Sometime, just before Monday, 22 March (the day the order in response to his bail application was scheduled to be pronounced), Fr. Stan Swamy sent a communication from the confines of the Taloja Prison in Navi Mumbai where he has been incarcerated for nearly six months now. In that communication he said, “So, we await ‘the ides of March’”
From the tone of this communication, Fr Stan was ‘apparently’ using the ides of March, in a fairly positive manner, in a hopeful way. That is exactly how the phrase the ides of March was originally meant to be. The origins of this phrase are in a non-threatening story: Kalends, Nones and Ides were ancient markers used to refer dates in relation to the lunar phases. ‘Ides’ simply referred to the first new moon of a given month, which usually fell between the 13th and 15th. In fact, the Ides of March at one time signified the new year, which meant celebrations and rejoicing. It was a new beginning, a new hope; a time of positive change; a springtime!
Over a period of time, the meaning of the phrase underwent a dramatic change. Noted playwright William Shakespeare was regarded as the first one to give the ‘ides of March’ a negative connotation in his celebrated play ‘Julius Caesar’ (first performed in 1599). Early in the play, during a particular popular Roman festival, Julius Caesar holds a victory parade; but a soothsayer warns him to "Beware the ides of March", which Caesar conveniently ignores and ultimately the tragedy illustrates how he meets with betrayal and ultimately his death on March 15, 44 BC (the ides of March). Since then, Shakespeare’s interpretation has stuck; the phrase and the date, March 15, is now branded with dark and gloomy connotations.
It is very likely that many people who use the phrase today are unaware of its true origin. In fact, just about every pop culture reference to the Ides (except for those appearing in actual history-based books, movies or television specials) makes it seem like the day itself is cursed. Today ‘this cursed day’ is not merely one day in the month of March but it is stretched to include any day of the month and as an English idiom it is conveniently used to denote any ‘bad’ day in the year!
There is also the underlying historical fact that Julius Caesar was murdered by his Senators because he was becoming too dictatorial, arrogating more and more unbridled power to himself. There is a stark similarity to today’s reality, which cannot be lightly dismissed! Strangely enough, ten years ago, in 2011, Columbia Pictures released The Ides of March, a movie about an idealistic campaign staffer (Ryan Gosling) who gets a harsh lesson in dirty politics while working for an up-and-coming presidential candidate (George Clooney).
The movie involves quite a bit of figurative backstabbing, but it’s a pretty clear allegory for the death of Caesar. Again, death and destruction loom. That says it all!
So, when on March 22, Sessions Judge Dinesh E. Kothalikar of the Special NIA Court, denied Fr Stan Swamy bail, it was without doubt the Shakespearean understanding of ‘the ides of March’ that was at play.
In the detailed court order of 34 pages, Justice Kothalikar says that based on the material available on record, Fr Stan seemed to be a member of a banned Maoist organisation. "Prima facie it can be gathered that the applicant along with other members of the banned organisation hatched a serious conspiracy to create unrest in the entire country and to overpower the Government, politically and by using muscle power," says the order, adding that "The material placed on record thus prima facie denote that the applicant was not only a member of banned organisation CPI (Maoist) but he was carrying out activities further in the objective of the organisation which is nothing but to overthrow the democracy of the nation."
The material that the court referred to included around "140 e-mails between the applicant (Swamy) and his co-accused," the fact that Swamy and others he communicated with, were referred to as "comrades", and that Swamy had received Rs 8 lakh from one comrade, Mohan, allegedly for the furtherance of Maoist activities. When Swamy’s lawyers challenged the so-called material evidence, the Judge said that raising questions on the authenticity of the evidence in the case would amount to interference with the court proceedings. “It is well-known that the present proceeding is sub judice. Therefore, making any comments as to the evidence to be placed before the Court would amount to interference in the administration of justice. In fact, such action is required to be deprecated."
In the arguments earlier, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) had opposed Swamy's bail plea saying probe had revealed that Swamy was a staunch supporter of organisations such as ‘Vistapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan' and 'People's Union for Civil Liberties', which, according to the NIA, were working as "fronts of the CPI (Maoist)”. Swamy’s lawyer Sharif Shaikh had argued that the NIA had failed to establish Swamy's connection to the Elgar Parishad-Maoists links case. Fr Stan did not participate in that particular Elgar Parishad and has never visited Bhima-Koregaon all his life.
Jesuit priest Fr. Stan Swamy was arrested from his residence in Ranchi on October 8, 2020. He was produced before a Special Court in Mumbai the next day and has since been lodged at the Taloja Central Jail. He was arrested for ‘apparently’ being part of the Bhima-Koregaon conspiracy case. It relates to alleged inflammatory speeches delivered at the Elgar Parishad conclave held at Shaniwarwada in Pune on December 31, 2017, which, police suspect, triggered violence the next day near the Koregaon-Bhima war memorial located on the outskirts of the city. The police had claimed that the Parishad was backed by outlawed Maoist groups; till today nothing has been proved on that count.
