Eighty-four year old Father Stan Swamy who had spent decades serving the tribal people of Jharkhand, was arrested on trumped up charges, subjected to endless interrogations, and confined to Taloja jail for over eight months. As he battles illness, his endurance has left a message for the world says Archbishop THOMAS MENAMPARAMPIL who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. 


SOME symbolisms sting.

People remember how during the Communist regime in Eastern Europe, when public criticism of the government was impossible, creative people devised political jokes to camouflage criticism. Humour can be weaponised. Charlie Chaplin’s comical performance too carried a ‘defiance message’ from the masses. He himself admitted that his aim was to make people think.

A story is told of children who taught their parrot to sing “That is not right, sir, please. That is not right!” The message was meant for their impulsive father who would regularly shout at their mother and beat her up mercilessly when he was upset.  The signal for the bird was the dad’s loud shouting which the children knew how to imitate. So, the surprise came one day when he came home in a bad mood  and began a squabble with his wife. It reached a peak with the angry man shouting at the top of his voice and raising his hands when he heard the parrot sing, “That is not right, sir, please. That is not right!” The raging man was totally disarmed, receiving a stinging message from a mere parrot. He was a changed man from that day. “Even the caged bird can sing”, says Fr. Stan Swamy: respect tribal land, respect the poor.

Strike the Conscience of the Nation

When Mother Teresa plunged herself into the streets of Calcutta to help the poorest of the poor, there were criticisms from some justice-fighters. The critics said, rather than addressing the consequence of unfair structures, she should be fighting for fairer structures in society. She humbly explained that her mission was to help those totally helpless and she was very happy about others who worked for a more equitable social order. Despite all criticism she received, her work stunned the world. Bill Clinton once declared that Mother Teresa had struck the conscience of the world as no one else had done in living memory.

The fact, of course, is that there have been hundreds and thousands of Mother Teresas and Father Damiens “who have left no memory and disappeared as though they had not existed…(but) whose good works have not been forgotten… Their glory will not fade…and their name lives on for all generations” (Sirach 44:9-14). Over 210 priests and 215 sisters died of Covid since April, most of them in frontline service, like hundreds of pastors, doctors and nurses… also 52 journalists. They were happy to serve their fellow countrymen, who died in large numbers: over 3 lakhs according to Government reports; 42 lakhs according to New York Times speculation!

The Whole World Is Watching

Eighty-four year old Father Stan Swamy, who had spent decades serving the tribal people of Jharkhand, had been arrested on trumped up charges, subjected to endless interrogations, and confined to Taloja jail for over a year when he fell ill. His endurance itself has a message for the world. He has emphasised that he was more eager to be with his people than seek attention to himself in the hospital.

Today, seven billion people, the whole of humanity, are watching to see what happens to Stan Swamy under Modi within Indian democracy. The example Stan has set will continue to inspire people for generations.

Tribal People in India Deserve Attention 

The original inhabitants of India were tribal people, who, like the American Indians, were driven to the forests, hills and interior places by the invading races. Some figurines in the Indus Valley (Harappa) reveal Mongolian features (D.P. Singhal 5), which could mean that the Harappan civilisation may have belonged to the Mongoloid and Austro-Asiatic tribals like those of the present Northeast  or the Dravidian communities. No matter to whom it belonged, a very positive feature of that civilisation is that there is not much evidence of serious conflicts; weapons were mostly used against animals. Harappa must have been ruled by tribal chiefs and their councils in a ‘democratic fashion’ The same tradition we notice centuries later among the Licchchhavis at Vaishali in Bihar, to whom the families of Buddha and Ashoka were related.

