Swami Agnivesh

Activist in saffron

Print edition : October 09, 2020

Swami Agnivesh, a 2013 picture. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

December 5, 1987: Swami Agnivesh leading sadhus and Arya Samaj activists against sati on a padayatra from Delhi to Deorala. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Swami Agnivesh (1939-2020), a voice of reason amid the shrillness of religious bigotry, worked tirelessly to eradicate social evils and uphold constitutional values.

He was the kind of seer who did not sound like one. There was little of the “swami” in him. His saffron habit, with the trademark turban, appeared patterned on Swami Vivekananda. He was the original man in saffron robes, much before it was politically appropriated by aggressive Hindu cultural nationalists. In the media he was mainly identified as the man who worked to rescue bonded labourers in north India, mainly Punjab and Haryana. But Swami Agnivesh, who passed away on September 11 in a New Delhi hospital following a liver-related illness, was more than that. He was a social activist, academician, politician, reformer and Arya Samaj proponent.

Originally from Andhra Pradesh, he was born Vepa Shyam Rao into an upper-caste family. He was educated in Calcutta (now Kolkata). He obtained degrees in law and management but gave up the pursuit of a career. He emerged as an Arya Samaj leader and used his background to work for an end to bonded labour, then widely prevalent in parts of north India. He founded the Bandhua Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labour Liberation Front) in the early 1980s. In 1994, he was made the chairperson of the United Nations Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery.

Role in social campaigns

Born a Hindu, Swami Agnivesh was primarily a reformer with liberal values and was deeply bothered about the politicisation of Hinduism. His concerns ranged from the eradication of bonded labour to gender equity. He did not mind if people chose to address him without the prefix of “swami”, which was a reason why he was not viewed as a person with rigid ideas. He worked alongside many groups involved in civil liberties across India and had little difficulty identifying himself with their causes.

He campaigned against female foeticide, alcoholism and violence against Dalits, tribal people and women. He was against obscurantism, ritual-driven religion, superstition and the caste system. The bonded labourers he rescued were invariably from landless Dalit communities, and the people he took up the cudgels against were politically influential upper-caste agriculturists. Swami Agnivesh identified himself with campaigns for social, economic and political justice. He spoke out against caste panchayats and exhorted the Arya Samaj to take on the self-styled custodians of society. He was seen on anti-imperialist and anti-globalisation platforms too. Since he deplored communalism and casteism equally, his presence on podiums along with leaders of secular and democratic parties was a given. In 2010, the then Central government entrusted him with the task of brokering peace talks with the Maoists.

It was not for no reason that his demise was condoled across the progressive political spectrum. Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice president Rahul Gandhi, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya, and the Chief Ministers of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Rajasthan sent condolence messages. Actors Swara Bhasker and Divya Dutta and former Rajya Sabha member and poet Javed Akhtar also tweeted their condolences.

A right-wing news portal remarked caustically that it was only the “liberals” who had expressed their condolences while other political parties remained silent or indifferent. This indifference was most noticeable when, a day after his death, a former Central Bureau of Investigation chief described his death as “good riddance” and abused him with casteist slurs on social media, but there was hardly any condemnation from his political patrons.

Thorn for the Right

Swami Agnivesh took political positions that were deeply uncomfortable to the political Right. He viewed the Ram Janmabhoomi movement itself as a political ploy. Writing in The Indian Express on February 12, 2018, he said that there was not a shred of evidence for the claims made by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad on the disputed site. He blamed the Congress for its appeasement politics and stated that the then government had lost an opportunity to resolve the issue.

His main concern, he wrote, was that the people were being “perversely misled and their credulity was exploited for political gains by those who do not care a pin for the spiritual greatness of the Vedic faith. As an ardent devotee of this spiritual heritage, I feel cheated and violated.” He called the movement a “dance of aggression” that “mocks God”. He said that what hurt him most was the “utter irrationality of the communal agenda”.

In 1987, he took out a march against the practice of sati from New Delhi to Deorala in Rajasthan with 101 sanyasis. The march was in protest against the burning of a woman named Roop Kanwar on the funeral pyre of her husband in September that year, and against other social evils such as child marriage, dowry and the persecution of widows. He told mediapersons that he had received threats from those who glorified sati. He took on the Dharma Raksha Samiti, a pro-sati group, on this issue. He was finally arrested for violating prohibitory orders.

In 1970, Swami Agnivesh formed the Arya Sabha, a political front, along with others. In 1977, he was elected to the Haryana Assembly. He joined the Janata Party and served as Education Minister but quit after two years to protest against the government’s inaction on the issue of police firing on a march against bonded labour. He became a popular figure among the socially and economically oppressed. Later, he supported anti-corruption movements and backed Anna Hazare and his movement in New Delhi.

