The death in custody of an 84-year-old Jesuit who dedicated his life to India’s indigenous forest dwellers has infuriated activists who say the priest was a victim of Narendra Modi’s relentless crackdown on dissent.

Father Stan Swamy’s “heartbreaking” death on Monday had exposed the growing gap between India’s claims to democratic credentials and its use of tough anti-terror laws to silence its critics, according to Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

“This is not quite the kind of progressive, free civil society that they boast about when they are looking for investment in India or seeking an Indian voice in global affairs,” Ganguly said on Tuesday.

“Authorities use such draconian laws because people will not get bail . . . They are using the power of the state to punish anyone that they think disagrees with them.”

Swamy, who was arrested nine months ago on suspicion of Maoist rebel links, was repeatedly denied bail, despite being afflicted with such severe Parkinson’s disease he could scarcely hold a cup to drink water. He was never put on trial.

The priest was the eldest of a clutch of prominent human rights lawyers, academics and writers incarcerated under anti-terror laws for their advocacy for marginalised groups. These included indigenous tribes and Dalits, the erstwhile untouchables of the Hindu caste system.

“Today, speech itself is a crime, speech itself is sedition,” said Colin Gonsalves, a human rights lawyer. “The government takes speech, even non-violent speech, to be as lethal as an AK-47.”

From a south Indian Catholic family, Swamy spent 11 years as director of Bangalore’s Jesuit-run Indian Social Institute, which trains grassroots organisers to work with marginalised communities. In 1986, the soft-spoken priest moved to remote eastern India to support indigenous forest dwellers, or adivasis, who are among the country’s most disadvantaged groups.

For 34 years, Swamy sought to help tribal groups assert their legal rights, including against powerful corporate and political interests eager to mine mineral-rich tribal lands. But as conflict between tribal communities and a resource-hungry state intensified, activists said the priest was increasingly viewed as a troublemaker.

“The corporate interests are out to grab the land of the adivasis, which he was challenging,” said Father Joseph Xavier, director of the ISI. “He never advocated any violence. He advocated peace. But he demanded that the government do justice to the tribals.”

In 2017, Swamy filed public interest litigation highlighting the plight of alleged Maoist rebels who had languished for years in prison without trial.

Swamy was arrested in an overnight raid on his home on October 8, as India’s first coronavirus wave was at its peak. He was accused of Maoist ties, flown to Mumbai and sent to the overcrowded Taloja jail.

As with many other activists and political dissidents jailed while awaiting trial, Swamy was held under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, a law intended for use in mass casualty terror attack cases.

The law removes the presumption of innocence, which lawyers said made it virtually impossible for the accused to obtain bail.

Many analysts believe that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi uses tough national security legislation, including anti-terror and sedition laws, against high-profile activists to discourage Indians from engaging in political activism or publicly opposing government policies.

“They treated him very badly and they are using this as an example to suppress any kind of dissent,” said Father Frazer Mascarenhas, a former student of Swamy. “Their intent is to frighten people with the idea that they would be treated similarly.”

Judges are beginning to push back. Last month, the Delhi high court granted bail to three student activists held for a year for demonstrating against India’s new citizenship rules.

“It seems that, in its anxiety to suppress dissent, in the mind of the state, the line between the constitutionally guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activity seems to be getting somewhat blurred,” the judges wrote. “If this mindset gains traction, it would be a sad day for democracy.”

In his final bail hearing in May, Swamy described the deterioration of his physical health in jail and said he could hardly eat or bathe without assistance. He pleaded to be granted bail to return home and predicted that he would “shortly” die in prison. He tested positive for Covid-19 a few weeks later.

“Everyone knew that he was too ill to survive like this and his health was getting worse,” Gonsalves said. “It is death by design — it’s the murder of a man by denial of bail. That is how I see it.”