By Vidya Bhushan Rawat*
The death of Swami Agnivesh is a great loss to the civil society movement in India, of which he was an active member all through his life. Those of us who have been frequenting various protests at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi knew him well how he would encourage youngsters and join their protests at any available time.
Agnivesh was basically a political person, though he continued to wear saffron robes. But that was his personal faith. He was emphatic on the issues of social justice, secularism and multiculturalism. He fought for bonded labourers and campaigned against sati. He fought for the entry of Dalits in the famous Nathadwara temple in Rajasthan.
Several years back Agnivesh was attacked by goons in Jharkhand, but nothing happened to the attackers, as the miscreants had the full support of BJP. The government did not bother to investigate the matter. None of us know where the matter stands is today. The attack was justified for quite some time. Agnivesh was often confronted by some sections at different spots. The reason was, what he spoke from his heart hurt powerful social and political interests.
He was an Arya Samajist, yet he was ostracised by most of them, as they found his views too radical. His strong ideological perceptions became a roadblock for his political career. In 1977 he was made education minister in Haryana, but on the bonded labour issue, he listened to his conscience and resigned.
In fact, Agnivesh became the conscience keeper of civil society, and though many questioned his ideological stance in the fight against caste discrimination and for minorities rights, he remained immensely popular because he he spoke he touched their heart.
I cannot claim to know him much, though I not only shared various platforms with him but also participated in dharnas and protests that were organised by him and friends. There wasn’t any when his presence was required but he did not come or join in. Many a time, he became one even with very few participants in protests against violence unleashed by state forces.
Agnivesh recognised: We are a very complex society, which does not have one particular way to resolve things. We may have diverse viewpoints but if we really consider the Constitution as the benchmark, we can build a united and strong India.
Agnivesh was not a revolutionary. He attempted to change things without changing the status quo. He might have gained during the Nathadwara temple movement. Yet, the fact is, things have not changed for Dalits, who know: Mere temple entry movements do not help. Indeed his was an attempt to bring Dalits into the Vedanta fold — much like what Gandhiji, who attempted and failed.
Indeed, removal of untouchability and annihilation of castes are not possible through glorification of shastras. Criticizing or blaming the powers-that-be for it wouldn’t also help. Removal of untouchability or annihilation of castes cannot be achieved without creating an inequitable society. For that we would need to destroy the current caste monopolies on our natural resources and power structure. May who fight against it only speak in a very patronising way, hence fail.
Similarly, the issue of secularism in India should not mean uttering ‘Bismillahurahmaan o Rahim’ but understanding broader issues of hierarchies among minorities, and not treating them as a homogenised entity. At a meeting with the Muslim community, Agnivesh asked Muslims to campaign against alcoholism, which had nothing to do with the issues confronting the community — their continuous marginalisation, political, economic and social.
A political movement shaped up following the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests, which saw participation of all sections of society, particularly women, and participants included people from all faiths. Such movements need time to emerge as a political force. Agnivesh had a pragmatic role to play by making himself felt at such movements.
In one his worst decisions, initially Agnivesh supported Anna Hazare’s movement, which had sought to unite all the regressive forces. When he tried withdrawing from the movement, Anna’s right wing friends defamed him for being a Congress agent. Today, we face bigger threat to not only our democracy but civilisation. Agnivesh understood this soon and began focussing on rebuilding and uniting all the progressive democratic secular forces.
Indeed, Agnivesh has left a rich legacy. He will continue to inspire people’s movements. One may disagree with his views, yet one cannot really ignore the issues he raised. He stood for people’s rights, whether it was Bastar adivasis or Haryana Dalits.