Swami Agnivesh Leaves Behind A Lasting Legacy of Social Activism and Education

Swami Agnivesh, a great Indian secular Sannysin and social activist for the down trodden, has just passed away at the age of 80. The social activist and Arya Samaj leader died at the Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences in New Delhi  on Friday, September 11th, 20202. He was suffering from liver cirrhosis and was critically ill. As per reports, the social activist had been on the ventilator support since Tuesday after suffering multiple organ failure. “On September 11, his condition deteriorated and he went into cardiac arrest at 6 pm. Resuscitation was attempted but the stalwart passed away at 6:30 pm. ILBS joins the country in mourning the loss of this beloved leader,” the hospital said in a statement.

Swami Agnivesh was born Vepa Shyam Rao on September 21, 1939 in a Brahmin family at Srikakulam in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. He lost his father at the age of four. Agnivesh grew up following traditional Hindu rituals. While attending college in Kolkata, he discovered the Arya Samaj movement, which emphasizes the ancient Vedas, the oldest scriptures in Hinduism, over later traditions. It “was all very universal, very transformative,” he said. The monk’s spiritual life feeds his political and social rebellion – each one a long process of transformation.

What he called his “inner evolution” continued as he taught at Kolkata’s St. Xavier’s College, where he worked alongside Jesuits. “I was very critical of Christian missionaries. I’d accuse them of trying to convert our poor tribal people and try to instigate a Christian state here,” he says. Yet his views shifted as he got a glimpse of their simple way of life: “A small bed. Minimal eating.”

He became a monk, and was seen, clothed head-to-toe in saffron, is a truly eclectic figure – clothed and steeped in tradition, yet defiant of it in many ways. “The priest is a follower and the prophet is a rebel and revolutionary,” Agnivesh showed by his own life’s example. “That’s what attracted me to this path – the prophet and the revolutionary character.” Earlier in life, Agnivesh served as lecturer in management at St Xavier’s College in Kolkata and for a while practiced law as a junior to Sabyasachi Mukherji who later became the Chief Justice of India.

As Swami Agnivesh, the global chief of the breakaway denomination of the Arya Samaj, the man from Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh fought for more than half a century to reclaim the sanctity and honor of the bhagwa, or ochre-saffron of the ascetic, from charlatans and political opportunists who had used it successfully to propel religious nationalism to power in India. He challenged them on their turf, and defeated them more often than not. They learnt not to confront him face to face, even if they continued to occasionally nip at his heels, or, in later days, troll him in paid packs.

It was in Haryana he discovered a modern form of slavery – the phenomenon of bonded labor. He was best known for his Bonded Labor Liberation Front, he had founded in 1981 and served as its President (2004–2014) and had campaigned against bonded labor. This writer had the privilege of working with the Bandhua Mukti Morcha and had worked in educating the children in Stone Mines on the outskirts of Delhi, bordering Haryana state in India in the 198s. Swami Agnivesh was an active and leading member of the National Fishermen’s Forum, where this writer had the opportunity to work with the fisher people across India, fighting for their rights as traditional fishermen against the exploitation through deep sea fishing by international ships.  

Swami Agniveshs was elected to the Haryana Assembly in 1977, serving as the state’s education minister for a couple of years, before resigning in protest against the Haryana government’s inaction against police who had opened fire at workers protesting bonded labor.

The 80-year-old activist founded a political party, Arya Sabha, that was based on the principles of the Arya Samaj in 1970. Swami Agnivesh was also an advocate for dialogue between religions. Much of his activism has focused on tolerance, at a time when there is fear both inside and outside India that religious freedom is diminishing sharply, particularly for Muslims.

In May, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom designated India a country “of particular concern,” noting “government action … created a culture of impunity for nationwide campaigns of harassment and violence against religious minorities.” For years, Agnivesh has led efforts to defuse tension after Hindu-Muslim clashes, and denounce leadership he considers responsible for failing to halt attacks – including that of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

He was involved with several social movements including Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption’s campaign in 2011 to implement the Jan Lokpal Bill. The Arya Samaj leader had extensively worked in various areas of social activism including campaigns against female foeticide and the emancipation of women. Even as he was part of peace initiatives in Kashmir and with the Maoists, Agnivesh was no stranger to controversy. Once an integral part of the Anna Hazare-led anti corruption crusade, Agnivesh left the movement after a video surfaced allegedly showing him speaking to a Minister from the Congress government.

In July 2018 Swami Agnivesh was brutally assaulted, allegedly by BJP Yuva Morcha workers chanting “Jai Sri Ram”, in Jharkhand’s Pakur, where he was supporting tribal communities’ protest against land acquisition by the state. The BJP, which was in power in Jharkhand at the time, condemned it and insisted the attackers weren’t associated with the party, but added it was not a surprise given “Swami Agnivesh’s ‘track record'”.

International wards and honorary positions sat easy on his frame. He had been the international chair of one of the United Nation’s committees on Modern Forms of Slavery.

Condoling his demise, lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan alleged that his liver got damaged after he was attacked by ‘a BJP/RSS lynch mob two years ago in  Jharkhand.’ Prasanth Bhushan described Agnivesh’s death as “a huge tragedy” and added that the ascetic as “a true warrior for humanity and tolerance. Among the bravest that I knew… willing to take huge risks for public good.”

“The demise of Swami Agnivesh is a huge tragedy. A true warrior for humanity&tolerance. Among the bravest that I knew, willing to take huge risks for public good.Was brutalised in Jharkhand by a BJP/RSS lynch mob 2 yrs ago. Liver got damaged. RIP Agnivesh ji (sic),” Bhushan said on Twitter.

James Kottoor, editor of ccv, stated, “Yes, he was a Sannyasin, not for flaunting saffron robes like the RSS-Sank fraternity, but  totally against their narrow nationalist Hindutva agenda, and fighting against it all the time.”

Veteran actress Shaban Azmi expressed grief over the death of Swami Agnivesh. “Very saddened by the passing away of #Swami Agnivesh due to multi-organ failure. Influenced by Liberation Theology he worked to rescue and rehabilitate bonded laborers and was a force to reckon with in the eighties. RIP (sic),” she tweeted.

“I am shocked and saddened by his passing. A man of vigour and conviction, he never looked, sounded or behaved his age! The country is diminished by his passing & I mourn with the millions whose rights he fought to uphold. Om Shanti,” Shashi Tharoor said.

“My deep condolences upon the passing away of veteran Arya Samaj leader, crusader against bonded labor and my old friend Swami Agniveshji. May the departed soul rest in peace,” Kailash Satyarthi, who won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for his campaigns against child labor, said.

(Picture Caption: After having recovered from being attacked in Jharkhand in 2018, Swami Agnivesh met with Delhi Archbishop Anil Couto, activist John Dayal and Father Felix of the Catholic Archdiocese Commission for Interfaith Dialogue. Credit: John Dayal via Facebook)

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