Swami Agnivesh has spent the past 30 years fighting for the landless, bonded labourers, poor farmers and against female foeticide, among many other campaigns
At the International Interfaith Dialogue India office in Kochi, there is a sense of expectation. They are all waiting for one of India’s well-known social activists, Swami Agnivesh. And when Agnivesh comes in, he is wearing a striking saffron kurtha and dhoti, along with a turban. His smile is shy, but friendly. The swami looks keen to make friends.
Agnivesh had come on a visit to Kerala to talk about alcoholism. “It is a major problem, not only in Kerala, but all over India,” he says. “The central government is promoting alcohol because of the massive revenue it can earn. But in a survey conducted nationwide, it has been found that while the income from alcohol is 85 paise while the expenditure on alcohol-related problems, like accidents or diseases is Rs. 1.25. So, promoting alcohol is counter-productive.”
Not surprisingly, at the Interfaith office, Agnivesh spoke about communal harmony. “In Kerala, Hindus and Muslims are living in harmony, along with the Catholics and the Protestants,” he says. In Belfast, Ireland, there is a wall which cuts through the city. One side is Catholic and the other side is Protestant.
“It is called a peace wall,” says Agnivesh. “I told the people there, ‘How can you call it a peace wall?’ The cemeteries are divided. We can take pride in the fact that India has been the home of all the world religions. And, because of this, the people have become richer spiritually.”
Agnivesh has been in the public spotlight for more than 30 years. Born as Shyam Vepa Rao in Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh, his father died when he was only four. Thereafter, the family went to stay with his maternal grandfather who was a diwan in the princely state of Sakti in Chhattisgarh.
After his plus two exams in Sakti, Agnivesh decided to go to Kolkata to do his graduate studies. It was while in Kolkata that Swamiji came across the teachings of Dayanand Saraswati of the Arya Samaj.
“His teachings shook me to the core,” he says. “The basic teachings go back to the Vedas and the Upanishads. It is about imbibing the universal spiritual values. It is the acceptance of all human beings. God is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. He is present in every particle in the Universe.”
Agnivesh, a Brahmin, gave up idol worship, practising the caste system, treating people in an unequal manner and looking warily at other religions.
After studying and working in Kolkata for a few years, Agnivesh went to an Arya Samaj gurukal in Jajjhar in Rohtak district in Haryana. There, he shaved his head, wore two pieces of unstitched cloth, and became a lifelong celibate. “I selected the name, Agnivesh, which means an embodiment of fire,” he says. Thereafter, for two years, he travelled through all the villages in Haryana, and got a clear understanding of how the poor were exploited.
Over the course of the next few years, Agnivesh launched the first-ever farmer's movement called Kisan Andolan. He also started an anti-liquor movement, as well as a campaign for landless labourers, and female foeticide and, later, took part in anti-corruption movements.
But Agnivesh's biggest achievement was when he took up the cause of the bonded labourers. “It was a big shock for me when I saw them for the first time in Haryana,” he says. “They were not in chains, but these migrant labourers stayed in shanties and worked round the clock. Anybody who tried to escape would be killed by guards. When I saw this, I decided to do something for their liberation.”
In 1979, he set up the Bandhua Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labourer Liberation Front). And till today he continues to work for them, but the situation has not improved much.
“Today, around 45 crore people can be classified as bonded labourers,” says Agnivesh. This definition is based on the landmark Supreme Court judgement of December 16, 1983, by Justice P.N. Bhagawati, who described bonded labour in a precise manner: ‘Whoever does not get the minimum wages, as set by the government, is a bonded labourer’.
Meanwhile, as the fight for the powerless continued, Agnivesh's work was recognised internationally. He won the Anti-Slavery international award in London, the Freedom and Human Rights award in Berne, Switzerland, and, along with the late social activist, Asghar Ali Engineer, Agnivesh won the Right Livelihood Award from Sweden, in 2004, which is regarded as the Alternative Nobel Prize.
When asked about the state of the country, he says, “It is not in good shape. Corruption aside, casteism is still going strong. There is a lack of gender equality. Alcoholism is rampant. There is too much of aggression and violence in society, apart from intense competition and the consequent lack of co-operation between people. The future looks troubled.”
(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)