Two years have passed since the death of the Jesuit unjustly imprisoned for his commitment to the rights of the tribes. One of his cellmates tells on an Indian website how his famous line—”even in a cage, the bird can sing”—was not just an image, but also a gesture with which he shared life. with the other inmates.
Mumbai () – Today in India marks two years since the death of Fr. Stan Swamy, the Indian Jesuit who died at the age of 84 after spending more than nine months in jail, falsely accused of terrorism for his activities in favor of the rights of the tribal populations of Jharkhand. Among the many memories of Fr. Stan, the story of one of his fellow inmates -Vernon Gonsalves, who was also among the activists imprisoned in Taloja prison, in Bombay, for the political affair of Bhima Khoregaon- who appears today in the indian scroll website.
Gonsalves was inspired by a verse written in jail by Father Swamy, which we also reported on in in early 2021: “Even in a cage, the bird can sing.” She used it to say that, indeed, the old imprisoned Jesuit sang. And in this gesture he summed up his entire life dedicated to the least.
“Shortly after entering prison,” Gonsalves wrote, “Stan literally began to sing. He was housed in the prison hospital, a maze of small cells and barracks. At this time, another defendant in the Bhima Koregaon case, the poet VV Rao, was in a nearby cell. His condition was critical due to two years of abandonment in prison and Covid. Arun Ferreira and I had been assigned as his assistants and we were in the same cell. VV could not do everything by himself. himself and had to be put in a wheelchair.
“Stan, who seemed relatively better at the time, was able to walk, although he was a bit unsteady on his feet. That’s why he regularly came to see VV at the hours allowed by prison rules. The hour after three o’clock tea in the afternoon it was song time. Stan would come, sit next to VV and sing a song or songs.”
“His repertoire was wide,” Gonsalves recalled, “fight songs from Jharkhand like Gaanv Chodob Nahin, songs in Tamil, his mother tongue, songs by Paul Robeson and some in Kannada from the fighting in and around Bengaluru, where he had been stationed. in the 1970s and 1980s. Her voice was mellifluous and strong. She introduced each song with its context, her personal connection to it, or why she wanted to sing it at the time. We wanted to join the choir. We imagined our voices overcoming bars and high walls from prison, reaching distant towns and lands”.
“Singing,” added the fellow prisoner, “was therapeutic for VV, it helped him recover from the ravages of illness and poor medical treatment. He responded with poems. Arun and I, enervated and overwhelmed by the grayness of long years in prison, we felt empowered. With renewed vigor, we embarked on the arduous search for judicial precedents and jurisprudential logic to confront the falsehoods and lies in our case.”
Gonsalves specified that, by singing, Father Stan was performing an act expressly prohibited by the prison regulations and, therefore, exposing himself in some way. “Rule 19 part I normally sits dormant,” he explained, “but is only imposed very selectively on certain groups and activities targeted by the prison administration.” He cited a case as an example: “a Nigerian prisoner’s fight with an officer, over a personal matter, in a corner of the prison, led to a total ban on Sunday morning prayers and chants in the entire prison.” , intended to be a massive punitive action for all African prisoners, who are mostly Christians.”
But it is precisely the singing -on the contrary- that unites the prisoners of the Indian jails: “Despite the prejudices of the officers, who prohibit some songs and promote others”, observed Gonsalves, “the songs of the prisoners coexist in harmony. The story of the immense variety of songs in prison would be a story in itself. Suffice it to say that the crowded cells at night are the scene of many mehfil (artistic encounters, ndr), where the repressed and suffering soul of the prisoner finds an outlet and expression”.
“Stan, a caged bird can still sing,” the article concludes, “the birds in the cage still sing, and you, me, all of us, in jail or out, will sing along.”