How the system broke Stan Swamy: A cell mate recalls the activist’s last days in prison

By / Scroll

Although we received news by late evening on October 8, 2020, of Father Stan Swamy’s arrest, we were quite shocked to see him the next morning in the adjourning barrack conversing with inmates in his impeccable Hindi.

I was at that time lodged in a cell at the prison hospital with my co- accused Varavara Rao (or VV) and Vernon Gonsalves. It was part of our daily routine for VV and I to do a couple of rounds in his wheelchair before the morning breakfast. The three of us had assumed that the National Investigation Agency would want Stan’s custodial interrogation and hence it would not be until a couple of days before he would be sent to judicial custody i.e. prison.

We were wrong, they just wanted him jailed.

Stan was extremely happy to meet us and the stress of the night, i.e. his first night in prison, immediately evaporated. Over the next two months, the three of us developed a memorable friendship with Stan, who engaged us with anecdotes of his vast experience and occasionally with songs.

Soon, VV, by an order of the High Court, was shifted out to a private hospital and Vernon and I, who were till then taking care of VV, were to be sent back to our respective barracks.

Leaving a lasting impression

However, Stan insisted with the prison authorities that he required assistance, not only for his daily chores but also for meaningful communication. I was then shifted to Stan’s cell on December 5, 2020, along with another inmate whom we fondly call “Chaacha”. The three of us spent hours, days and months together, and that’s when I experienced the man Stan, who had the remarkable ability of leaving a lasting impression on everyone he met.

As absurd as it may seem, this dazzling ability came from his plain and pure simplicity – a simplicity, that permeated each and every act and aspect of his life. For instance, Stan had this beautiful habit of graciously acknowledging someone by placing his hand across his chest accompanied by an humble nod. This simple gesture of mutual respect, with young inmates or prison officials, had the charm to win over hearts.

Never have I ever noticed Stan being dismissive or condescending towards others, even those much younger to him, always believing that love is something that simply means sharing. And sharing would not mean the act of giving, as many of us understood. For Stan, it meant much more – it meant partaking in the pain and the sorrows of others.

Chaacha and I would almost daily urge Stan to eat more. We were worried that his frugal food consumption would not be wise in conditions of incarceration. In reply, Stan would tell us how as a young Jesuit while living with a tribal family at Chaibasa, Jharkhand, he had to condition himself to eat half a meal as other family adults would do. Hence, with over 50 years of such a habit, his “stomach had shrunk”, he said.

Unconvinced by such reasoning, Chaacha and I then attempted to purchase some nutritious snacks and dry fruit as supplements from the prison canteen. Stan was stubborn. His simple and austere lifestyle could not be compromised, even more so in prison. He just asked for his favourite “moongphali” (roasted peanuts) to be purchased. This deep inner understanding of love as sharing in the sorrows of others was probably what attracted him to the plight of those most vulnerable.

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