By Sushil Kutty
Jesuit priest-cum-tribal rights activist, 84-year-old Father Stan Swamy’s death in a Mumbai hospital while still in judicial custody led to an outpouring of grief, with even rightwing media afraid they might step on toes if they cast wide the mildest of opprobrium. It was funny reading their reluctant praise of the much-reviled ‘Urban Naxal’.
Social media brought out their true colours as Stan’s enemies lined up on Facebook and Twitter. But Stan’s friends were legion and praise outnumbered the vile-bile. The feeling was Father Stan Swamy shouldn’t have been in prison at all. That was not to be and if hard-boiled honourable judges of the Bombay High Court are today in the court of public opinion, they should blame themselves. And if they have been forced to withdraw certain “oral comments”, it’s again because they allowed themselves to be bullied!
Father Stan Swamy was denied bail when the rule is ‘bail over jail’! Indian jails are the pits. And Navi Mumbai’s Taloja Jail takes the cake. Jam-packed, understandably not ‘ashiana’ for an 84-year-old with Parkinson’s. And then, he couldn’t gulp or swallow. So the request for a ‘straw’. But Taloja Jail wouldn’t deliver, and the court delayed a decision even after the ‘straw’ made national headlines.
The popular view is to never speak ill of the dead. So everybody was singing praise of Father Stan Swamy after his death. Condolences posted on Social Media railed against the unfairness of it all. Stan Swamy’s diehard admirers, including those in jail, couldn’t stop saying that Father Stan Swamy shouldn’t have died in custody, he shouldn’t have died at all.
On July 23, the Maharashtra Government told the Bombay High Court that a magisterial inquiry into Stan Swamy’s death has not yet been initiated. Swamy was jailed on October 8, 2020. July 23 his advocate Mihir Desai told Justice S S Shinde and Justice N J Jamadar that an inquiry should be conducted in accordance with procedure laid down by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
The post-mortem examination on Stan Swamy’s body has been carried out and videographed. NHRC guidelines insist that custodial deaths require an inquiry by a judicial magistrate. An Accidental Death Record (ADR) was registered after Stan Swamy’s death. The government is not against an inquiry into the death, but made it clear that there was no question of submitting a report to the High Court.
Stan Swamy’s advocate Mihir Desai spoke of the “peculiar situation”. The death happened while the appeals were still pending and the court still has the “power to ensure justice is done in view of events that have happened.” The matter will be heard on August 4.
In other words, Father Stan Swamy is dead, long live Father Stan Swamy! Even the judges felt bad about the way and manner of Stan Swamy’s death. The Bombay High Court bench, which was to hear the bail pleas of Father Stan Swamy on July 5, said on July 19 that it had “great respect” for Father Stan Swamy’s work. Nobody should have had a problem with that ‘oral comment”. But even something as innocuous as “great respect” turned out to be “grave misdemeanor” for the NIA.
On July 23, the words came home to haunt the high court bench. The Additional Solicitor General (ASG) told the court that the “personal comments” of the bench were “twisted” on social media, and by the Press. Upon this, much to the surprise and dismay of many, Justices S S Shinde and N J Jamadar had to clarify, and withdraw the “oral comments”.
“If you are hurt if I have said something…we take them back… our endeavour is always balanced… I take back whatever I said personally… but we are also human beings, suddenly something like this happens, naturally, as a human being, our mind gets… beyond this we have nothing to say…”
Now, if this isn’t piquant, what is? Why did the court have to voice an apology for something as innocuous as expressing “great regret”, which is just another way of offering condolences. Why, if this becomes the rule, courts will have to “withdraw comments” after every judgment is passed because most judgments could be taken as “condolences” for a wrong done to somebody or the other.
Justices S S Shinde and NJ Jamadar shouldn’t have withdrawn their “oral comments”. Saying “great respect” didn’t hurt anybody, least of all the National Investigative Agency. Arguing that expressing “great respect” to Father Stan Swamy left the NIA demoralized is ridiculous. Mind you, the last word on Father Stan Swamy has not yet been pronounced. He had not been declared “guilty”, and his death is not punishment pronounced on him by any court of law. (IPA Service)