The passing away of Swami Agnivesh on Friday (September 11) has come as a huge shock for secularist and progressive forces in South Asia.
A social justice activist and a well-known liberal spiritual Hindu leader, he died due to liver cirrhosis in Delhi at the age of 80.
Agnivesh, who served as a legislator in the northwestern state of Haryana in the past, was a vocal critic of religious fanaticism and superstition.
As a follower of Arya Samaj, a reformist sect, he was highly opposed to the brutal caste system within Hindu society.
In addition, he openly challenged the ideology of the ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Attacks on religious minorities, especially Muslims, have grown under the BJP government, which wants to turn India into a Hindu state. Agnivesh was one of the rare Hindu ascetics who openly spoke against this.
It is for this reason that Hindu fanatics viciously attacked by him in 2018.
We in Canada held a demonstration to raise our voices in support of Agnivesh.
Organized by Indians Abroad for Pluralist India (IAPI), the rally was attended by people from diverse backgrounds, including Sikhs, Muslims, Dalits, and even nonbelievers. Speakers unanimously condemned the attack on Agnivesh and expressed their solidarity with him.
We carried posters bearing his picture alongside our slogan: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
I have also had several opportunities to interview him over the phone. Soft-spoken but firm, Agnivesh always kept up to d. This wasate with global affairs apart from what had been going on in his own country.
Swami defended minorities under attack
The first time I interviewed him was back in 2008 for Radio India about Kandhamal violence. Over four days in late August of that year, innocent Christians were targeted in Orissa state of India following the murder of a controversial Hindu preacher, Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, by Maoist insurgents.
Even though the Maoists claimed responsibility for his assassination because of his antiminority and pro-state activities, BJP-supporting Hindu fundamentalists organized a pogrom against Christians, blaming them for the killing.
Agnivesh pulled no punches in criticizing the Hindu Right. He even went to the extent of saying that they had no role in the movement for freedom of India from British rule.
On top of that, he revealed that how they were also involved in terrorist activities, often disguising themselves as Muslims, using fake beards and prayer caps, while planting bombs in public places. This was designed to give the Muslim community a bad name.
In fact, this came at a time time when a terror module being run by the Hindu Right was being exposed by some honest police officers.
Notably, Agnivesh was also critical of then-ruling Congress party that claims to be a secular alternative of the BJP. He swore an affidavit before one commission of inquiry looking into the massacre of Sikhs following the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984.
In early Novemberr of that year, Sikhs were targeted all across India by mobs led by the slain leader’s Congress party activists. The scenario was no different than the Kandhamal violence as in both cases, minority communities were picked as easy targets for the actions of some other individuals.
This was despite the fact that in the latter case, Maoists had claimed responsibility. Yet the Christians were given a collective punishment.
Agnivesh not only witnessed the barbarity against Sikhs, he tried to intervene to get it stopped in Delhi. He noted his disappointment in his affidavit, stating that the authorities did nothing to help the Sikhs.
On one occasion, he tried to dissuade the mobs from burning a Sikh business and also held a peace march in an area hit by violence.
In another interview on the persecution of Adivasis (Indigenous peoples of India), he brought up the plot in the Hollywood movie Avatar (2009) to make his point.
Avatar revolved around the eviction of Indigenous peoples from their traditional lands. The world over, these territories are rich on natural resources coveted by the extraction industry with the backing of nation states.
A similar situation exists in India where Adivasis are being pushed out in the name of a war against Maoists.
Agnivesh told me that the root of the so-called war on terror in tribal areas of India was the corporate greed.
Swami Agnivesh has left us to deal with a very challenging political environment. As someone so determined to stand up for the poor and marginalized in a social atmosphere blinded by majoritarianism, he will always be missed.
Although he is physically dead, his legacy as a true defender of secular India will remain alive. This legacy has become even more relevant, considering the need to rescue his country from the clutches of bigots.