WHEN detectives arrived to arrest Father Stan Swamy on October 8 last year, they confiscated his mobile phone and instructed him to pack a bag. In gathering together his possessions, the 83-year-old Catholic priest, who suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, packed with him his sip cup.

The tremors from his Parkinsons are such that he is unable to drink tea out of a normal cup and now uses the kind of cup normally associated with toddlers or, alternatively, he drinks tea through a straw.

Before his arrest under India’s anti-terrorism laws, Father Swamy spent decades championing the welfare of the indigenous Adivasi tribespeople who account for around a quarter of the population in Jharkhand, one the country’s most resource-rich yet impoverished states. Working with the poorest of the poor, Father Stan has helped defend the Adivasi against corporate mining interests which loom large in the state and seek to deprive a people of their land.

Father Stan has also been an advocate and activist for the Dailts – formerly known as untouchables under India’s caste system.

Father Stan is one of 16 people arrested by India’s National Investigation Agency, which deals with anti-terror crimes, over an incident in 2018 when Dalits were attacked by a nationalist mob for commemorating the 200th anniversary of a battle when the Dalit people joined with British forces to defeat an upper caste ruler. At least one person died in the resulting violence. Several were injured. The elderly priest was not even there.

The others who have been arrested include lawyers, academicians, activists, and an ageing radical poet, who then contracted Covid-19 in prison. Those calling for Father Stan’s release note that his Parkinson’s and other underlying conditions mean he is especially at risk of infection from the virus.

In a letter from prison to other Jesuit priests written in January, Father Stan characteristically reflected on the harsh conditions faced by others imprisoned with him, rather than writing about his own situation.

“I deeply appreciate the overwhelming solidarity expressed by many during these past 100 days behind bars," the priest's letter said, before moving on to describe the conditions of other inmates.

“All are compelled to live to a bare minimum, whether rich or poor. This brings in the sense of brotherhood and communitarianism where reaching out to each other is possible even in this adversity.

“On the other hand, we 16 co-accused have not been able to meet each other as we are lodged in different jails or different 'circles' within the same jail.

“But we will still sing in chorus. A caged bird can still sing."

At around the same time that the letter was issued, Britain announced that Alexander Ellis had been appointed as the new British High Commissioner in India.

As he takes up his new post, the international outcry over the continued detention of Father Stan will doubtless be part of his in-tray. The hopes and prayers of many will be that our man in Delhi will use all his influence and persuasion to help free the soft spoken man of justice whose imprisonment makes him a prisoner of conscience for us all.

L Arun Arora is the vicar of St Nicholas’ Church in Durham