The dignified life of Swami Agnivesh
Swami Agnivesh was a radical reformer who was a genuine secularist in a saffron robe, and as a result, he bore the brunt of assaults by the saffron brigade. He could have easily joined the saffron political bandwagon by riding the anti-minority, anti-secular tide, but he didn’t. This is a tribute to a fearless and principled man.
There are hundreds of reasons to pay tribute to Swami Agnivesh. He was a radical reformer who stood against the distressing incident of Sati in 1987 in Rajasthan and fought against female foeticide. As a leader of an organization that celebrates Vedas and Upanishadas, he could have easily dodged these issues by calling them a modern-liberal conspiracy against Hindu religion and culture, but he didn’t. He was a genuine secularist in a saffron robe who, as a result of his convictions, bore the brunt of assaults by the saffron brigade. He could have easily joined the saffron political bandwagon by riding the anti-minority, anti-secular tide, but he didn’t. Swami Agnivesh defended the reservation policy for OBCs when V.P. Singh announced 27% reservation for them in government jobs, and when Arjun Singh implemented OBC reservation in admissions to higher educational institutes. He could have spoken out on behalf of the so-called meritorious students who felt victimized and could have become their national leader, but he didn’t. Even then, the single most important reason to keep Agnivesh in our collective memories and celebrate his legacy is his lifelong belief that the constitutional right to life is meaningless without the fulfilment of basic human needs, dignity and respect. This established him so firmly as a humanist and egalitarian that even his life-long defence of manusmriti failed to eclipse his credentials. He consistently held that manusmriti is neither responsible for the rigid caste system, nor the social evil of untouchability and that it had been interpreted incorrectly. While maintaining this position, he championed inter-caste marriages, the entry of scheduled castes into the temples and the complete eradication of untouchability from Indian society. This has set him apart from the left-liberal-Ambedkarite consensus. In an age of sharp polarization that particularly tilts towards regressive forces, it was obvious that leaders like Agnivesh would become increasingly irrelevant.
If this regressive societal climate recedes and the ideas of liberty and justice resurface, Swami Agnivesh, his Bandhua Mukti Morcha and their victories such as the time when they liberated bonded labourers will be celebrated anew. When Swami Agnivesh founded Bandhua Mukti Morcha in the absence of resources and in the face of apathetic governments, ensuring justice for labourers looked like a next to impossible task. The Bandhua Mukti Morcha simply wrote a letter to the Supreme Court seeking justice for the labourers who were working at the stone quarries in the Faridabad district of Haryana. This letter, and the Supreme Court’s admission of it as a writ petition under article 32 of the constitution, greatly enhanced the scope of justice in India. A bench under Justice Bhagawati made it amply clear to the respondents in the case:
“When a complaint is made on behalf of workmen that they are held in bondage and are working and living in miserable conditions without any proper or adequate shelter over their heads, without any protection against sun and rain, without two square meals per day and with only dirty water from a nullah to drink, it is difficult to appreciate how such a complaint can be thrown out on the ground that it is not violative of the fundamental right of the workmen.”
The main respondents in the case were the Government of India and the Government of Haryana, who objected to the Supreme Court entertaining a simple letter as a writ petition. This letter to the apex court firmly established the procedure of Public Interest Litigation and boosted judicial activism. The Bandhua Multi Morcha vs Union of India & Others, 1983 case became the landmark, along with the PUDR vs Union of India, 1982 case.
In both these cases, the Supreme Court compared the existence of forced labour to the practice of bonded labour. The practice of forced labour clearly violates the fundamental rights of human beings. The Supreme Court opined that the non-implementation of laws made to protect fundamental rights, such as in article 23 of the constitution, should be considered as a case of violation of fundamental rights. Thus, the case brought into focus the importance of all the progressive legislations such as the Minimum Wages Act (1948), Mines Act (1952), Maternity Benefits Act (1961), Contract Labour Act (1970), Bonded Labour System (abolition) Act (1976), Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act (1979) and the acts and provisions in various acts regarding the prohibition of child employment in hazardous industries. The violation of provisions of these laws could be treated as a breach of the fundamental rights of human beings. Justice Bhagawati significantly enhanced the notion of the right to life by saying that It is the fundamental right of every one in this country to live with human dignity, free from exploitation. He wrote:
“This right to live with human dignity, enshrined in Article 21 (as interpreted in Francis Mullen's case) derives its life breath from the Directive Principles of State Policy and therefore, it must include protection of the health and strength of workers men and women, and of the tender age of children against abuse, opportunities and facilities for children to develop in healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity, educational facilities, just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief. These are the minimum requirements which must exist in order to enable a person to live with human dignity.”
The Supreme Court acknowledged that a large number of bonded labourers belong to Scheduled Castes and Tribes and the remaining are generally landless agricultural labourers. In the Bandhua Mukti Morcha case, the Supreme Court ruled that:
“It is a constitutional imperative-that the bonded labourers must be identified and released from the shackles of bondage so that they can assimilate themselves in the main stream of civilised human society and realise the dignity, beauty and worth of human existence.”
Swami Agnivesh worked relentlessly for liberating and assimilating the bonded labourers into society. He was the medium through which the ‘transformation of non-beings into human-beings’ took place. Swami Agnivesh liberated thousands, but hundreds and thousands are still performing forced labour in one form or another. They are awaiting their turn at liberation. As a tribute to Swami Agnivesh, it is apt to quote the lines written by Rabindranath Tagore as included in the Bandhua Mukti Morcha judgment by Justice Bhagawati, “Into the mouths of these dumb, pale and meek, we have to infuse the language of the soul. Into the hearts of these weary and worn, dry and forlorn, we have to minstrel the language of humanity.”