Swami Agnivesh’s unique persona brought special meaning to the saffron robe. Drawing deep spiritual and metaphysical strength from the faith of the Arya Samaj, a religion that was associated with power and hegemony and had no role in social transformation or justice was of no use to him. Through the 28 years of our association, what could have been the relationship between this Swami and a woman, an agnostic and her partner, Javed Anand, the same?
This is probably best summed up in the tribute that he paid to our monthly magazine, Communalism Combat on its 10th anniversary in August 2003, a year after the Gujarat violence of 2002: “The passionate commitment that Communalism Combat exemplifies to disinfect the soul of India, countering the cancer of communalism with the antidote of trans-religious solidarity and uncompromising commitment to justice and equality, makes it the foremost bastion of inspired journalism in our times… this association is an engagement of true spirituality.”
Swamiji’s journey into Indian public life is best remembered through the efforts of the Bandhua Mukti Morcha established in 1981 that culminated in the Bandhua Mukti Morcha vs Union of India judgment, the passing of the law to abolish child labour and further explorations in the courts on the deepening of constitutional rights of the most marginalised. This commitment never wavered and we saw him take this into the dark reaches of Chhattisgarh for peace talks with Maoists in 2010, where he was attacked by a Salwa Judum mob. The experience led him to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court, which had an impact on the judgment banning Salwa Judum a year later.
For those of us battling the corrosive cancer of communalism, it was Swamiji’s vision of Indian society and state as multi-hued and diverse, based on an unflinching commitment to secularism and rationality, that was so special. He stood tall and proud in his Hinduism at the Allahabad Kumbh Mela, opposite the stall of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, reclaiming a faith that he saw being both militarised and hegemonised. He marched against the practice of Sati in Rajasthan and he argued with his counterparts from other faiths, questioning notions of “Hell” and “Damnation” and exclusive evangelisation. His commitment to rationality within faith never wavered.
In 1998, when the Kalyan Singh government was set to make Saraswati Vandana compulsory in UP’s schools, Agnivesh’s sharp detraction was unique: “The wry humour of the situation becomes apparent when we recall that Saraswati is supposed to be the goddess of learning. UP is a state where illiteracy is endemic. Universal education for all children under 14 years of age, as mandated by the Constitution, has not been a priority with any of the successive governments… Could it be that the insult to the goddess of learning in keeping millions of people illiterate is sought to be compensated by forcing school children to do in ritual what the government won’t do in reality?”
No wonder, then, that it is the pallbearers of an exclusivist faith who — intolerant of a powerful symbol in saffron that spoke for a more eclectic Hinduism — attacked him brutally in Jharkhand in 2018 again, in an attempt at public humiliation, disrobing, even lynching. He escaped narrowly but the damage done to the 80-year-old’s health was near fatal.
Since 2014, he engaged in a direct satire of obscurantist utterances from men in power, even those at the very top. Videos of these speeches drew support in far-flung villages and towns. In one such video, Agnivesh points out, “The PM said that the Kauravas multiplied themselves into hundreds. This, they achieved through stem-cell transplants”. Agnivesh mockingly laments: “Such lies, such pageantry, such superstitions, and India’s PM is perpetuating these! The country will move towards a deep abyss.”
The physical attacks did not stop after July 17, 2018. In August, a month later, he was again seriously attacked, even by a woman as he went to the BJP headquarters in Delhi to pay respects to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The last such attack was in Thiruvananthapuram in October last year when Sangh Parivar cadres attempted to manhandle him at a function which the governor was also slated to attend.
For this saffron-robed modern-day Swami, the colour of the robes he proudly sported meant sacrifice, purity and commitment. In a life well and fully-lived — one that should be celebrated — he brought a renewed faith in the colour saffron.
The writer, previously co-editor Communalism Combat now co-edits Sabrangindia.in and is secretary,
Citizens for Justice and Peace