Indian Express
November 19, 1995

Unholy Ban

By Chitra Subramaniam

This column is devoted to a one-man demolition squad named Swami Agnivesh - the saffron-clad Indian who looks like a guru, speaks like a politician and gives governments and bureaucrats sleepless rights. In India, he is most famous for many efforts aimed at giving the country's bonded and child labour a decent livelihood. Abroad, particularly in human rights fora in Europe, he is "that strange-looking Indian" who embodies his name - Agnivesh - and takes on governments including his own and mighty multinationals for making a virtue out of greed.

All hell broke loose at a recent meeting of religious and political heads in Florence, Italy, where this Indian was invited to the podium along with several religious heads and politicians like Cory Aquino of Philippines and Lech Walesa of Poland. Agnivesh did what he does best - he planned on calling a spade by no other name. Organised by the Archdiocese of Florence, the gathering had for its aim and emblem, 'Earth and Heaven at Peace'.

Invited all the way from New Delhi, Agnivesh was banned from speaking. He wanted to ask if a God named Muhammad, Buddha, Jesus or Krishna would have approved of what man was doing in the name of religion. He wanted to ask what kind of peace could be built of social inequality and greed. In other words, he paraphrased Karl Marx to say, one man's happiness and trip to heaven cannot be assured on another's misery.

"What kind of God condemns an unbaptised child to eternal hell fire? What kind of a God wants women in 45 degrees Celsius and 80 per cent humidity in a burka and sentences a human to a lifelong occupation as a latrine cleaner or bonded labour? What kind of a God reserves Nirvana only for men and asks women to be quiet in church? What kind of religion do we tesch to make millions of mothers cry at the birth of a female child? How can we accept as religious leaders the inequality of children already at birth?" said Agnivesh's undelivered speech.

There was more. The Swami said he comes from a country that "brags about her spiritual achievements, her dharms, her rishis, sages and yogis, but failed to tell half of its citizens - an estimated 450 million people-where to look for their next meal." " What good do all these talks about simplicity, love, meekness, sharing and cooperation mean if they cannot be applied in daily life because of an economic ideology which puts profit before human contentment and happiness?" Agnivesh had written all this in the speech that made his hosts turn ballistic. They told him to shut up and beat a hasty retreat. Freedom of speech - zindabad!

Love him, hate him, but the itinerant Swami who has spent the last two decades fighting bonded labour in India and who makes no bones about being as influenced by Karl Marx and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi as he is by the Vedas, has a point. And he makes it forcefully. Agnivesh told his hosts before he left that if they reflected on what Jesus, Muhammad and Rama said without referring to The Bible, Koran and The Ramayan, they would come close to a universal dharma.

Talking of God, having lived here and there for some years, I detect a pattern to prejudice, reflected, most of all in the Western media. For example, congregating Hindus are referred to as "hordes" while congregating Christians are called pilgrims. A weeping Madonna in Italy (as happens every year) is a manifestation of faith whereas a milk-drinking Ganesh (as happened you know where) is a sign of ignorance in a poor dogma-ridden country where humans sleep next to their own waste.

If a man is church-going, he can be trusted. The most recent example of this is the description of Ruud Lubbers, the Dutchman who could have become chief of NATO. He was "good" because of his Jesuit background and went to church regularly. There is no good Hindu because it means believing in Gods with six arms and 12 heads and formidable moustaches. The Muslims are the worst off. In the Western media there is no good Muslim. They are all fanatics. Whenever they say someone is a moderate Muslim, it means they are Washington friendly or have a lot of oil. Samjhe na?

I don't know where you stand on all this, but as far as I am concerned, I think all of us in this world have a straight line to God if only we take the time to look around and ask the obvious questions. We don't need middlemen to tell us what God is all about. And I can only agree with Swami Agnivesh's undelivered-in-Florence speech where he says, "what use is religion and theology if they make monsters out of human beings?"




You are invited to visit our site mail us for any queries mail us for any further informaiton