Demise of a rebel saint

-Mohammad Mansoor Alam

Swami Agnivesh was the only saint of independent India I know who spoke less and worked more for the downtrodden. “Truth, love, compassion and justice are my Gods. My life is committed to these Gods,” he used to say.

A man in saffron robes, a saint of Arya Samaj, a social activist working for the most neglected beings, a bona fide advocate of “Wasu Dhaivah Kutumbakam (The whole world is our family)”, a holy soul left his mortal body Friday and left a gap that could unlikely be filled.

Swami Agnivesh was both a saint politician and a rebel saint. His politics was saintly and his rebel was wholesome.

Swami Agnivesh was loved by everybody except those who never learnt humanity, neither from their teachers not from their parents.

He was the only saint of independent India I know who spoke less and worked more for the downtrodden. “Truth, love, compassion and justice are my Gods. My life is committed to these Gods,” he used to say.

He was never a controversial figure. Rather controversy was thrust upon him to slander. When he talked about blind faith in Hinduism he was called anti Hindu. When he came forward to save abducted CRPF personnel from the Maoist he was called a Maoist. When he said a judicial inquiry should have been done in case of killings of more than 100 young Kashmiris he was called a traitor. In spite of all charges, he never stopped and continued working on his mission.

He believed in principles of Arya Samaj which is supposed to be the purest sect of Hinduism. Arya Samaj is only sect which allows conversion into Hinduism and rejects Varna Wyawastha. Swamiji was targetted when he had stated that Puri temple should be open to non Hindus. He had said so when a princess of Thailand was denied entry to the Puri temple. His statement had courted wrath of The Puri district authorities and he was issued a warning letter. He was even asked not to visit the Puri temple though a big section had supported it.

He always opposed ban of Dalits entry into the temples. He used to say that those Dalits who built temples became untouchable as soon as the temple was ready. He believed in equality and fraternity not among Hindus but among all human beings.

He was made controversial during Anna Hazare movement. When he parted with Anna team he was humiliated in media. He was made a villain of the movement by Kiran Bedi and others. In an interview in Aap Ki Adalat hosted by Rajat Sharma, he had said that he was manhandled, humiliated and abused by Anna team but he remained silent for the movement to succeed and for the sake of a strong Lokpal.

When he knew the movement was just an attempt to destabilize the Dr Manmohan Singh led Congress government and it had nothing to do with corruption and Lokpal, he got disheartened and started questioning. Consequently, he was sidelined and he was charged that he was working for the government. We know well today what was the Anna movement about and why was this organised. Lokpal is a distant dream yet.

Swami Agnivesh believed that gun was not a solution to local unrest. When he talked about welfare of Maoist he talked simultaneously about welfare of armed forces. He used to say that those who joined armed forces were sons of farmers and belonged to middle lower class families. They were not sons of Adanis and Ambanis. Similarly, those Maoists who were being targeted were also sons of Adivasis and the Most marginalized community of India. Both lives are important and equal. He had the same view on Kashmir and Kashmiris. He said that if Kashmir was integral part of India, how Kashmiris could be othered.

Born to a Telugu Brahmin Family in Andhra Pradesh, as Vepa Shyam Rao on 21 September, 1939, Agnivesh joined the Arya Samaj in 1968 and took sanyasi vows in 1970, relinquishing his caste and surname. He had obtained degrees in Law and Commerce. He began his career as a lecturer of Management Studies at a very reputed St Xavier’s College in Kolkata. He worked as a junior lawyer to Sabyasachi Mukherji who later became Chief Justice of India.

Swami Agnivesh got into politics when he founded a party named Arya Sabha based on Arya Samaj principles in 1970. He became a member of the Legislative Assembly of Haryana in 1977, and served as the education Minister in Haryana government. He was education minister from 1979 to 1981 and later resigned to protest a police firing on labourers in Faridabad.

In 1981, when he was a minister, he had founded the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, which raises issues of bonded labour in India, especially in the quarries in Delhi and adjoining Uttar Pradesh. He managed to rid thousands of labourers from bonded slavery.

After leaving the Ministry, he was arrested twice, spending a total of 14 months in jail on several charges including of subversion and murder, of which he was later honurably acquitted.

He had also served as the chairperson of the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery from 1994–2004.

Agnivesh had testified before the Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Later, he created a new task for emancipation of womanhood, which was a helpful factor in the Commission of Sati (prevention) Act of 1987.  In 2005, Agnivesh was part of a two-week campaign against female foeticide that travelled across India.

He was a great advocate of Ganga-Jamuni Tahzeeb (Ganga-Yamuna Culture). He believed in a peaceful co existence of all irrespective of caste, creed and religion. He opposed cow slaughter and man slaughter in the name of cow with the same fervor. He urged both Hindus and Muslims to respect sentiments of each other. It was indeed a saintly thought.

He was put in jail by several governments and several times assaulted and humiliated by the police and the people who did not believe in his ideology. But two last assaults on him were fatal. When he was assaulted at Pakur (Jharkhand) in July, 2018 by a group of people allegedly associated with BJP, RSS and Bharatiya Janata Yuva morcha, it was his second last humiliation in public. When he was going to attend former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s funeral he was beaten again by the same kind of people in a month after the thrash in Pakur and it was the last.

The assault in Pakur was pre-planned and the accused admitted in the media that Swami Agnivesh was assaulted because he had spoken sympathetically about Naxalites and the Pathalgarhi movement by the tribal.

As his associates say, Swami Agnivesh never recovered from the injuries he suffered on his ribs and purportedly liver after two assaults.

He rebelled his own people, his own Samaj to bring them to the path of righteousness and lost his life.

In a program, I once said him Raja Ram Mohan Roy of independent India which he responded with a meaningful smile. He was disliked by a section of people, the same bunch of people Raja Mohan Roy was disliked but what Raja Ram Mohan Roy did to Indian society is still unforgettable, deeds of Agnivesh would also be remembered for centuries to come.

(The writer is an amateur journalist based in Patna.)

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