It can be dangerous to set the world aflame—just ask Father Stanislaus Swamy. Driven by an intense desire to fight injustice, Father Swamy has dedicated his entire life to being a voice for the voiceless. Since joining the Jesuit order in 1957, Father Swamy has fought for land rights of the indigenous people of India, better environmental practices, and for more accountability in the justice system. Now 83, nearly deaf, and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Father Swamy is sitting in a jail cell accused of terrorism relating to a protest he didn’t even attend. Due to the intense shaking associated with his diagnosis, Father Swamy needs help to perform even the most basic tasks. Drinking water without a special cup for example is nearly impossible — a cup that prison officials confiscated upon his arrest.
The best way to understand Father Swamy is through his own personal motto: “Faith that does justice.” He was inspired to join the Jesuit order after seeing the priests in his area providing education to those who otherwise would never have the opportunity. The real turning point in Father Swamy’s life was during his regency, a time when Jesuits spend two years in training working for the order. Father Swamy was assigned to be a teacher at a school for Adivasis, the local indigenous population. He talks about bringing his students to the weekly farmers market at the nearest city, where they could purchase necessities not found in their rural village. While Father Swamy himself was always treated with kindness and respect, he watched as his students were mocked, ignored, and cheated, simply based on their heritage.
“I felt pain,” Father Swamy says of the time, “but I could not do anything about it.”
As time went on, the Adivasis community began to deeply trust Father Swamy. He worked to introduce them to Christ, while at the same time respecting their cultural norms and values. He became fluent in their language and spent holidays as a treasured guest in dozens of Adivasis households. He became a staple of the community, but, as leaders of the Adivasis community have said in their numerous letters calling for Father Swamy’s release, he never sought to undermine or overpower the local people. He worked on behalf of everyone regardless of religion, and this approach is now credited as the reason behind the establishment of a thriving Catholic community that has continued in faith in the decades since he left.
This time left a great impression on Father Swamy, and marked the beginning of his lifelong pursuit to empower the Adivasis to fight for equal rights. With regret, both internally and externally from the community in which he was beloved, Father Swamy left for the Philippines to study theology and sociology, leaving behind a legacy of change that still stands today.
His education in the Philippines left him more convinced than ever of the important role that both he and the Catholic Church could play in fighting for the marginalized. After two years as the Director of the Catholic Relief Services charity branch of India, arranging relief materials for those most in need, Father Swamy felt as though God was calling him to take a more active role in the fight for justice for all of India’s people. He moved to Badaibir village, whose population was made up of the Ho indigenous people. Having heard of his work with the Adivasis, the community welcomed him with open arms. Although he was offered his own house, Father Swamy instead moved in with a family who invited him into their home so that he could learn the language and better understand the culture and values of the community from within.
Father Swamy reached out to every youth within a fifteen mile radius to encourage them to think critically about their future and support them in any way he could. Many of those he mentored were able to get scholarships to universities with his help, and several returned afterward to help Father Swamy in his mission. By the end of his time in Badaibir, Father Swamy had built a small community center, a place where the hungry would always be fed and the homeless would always have a bed.
The 1970s were a time of great social and political upheaval in India, and Father Swamy quickly realized that his leadership was needed again. Students and youth were leading the charge in the fight against the status quo, questioning things like the caste system which had dominated Indian society over the preceding centuries. Father Swamy knew that something was deeply wrong, but he was unsure of how he could best make himself useful. Thus, earning a scholarship, he spent a year in Belgium at the Catholic University of Louvain studying social analysis. While the University offered him a place to stay and continue on to receive his doctorate, Father Swamy could see the situation back home growing more and more dire and now felt prepared to confront it head-on. However, as throughout his entire life, Father Swamy didn’t seek to overpower or lead any sort of revolution—instead, he worked to empower those most affected and give them the resources to fight for change themselves.
Father Swamy became the director of the Indian Social Institute of Bangalore, which quickly became a hub for those agitating for greater changes. Through the lens of his Catholic Jesuit faith, Father Swamy taught classes about politics and societal dynamics from a scientific point of view so his students would then be better equipped to effectively advocate for change. Over the years, Father Swamy and visiting Jesuits from around the world taught young people from the fringes of society how to become leaders in their own community. He would then follow up with his former students on their progress, and continue to support them in any way he could. Word spread fast of the empowering leadership of Father Swamy, and ultimately his three-month intense course on social analysis and community organizing was teaching people from across India—and around the world—about how to effectively advocate for change in their own communities.
After 15 years of service in Bangalore, Father Swamy made the decision to go back to his original mission and work with the Adivasis people. But, upon his arrival in Jharkhand, Father Swamy was dismayed to see that things had changed in the decades he was gone. Diamonds and other valuable resources had been found on their ancestral lands, and the Indian government wanted access to it. Thousands of indigenous people were displaced with no compensation. After centuries of living in the same place following traditional practices, many were left with no home, nowhere to go, and no resources to start anew. Alongside other leaders in the Jesuit order, Father Swamy began to organize on behalf of the Adivasis struggle for dignity and respect, earning the ire of authorities and wealthy developers who wanted to profit off of Adivasis land.
The Jesuit order purchased land and paid for the construction of a social action center that, since 2006, has been the center of the fight against displacement — or at least for compensation. This is where Father Swamy has devoted his time since, standing in solidarity with the Adivasis people. The Adivasis traditionally practiced self-governance, and the Indian government tried to take advantage of this by manipulating them to misunderstand how the government worked. They frequently lived in poverty despite residing in the country’s most resource rich region. Father Swamy explained that their rights under the constitution gave them claim to the land that was being stolen without their consent or compensation. He wrote several books, fought in court, and worked hard to halt the displacement of thousands and provide fair compensation to thousands more. Having previously learned the language, Father Swamy served as a conduit between the Adivasis people and the government, doing his best to stop them from being taken advantage of. It’s no surprise that his recent arrest has been met with vigorous protests from the Adivasis people. And, in a statement released after his arrest, Father Swamy said he has full confidence that his efforts were what led the government to attempt to silence him.
On January 1, 2018, Father Swamy was sitting at home, training Jesuits at his center in Chaibasa. A 27-hour drive away, in Maharashtra, thousands of members of the Dalit Caste (colloquially known as untouchables) gathered to celebrate the day when, a century earlier, Dalit soldiers in the British Army were victorious in a long and difficult battle. However, a group of Hindu Nationalists, angry that the celebration was linked to British interests, arrived armed and looking for a fight. One Dalit youth was killed and several people on both sides were injured. In October, as coronavirus was ravaging the Indian countryside, Father Swamy (who falls under the high-risk category as an elderly man with pre-existing conditions) was arrested on October 8, 2020, and accused of inciting the protests (which he played no role in) and charged with terrorism. Despite opposition from the church, the United Nations, and millions of Indians, he has been in prison ever since.
Supporters of Father Swamy have asked for help in placing pressure on the Indian government to drop the charges, or at least release him on bail. Unfortunately, aside from statements from several Catholic Bishops and two protests in London led by the British wing of the Jesuit order, the story of his plight has largely remained in India. International pressure through official statements, protests, and even just social media posts have proven effective in similar cases in the past, and after months struggling in prison, it is beyond time for us as members of the Jesuit community to stand with Father Swamy. He has spent his career fighting for Jesuit values –– now it’s time to fight for him.