In some criminal law class in law school, I was taught two golden rules;
– Bail is the rule, jail is the exception.
– An accused is innocent until proven guilty.
I remember thinking how empowered I felt because the law in fact is on my side. But with each passing day, the current regime of power structures debilitates these golden rules.
While I watch so much injustice permeate through society every day, the death of Father Stan Swamy, shook me, more than others have in the recent past. A Jesuit Priest, a tribal activist who dedicated his life fighting for the cause of the oppressed in mineral-filled Jharkhand, was arrested in the Elgaar Parishad case.
He was 84, and he died just before his interim bail hearing in the Bombay High Court. While his bail was denied multiple times, it was particularly painful to remember how he was denied even the most basic facilities when he was jailed, simply because of the law he was booked under, where the golden rule was an exception! I can go on about how the case built against him was frivolous, but I think that has been spoken about quite enough already.
As a young lawyer, I work in the social sector, particularly focusing on poor slum communities of a metropolitan city in India. My regular day goes into working for better legal access to the poor and vulnerable from these communities.
Every day I tell different people how they will be empowered if they know the law because the police and the courts are in fact on their side; these systems built in the very first place to protect them! But, these very systems, almost every other day prove me otherwise.
Under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), the case of Father Stan Swamy had him labelled as a terrorist, and denied bail, only because, wait… I don’t even know any reasonable justification for the same.
Not just Father Stan, multiple political prisoners, Siddique Kappan, Sharjeel Imam, Gautam Navlakha, Anand Teltumbde, Sudha Bharadwaj among many others are booked under the draconian laws of UAPA and NSA. Cases of (UAPA), and the National Security Act (NSA) have raised several questions, especially on the use and misuse of these laws over the years. But, more than the use, it is the intent of the law that is problematic; the intent to curb any form of dissent.
But, as I evaluate my day’s work, in the light of what is happening to the political prisoners, I cannot help but think how probably pointless it is to give this false hope to the vulnerable. How can I get by the day telling the vulnerable, “If they know the law, they will be protected; this system is on your side.”
Am I letting myself be a bit more cynical than I should be? Do I fear repercussions for just standing by the truth, the truth that those golden rules were intended to be?
While history has shown us how many people bore the cost for truth, the likes of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, never would I have thought that people in the 21st century would have to still bear that cost. Wasn’t it all supposed to be in the past? History is supposed to be, well, history.
As I grapple with these questions, trying to move away from complete cynicism, I cling to hope, somewhere also realizing that Father Stan Swamy’s struggle was an embodiment of hope he was fighting for: hope for a better country, a truly free country. A hope that no superhero or a 21st-century influencer managed to give me.
On being jailed, recently, Father Stan made a strong statement: “I won’t be a silent spectator, I am ready to pay the price.”
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This statement, faintly ignites a hope, a hope that although the fight is long, the price for truth, will not be taken away. I would like to believe in it, with all my heart, hoping that despite the system being completely broken, unjust, there was a man who stood by it, in the long arduous journey and was willing to pay the price.
Sounds too romantic I’ve been told; but Father Stan taught me what my favourite 21st-century heroes couldn’t – that in the fight for truth, there is no fear. That was what Father Stan taught me; to stand by the truth, without fear.
Though my 20 something-year-old self never imagined a country that didn’t learn from history, I still cling to that hope left by the likes of Father Stan; the price which I fear, will not go in vain in the long journey! And at that price, I still work to fight for those golden rules from that criminal law class!