He went to Gujarat with Valson Thampu, former principal of Delhi’s St. Stephens College, after the riots of 2002, where they visited the camps and wrote about the unprecedented “cruelty”. A peace march that he had planned along with others could not be held. In a co-authored article on his website, reminiscing about the situation there, he wrote that Gujarat might not have happened but for the United States-led antipathy towards Muslims where the war on terror had made “Muslim-bashing a popular sport” just like “bear-baiting in Elizebathean England” or “Christian baiting in Nero’s Rome”.

In a previous article, reflecting on the murder of the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two children in Baripada, Odisha, and after meeting Staines’ wife, Gladys Staines, he wondered what was the worth of religion if “it was not to nurture us in a sense of compassion and fellow feeling that denies us peace unless we practice justice and uphold the truth”. He took out a “multi-religious” pilgrimage to Manoharpur where the incident had occurred.

In one article, he regretted that the Arya Samaj had done little for the empowerment of Dalits. He remarked that it was an “astonishing reality that despite the ardent and admirable work” of reformers such as Kabir, Guru Nanak, the Buddha, Mahavira, Dayanand Saraswati, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar, “no dent could be made in the oppressive caste system”.

According to him, vote-bank politics had increased the power of the caste system. He did not see “conversions” as a way out since discrimination was not uncommon even in the religions Dalits converted to. The Arya Samaj too had failed. Its agenda for “liberation had been diluted by a spirit of compromise and accommodation with the caste agenda”, he wrote. Caste interests had infiltrated and hijacked the movement, and Dalits could not distinguish between the Arya Samaj and upper-caste practices, he said. He believed that since “Hindus had invented the caste system”, they ought to be the first to dismantle and disown it.

He believed that the Arya Samaj was an option for Dalits in terms of their social and religious rehabilitation, but said that it had to reform itself from its current state. His solutions for getting rid of caste-based oppression seemed simplistic, as if it was a case of offering a “humane” social order for Dalits within the fold of the Arya Samaj where Arya stood for “nobleness”. His views did not go down well with caste Hindus.

Swami Agnivesh was also openly critical of the various “babas” and “gurus” and their commercial ventures. He came out publicly against a very famous yoga guru in one of his columns in a leading English daily. He wrote that “Hinduism was truly in peril”. According to him, the “cocktail of politics, corporatisation and communalism under the name and colour of Hinduism today threatens its authenticity”. He was also openly critical of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its role in the rise of communalism in the country.

Inderjit Singh, vice president of the Haryana unit of the Kisan Sabha, said that Swami Agnivesh was critical of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and was supportive of the protests against it. “It is a loss in a political sense as well. At a personal level too, many of us have felt a deep sense of loss. We disagreed with him on issues, but he was never strident in his disagreement with us,” he said. Despite being a proponent of the Arya Samaj, his approach was different from that of other proponents of the order. There was potential for the growth of progressive elements within the Arya Samaj in Haryana. But that progressive streak did not continue for long. There was criticism that the Arya Samaj had become very “mutt-oriented”.

Inderjit Singh said that Swami Agnivesh, who was jailed during the Emergency for 19 months, identified himself with the progressive liberal sections, many of whom ascribed to Leftist ideology. “The RSS and its affiliates were always irritated with him as he openly criticised their version of Hinduism,” said Inderjit Singh.

In August 2018, when he went to pay his respects to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the BJP office in New Delhi, he was attacked by BJP workers who tore his turban and punched him as the police looked on. A month earlier, he had been physically attacked in Pakur, Jharkhand, by Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha workers for supporting “cow slaughter”. Swami Agnivesh had spoken out against lynchings in the name of cow protection and blamed the BJP leadership for the polarisation.

His views on majority communalism were well known although he spoke out more frequently and sharply after the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was formed in 2014 and incidents of vigilante mob justice were on the rise. He was openly critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the RSS. In a 2018 seminar organised by the Rajiv Gandhi Insitute of Development Studies, he likened Modi to Adolf Hitler, who he said had also got elected democratically.

“I have opposed the RSS agenda of imposing Hindu Rashtra on India because it forebodes a vulgarisation of our spiritual heritage. This bigotry is an aberration. It breeds violence and intolerance. We should never degenerate into a theological state and regress to the pre-modern misery of religious obscurantism and communal bigotry,” he wrote in a press statement in response to RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s statement that “all Indians were Hindus”.

Jagmati Sangwan, former general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), said that his passing away was a great loss as he represented a radical revolutionary stream of the Arya Samaj which openly challenged the caste system.

“He had a special relationship with Haryana. It was unfortunate that he was attacked by communal elements despite being advanced in age. One hopes that at least now they would express regret after his demise,” she said.

In a statement, the AIDWA described him as a “strong supporter of women’s rights” who participated in campaigns against sex-selective abortions, sati, dowry deaths and the plight of child widows.

Swami Agnivesh was a voice of reason amid the shrillness of religious bigotry. Among the current breed of seers and sadhus, he stood out in his saffron robes as one clearly in favour of social, religious and economic reform in the democratic secular framework of the Constitution.

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