It is interesting to see the trajectories taken by the debates and conversations around Father Stan Swamy in the days and weeks after his death in custody earlier this month. Those who have known him for four decades, closely observing his activism on behalf of Adivasi rights, maintain that he was framed in a politically motivated false case. Others, who came to know about his existence only a year ago, are more or less sure that the unproven charges against him are true and that his activism was only a front for the larger game plan of the banned CPI (Maoist), which is committed to armed uprising against the Indian State. The fact that he was a Christian priest who belonged to the Jesuit order, has also led to critiques centred on suspected ulterior motives of the religious kind.
The latest iteration of this has been the view that Father Stan Swamy was a votary of ‘Liberation Theology’, a fairly recent school of Christian thought originating in Latin America that shares some key concerns and convictions with classical Marxian thought. Although its proponents assert that it is based on the radical, egalitarian and emancipatory teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, Father Stan has been labelled a ‘Marxist Jesuit’ and this assertion used as the basis for explaining his affinity to the Maoist path.
It is further argued that the Jesuits in India, until not so long ago, generally confined themselves to running prestigious schools and colleges in tier-one and tier-two cities, and kept themselves aloof from any kind of political/socio-economic activism. But over the last few decades, a younger breed of Jesuits, so the argument goes, their minds ‘poisoned’ by Liberation Theology, fanned out into the villages and tribal lands of India and began to upset the harmonious apple cart of Indian society by instigating the socially marginalised and the downtrodden to agitate, (if necessary, even violently) for their rights. Once entrenched in this domain, it is claimed, they made common cause in many places with ‘Lefties’ of all hues, all ‘anti-national’ to varying degrees, and particularly with the Maoists, the sworn enemies of the nation.
As one who studied in a Jesuit-run school and college for 13 years and then taught in a Jesuit college for nearly four decades, I have observed the Jesuits at close quarters, and I find this assessment to be a gross distortion of the facts on the ground. In this article, I hope to offer a balanced perspective regarding the Jesuits in general and Father Stan Swamy’s work in particular.
First, some thoughts on Liberation Theology.
A figment of biased imagination
The image that is sought to be created through the recent narrative about the subject in some quarters of our media space is a figment of biased imagination, entertained by those who have never observed at close range the kind of social activism Jesuits are actually engaged in. This biasness imagines Catholic priests, mostly Jesuits, holding secret meetings with Naxalite guerrillas, with a view to ushering in the revolution through the violent overthrow of the legitimately elected government.
The Jesuits I have known for these five decades, especially those who have been living with, and working for the uplift of marginalised communities, very rarely invoke the ideologues of Liberation Theology, even when most are well acquainted with their writings. Often, I have heard Jesuits citing not just Jesus, their main inspiration, and Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of their order, but also Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule, M.K. Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, B.R. Ambedkar and even earlier Indian social reformers like Narayana Guru and Basava – all of whom were driven by a passion for justice and known for speaking out against the unjust and oppressive social structures of their times.
Incidentally, just take a look at the recent trend of sticking the label ‘anti-national’ or ‘urban Naxal’ on anyone who articulates a critique of the ruling dispensation, or organises a protest against a perceived injustice perpetrated by the powers that be. Apart from being an utterly infantile attitude, it is also extremely unhealthy for Indian democracy and, will, in the long run impede progress. It will sap whatever idealism is left in our youth to question brazen injustice wherever they see it and to stand up for just causes. And without idealism, no serious nation-building can happen. After all, this is the civilisation that produced the Rig Veda, which states: “Aano bhadra krtavo yantu vishwatah‘ (meaning: Let noble thoughts come to me from all directions). In light of this, constructive criticism from all quarters – and that, in today’s terms, includes the Left – should be welcomed and deliberated on.
In India, historically speaking, the work of championing the cause of the underprivileged and the oppressed, and of agitating for their rights, was being carried out by individuals and groups long before the Left appeared on the scene. Gandhi and Ambedkar were on the scene quite early as well. Even in post-Independence India, the Left holds no copyright on leading protests and agitations and movements for justice. In 1974, a young Narendra Modi himself was an agitator, taking part in the Navnirman protests and responding enthusiastically to Jayaprakash Narayan’s call for Total Revolution. Given this venerable pedigree, how can agitation and protest, and dissent suddenly become anti-national?
