India loses a true guiding light under these dark times

Swami Agnivesh leaves behind a void that will be hard to fill


The passing away of Swami Agnivesh on Friday, September 11 has come as a huge shock for secularist and progressive forces. 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 had also served as a legislator in 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 society and openly challenged the ideology of the currently ruling right wing Hindutva nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).  

Attacks on religious minorities, especially Muslims have grown under the BJP government that wants to turn India into Hindu state. Agnivesh was one of the rare Hindu ascetics who openly spoke against this. It is for this reason that he was viciously attacked by Hindutva fanatics in 2018. We in Canada organised a demonstration to raise our voices in support of Agnivesh.  

Organised by Indians Abroad for Pluralist India (IAPI), the group we had formed a year before, the rally was attended by people from diverse backgrounds, including Sikhs, Muslims, Dalits and even non-believers. The speakers unanimously condemned the attack on Agnivesh and expressed their solidarity with him.  

We carried the posters bearing his picture alongside our slogan; “An injury to one is an injury to all.”  

I have had several opportunities to interview him over the phone. Soft spoken, but firm Agnivesh always kept himself up to date with global affairs apart from what has been going on in his own country.  

The first time I interviewed him was back in 2008 for Radio India about Kandhamal violence. Innocent Christians were targeted in Odisha following the murder of a controversial preacher Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati by the Maoist insurgents. Even though the Maoists had claimed responsibility for his assassination because of his anti-minority and pro-state activities, the Hindutva fundamentalists supporting BJP organised a pogrom against Christians blaming them for the killing.

Agnivesh pulled no punches in criticising the Hindutva Right. He even went to the extent of saying that they had no role in the movement for freedom of India from British rule. He also revealed that how they were also involved in terrorist activities and often disguised themselves as Muslims using fake beards and prayer caps while planting bombs at the public places to give Muslim community a bad name.  

In fact, this was the time when the terror module being run by Hindutva Right was exposed by some honest police officers.  

Notably, Agnivesh was also critical of the then-ruling Congress party that claims to be a secular alternative of the BJP. He had given an affidavit before one commission of enquiry looking into the massacre of Sikhs following the assassination of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984.  

The Sikhs were targeted all across India by the mobs led by the slain leader’s Congress party activists. The scenario was no different than the Kandhamal violence as in both cases, the 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 the responsibility and 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 had 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 took out a peace march in an area hit by violence.  

In another interview on the persecution of Adivasis or the indigenous peoples of India, he brought up the plot in much publicised Hollywood movie Avatar (2009) to make his point.  

Avatar is based on the eviction of Indigenous peoples from their traditional lands sitting on natural resources by the extraction industry with the backing of nation states world over. A similar situation exists in India where Adivasis are being pushed out in the name of war against Maoists. Agnivesh who also raised voice for Adivasis told me that at the root of the so-called war on terror in tribal areas of India was 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 marginalised 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 and has become even more relevant considering a need to rescue his country from the clutches of bigots.  


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