Swami Agnivesh (81), who passed away in Delhi on Friday evening, was one of the many remarkable men and women of our times who never quite got their due.
In Andra Pradesh at Srikakulam Vepa Shyam Rao born on 21 September 1939 who rose to become the president of the World Council of Arya Samaj, the highest international body of the Arya Samaj movement originally established by Dayanand Saraswati in 1875, from 2004 to 2014, and served as the chairperson of the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery from 1994 to 2004.
He was referred to by the honorific title Swami Agnivesh.
He also taught Law and Management in XLRI Calcutta before joining Arya Samaj, getting elected to Haryana Assembly in 1977 and becoming state’s Education Minister but to resign after 5 months.
His work for slaves against Upper caste men in North India
After he formed the Bandhua Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labour Liberation Front) in 1981. He along with a host of luminaries, who included writer and activist Mahasveta Devi, film director Tapan Bose and actor Suhasini Mulay, had descended in Palamu or Palamau, now in Jharkhand, to campaign against bonded labour or slavery.
Thousands of people in Palamu lived as slaves to the better-off upper caste men in villages.
They or their parents had taken loans at compound rates of interest, which went up to 48% per annum or higher, and unable to repay, agreed to live in bondage for the rest of their lives.
It was a feudal district where guns did the talking and though the Government had abolished bonded labour in 1976 during the Emergency, the practice continued.
As a Minister he lasted barely five months, resigning to protest a police firing in Faridabad. His ochre robe, aura of a Sanyasi and his fiery oratory drew people in droves to the conclave.
The two-day conclave was covered by a galaxy of journalists who had accompanied Swami Agnivesh.
As a social activist, best known for his work against bonded labour through the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, which he founded in 1981.
During the process in a conclave a dozen odd minor boys in their early teens aged between 12 and 15 who Swami Agnivesh had rescued from Mirzapur in adjacent Uttar Pradesh.
The boys were working as slaves and in violation of the Child Labour Abolition Act. The children and their re-united families were presented to the gathering, the district administration provided them with rations and some cash with promise of more to come.
His Questioning religious practices drew anger of Upper caste priests
In 2005, Agnivesh stated that the Puri Jagannath Temple should be opened to non-Hindus this led to the priests of the temple condemning his remarks as “purely anti-Hindu in nature” and burning his effigy.
In May 2011, hundreds of Hindu priests protested against Agnivesh’s claim that ice stalagmite in Amarnath that they believe resembles Lord Shiva is just a piece of ice; during the protest the priests burnt his effigy.
According to the Kashmir Observer, the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha, a Hindu nationalist political party, offered a 2 million bounty for killing Agnivesh, for negative statements he made about Kashmir and Baba Amarnath.
On 8 November 2011, the Supreme Court condemned Agnivesh for hurting the sentiments of Hindu People by commenting on the Amarnath Pilgrimage. The apex court bench of Justice H.L. Dattu and Justice C.K. Prasad told Agnivesh that he should weigh his words “many a time before uttering them lest it hurts the sentiments of the people”.
On 17 July 2018, Agnivesh was attacked in Jharkhand, when he was there to attend the 195th Damin Mahotsav at Littipara. His assailants accused him of being sympathetic to Christian missionaries, and “against Hindus.”
His contribution was acknowledged but his battles remained his own. As the unusual ‘Swami’, he stood out for his steadfast commitment to equality and freedom, for the dignity of individuals and for his opposition to injustice and communalism.
But he was put in jail by several governments and assaulted, arrested and publicly humiliated by the police and mobs alike.
During 1982 he questioned and exposed police atrocities bravely of then ADMK government ruled by M.G.Ramachandran who killed educated youths in Dharmapuri by labelling them as Naxal Communist terrorists who were agitating against ADMK state government
He was 79 years old when he was assaulted at Pakur (Jharkhand) two years ago by a group of people associated with BJP, RSS and Bharatiya Janata Yuva morcha.
The then BJP government in the state ordered an inquiry but did little to book the people named for the assault. Swami Agnivesh never quite recovered from the injuries he suffered on his ribs and purportedly liver.
The assault was pre-planned and the accused told the media that Swami Agnivesh had invited the assault by speaking sypmpathetically about Naxalites and the Pathalgarhi movement by the tribals.