Originally, the main suspects for the Bhima-Koregaon violence were those who belonged to the Sangh Parivar. Several months later human rights defenders were arrested for their ‘alleged’ involvement in the violence. Fr Stan was the sixteenth and last person to be arrested – also making him the oldest person who is incarcerated under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in the country till date. All those arrested are well-known for their unstinted commitment to human rights of the poor, the marginalised and the excluded; some of them are well-known academics and intellectuals who have contributed significantly to the cause of the Dalits and Adivasis.
Fr. Stan Swamy’s advocate had argued that the practice of taking ‘hash values’ of electronic records was not followed by the investigation officer, making them open to fabrication. He had also told the court that the typed letters suffer many legal shortcomings and that the prosecution cannot connect them with the accused based on short names or alphabets used to denote sender and receiver.
Early in February this year, Arsenal Consulting, a US-based digital forensics firm, released a damning report which posed serious questions about the credibility of the letters that were allegedly found in the computer and other gadgets of Rona Wilson, prisoners’ rights activist, who like Fr Stan, is in jail after being arrested in the Bhima-Koregaon conspiracy case. The report said that a cyber attacker had gained access to Wilson’s computer at least 22 months before his arrest and at least 10 incriminating letters were placed on it through this attack. While Arsenal Consulting has not attributed the attack to any particular entity, in its report they have stated that the attacker responsible for compromising Rona’s laptop had extensive resources including time and it is obvious that their primary goals were surveillance and incriminating document delivery.
Fr Stan too was interrogated over a period of time. The NIA was unable to find anything incriminating against Fr. Stan during the raids at his residence in Ranchi. His computer was taken away. In today’s world almost any so-called “incriminating” evidence can be planted on anyone’s computer or other electronic gadgets. The judge, however, refused to take into account the Arsenal report of alleged tampering with the computer of Rona Wilson, a co-accused of Fr Stan.
Fr Stan’s lawyers also asserted that the 83-year-old, besides his advanced age, suffers from Parkinson's disease and he has lost the ability to hear; also suffers from other physical ailments. On his age and health condition, the judge cited previous Supreme Court judgements to hold that given the seriousness of the allegations made against Swamy, the "collective interest of the community would outweigh Swamy's right to personal liberty". Adding that, “as such the old age and/or alleged sickness of the applicant would not go in his favour.” The Judge was too afraid to cite the Supreme Court’s judgement on Arnab Goswami (the blue-eyed boy of the ruling regime) which ruled in favour of an individual’s personal liberty!
The judge also disregarded the fact that Fr. Stan was not a flight risk and would not jump bail. In his plea, Fr Stan said that his name was not even part of the original FIR but was added in the remand application in 2018 by the police as a ‘suspected accused’. The court, however, held the fact that though Fr Stan had not been named in the initial FIR, did not entitle him to any relief. Judge Kothalikar, in a highly questionable order, accepted the prosecution's submissions saying they had "substance". He said, "upon cumulative consideration of all the aforesaid circumstances as well as the law on the subject, I conclude that the applicant has failed to make out a case for grant of bail."
The order concluded, “there are reasonable grounds for believing that the accusation of commission of the offences punishable under chapters IV (punishment for terrorist activities) and VI (terrorist organisations) of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) against the applicant is prima facie true. Considering the express bar imposed by Section 43D 5 (no person accused with chapters IV and VI shall be released on bail) of the UAPA, the applicant cannot be released on bail.”
Fr. Stan’s missive from jail, a little before the preposterous order denying him bail was pronounced, says it all:
“Dear one and all,
Pardon me for clubbing all of you together as I have one and the same message to give to you soon. Practically everyone writing to me expresses the wish that I be released from prison ‘at the earliest/ immediately/without any further delay’ or some such wish.
Apart from the fact that the wheels of justice turn very slow, all 16 of us are implicated in serious cases such as sedition and UAPA, where it is very difficult to get bail. Still our lawyers are trying their very best. So, we await ‘the ides of March’.
Whereas arrests under sedition are increasing, conviction is just 3 percent. As for UAPA, 5,922 arrests were made during 2016-19, and only 132 were convicted (source Times of India 11-02- 2021). Our prisons are bursting at the seams. Consequently, we have a scenario of deprivation of even the basic amenities to prisoners ...So much for now.
Ever in solidarity,
Even from prison Fr Stan has retained his positivity and sensitivity for others. All his life he has been labouring for and accompanying the Adivasis and other excluded groups in their quest for justice, equity and dignity. He has always worked within the Constitutional and democratic framework of the country. That anyone could even think that he was trying to “overthrow the democracy of the nation” is not merely outlandish but a sheer travesty of justice. In fact, the way democracy is being dismantled in the country today by the fascists is there for everyone to see.
For Fr Stan, the order was indeed the ‘ides of March’; however, it is not a closed chapter; the pursuit and struggle for justice and truth will continue relentlessly, whatever be the consequences. One day, with Fr Stan, we will certainly say we have overcome, because truth triumphs, ‘Satyameva Jayate!’
(The writer is a human rights & peace activist/writer. Contact: email@example.com)