers hoped that the sun of development was rising on Jharkhand. But the fact was otherwise. In the name of development, Jharkhand’s economic resources such as minerals, land, water, forest etc. were to be offered to private mining lobby and corporate sharks at the cost of people’s marginalisation.
Those who know Swami speak of him as a gentle and soft-spoken person, but also as a person who has perceived ground reality with his ear to the ground. The thrust of the government in Adivasi-dominated areas for taking over people’s agricultural and cultivable land for the sake of handing over to mining lobbies and corporate business has been a bone of contention between the government and the rights activists
Swami was deeply aware of what was happening in the name of development. In an article he wrote: “Let it be noted most of these mines in all above States are located in the predominantly Adivasi-inhabited areas, that is in Adivasi land and forests. No need to remind anyone that as it is, Adivasis are among the most marginalised communities. They make up about 8 percent of India’s population of 1.3 billion, but about 40 percent of the 60 million people displaced by development projects in past decades are Adivasis. Only 25% of them have been resettled but none rehabilitated. They were given minimal compensation and then neatly forgotten.”
As a concrete instance Swami points out the sordid manner a once-flourishing Ho Adivasi village in Jharkhand was reduced to misery. Dubil, an Adivasi village in Saranda forest of West Singhbhum district, with a population of 500 persons, was once a rich village with paddy cultivation twice a year and a supplement of cereals. When the Chiria iron ore mine, covering 3276 hectares came up in the vicinity, 100 acres of fertile cultivable land became barren, streams and canals showed reddish water and ground water became scarce. When the people protested, criminal cases were clamped on them and six village leaders were arrested.
In another of his posts, Swami had pointed out that, ‘From the time of independence up to now a staggering of 2.4million acres of land has been forcibly acquired all in the name of development. Consequently 1.7 million Adivasis have been displaced. The sad fact is not a single Adivasi person or community has ever been rehabilitated. Only minimal cash compensation was thrust upon them and after that they were neatly forgotten.’
A most recent intervention of his on behalf of the Adivasis was when the Central Government released a list of 41 coal blocks all over India on 18 June 2020 to be auctioned to private companies. Out of 41 coal blocks, 9 are in Jharkhand, 9 in Chattisgarh, 9 in Odisha, and 11 in Madhya Pradesh. Swami points out that “most of these mines in all above States are located in the predominantly Adivasi-inhabited areas, that is in Adivasi land and forests.”
He minced no words when he raised 5 important concerns on behalf of the Adivasi community.
1. The negotiating parties are the government and private companies. Land owners will be displaced or reduced to become casual labourers
2. The Constitutional stipulation for consulting the Tribes Advisory Council in the Vth Schedule area is not followed. The requirement of consulting Gram Sabha in the allotment of major minerals (PESA Act, 1996) is shelved. The Forest Act, 2006, stipulating consultation with Gram Sabha in forest areas is not followed. The Land Acquisition Act, 2013, prohibiting acquisition of multi-crop land is given a go-by. “Does it mean laws enacted in parliament, judgments passed by the highest court of the land do not apply to present central govt?” asks Swami.
3. “The govt will acquire Adivasi land, forcibly if need be, and hand it over to the companies. Land is given to them on a platter. If affected people will protest, they will be handled by law-and-order forces willingly supplied by local govt administration. Multiple cases will be foisted on those who lead people’s protests and thrown behind bars. Private companies have nothing to worry.”
4. The contradiction of private companies accumulating billions in profit and the small and marginal farmers getting reduced to penury. “Has even a semblance of justice disappeared in our society?” asks Swami.
5. “Mining is important,” he concedes. “But it has to cater to the community’s needs,” he asserts. He points out that the 2013 SC verdict recognised the ownership of major subsoil minerals by the owner of the land. The 1997 verdict gives power to the local cooperatives of Adivasis alone to do mining. Combine these two verdicts and let the government facilitate the process of registration of such cooperatives, render technical help, marketing etc. “The state can do it if it really wants the development and welfare of all. Where there is a will, there is a way,” states Swami.
Prior to his arrest, Swami and his research team had done a study to highlight the fact that hundreds of innocent Adivasis were jailed by having been accused of being suspected supporters of Maoists. Following the study, he organised legal help to get them out at least on bail.
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Such exposures become bombshell in the eyes of an authoritarian government. It not only ruffles the feathers of the powers that are, but makes the ruling dispensation feel cornered and threatened. According to Swami, this could have been the main reason the government decided to silence him.
The man who raised his concerns about the government’s acts of denying human and fundamental rights in violation of the enacted laws is himself booked under a terrorist law that criminalises dissent or speaking against the state’s ruling dispensation. When an unfeeling government does not give credence to people’s woes and agonies, it can go to any extent of booking dissenters, protesters, and rights promoters as terrorists, Maoists, anti-nationals, and the like. On another count, the arrest and detention of Swami is a gross violation of the fundamental right of life of a person past 83 and a victim for Parkinson’s disease.
What is the government going to gain by acts such as putting behind bars senior citizens past 80 like Varavara Rao and Swami or Professor Saibaba with his 95 percent paralysis? Has the law such an inhuman face that even the courts do not dare to administer a drop of mercy?
Even the Chief Minister of Jharkhand State, Hemant Soren, raised serious concerns about Swami’s arrest. Soren publically questioned the intent of the Central government in using the draconian anti-terrorist law to arrest and detain Swami. Addressing a webinar conference and appreciating Swami’s rights-promoting activities, Soren’s words rang loud and clear. ‘Things are going too far. At this rate, tomorrow you will be arrested. And, then, it will be the turn of all of us.’ It was a clear warning that a government intent on trampling under foot people’s human and fundamental rights can go any extent to victimise anyone who has a dissenting opinion.