Mongoloid races were ridiculed by the Aryans for their physical features with the name anasa (noseless people); for their pronunciation, since they found it hard to pronounce ‘r’. You notice that in Pali all Sanskrit words lose their ‘r’ sound. Dharma becomes Dhamma, putra putta, sutra sutta, Rama become Lama. Ridiculed and dispossessed, they withdrew into Nepal mountains, Northeast Hills and Chota Nagpur plateau in an eagerness to preserve their identity and culture. Those who were subdued were reduced to the status of today’s Dalits and OBCs. The sole security for those who withdrew into the interior was their land. Father Stan was in defense of precisely the land of indigenous communities.

Expansion of an Exploitative Order

Even Puranic legends have a historic core. Buddhist-dominated Pataliputra and Brahmin-dominated Kosala kingdoms represented almost “two different civilisations”. Recent historians have highlighted this difference. The Buddhists rejected the Vedas, caste system and wasteful sacrifices from which the Brahmins made a living. Greatly displeased, the Brahminic leadership organised their own fighting forces to teach a lesson to resisting Buddhist-Jain rulers. So you have the story of Parashurama exterminating Kshatriyas under Brahminic inspiration, which stands for the disastrous defeat of non-Aryan tribal communities (Singh 422). Parashurama hands over the entire conquered land to the Brahmins. Brahminism takes over India.

But the teachings of the Buddhists were still popular, especially the concept of Ahimsa. So, the Brahmin elite decided to appropriate the Ahimsa-idea as though it was originally theirs, and extend it to cows for their own economic interests. Buddhism had only stood for moderation, preventing  insensitive killing of animals and careless destruction of forests.

This account shows how Brahminism knew from the beginning how to snatch their opponents’ ideas, whether from Buddhism, Bhakti movement, Ambedkarism, or the teachings of Vivekananda, Tagore or Gandhi and distort them to serve their own purposes. However, in this way they lose their credibility.

Credibility Gone, Corruption Has Become a Normal Way of Life 

That is how the Ruling Regime has lost their credibility. Author and historian Ramachandra Guha says the trouble with the present Administration is that no one can trust its policies whether it be in the field of economy, health, education, or electoral funding. “Electoral bribery” has become the bane of Indian democracy. Nobody complains any more about such gross disorders.  For, critics are jailed. And once in jail, cases multiply. Vigilantism in support of the Government and its erratic Hindutva agenda is encouraged…protests penalised. The police force is heavily communalised. Criminals are presented as victims in every case. Government departments too are communally biased. It would seem that even the Election commission and CBI are being misused, and that the media and Judiciary are influenced. Guha notices only a few English papers that stand independent and a few judges.

We cannot solve the problem of the poor by adding to the wealth of the rich! But that is exactly what is happening. Mukesh Ambani saw his wealth more than double last year to $85 billion and Adani’s gas price “soars”… during the Covid crisis.

James Crabtree says, the ultra-rich are thriving and inequality is growing; they too must pay a fair share of taxes (Crabtree 299-300). Even a mighty billionaire like Jeff Bezos supports a ‘special tax’ on ‘exceptional incomes’. But the Billionaire gang resists the suggestion.

Tagore had warned, “The whole world is suffering today from the cult of selfishness”.   And Francois Mitterrand,  said, “Money corrupts, money buys, money crushes, money kills, money ruins, money rots men’s consciences”.

Identity Struggle 

As people resist when they are fleeced of their feeble earnings, they resist even more strongly when their identity is threatened. One’s identity stands at the core of one’s being and of all that one cherishes in one’s life. Take note, the recent elections were much more than mere party-competitions. People in the East and South seem to say: “We refuse to be mere colonies of the Hindi belt and allow our regional resources to be exploited by the power-wielders in Delhi… which today is too evidently siphoned off to mighty corporates”.

Northeastern tribal people too are worried, like those of Jharkhand, about their subsoil wealth which people like Patanjali want to appropriate.

Modiji himself, when he was Chief Minister in Gujarat, addressed the Delhi authorities as Sultans and Mughals. Emotions are higher today at the margins because the insensitivity of the top leader is also higher. The “Imperial Dictates” from the Centre for the regions are going to be resisted.

