Reverse Swing: Agnivesh (1939-2020) - he who was clad in robes of fire
Agnivesh epitomized the best practices of amplifying the public sphere through his personal courage and commitment. His is an irreplaceable loss.
Over a decade ago, students of journalism in Chennai, in an irreverent mood, teasingly asked Agnivesh whether it was not hypocritical of him to wear saffron robes. His eyes glinted as I heard him say, ‘Don’t go merely by the dress. When I took deeksha in the Arya Samaj order, I burnt my old clothes, burnt my old identity and burnt my old self. I took the name Agnivesh and this dress is a symbol of that flame. The real fire, however, is not this symbolic one outside, but the one that is inside me and refuses to subside’. A trifle melodramatic, but it was enough to chasten the students.
Anyone familiar with Agnivesh, though, would attest to the molten lava at his core that drove him. If he gave up a promising career in his early twenties and opted for the life and path of a celibate swami, it certainly was not to sit in a picturesque padmasana or to spout esoteric, self-indulgent philosophy wearing designer clothes or to gravely feed peacocks while a nation faced distress. He was donning the robes of fire in order to pursue transformative praxis. He never spoke of saving anyone’s soul, but he sure strove hard to change the material conditions of many.
Since the time I first met him in Delhi, in 1981, at a seminar on child labour (my photo-story exposing child labour in the match factories of Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu, had been carried a little earlier by Darryl D’Monte in the Sunday magazine of The Times of India), I had been curious to ask him why he chose to get absorbed in the Arya Samaj which, to me, was among the more rigid off-shoots of the attempts at Hindu reformism in the 19th century. Some twenty years ago, I myself had a taste of that while studying in a Delhi school, which had an Arya Samaji as our Hindi teacher. He was a tall, handsome, well-spoken man in his orange attire, but was completely joyless and rather severe, particularly at those of us who were more playful. And, god forbid if you were seen talking to a girl. He would bear down on you with the entire weight of 3,000 (or is it 10,000?) years of Vedic civilization, and the girl would be made to feel like the sole cause for Aryan decline. It seemed to me like too much of a straitjacketed path for a person of Agnivesh’s temperament and ebullience.
Years later, as one critically examined the role of organizations like the Arya Samaj, the Ramakrishna Mission, the Vivekananda Kendra and the Swaminarayan sect (all partial to orange robes) in providing ballast to the project of toxic Hindutva, it increasingly seemed like an incongruent abode for someone like Agnivesh to occupy for so long. After all, in his transition into monkhood, he had effectively burnt his region, his caste and his religion and had never hesitated to speak out powerfully against casteism, communalism and jingoism.
But that day, at the seminar, I spontaneously agreed to join a sortie led by his recently started Bandhua Mukti Morcha (BMM) to rescue a few bonded labourers from a brick kiln near Bhondsi. The strategy was simple, if risky – like a surgical strike. Half-a-dozen volunteers of the BMM would go in an open lorry to the site around lunch time (when the watchers and minders were also busy with food). They would announce through a hand-held megaphone that they had come to free ‘hamarey bandhua bhai’ and that anyone who wanted to be liberated should immediately run and jump into the lorry. In a trice, some 15-20 would pile into the lorry and the driver would rev it up and scoot, before the contractor and his men realized what was happening.
The idea was to cross the UP border into Delhi and take the workers to a police station and get a case registered there under the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act of 1976 against the contractor. Often they would get intercepted, thrashed and the ‘rescued’ workers snatched back. Often the contractor would wreak havoc on the family, to whom a token amount would have been paid in return for the worker’s bondage – a contemporary form of slavery.
Agnivesh himself was directly threatened several times. But he stuck to his campaign and slowly, very slowly, the media and official bodies began realizing the nature of the work he was doing. In three or four years, it had become front page stuff and NGOs, activists, journalists and courts had all joined in the campaign. The winds of change had begun to blow.
