A jailed priest's death sends a message about India's crackdown

Catholic priests and nuns hold placards during an October protest against the arrest of the Rev. Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest, in Secunderabad, India.

Akanksha Singh is a journalist based in Mumbai, India. She covers politics and social justice and has written for the BBC, The Independent and the South China Morning Post, among others. Follow her on Twitter @akankshamsingh. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN.

(CNN)On July 5, the Rev. Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest, passed away in a hospital in a suburb of Mumbai. Swamy spent nearly nine months in jail, without trial, under an Indian anti-terrorism law. Despite living with Parkinson's disease and having contracted Covid-19 in prison, he was denied bail.

Akanksha Singh
His death was cruel -- and likely preventable. The blame lies with Indian authorities as much as it does with everyday Indians who looked on, wondering -- silently -- how this would end. The government has said that Swamy's detention was "following due process of the law" and that he was allowed medical treatment at a private hospital where he received "all possible medical attention."
    Swamy, an activist who spent his life campaigning alongside India's marginalized tribal communities for their rights, was arrested with 15 others last year in what has come to be dubbed the Bhima Koregaon case.
      In 2018, hundreds of thousands of Dalits -- the most oppressed group under India's caste system, which India's post-British Constitution sought to do away with -- gathered in the village of Bhima Koregaon to mark the 200th anniversary of a battle in which their ancestors, as part of the British army, defeated a dominant-caste ruler. That year, the celebration took a turn for the worse when violence broke out.
        A handful of activists were arrested as a result, Swamy among them. "A place that I have never been to in all my life -- I was implicated there," said Swamy in a video from October. Indian authorities accused Swamy of having ties with a "banned terrorist organization."
        It's worth noting that Swamy's coaccused -- academics, activists, artists and lawyers who are advocates for marginalized groups themselves -- have yet to be tried. One coaccused, poet-activist Varavara Rao, was granted bail in February for a six-month release on medical grounds after his lawyer told the Bombay High Court he had spent 149 days of the previous year in the hospital.
          Their continued detention without trial has earned international disapproval, given that the right to defend oneself in court is considered foundational to civil freedoms and the rule of law. A spokesperson for United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said this month that all 15 should be freed pending trial.
          Aside from those lurid details, Swamy was caught in a disturbing trend when it comes to India's domestic political freedoms.
          India has seen a spike in arrests under an anti-terror law called the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) under this government: a rise of 72% between 2015 and 2019, data provided by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in March this year showed. This law isn't new, having been enacted by the opposition (Congress) government in 1967. It has undergone many iterations -- including expanding its vague definition of "terrorist act" to include offenses that threaten the country's economic security (again, under the Indian National Congress party government).
          The law makes getting bail difficult: From 2016 to 2018, charges had been filed in just over a quarter of registered UAPA cases, according to data provided by the MHA last year.
          That has been a problem for political actors charged under it.
          Though the Supreme Court has said the law does not do away with bail for those charged under it, when citizens are jailed without trial -- indefinitely, it seems -- the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" effectively disappears.
          What is important to note, though, is that the conviction rate under the UAPA is remarkably low. From 2016 to 2019, 5,922 people had been arrested under the UAPA but just 132 convicted, MHA data from this year showed.
          In the same video published in October, Swamy said he was glad he was "not a silent spectator" and was "ready to pay the price -- whatever be it." I can't help but wonder if he knew the full extent of the price: that he'd pay with his life, suffering in jail while the NIA allegedly denied him access to straws and sippers for his Parkinson's tremors (something which the agency denies). His bail request in October, too, was denied by the NIA, which claimed he was receiving proper care in prison.
          Mehmood Pracha, a lawyer I interviewed while working on a story about political prisoners in the midst of India's second wave, told me he believed the judiciary was failing. And while that's true, I can't help but wonder how we -- as Indians -- are failing those who dissented boldly.
          In June, student activists Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha -- accused of having been involved in the 2020 riots in Delhi and booked under the UAPA -- were granted bail only after one year. Another young Muslim activist, Umar Khalid, was granted bail in that case, too, but is still behind bars on account of other charges against him. (Narwal, Kalita and Khalid have denied the allegations, either in court proceedings or in public. A lawyer for Tanha declined to comment on them.)
          These are just the names we know. The important thing for India to realize is that holding the accused without a speedy trial violates a basic freedom in the world's largest democracy.
          The timing of Swamy's death only illustrates the problem. If not now, as a pandemic still looms large, when do Indian courts plan on granting bail to arrested activists, at least on a reasonably prompt timeline? Why is it that "regular" prisoners were granted parole on account of Covid-19 while others remained -- and continue to remain -- where they are?
            Moreover, what about the people who should be in jail but aren't? Why the double standards? A year after masked thugs, armed with hammers and rods, wreaked havoc on a university in Delhi -- and were identified -- the Hindustan Times noted that there had still been no arrests.
            It's time Indians unite in demanding bail for political activists charged as terrorists. An 84-year-old man died, and we did nothing. Let's not repeat our mistakes.