Stan Swamy: The Church’s Revolutionary

Stan Swamy: The Church’s Revolutionary

"If I don’t speak for the poor and exploited then I am not true to myself." - Stan Swamy (26 April 1937 - 5 July 2021) | Wikimedia

Stan Swamy’s mortal remains have been placed reverently with proper dedication. We all know that his spirit and commitment will live forever in the whole world. Stan was gifted with a good intellect and a warm, tender heart that could almost burst out of anger for justice.

I want to speak about the Stan I knew for over 40 years and more, a very vibrant man totally committed to the liberation of human society. I shall talk about two aspects of Stan, the intellectual and the grassroots activist.

I first met Stan in the mid 1970s, when he was part of the Tribal Research and Training Centre (TRTC) created by Jesuits in Lupungutu near Chaibasa, in what is now Jharkhand. His realm of research was not restricted to books and the library, he would go to the outlying villages, to learn about their people, their culture, and so on. He was of great help to the local Sisters in their ministrations, be it in health, youth formation or night classes in the villages. He was also active in the underground movement to oppose the Emergency, and a leading figure of a social action forum in the then Bihar, where young women, men, and like-minded missionaries would meet and plan.

For Stan, time was unlimited especially at meetings with comrades and colleagues. The underground meetings against the Emergency would go on into the wee hours of the night. There would be heated discussions and arguments, but I noticed Stan’s ability to coordinate and help everyone reach a conclusion. As I look back, I wonder how I could sit at these lengthy meetings! It was due to Stan’s encouragement and persuasion that I left my crowded health clinic and travelled the whole night to Chaibasa to join these meetings. He was well aware that I was a novice in matters of politics, but he knew I had the seed within to sprout and grow. I found the same quality of openness and hope towards other persons in the later years of Stan’s life. He could encourage and take in persons with very little aptitude for socio-political activities and help them grow into them. There was a similar pattern in his work in Lupungutu, and when he was coaching the hostel boys in St. Xavier’s school, Chaibasa. Stan recognized in them the ability of leadership and a smothered anger against their oppressors. The evening coaching classes turned into awareness education and existential analysis sessions.

As a priest, he was embarrassingly open to letting the students question authority, rules… and even the existence of God.

Later, in the late 1980s, I came to be associated with Stan again as a student at the Indian Social Institute (ISI), Bangalore. He had already been there for several years as director and was now one of the professors. Our Bangalore days changed my life totally.

At this institute, social and political analysis were taught in the Marxian way. It was primarily meant to prepare persons to work for systemic change. Stan took his role very seriously. His grassroots experience came in very handy to direct the students to read between the lines and think out of the box.

Those who attended were young women, men and Christian missionaries who were working in the grassroots/ students and aspiring to become social activists/ teachers. Most of the Christian missionaries who attended these training programmes were managing institutions, mostly in a corporate style. A few, however, left their institutions after this workshop and engaged themselves in grassroots activities according to the teachings of ISI. The credit for their change mostly goes to Stan.

As a student at the Institute, I realized that I knew very little of systems and politics, even after many years of grassroots involvement. Stan helped me to see a new world—of corruption, exploitation, and conflict. I was a pious person, “bandaging wounds”, and did not have strong analytical skills. Even though I had many encounters with well-known social activists and attended numerous lectures and workshops, I was unable to let go of the service mentality. One reason may be that I had been inculcated for years with the rules and teachings of the Church, which gave sanctity to service without analysis and hailed a false Jesus who was meek, humble, obedient, and ready to die for the suffering humanity but never questioned. In contrast to this, here was a ruthlessly honest Jesuit priest who was fearlessly questioning the systems, be they secular or religious. As a priest, he was embarrassingly open to letting the students question authority, rules, and rubrics, and even the existence of God.

He repeatedly used a quote from the Bible, saying that “Law is made for people” and not the other way round.

