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SWAMI AGNIVESH

Since the past four decades Swami Agnivesh has been consistently doing battles on behalf of the poor, the weak and the defenseless of India. Over the years Agnivesh's campaigns have led him to fight alcoholism, female foeticide, bonded labour, child labour as well as struggle for the emancipation of women. Unlike the usual politicians who express religion as an forefront of disguised communalism, Agnivesh participates in politics as distinct structural framework of his spirituality. He bridges the critical gap between politics and religion with the plank of social justice.

Over the years, Swami Agnivesh has relentlessly voiced the burning issues of the underprivileged millions of India. He has consistently puzzled and provoked the conscience of the public, governance at once, and is loved by the masses. According to Swamiji, ‘Our real issues are poverty and the glaring socio-economic inequality. These are the biggest issues, the biggest challenges.’ Swamiji's understanding of religiosity is in sharp contrast to that of the familiar custodians of religions who thrive by getting different communities to fight each other over communal issues. ‘Our spiritual bankruptcy has also shown,’ says he. Agnivesh points out that the values common to all religions have been neglected, while the vaccum has been filled by communal politics. Most of the people of the world believe in some god, whether called Allah, Iswar or God ‘Make the Supreme Being a rallying point. Stress on the minimum commonality of diverse religions (to bring united action among different people),’ Agnivesh suggests.

Seventy two -year-old Agnivesh is easily the most distinguished leader of the Arya Samaj.  He is better known across India for his campaigns against bonded labour, and is founder-head of the Bandhu Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labour Liberation Front). He spearheaded the movement towards liberation of bonded labour and child labour throughout the country. His most prominent areas of influence has been felt in the stone quarries and brick-kilns of Haryana and Rajasthan, in the carpet-weaving belt of Mirzapur-Bhadoi (UP), the glass-bangle industry of Firozabad (UP), and the farm sector of Koddai Kanal (Tamil Nadu).  Because of his initiatives, approximately 1,75,000 bonded (including several thousand child bonded) labourers have been released and rehabilitated during the last 30 years. He has singlehandedly filed relentless public interest writ petitions in the Supreme Court of India for the rights of bonded and child labourers. The most prominent example is the landmark Bandhua Mukti Morcha Vs Union of India (3 SCC 1984) judgment by the Supreme Court of India.

Swami Agnivesh lays a lot of stress on what he terms as ‘social spirituality’.  He says that faith and spirituality ought not to be of an individualistic or escapist variety. But rather, spirituality should be made into a resource for social transformation. Obscurantist, ritual-ridden, superstition-mongering religion should be given a prompt burial,’ he insists. ‘The spiritual quest of an individual is inextricably linked with his social life. Like two sides of a coin, they complement each other. ‘Spiritual pursuit has for centuries remained individualistic’, Agnivesh points out that India has an estimated five million swamis and sadhus spread over its 7,00,000 villages. Only a very small minority of them are genuine, he feels. The vast majority are parasites, burdens on society and their families, indulging in sheer escapism. Religion should never degenerate into an exercise in escapism. But has to be made to account for and address social needs. ‘I have never been able to compartmentalize religion, politics and social action,’ says Agnivesh. They all exist together in the web of social realities. Positive elements from all religions should be integrated into mainstream politics.

Further, he adds, the task of the spiritually enlightened is not to promote one particular religion; much less to pit one religion against another. He repeatedly calls for identifying the good and the common factors that exist within all religions. He dreams of a world where religions interact in an integrative model as against the present conflictual and competitive model.  He says that, without a spiritually liberated vision of life and of the human predicament we cannot survive, much less progress. He totally opposes the Hedonistic Model of Development leading to crass consumerism and mass poverty, ecological destruction of the Third World, especially India in particular. He questions the cultural imperialism and that of market forces in the name of profits and shareholder values, negating all higher human and spiritual values. “If we have to fight such cultural imperialism, we have to launch a movement based on such a spiritual vision of human dignity and destiny,’ says he.

Unfortunately, laments Swamiji, it is the worst elements of religion that are imported into politics. The result is the free-play of communalism. Instead, people of religious principles and idealism should enter the field of political action, rather than abandon it to unscrupulous elements. ‘Politics is meant for the people. It is meant to be a sacred vocation committed to maximizing the wellbeing of the people. No one who has spiritual concerns or a sense of fellow-humanity can afford to remain indifferent to politics. Religious leaders are part of the society and the servants of the people. I would like men of religion to play a positive role in politics, and imbue in it the values that nourish public culture and the art of governance.’

He is outspoken about the ironies of religion. India has the largest number of temples and shrines in the world. The goddess of wealth (Laxmi) is in India; yet our country is beset with abject poverty. Saraswati, the goddess of learning, is worshipped in India, but our country continues to be plagued with illiteracy.

He was born Shyam Vepa Rao, and his grandfather was a Diwan (finance minister) of the princely state of Shakti in Chhatisgarh. He chose his new name ‘Agnivesh’ most appropriately, for no other name could have encapsulated his spirit so well. His date with the oppressed and passion for social justice are as old as his political career which goes back many years to his entry into the Haryana Assembly in 1977. Well-informed and up-to-date with social issues, the swami has clear perspectives on a wide range of issues – ranging from the ruinous debts of the Third World nations (which he wants to be abrogated), to cultural imperialism, to an appropriate developmental pattern, unsustainable over-consumption by the rich, and of course, the need to make religion more people-friendly.

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