Ranchi: The National Investigation Agency (NIA) arrested an octogenarian Christian priest Fr. Stan Lourduswamy, an activist working with tribals, for his alleged links with Maoists and banned organizations, on Thursday. According to the NIA, Fr Stan has been arrested in connection with the 2018 violence in Maharashtra’s Bhima-Koregaon, a tiny village near the western Indian city of Pune.
The NIA took the 83-year-old Catholic priest, popularly known as Father Stan Swamy, from his residence near Ranchi, capital of the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand.
The probe agency said that they have seized documents and propaganda material of the CPI (Maoist) and literature from Stan Swamy. And they claimed that he was in contact with the other accused in the Bhima-Koregaon case.
“He also had received funds through an associate for the furtherance of the CPI (Maoist) activities,” NIA officials said.
Arrested without a warrant
A Jesuit colleague in the campus says the agency presented no warrant to arrest the priest. “NIA people were rough and arrogant. They said he was an accused and a senior officer wants to meet him at the NIA office in Ranchi,” he said, in a WhatsApp message.
NIA is empowered to deal with terror related crimes across India, and requires no permission from a state. It was set up after the November 26, 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. It now acts as the federal counter terrorism law enforcement agency.
The probe agency claimed that Stan Swamy was a member of the banned Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) and was “actively involved in its activities”.
Bhima Koregaon incident
The Bhima Koregaon case dates back to January 1, 2018, the bicentenary day celebrations of the Bhima Koregaon battle. Violence marred the celebration leading to the death of one person and injuries to several others. Dalits and higher-caste Maratha people clashed in several parts of Maharashtra.
Police investigation into the incident led to the arrest of several activists for their alleged “Maoist links”. The police alleged that they had funded the Elgar Parishad meeting on December 31, 2017, where inflammatory speeches were made, leading to the violence.
Those arrested on August 28, 2019, included writer and poet Varavara Rao, lawyer and activist Sudha Bhardwaj, academic and activist Vernon Gonsalves, and human rights activists Arun Ferreira and Gautam Navlakha.
‘Nothing to do with Bhima Koregaon case‘
Father Swamy said the NIA investigation “has nothing to do with Bhima-Koregaon case”, where he was booked as a “suspected-accused.” The agency raided his residence on August 28, 2018, and on June 12, 2019. They have taken away his belongings, including his computer, he added.
In a video message released two days before his arrest, Father Swamy stated that the NIA interrogated him for 15 hours on July 27, 28, 29, 30 and August 6.
“Apart from my bio-data, and some factual information, they have placed before me several extracts, allegedly taken from my computer implicating my connection to Maoist forces. I told them that all these are fabrications, stealthily put into my computer, and I disowned them,” the priest explained.
The priest said that the agency wanted to prove that he was personally linked to extremist leftist forces. Moreover the agency has been trying to project that the Bagaicha campus has links to some Maoists, he added.
Working among tribal people for decades
“I denied both these allegations in strongest terms,” said the priest. He has been working among the tribal people of Jharkhand for several decades and educating them about their constitutional rights.
He said, after six weeks of silence he was summoned to appear in the NIA office in Mumbai.
The priest said that he told the agency that the Jharkhand government has banned people above 65 to appear in public, during the lockdown. He then suggested them that, if they want to interrogate him, it could do so through video-conference.
Father Swamy’s message expresses the hope that “human sense will prevail” and save him from traveling to Mumbai. “If not, I am ready to face the consequences,” he said. He thanked all who have stood in solidarity with him all these years.
Arrest sparks outrage
The arrest of Fr Swamy has sparked outrage. Author and historian Ramachandra Guha said Stan Swamy has spent a “lifetime fighting for the rights of adivasis.”
“That is why the Modi regime seeks to suppress and silence them; because for this regime, the profits of mining companies take precedence over the lives and livelihoods of adivasis,” Guha tweeted.
Lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan tweeted, “…Now arrested by the NIA under UAPA! The venality of this BJP govt & NIA knows no bounds (sic).”
Several prominent activists, scholars and lawyers had been jailed for over two years, and they await trial.
Stan Swamy, who has several health issues, is the oldest person to be in custody in the Koregaon-Bhima case. He was questioned several times in the past, in connection with the case. Originally from Kerala, Stan Swamy has been working for tribals in Jharkhand for over five decades.