Jesuits not hostile to entrepreneurship
Then there is this other belief that unfettered capitalism is the panacea for all problems. Its proponents say ‘allow market forces free rein and everybody’s problems, including those of the Adivasis, will be solved because nothing lifts people out of poverty like the free play of market forces’. But such an argument seems to be based on a very short-term view of history. If the market lifts people out of poverty in one place or in one era, it just as easily plunges people into poverty in another place or in another era. In fact, market capitalism has had to be rescued by socialist/Keynesian measures at least twice in living memory – once through Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and then again, more recently through massive taxpayer-funded bailouts in 2008 after the global financial crisis. By the way, when it comes to the Jesuits, they are by no means hostile to private business, entrepreneurship, or the free market per se. In fact, they themselves run a host of excellent business schools in India and around the world. All they insist on is that businesses be run with the utmost regard for ethics and fair play.
Thus, in keeping with their philosophy of ‘discernment’ they are ever ready to move into domains where they perceive that right is being trampled down by sheer might.
Father Stan Swamy, five decades ago, discerned the voice of God calling him to leave his comfort zone and be in active solidarity with a non-violent movement of resistance to the exploitative forces (corporate and Statist) that sought to deprive the tribal people of their collective rights over their ancestral lands. Similar, for example, in the way Gandhi felt the inner voice calling him to lead the Champaran Satyagraha. The movement Stan Swamy led also had an Ambedkarite dimension to it: “Educate, agitate, organise” (Ambedkar’s words). So, if one wants to invoke a model of social action to describe his activism, then labelling it Maoist or even Jesuit Marxism is to bark up the wrong tree. Father Stan has been on record condemning the violent methods of the Maoists. The movement he led was clearly built along Gandhian and Ambedkarite lines and, to the extent, it shared common ground with the worldview of those on the Left (the non-violent, Constitution-honouring Left, mind you), their solidarity was not unwelcome either.
It should not be forgotten that Father Stan, and Jesuits like him, who are being damned as “Marxist Jesuits”, actively sought and continue to seek justice from the State, seeking legal redress within the framework of the Constitution. Just look at the sheer number of court cases filed by Father Stan and his colleagues. This speaks of their faith in an important arm of the State, the judiciary. If they were committed, Maoist-style, to the violent overthrow of the State, that would be the last thing they would do.
The zone of silence that needs to be addressed
There is another matter that the new, more ‘intellectual’ strain of the anti-Stan narrative almost completely avoids discussing. It leaves in a zone of silence the real grievances of the Adivasis, the indigenous people whose cause was so ably championed by Father Stan. It assumes that the current status of the indigenous people is all perfect and hunky dory. Which is far from the prevailing reality.
If Father Stan’s kind of movement is seen as a problem or as the wrong way of going about it, then what are the alternatives? Because, if you think that the State through its functionaries is providing everything needed for the well-being of our Adivasi fellow-citizens, then the ground realities will quickly disabuse you of that notion. If the corporate takeover of Adivasi zones is the emancipatory blueprint (visualise happy Adivasis working for private coal mines and living in comfortable quarters) then the track record of such takeovers is nothing to write home about.
The key to a just solution lies in honouring the indigenous people — as people with dignity and a distinct philosophy of life, as people whose lifestyle has been immensely more sustainable in ecological terms than that led by us middle-class Indians, and as a people who legitimately own the resources of the lands they have lived in for millennia and who are now rightly refusing to be pushed over or short-changed by those with greedy eyes on their ancestral lands, be they agents of the big business corporations, or of the State, or of the two in cahoots with each other. This is the issue — and the cause — that needs discussion now. It was the cause for which Father Stan strove so nobly and so passionately, and the cause for which he gave his life.
Cheriyan Alexander taught English at St. Joseph’s College (Autonomous), Bengaluru for 36 years, and retired in 2018. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)