In Modi’s India, Swami Agnivesh & His Ilk Are a ‘Saffron Minority’

Swami Agnivesh, known for his activism, was assaulted by ‘saffron goons’ on 17 July in Jharkhand.

4 min read
In Modi’s India, Swami Agnivesh & His Ilk Are a ‘Saffron Minority’

In a Facebook post (which was later blocked by Facebook) on Tuesday, 17 July, I decided to highlight the mob violence against Swami Agnivesh by alleged saffron right-wingers in Ranchi, Jharkhand.

I wanted to speak out against it as, during the Anna Hazare campaign, when a controversy had erupted over Swami Agnivesh’s role, and a phone call – allegedly to Kapil Sibal of the Congress was recorded – I had tried to learn more about the Hindu monk. While scouring information, I had come across a very interesting fact about Swami Agnivesh’s role against the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom.

At around 10:30 AM on Tuesday, this is what I posted:


Yesterday was the fourth time I heard of Swami Agnivesh. The third time I heard he was on Bigg Boss season 5 in November 2011. That was an attempt to neutralize his image tarnished by his role in Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption sponsored hunger strike in August 2011. That was the second time I heard of him. During that hunger strike he was allegedly on call with Congress’ Kapil Sibal urging him to not make any more concessions to those on the hunger strike. He was called a mole.

However, the first time I heard of Swami Agnivesh is what interests me the most. It was his role in the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi on November 1, 1984. Poonam Muttreja, one of the founders of Dastkar, a movement of Indian crafts people, also co-founded the Nagrik Ekta Manch. She says in her interview to in Februray 2005: “We needed people to stop the violence. We were not afraid of confronting the rioters but we needed many more hands. Then we went to Swami Agnivesh, a prominent social activist. He came with us. In the Lajpat Nagar area, large-scale looting was spreading. We were surrounded by the mob at one corner. Swami Agnivesh stood on a stool and asked people to exercise restraint precisely because they were Hindu. He said as true followers of Hinduism, which teaches tolerance, we should not loot or kill. The impact of a saffron-clad sadhu on that crowd was magical. Tempers cooled.”

It is also corroborated by Gautam Navlakha, a senior member of the Peoples Union for Democratic Rights, in in November 2015, “Concerned citizens took out a march when the massacres were actually taking place in Lajpat Nagar in Delhi. It was quite a brave effort. The march took place on November 1, and members of the PUCL and PUDR, professors, social activists, women’s groups (joined in). In fact, conscientious people from all walks of life joined in – Swami Agnivesh, Prof Sumanta Banerjee, Rajni Kothari, Dinesh Mohan, among others. Of course, the police tried to dissuade them. The Nagrik Ekta Manch came out from the November 1 march.”

From those dark days in 1984 to what happened yesterday when alleged saffron goons beat Swami Agnivesh up, stripped him, flung his turban, is quite a journey for the Arya Samaj leader. A journey in which he has lost stature, respect, had to compromise towards populism, and now face the brunt of those he has opposed. It also reveals the tailspin into which our nation’s politics has gone now.

I wonder if we shall ever recover.

Swami Agnivesh’s Activism

Following my post, a discussion ensued. Friends reminded me of Swami Agnivesh’s role in Bastar, Chattisgarh against notorious vigilante group ‘Salwa Judum’. Since I am working on a book on Punjab, my interest was awakened and I started reading more. I came across writer Amitav Ghosh’s brilliant write-up in The New Yorker where again he mentions not only Swami Agnivesh, but also former Prime Minister Chandrashekar, in the November 1984 march against the anti-Sikh pogrom.

Too busy to read? Listen to it instead.

In an interview to Livemint in 2008 Swami Agnivesh says, “The nefarious role of top bosses in the Congress Party in orchestrating the large-scale massacre of Sikhs in 1984 is well-known. So, various governments have sought to fan violence against minorities for their own political purposes, and no discussion of terrorism in India can leave out this crucial dimension.”

I think the irony of the Jharkhand attack on saffron-robed, saffron-turbaned Swami Agnivesh by saffron goons – belonging to Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) – is not lost on anyone.

Swami Agnivesh belongs to the Hindu sect Arya Samaj.

Arya Samaj, founded 1875, is one of the oldest Hindu reform movement that promotes values and practices based on the belief in the infallible authority of the Vedas. The movement gave rise to Bhartiya Jan Sangh in 1951 which in turn gave rise to Bhartiya Janata Party in 1980. The very organisation that created the political party is now under attack on the watch of the current BJP government at the Centre.


BJP’s Hypocrisy

Today a BJP leader, the Jharkhand Urban Development Minister C P Singh, made a scathing remark to ANI, “As far as I know, Swami Agnivesh is a person who survives on foreign donations. The saffron dress that he wears is to deceive the simple Indians. He is a fraud and not a Swami. He had himself planned this attack to gain popularity.”

This is pure gaslighting. Does he mean to say the 20 odd attackers caught by the Jharkhand police, are not BJYM and ABVP members?

The simple fact is, that as a loose federation of organisations and parties, the right-wing has no sense of its own ancestry and roots. Whatever displeases any organisation or faction, is game for attack. All it does is follow a mobocracy by throwing away the law books and turning the nation into badlands. The serpent is let loose, it is growing fatter, and now it is eating its own tail.

Ironically for Swami Agnivesh, his own words on Congress have come back to haunt him: “.. various governments have sought to fan violence against minorities for their own political purposes ...”

Now he is a minority within the saffron fold.

(The writer is an author and is working on a book on Punjab. He tweets @_asandhu. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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