It is your earthly birthday! You would have certainly felt embarrassed and even winced at the thought of anyone wishing you, leave alone celebrating your birthday today! In a style which has characterised you all your life here on earth – you would have shunned and even run away from the very idea of anyone attempting to organize anything for you on this day!
Today however, dear Stan, you really have no choice, for the simple reason (which I am sure you will understand and humbly accept), your birthday today is about ‘us’, about we celebrating fond memories of you, thanking God for the gift of you to this earth and her people, particularly to those who needed you the most and above all, trying to see in what ways we can internalise and actualise the rich legacy we have inherited from you! This is the day we need: your untimely death on 5 July 2021 left a deep void in our hearts and lives; some us feel orphaned and have still not been able to overcome that feeling; there are others who miss your visionary insights, the servant-leadership qualities which you radiated, your relentless pursuit of truth and justice and essentially that unflinching commitment to the Gospel of Jesus and the Constitution of India.
I am re-reading the letter which I wrote to you on this day last year, whilst you were incarcerated in Taloja jail. I addressed it and sent it to you c/o the Jail Superintendent there! I doubt whether it reached you; and/or if it did, whether you had the opportunity to read it. However, I did make the letter public and some magazines and online portals did publish it. In that birthday letter to you, I highlighted several dimensions of your extraordinary and exemplary life as a citizen, Jesuit and priest. There was a hope, at that time, that you would be vindicated and would be released to be among the people you loved so much! Our hopes sadly, were dashed! At this moment, without reproducing that letter, I stand by that letter in its entirety- every single word of it!
We once again listen to those profound words which came from your heart, a short while before your arrest on 8 October 2020 “What is happening to me is not something unique – happening to me alone. It is a broader process that is taking place all over the country. We are all aware how prominent intellectuals, lawyers, writers, poets, activists, students, leaders, they are all put into jail because they have expressed their dissent or raised questions about the ruling powers of India. We are part of the process. In a way I am happy to be part of this process. I am not a silent spectator, but part of the game, and ready to pay the price whatever be it”. On this earth, you were never a silent spectator: you were visible and vocal; today you watch over us from above – challenging us, our way of proceeding and perhaps wondering…
Yes wondering: why so many of us here below, prefer to be silent spectators: invisible and muted! True, thanks to your prophetic courage and inspiration, there are some who are going ahead- whatever the consequences. Sadly, the vast majority us Jesuits and others, within the Church do not want to rock the boat; there are the cosmetic acts of tokenism. We have put some words and statements on paper, but they have remained there! Unlike you, we are afraid: to rock the boat, to challenge the system on behalf of the excluded and exploited. Some of the powerful and other vested interests continue to be associated with us. So naturally we do not want to get out of our comfort zones and ‘disturb’ the status quo! All through your life you took us up on this very point – which certainly did not help in your popularity ratings. That did not bother you! You did exactly what Jesus did. Today you ask us to do the same!
Dear Stan, as you look at what is happening to our beloved India at this moment – I hear you saying, “did I not tell you so?” Yes, the marginalised and the minorities, the Adivasis and the Dalits, the other sub-alterns and vulnerable sections of society, are all at the receiving end of an inhuman, unjust, divisive and violent system controlled by fascists. You know of all this; you went through immense pain and suffering because you took a stand on behalf of the victims. The perpetrators, the powerful, ensured that you were silenced forever. They were wrong and conveniently forgot that persons like Stan never die; they live on and forever! Yes, Stan you live on, in the hearts and minds of thousands of Adivasis and other marginalised communities, of human rights defenders and numerous others from civil society and from every walk of life! We celebrate this fact today!
The irony of it all, is that the unjust system we live in, has not yet declared you ‘innocent and free’! You are aware that your case is still being fought in the courts. They are determined to prove that you were a criminal, a conspirator and an anti-national. Not just you, but the others incarcerated in the Bhima-Koregaon conspiracy case and other human rights defenders! In fact, anyone who stands up for the Constitution of India, for the human rights of others, for truth and justice is hounded, condemned and even exterminated. This happens with frightening regularity. That is why, you struggled to help release the powerless Adivasis who were imprisoned because they only demanded their jal, jungle, jameen, dignity and rights which were legitimately theirs!
Yes Stan, I can see you smiling from above – telling me “I know all this!” and asking me “what are you going to do about this?” Well Stan, I certainly cannot be another you; but at this moment, the only ‘birthday gift’ I can give you, is to try in every possible way to imitate your COMPASSION, COURAGE and COMMITMENT! Pope Francis in all his teachings has been insisting that all disciples follow the Jesus of a Gospel without compromise; the Society of Jesus wants every Jesuit to internalise and actualise faith-justice mandate, and finally, pledge as ‘we the people of India’ to protect and promote the Constitution of India as envisaged in the preamble: justice, liberty, equality, fraternity, dignity and integrity!
The journey is ahead is going to be tough; but we know that with you as our inspiration and guide we will all see and experience the light at the end of this darkness. Your death will never go in vain! Thank you for being Stan: for all that you have meant (and continue to mean) to me and to millions of others. Its your birthday Stan – I am fully aware that you have been reading every word of this greeting to you – even as I put it down! This letter has reached you! Say a prayer for me and all of us mortals below!
HAPPY BIRTHDAY STAN!
Father Stanislaus Lourduswamy, popularly known as Stan Swamy, was an Indian Roman Catholic priest, a member of the Jesuit order, and a tribal rights activist. He was the oldest person to be accused of terrorism in India. He died last year while in detention.
Father Cedric Prakash, SJ, is a human rights, peace and reconciliation activist and writer.