A few years later, in 1984, I carried my camera with me when I accompanied Agnivesh and political scientist Ghanshyam Shah to the stone mines in the villages of Lakadpur and Katan, in Haryana. It was a completely different scenario. Agnivesh was given a rousing welcome. A sort of public panchayat was held, with the contractor’s men standing by. Those who wished to ‘free’ themselves were asked to share their names and other details in a signed affidavit. These details were then submitted to the thana across the border in Delhi in the presence of the press and a much smoother process of rehabilitation was initiated. The whole action was subtly aided now by Agnivesh’s stature as an ‘activist swami’.
However, it was one year earlier, in 1983, when I saw him in action in the iron ore mining belt of Dilli Rajhara, at the Bir Narain Jayanti organized by the Chattisgarh Shramik Mines Sangh led by the charismatic Shankar Guha Niyogi, that I began to trace a comparison between Agnivesh and the best of the Liberation Theologians. That December, he was on stage in the company of Niyogi, George Fernandes, Ram Dayal Munda and others. He would switch fluently from Hindi to Chattisgarhi to Bengali and Telugu to address the over 40,000 assembled adivasis and others from at least five states. I had already seen him win people over with his colloquial Haryanvi, in Haryana. Whatever the tongue, the language he spoke was of compassion and empathy and of the need to unite and fight against inequity, injustice, insularity and inertia.
It was the Peruvian Jesuit priest Gustavo Gutierrez, who formulated the idea of Liberation Theology, in the late 1960s, by proposing that under conditions of exploitation, underdevelopment and injustice, the role of the man (and woman) of religion was to unhesitatingly stand up for the rights of the poor; that the Church should speak up on behalf of the socially and economically afflicted. In a Latin America in turmoil then, there are legendary stories of heroic churchmen like Helder Camara, Saul Alinsky and others who moved off the pulpit to work on the pavements. Airy ecclesiastical ideas got transformed into instruments of moral engagement with socio-economic issues. The idea of ‘preferential option for the poor’ as the best path to God, became popularized.
This was precisely the thought with which Agnivesh too seems to have interpreted his spiritual calling – as an invitation to throw the moral weight of his sanctified turban and robe on the side of the ‘daridranarayan’. In the magazine ‘Communalism Combat’ (run by Javed Anand and Teesta Setalvad between 1993 and 2012) he once wrote, “As a religious person, I have no hesitation in recognising that religions have failed human beings”. He believed that justice was the soul of spirituality and that an unjust society would undo itself. He saw the systemic violation of citizens’ rights and the social legitimization of caste injustice as being responsible for ‘stunting our spiritual evolution’.
In the Indian context, this would swiftly develop into a major contradiction as, in a curious way, his championship of causes ranging from bonded workers to child labour to campaigning against dowry and sati to Adivasi rights to supporting the demands of Kashmiris, Nagas, Mizos to his support of the Narmada Bachao Andolan to his involvement with Dalit movements to his ecumenical initiatives alongside Asghar Ali Engineer, Valson Thampu, Cedric Prakash and many more would constantly find him on the wrong side of the State. And yet, until recently, the State would constantly need him as a ‘credible interlocutor’ to intercede on its behalf with ‘rebels’ and ‘secessionists’ of all hues.
The most absurd side of this was revealed when, in 2010, the Maoists in Central India launched sustained ambush attacks on Indian security forces, causing grievous loss of life. They claimed that it was a retaliation against the newly launched military offensive ‘Operation Green Hunt’ by then Home Minister P. Chidambaram, in an attempt to quell the Maoist domination of almost 180 districts in what was called the ‘Red Corridor’. The ‘message’ hit home and, in the interests of a mediated reconciliation, the government agreed to a dialogic process with the armed political outfits, and they drafted Agnivesh to do it. The call he gave then, in Dantewada, was "goli nahin, boli" – not bullets but dialogue. By this, he meant the Maoists had to lay down arms and the State, in turn, had to barrack its forces and declare a cease-fire for any meaningful dialogue to happen.
