I first heard of Swami Agnivesh when I was serving the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva and he came there to testify before the Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery at the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
Both the Working Group and the High Commission no longer exist, the latter having made way for the UN Human Rights Council and the former having been supplanted in 2007 by a different entity.
But the impact made by Agnivesh – a striking presence in saffron robes and turban, his words as fiery as his burning eyes flaming indignation behind frameless glasses – has never been forgotten by those who saw and heard him in action in Geneva.
Swami Agnivesh, who passed away Friday at the age of 80 (he was born on 21 September 1939), was an enigma to many: a Brahmin brought up by a grandfather who was the Diwan of a princely state, but who identified completely with the marginalised and the downtrodden; a Hindu monk who took sanyas at 30 and was yet regularly attacked by the self-appointed proponents of Hindutva; a politician, former MLA and former state Cabinet Minister in his 30s, who did not hold political office for decades; an Arya Samajist who headed its highest international body, the World Council, for a decade, despite having departed from the key tenets of that organisation to found his own Arya Sabha at the age of 30 (and been expelled by the parent body in 2008); a profoundly Indian figure, passionately committed to Indian issues and causes, who nonetheless enjoyed widespread international repute, and even served as the chairperson of the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery from 1994 to 2004; and finally, a pan-Indian figure, an Andhraite raised in Chhattisgarh, elected in Haryana and recognised everywhere.
Above all, he was a social activist, whose pioneering and highly successful work against bonded labour found expression most notably through the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, which he founded in 1981 while still a minister.
A Tireless Campaigner
For all the contradictions he embodied, Swami Agnivesh, born as Vepa Shyam Rao nearly 81 years ago, remained one of the most remarkable individuals in Indian public life, someone whom it was my privilege to know since my own entry into national politics a little under a dozen years ago. He had chosen since the 1980s not to toil in the conventional arena of electoral politics, did not seek office or the “bubble popularity” of votes, but was nonetheless a tireless campaigner for what he believed to be right.
A man who had degrees in Law and Commerce, and once practiced law as a junior to a future Chief Justice of India, had spent his life challenging unjust laws and trying to change them – sometimes with great success, as in the Bonded Labour Abolition Act. He was also in many ways the spiritual father of the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act of 1987.
As a religious and spiritual thinker, Swami Agnivesh married his Hinduism to his socialist beliefs, in what he called Vaidik Samajvad, or Vedic Socialism.
His activism led him to the streets, often conducting tireless campaigns across the country, on issues ranging from against female foeticide to child slavery, and he narrowly escaped an assortment of attacks in the process, including having a Rs 20 lakh bounty placed on his head by the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha and surviving a near-lynching in Jharkhand.
His activism also even took him to jail: he was arrested multiple times, and though usually neither charged nor convicted, he spent some 14 months in prison on exotic charges, including subversion and murder, of which no one who know him believed him capable. A man of peace (even if his disposition and his life seem too turbulent to be described as “saintly”), he helped negotiate the release of five abducted policemen by Maoists in Feb 2011.
A Critic of Bigotry & Superstition
In recent years, he was a much-admired voice for religious toleration and inter-faith harmony, and a proponent of interfaith dialogue who served on numerous international forums, calling in particular for greater sympathy for, and understanding of, Islam and the Muslim community. He intervened in the public discourse on terrorism, arguing that "It is wrong to attribute the wrongdoings of a few individuals to the whole community."
Unfortunately, he sometimes expressed his principles in extreme language that many moderates like myself found difficult to support: "I would not mince words to say that the United States is the terrorist number one. To defame the Koran and Islam is the worst form of terrorism. Islam stands for peace and brotherhood and there cannot be a bigger lie than saying that Muslims are terrorists.”
But moderation was never Agnivesh’s inclination, and till the end, he showed no sign of mellowing.
As a critic of superstition and bigotry, Agnivesh incurred the wrath of some Hindu groups for progressive statements that may have been immoderately expressed, such as his suggestion that the Puri Jagannath Temple should be opened to non-Hindus or his comment that the ice lingam in Amarnath that is worshipped by millions of Saivites in an annual pilgrimage is “just a piece of ice”. The latter episode prompted the Supreme Court, no less, to urge Agnivesh in 2011 to “weigh your words many a time before uttering them, lest it hurts the sentiments of the people.”
Like many idealists, Agnivesh also sometimes came across as untroubled by the feasibility of some of the ideas he launched into the air. Thus he argued – at, of all places, a conference on economic development and religion sponsored by the World Bank – that all passports and immigration laws should be abolished, so that people could enjoy full freedom of movement across borders. The fact that there was not a single government on the planet that agreed with him on this did not bother him in the slightest.
But that was Swami Agnivesh – a dreamer who was prepared to put his own life, time, and energy on the line, in pursuit of his dreams. The blows, literal and metaphorical, that he took over the years for his beliefs testify to his sincerity, his integrity, and the courage of his convictions. Long did he ruffle the consciences of the complacent. I will miss him. Om Shanti!
(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. 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.)