Very revealingly, Sunanda Datta-Ray points out that BJP is as alien to Bengal as Mohammed of Ghazni was to Somnath (Gujarat). The image is extremely strong for those who know the Gujaratis were hurt about the Ghaznian invasions. A similar comparison in Assam would be how unwelcome the RSS-appointed advisers from Delhi are in the region, who for the local people are like Aurangzeb’s agents struggling against whom Lachit Borphukan laid down his life.

Indeed, for the indigenous people of the Northeast, it makes little difference whether their identity is threatened by the people from neighbouring Mymensingh and Sylhet or by those from distant Gorakhpur and Surat. Mamata’s response to Amit Shah’s ‘Jai Shri Ram’ with ‘Jai Bangla’ was not a “religious retort”, but an “identity-assertion”. Here you are in Bengal, she meant to say, not in the ‘Bimaru’ states of North India.

Listen to the Critics in Your Jails

People East and South would like to send a bird-messenger to their friends in the Bimaru states with this message: “Please update yourselves. Move into the modern era. Remedy your situation of illiteracy, ill health and undernourishment. And respect other people’s diet. And don’t forget that a monk-Chief Minister is an anachronism and a Prime Minister-pujari is an embarrassment to the nation. Leave temple-building to devotees and sants, and don’t waste public money for such sectarian projects. And please, spare the nation of uninformed leaders who want to take our society back to Puranic days and drag the nation behind the most backward states in the world.”

“Choose leaders who are better informed about world affairs and competent in vocabulary intelligible in the wider world (not cow-centred, temple-oriented, beef-anxious…making India the laughing-stock of the world),  and who can lead the nation onto the path of health, education, development and general wellbeing. Shake off your allegiance to Hindutva-ideologues and RSS-tutors who have assigned the most incompetent men into key positions in the field of health, education, and national security so that they have landed us in the present mess: Ladakh-crisis, Covid-crisis, Kashmir-crisis, and neighbourhood-crisis. If this message doesn’t reach you, listen at least to those righteous critics in your jails who dared to speak up”.

Yes, even as jailed birds can sing, distant messages can be picked up. Eric Fromm, the founder of Political Psychology, was referring to the Nazis when he said, “If political actions are based on narcissistic self-glorifications, the lack of objectivity often leads to disastrous consequences”. How relevant these words are to our situation today!

Criticism Is Kindness Garbed in Intelligence

A defector from Myanmar Army confessed that the ruling clique has no more than 25% support within the Army itself. And yet they rule. The Indian situation is no different; their support-base does not go beyond the Sangh Parivar. Now we understand the truth of Mohan Bhagwat’s boast, “The RSS is more powerful than the Indian Army”.

A society that taught “Let noble thoughts come to us from every side” (Rigveda, I-89-i) silences dissent. A civilisation that encouraged 62 different ways of explaining reality today is under a leadership that seeks to impose ONE warped way of understanding our heritage. There is no recognition of philosophy, ideas, intellectual exercises, debates, aesthetics, value-systems, ideals, critical evaluations or an adventurous search for truth. The cow has replaced everything.  From South Lakshadweep to North Lakhimpur in Assam and Lucknow in UP there is only one song: the Cow must be protected.

So, as the new Government in Assam takes over responsibility, they look to the cow-care lessons of Yogiji in the Bimaru-belt, as though they belong there. They should also look at the banks of the Ganga to see the abandoned bodies of Covid victims.

Your caged bird has sung:  Let human lives be saved, let humans prosper… even the humblest, in whose behalf Fr. Stan is in jail. Our birds echo a song from the Rigveda, “Oh men, direct your energies to promote the good of all mankind. Let your relations with all be characterised by love, peace and harmony. Let your hearts beat in unison with human hearts” (Rig Veda 8,49,4). And set Father Stan free!

First published in Indian Currents.

(Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil’s analysis of socio-cultural and political issues have triggered numerous debates and concrete peace initiatives for which has nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. The views expressed are personal.) 

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