Swami Agnivesh, my friend


Ever since my wife and colleague, Teesta Setalvad and I started publishing the monthly journal, Communalism Combat in mid-1993, we often received a certain advice from a few of our readers. The root of communalism, they said, lies in religion; so, fight religion if you really want to destroy the spring source of communalism.

Teesta and I however always had difficulty with such a proposition for reasons of principle, lessons from history and our own lived experience. In principle, there is no denying that communalism is about religion-based politics in the pursuit of power. But that does not make communalism a synonym of religion.

In our own context, Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu, and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, a Muslim, were highly religious persons in their personal lives. But both consistently pursued secular politics. In sharp contrast was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League. Secular in their personal life, both practised communal politics – two-nations theory– to the hilt.

Closer to our time, in our own lived experience, we have had some shining examples of believers from different faiths whose commitment to secular politics has been second to none. Can anyone draw up a list of prominent secular activists in India who have risked their life and limb in fighting the communal demon in the past four decades that does not include the names of Fr Cedric Prakash, a devout Christian and Swami Agnivesh, a devout Hindu?

If I remember right, my first and brief encounter with Swami Agnivesh was sometime in the early 1980s at a Janata Party meet a few hours away from what was then Bombay. Included among the items on the meeting’s agenda was election for the party president’s post. (I was there covering the event for the since defunct The Daily newspaper). Chandrashekhar then was the tallest leader in the Janata Party and his re-election as party president seemed a foregone conclusion. The effort, however, was to have him elected unopposed. That’s when the swami threw his hat in the ring, forcing a secret ballot on the party. This made many party leaders, including Chandrashekhar, very annoyed but the swami refused to budge, pull out of the contest. As he explained to us journalists who rushed to hear his take, his point was simple. Since the Janata Party claims to be a democratic party, it should act as one, elect its office bearers in a democratic fashion. I am not fighting to win, I am fighting for a principle, he added. This insistence on a secret ballot did not make him very popular in the party. Evidently, between popularity and principle, the swami chose the latter.

There was no Internet, no email, no mobile connections then and long distance landline calls were quite expensive. So I lost personal contact with Swami Agnivesh. But I stayed in touch with his activities since he was all over the media for his work among bonded labour. The swami came to be nationally and internationally recognised as the founder chairperson of the Bandhua Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labourers Liberation Front). In 1994, he was elected chairperson of the UN Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. Ten years later he was honoured with the Alternative Nobel Prize (Right Livelihood Award).

At the age of 28, a young man born in a Calcutta-based Brahmin family from South India abandoned his name, caste, religion, family and professional career to be henceforth known as Swami Agnivesh. A swami, a sanyasi is normally understood to mean someone who renounces all worldly concerns and undertakes a journey in search of self and God. But the life of a hermit was not for Swami Agnivesh who instead chose the path of what he calls ‘socio-spiritual action’. In other words, he found his God residing amidst the poor, the downtrodden the exploited and the oppressed.

Throughout the 1980s and the early 1990s, I stayed in ‘remote contact’ with the swami  as the mass media regularly reported on his preoccupations, working among bonded labourers, speaking out against child labour, child marriage, discrimination against the girl child, dowry, Sati and all kinds of superstitious beliefs.    

As was only to be expected, a swami such as him would not remain mute witness as a certain brand of politics sought to redefine religion: from a spiritual enterprise to the pursuit of power. For Swami Agnivesh this was nothing short of a “hijack of Hinduism”.  As the growing tide of communalism threatened to swamp secular politics, he found himself in the forefront of the loose coalition of believers, agnostics and atheists in the battle against Hindutva’s hate politics. It was only natural then for me to meet up with Swamiji sooner or later. We did connect sometime in the early 1990s. Since then it has been my privilege to have known him as a dear friend and comrade-in-arms.

Over the years we have shared a common platform on many an occasion. Every time he came to Bombay/Mumbai it was a pleasure exchanging notes on the communal question.  As editors of Communalism Combat, It was our privilege to publish incisive articles that he wrote for our journal from time to time right until late 2012 when financial constraints forced us to cease publication.

Swami Agnivesh’s special contribution to the anti-communal movement lies in the fact that he fought the ‘saffron politics’ of the sangh parivar as a Hindu religious leader dressed up in saffron from head to toe. More important, his battle has been unique because his fight against the mixing up of religion and politics was always part of his larger battle “to rescue God from priestdoms”. Not just Hindu priestdom but all kind of religious orthodoxy and bigotry.

Swami Agnivesh must have addressed Muslim and Christian community gatherings on numerous occasions expressing solidarity, extending support, speaking up against their being targeted by Hindutva. For this reason he continues to be very popular among India’s religious minorities. But this did not mean that he pulled his punches when it came to questioning what is an article of faith for most Muslims and many Christians. I vividly recall that sometime in the 1990s, Swami Agnivesh sent an article for publication in Communalism Combat. It was titled: ‘What kind of a God will burn small children in hell forever?’ We decided to publish it as a cover story in our monthly journal.   

Looking back, I think what brought, and kept, us together over time was our shared understanding that, one, the fight against majority communalism must go hand in hand with fighting minority communalism and, two, fighting communalism must itself be part of the larger battle against orthodoxy, bigotry, intolerance and extremist tendencies in any and every religion.

Also looking back, I suspect that Swami Agnivesh must be harbouring one abiding regret or disappointment. To me he seemed to believe that the battle against the manipulation of Hindu religion by the sangh parivar for political ends was best challenged by a coalition of religious leaders from different communities. For a while he seemed to have found his answer in the common front he formed, comprising of a moulvi a padri and a ‘pandit’: Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, Rev Valson Thampu and Swami Agnivesh. The triad, alas, did not last for long. The reason I think is this. The swami is as head on in his battle to rescue God from priestdom as he is in the struggle to rescue religion from its hijack by cynical politicians. And that’s what I admire most in Swami Agnivesh.

This article was written recently for a forthcoming publication on the Life and Work of Swami Agnivesh



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