In a Hindi interview in 2011, with Rajiv Ranjan Srivastav, in ‘Deshbandhu’, Agnivesh unequivocally pointed out that it was the government that displayed a more violent profile which led to his being betrayed and doors being slammed in the face of any negotiation. He said,:
“The government needs to understand that this is not a conflict that has emerged in the past few years. Its roots lie in 1967 when landless peasants revolted. Had fair land redistribution been initiated post-Independence, there would neither have been any uprising in Naxalbari nor would have Maoism found fertile soil here. The root of the problem lies in the non-implementation of land reform laws…”
“When we talk of water, land, forests and mineral wealth – the question arises who does all this belong to? This country we call Bharat, who does this belong to – is it the property of some chief minister or Tata, Birla, Ambani or is it the collective wealth of the people? The framework of a democratic electoral system has been created to ensure fair play and equal share for the true owners, the people. It doesn’t give rights to the people’s representatives to corner the wealth for themselves. The Adivasi communities understand this very well – that natural wealth is common property and needs to be cared for and nurtured collectively. This is also implicit in the Constitutional provisions which need to be scrupulously implemented.”
“We have to acknowledge our past mistakes. We will need to appreciate that Maoism did not drop down from the skies… It is our own mistakes that prepared the ground for it. In the name of development, poor families were dispossessed of their small land-ownings in favour of those who had no connect with water, land, forest – people who had little interest other than accumulating wealth in foreign banks. The traditional as well as the Constitutional owners were dispossessed. As long as we keep denying this fundamental fact, we will continue to remain the prime culprits in this conflict and keep coming up against dead-ends.”.
As Agnivesh’s analysis indicates, the ‘peace’ initiative was doomed to perish and it ran aground of both the government and the insurgents. And, a decade later, nothing much has changed except that the Maoist leadership has grown older and a more strident government occupies the Centre. And Agnivesh has now taken his interlocutory skills elsewhere.
It was during the anti-Sikh pogroms in Delhi, in 1984, that I came to understand the value of Agnivesh and his robes. As part of the Nagrik Ekta Manch that was quickly formed to work in the affected areas, a few of us, including artist Sheba Chhachhi and designer Jogi Panghaal, set ourselves the task of creating posters to be taken out in peace marches. Four-five days after it began, the situation on the ground was still volatile, with mobs of youngsters armed with sticks and petrol cans still stalking the streets. That November afternoon, some of us had gone in procession, holding our posters and placards, to the badly affected Lajpat Nagar area when an armed and hostile mob accosted us. But for the fact that, out of the blue, Agnivesh and his team suddenly materialized there and put themselves between us and the mob, we were sure to have been lynched right there. That day, I saw for myself the restraining effect his saffron robes had on the crowd.
Of course, times have changed and his dress did not prevent him from being manhandled, in 2018, by the belligerent youth cadre of the BJP in Jharkhand, an incident that affected him physically, though mentally it only made him more resolute. It was more than clear that, in the new India, the majoritarian dog whistle could be effectively used not merely against minorities, communists, intellectuals and dissenters, but also against co-religionists who spoke up for restraint and decency.
Agnivesh epitomized the best practices of amplifying the public sphere through his personal courage and commitment. In later years, I was also part of some amusing conversations between him and my colleague, the pioneering dancer, choreographer and feminist Chandralekha. Both — arts as well as a woman who thought outside the framework of family — were a new area for Agnivesh and it was interesting to see him try and make sense of someone like Chandra and her ideas. The first time she met him over coffee in 1999, she was merciless. She mocked the retrograde aesthetics of the mono-colour of his attire; she teased him over his total bewilderment and ignorance of the kind of work she herself was engaged in; and, in a final knock out punch, when he recoiled from her embrace as we were leaving, she gave him a homily on the body and sensuality and the need to respect and celebrate eros in the body before setting out to change the world. ‘You need an open body for an open mind’, she thundered, as she sailed out of the door.
Suddenly, Agnivesh who, just half an hour before, had been surrounded by 10 or 12 people and seemed like a giant figure in control of his situation, now looked like a little boy who had come across something wondrous. That meeting left its impact on him and the few times we met subsequently, he would always inquire fondly about her.
It was very moving when, in 2005, on one of his occasional visits to Chennai, Agnivesh called on Chandra who had just come out of a cardiac surgery and, on her whimsical request, placed his Arya Samaji turban on her diminutive head. It is one of my prized photos, a turban-less Agnivesh and a turbaned Chandra sitting together on the swing with their irreverent smiles.
It is this abiding sense of insurrection and irreverence of a ‘holy man’ that we have lost with Agnivesh’s passing away.