A funeral service for tribal rights activist and Jesuit priest Stan Swamy, who died in a private hospital while waiting for medical bail in the Elgar Parishad case, was held at the St. Peter's church in suburban Bandra here on Tuesday as tributes continued to pour in for him from his well-wishers. Swamy (84), who was in judicial custody, died on Monday afternoon at the Holy Family Hospital in Bandra, where he was undergoing treatment for multiple ailments, and had applied for medical bail in the Bombay High Court.
While a small funeral service was held at the church adhering to the Covid-19 protocols imposed by the Maharashtra government, several people, priests, lawyers, human rights activists and some family members of Swamy joined the funeral online. His body was kept in an open coffin to allow people of pay their tributes. Three priests, the administrator of the Holy Family Hospital and a small choir group were present in the church at the time of the funeral service.
The church authorities said Swamy's body will be cremated in Mumbai after completing certain formalities and his ashes will be taken to Ranchi and Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, the state where he was based. Also present at the service were father Joe Xavier and father Frazer Mascarenhas, associates of Swamy.
They remembered Swamy as a courageous and fearless man. He fell in love with the tribals of Jharkhand when he was studying in Chaibasa, Jharkhand. In 1970, he was ordained as a priest, and a year later he went to Jharkhand to begin working for the tribals, Father Joe said. He worked for the tribals and for the marginalised for five decades, he dedicated his life for them, he said.
Even from the prison he was lodged, Swamy wrote to his friends and encouraged them to continue their fight for the marginalised, his associates said.He was a selfless man. He never wanted anything for himself. When he was being taken away from Ranchi (by the NIA in October 2020), we packed some clothes, two sippers, and a little money in his bag, Father Joe said.
He was probably not allowed to take the sipper inside the prison but he was facing difficulty in eating so he told one of his lawyers to get his sipper back, he said. Father Joe said Swamy was surprised at the confusion and uproar his request (from a court in Mumbai for a straw and a sipper cup) created.
Later, on a phone call, Stan asked me what was the confusion about. He said, 'leave it if it is a problem. I will manage without a sipper', Father Joe said. Those present at the service said that while working for the tribals, Swamy was aware, he was in dangerous terrain.
He knew anything could happen to him. Today, anyone who works for the underprivileged or marginalised in this country, is branded an urban naxal. But Stan said he did not fear anyone because he was working for truth and justice, Father Joe said. Father Frazer, who was permitted to visit Swamy each day for an hour in the private Holy Family Hospital where he was admitted in May, said Swamy had been feeling confident that things would get better for him and his co-accused.
Swamy had spoken to his lawyers just a few days before his death and had felt confident that the lawyers were doing all they could to ensure justice for him and his co-accused in the Elgar Parishad-Maoist links case, he said. When he entered the Holy Family hospital, I told him people from the world over were praying for him. He said he knew that and that is how he was carrying on, Father Frazer said.
Also present at the service was Swamy's granddaughter Lindsey. She said Swamy used to say that a caged bird can still sing. He wasn't a silent spectator but a true warrior. He raised a voice no matter where he was, Lindsey said.
The priests thanked Swamy's legal team, including senior advocate Mihir Desai, who represented the tribal rights activist before the High Court. They also thanked Swamy's co-accused, activists Anand Teltumbde, and Arun Ferreira, who were lodged in Navi Mumbai's Taloja prison with Swamy and took care of him there.
Teltumbde and Ferreira helped Swamy bathe, change, eat, they said. They were like a mother to Stan and Stan could survive in prison only because of them, Father Joe said.
He said sometime before Swamy was admitted to the private hospital, he had spoken to him on the phone. At the time, Swamy had said he was very ill, could barely speak, and was even hallucinating, Father Joe said.
May his martyrdom inspire all of us to take forward his work for the marginalised. We pray for Stan's co-accused who are languishing in prison on fabricated charges. His spirit will live on as a living memory for justice and reconciliation and inspire others to walk this path fearlessly, the priests at the service said. Those present at the service also thanked the private hospital for extending the best treatment to the octogenarian. Swamy, an undertrial who was arrested by the NIA in October 2020, had moved the HC earlier this year seeking bail on merits and health grounds.
The activist had also filed a plea in the HC earlier this month challenging the provision of the UAPA that bars grant of bail to those charged under the anti-terror Act. His medical bail plea was listed for hearing in the HC on July 6. However, advocate Desai moved an application on July 5 for urgent hearing. The HC scheduled the hearing for 2.30 pm on July 5 but Swamy was declared dead at the Holy Family hospital by then.
Meanwhile, Leaders of 10 opposition parties wrote to President Ram Nath Kovind seeking his intervention in holding accountable those responsible for “foisting false cases" on tribal rights activist Father Stan Swamy, his continued detention in jail and “inhuman treatment" allegedly meted out to him. The letter comes a day after Father Stan Swamy died at a Mumbai hospital during treatment. The signatories include Congress president Sonia Gandhi, NCP chief Sharad Pawar, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Tamil Nadu CM MK Stalin.
Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren (JMM), former prime minister and JDS leader HD Deve Gowda and NC leader Farooq Abdullah, RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav, D Raja (CPI) and Sitaram Yechury (CPI-M) have also signed the letter. “We the undersigned leaders of major opposition parties are writing to you in deep anguish expressing our intense grief and outrage at the death of Father Stan Swamy under custody," they said in their letter to the president.
“We are urging your immediate intervention as the President of India to direct your government to act against those responsible for foisting false cases on him, his continued detention in jail and inhuman treatment," they said.