A very important responsibility Stan exercised in this institute, and later in his field of action (karmabhoomi), was to help individuals and institutions escape the age-old practices that prevented them from getting involved with marginalized people for systemic change. Stan guided the students away from the dotted lines (the social norms, religious rules, and dictums of the day) towards working with real people on real issues. He repeatedly used a quote from the Bible, saying that “Law is made for people” and not the other way round. This same principle was used in his dealings with rural communities and government officials, when he was often questioning anti-people rules and practices.

Another priceless contribution of Stan Swamy to the Christian missionaries, and in fact to the society at large, was to bridge the gap between religions, castes, and communities. He emphasized that for us activists there is no differentiation, only human community.

After he returned to Jharkhand in the early 1990s, he spent quite some time getting to know various peoples’ movements/groups and tried to be involved with the secular forces. He also kept in touch with some of us, his previous students. Many more joined him as colleagues and friends in the struggles. Immediately after leaving ISI in 1987, I joined a people’s movement in Hunterganj—Chatra—spearheaded by Vinay Senger, Asha Bahen M.M.S (a surgeon) and other colleagues.

Stan was a fiery, ruthless messiah for the oppressed and exploited. Being a Jesuit priest subject to relatively flexible regulations compared with other, stricter congregations, I saw in him an urgency to bend the laws of the Church. In workshops as well as individual conversations, he repeatedly spoke of the need to collaborate, to harness secular forces and to learn from common people. He constantly advised and even pressurized Church authorities, who were accustomed to living in comfort zones, to get out and mingle with the people. This constant urgency created for him many enemies in the Church leadership, even among his own Jesuit brothers. His theory was to help not in the name of God or Jesus but simply for the sake of the oppressed.

He constantly advised and even pressurized Church authorities, who were accustomed to living in comfort zones, to get out and mingle with the people.

Here are some edited excerpts from his talk at the annual convention of the Forum for Justice and Peace in Ranchi in 2019: “I warn the institutions of the Church that they would increasingly become millstones around the neck of the Church. I request the Church establishments to de-institutionalize themselves, open themselves to people’s movements and offer them logistical support in their actions.”

He also invited us to become active members of human rights networks: “The communities and residences of priests and nuns should become open houses for the people in the neighborhood, especially the poor and activists involved in justice issues”. Above all, he appealed to us to evolve a spirituality based “on the Jesus of Nazareth and not on Jesus of the Christians”. Stan said, “The historical Jesus of Nazareth was a revolutionary whereas the Jesus of the Christians has been deified and imprisoned inside our Churches and institutions”.

Constructive criticism was a pattern in the small discussion and reflection circles Stan convened. He was critical to the core and analytical like an open book. He spoke of his own Jesuit establishments and argued that they were not following the call of their founder St Ignatius. These institutions, he said, were mostly catering to the rich and powerful. According to him, most of the institutions of the Church are serving the oppressors and just doing lip service to the poor and exploited. Stan felt completely free to express his views; he said that he was losing nothing and above all he was “forced to speak thus from an inner urge”.

Stan said, “The historical Jesus of Nazareth was a revolutionary whereas the Jesus of the Christians has been deified and imprisoned inside our Churches and institutions”.

Stan once said that “if I don’t speak for the poor and exploited then I am not true to myself." He challenged us, the chicken-hearted, to get out of the safe havens and look around. The sight will give you courage, he said. He pointed out that we, the minorities, are serving the mighty rulers, keeping them in their chairs and allowing them to oppress the weak and illiterate. Who are we educating, he asked me once when I was visiting him at Bagaicha, are our institutions for the illiterate masses or for wealthy children?

Stan always made us uncomfortable, but after visiting him one would come away with renewed determination! His life and work inspired many, but with characteristic humility, he recently stated from jail that “I don’t want any followers, each person should follow his or her conscience and inner call and decide for oneself”.

-- Jyoti Bahen Urumpil

Jyoti Bahen Urumpil
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