actually became conscious keeper of civil society and though many had questioned his ideological strength in fighting against caste discrimination and for the rights of minorities among whom he was immensely popular because he knew what the audiences wanted to hear.
The death of Swami Agnivesh is a great loss to civil society movements in India which he was an active member all through his life. Those of us who have been frequented with various protests at the Jantar Mantar knew him well how he would encourage youngsters and join their protests at any available time.
Swami Agnivesh was basically a political person though he continued to wear saffron robes and that was his personal faith. However, he was emphatic on the issues of social justice, secularism and multiculturalism. He fought against many particularly bonded laborers as well as also campaigned against the Sati. He fought for the entry of the Dalits in the famous Nathdwara temple in Rajasthan.
Several years back Swami ji was attacked by goons in Jharkhand but nothing happened as those who attacked him had full support of the BJP that time and the government did not bother to investigate the matter. None of us know where the matter is. Rather, the attack was justified for his views. Swami Agnivesh was often in a confronting position as he spoke from his heart and took a right position which hurt those in power whether social or political.
He was an Arya Samaji but unfortunately isolated and virtually ostracised by most of them as they found his views too radical. His ideological perceptions actually came as a road block for his political career when at the peak of it in 1977 he was made Education Minister of Haryana State but on the issue of Bonded Labour, he listened to the voice of his conscience and resigned.
I can not claim to know him very personally though I had not only shared various platforms with him but also participated in Dharanas and protests that were organised by him and other friends. One can look at his eventful life and standing with all kinds of secular forces and for the rights of the marginalised. There was not any issue concerning us where his presence was required and he did not come or join hands with others. Many times, he was with a few participants protesting against violence unleashed by the state forces.
The fact is that we are a complex society, a very complicated one and it does not have one particular way to resolve things. We may have diverse viewpoints but if we really consider the Constitution as the benchmark for all of us, then we can build a united and strong India. Swami ji’s many of the ‘revolutionary’ things were never revolutionary but attempted to bring ‘change’ without changing the status quo. That is why, he might have gained through Nathdwara Temple movement but things never changed and Dalits have realised that Temple entry movements never bring anything for them, it only creates a ‘new’ leader who wants to bring them to the ‘Vedanta’ very much like what Gandhi attempted and failed.
The question of untouchability and annihilation of castes are not possible through glorification of Shastras and just criticizing a smaller part of it or blaming the powers of today for it. We all have to bear the blame because annihilation of castes and removal of untouchability can not be done without creating an inequitable society and for that we will have to destroy the current caste monopolies on our natural resources and in our power structure. Most of those who fight against it only speak up in a very patronising way therefore failing it.
Similarly, the issue of secularism in India and it can not be merely uttering a few words of ‘Bismillahurahmaan O Rahim” but understanding the broader issues of the hierarchies among the minorities and not treating them as a homogenised entity. At a meeting of Muslim community, Swami ji asked Muslims to campaign against ‘alcoholism’, much against the agenda which were related to issues of the community and continuous marginalisation of the community politically. Today, there is a big political movement among the communities and anti CAA protest saw participation of all sections of society particularly women as well as people of other faiths as well as those who dont have any.
Obviously, all this will take time till forces emerge from these sections and spread their outreach. Even when we build up an alliance of all the marginalised, there can not be a space for hatred against any one. We as citizens of India need to stand with all sections of society whose rights have been violated or are threatened. I think, Swami Agnivesh remains a very pragmatic person who made himself available to all such forces bringing India together. He stood for the rights of the dalits and marginalised apart from his deep faith in Minority Rights.
There was definitely a low point on his side when he came in support of Anna’s movement which all of us felt was not only undemocratic but absolutely regressive. That was one of the worst decisions taken by him as Anna’s right wing friends defamed Swami Agnivesh for being a Congress agent. This was an absolutely disturbing decision by him which ultimately strengthened Anna and weakened his own position. Today, we have the biggest threat to not only our democracy but civilisation too and Anna’s movement has ‘contributed’ enormously to strengthen such forces which are now ruling defying all democratic norms and practices. But he understood it soon and focused on rebuilding and uniting all the progressive democratic secular forces.
Swami Agnivesh has left a rich legacy. He will continue to inspire people in the movements for his candid views. One may disagree with his viewpoints but could not really ignore the issues raised by him. There is no doubt that he stood for people’s rights whether for the Adivasis of Bastar or of the Dalits in Haryana who were bonded and that need to be acknowledged.
Our Sincere tribute to Swami Agnivesh. His presence will definitely be missed in social movements and secular social justice circles in the coming days.
Vidya Bhushan Rawat
September 12th, 2020