Jesuit priest Stan Swamy died of cardiac arrest at the Holy Family Hospital in a Mumbai suburb on Monday at the age of 84, his doctor told the Bombay High Court later that day. The court was hearing an urgent plea for bail on medical grounds, which was rejected by Swamy earlier in March.
For decades, he fought for the human rights of India’s marginalized and indigenous groups, speaking and writing deeply about caste-based injustice.
India’s caste system was officially abolished in 1950, but the 2,000-year-old social hierarchy imposed on people by birth still exists in many aspects of life. The caste system classifies Hindus by birth, defining their place in society, what jobs they can do and whom they can marry.
In October last year, Swamy was arrested and charged under the country’s anti-terrorism laws, which critics have described as harsh.
In this incident, known as the Bhima Koregaon case, there was a bloody conflict between the lower caste and other regional groups in the state of Maharashtra.
Thousands of Dalits – who are ranked at the bottom of India’s caste-based system – gathered at Bhima Koregaon village to mark the 200th anniversary of the war in which they were in the then British colonial army . Violence erupted when an upper caste ruler was defeated.
Authorities accused Swamy of having links with the organization responsible for the violence and alleged that he had links with Maoist insurgents, considered one of the country’s biggest security threats. In a video recorded a few days before his arrest, Swamy denied all involvement and said that he had never visited the place where the violence took place.
His arrest sparked worldwide outrage, prompting many opposition politicians, national and international rights groups to demand his release.
‘Like to die in prison’
Despite Swamy’s deteriorating health, which intensified when he contracted coronavirus in jail last month, authorities have repeatedly rejected pre-trial bail pleas of his lawyers to allow him to recover at home.
The National Investigation Agency in-charge of the case had opposed his bail plea on medical grounds citing the gravity of the allegations against Swamy and claimed that he was getting proper care inside the jail.
According to court documents reviewed by CNN, the activist told the court he would “prefer to die in prison rather than be admitted to any hospital.”
On court orders, Swamy was taken to Holy Family Hospital in late May.
The ministry said that in view of Swamy’s ill health, he was allowed medical treatment at a private hospital where he had received “all possible medical assistance” from May 28.
Several opposition politicians, rights groups and academics have expressed grief over his death – as well as anger at the laws under which he was arrested and denied bail. Critics have long accused the Indian government of using anti-terrorism laws as a means to stifle dissent.
The Archbishop of Bombay, Oswald Cardinal Gracias, in a statement on Monday, described Swamy’s arrest as “very painful”.
“Nobody is innocent until proven guilty,” the statement said. “Father Stan’s case didn’t even come up for hearing.”
Gracias said that Swamy had given a “sense of pride and upliftment” to marginalized groups in India, adding that he worked “with a mind for the poor”.
Harsh Mander, a prominent Indian rights activist, called Swamy’s death a “tragedy for the nation”.
Human Rights Watch’s South Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly said Swamy’s arrest “highlights a degree of brutality and brutality which is shameful.”
“Anti-terrorism law is harsh. We see it being used extensively to jail peaceful critics without bail,” Ganguly said. “It was for the courts to decide whether Swamy was guilty or not, but in granting bail repeatedly, the authorities decided not to protect,” the “fragile, sick” worker, he said.
CNN’s Vedika Sood contributed reporting.